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McClellan, George Marion(1860–1934) - Writer, poet, minister, Writing Career, Chronology

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George Marion McClellan wrote poetry and short stories in standard English, taught school, and served as a Congregational minister between 1892 and 1934. His reputation rests on his sentimental and conservative poetry. While some of his poetry expresses racial pride and race consciousness, most of his poetry does not express protest or polemics. This fact suggests the tension experienced by African American writers between racial consciousness and adherence to the dominant white literary trends. However, McClellan was concerned for his people and promoted the value and success of African Americans. He wrote within white literary mainstream in order, perhaps, to illustrate the humanity of the African American.

George Marion McClellan was born September 29, 1860 in Belfast, Tennessee to George Fielding and Eliza (Leonard) McClellan. There is little information about his early life. However, he entered Fisk University about 1881 and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1885 and a master’s degree in 1890. Perpetually short of fund, he was constantly seeking and soliciting money. He often worked while pursuing his education. In 1888, he married Mariah Augusta Rabb of Columbia, Mississippi. She graduated from Fisk University and served on the faculty while McClellan pursued both the master’s at Fisk University and the bachelor of divinity degree at Hartford (Connecticut) Theological Seminary. He received the divinity degree in 1891.

After attaining his B.D., McClellan became a minister in Nashville, Tennessee, and from 1892 until 1894, he served as financial agent at Fisk University. As the agent, he traveled extensively. He moved from Nashville to Louisville, Kentucky where he became a teacher and chaplain of the State Normal School in Normal, Alabama (1894–96). Between 1897 and 1899, he served at a Congregationalist church in Memphis, Tennessee. Throughout his adult life, he moved in and out of Louisville, Kentucky where he worked as a teacher and principal. In 1899, he taught geography and Latin at Central Colored High School. Then in 1911, he left teaching and became the principal of the well known Paul Dunbar School.

He later lived in Los Angeles, California, where he attended the University of California Extension Division. The McClellans had two sons: Lochiel (b. 1892) and Theodore (b. 1895). Theodore died of untreated tuberculosis. George Marion McClellan died in May 1934.

Writing Career

Throughout his writing career, McClellan was constantly trying to find the time and space to write and the money to support his family and the publication of his works. Poems (1895), his first published work, contained fifty-seven poems and five sketches, two of which are “The Goddess of the Penitentials” and “A Farewell.” In “The Goddess,” McClellan explores the function of poetry. Two of the works appear to be autobiographical. The works in this collection show his effort to conform to the formal styles and themes or subjects of the day and simultaneously maintain his racial identity. He selected twelve poems from Poems a year later and published them under the title Songs of a Southerner (1896).

Chronology

1860

Born in Belfast, Tennessee on September 29

1885

Earns B.A. from Fisk University

1887–90

Serves as Congregational minister in Louisville, Kentucky

1888

Marries Mariah Augusta Rabb on October 3

1890

Earns M.A. from Fisk University

1891

Earns B.D. from Hartford Theological Seminary

1892–94

Serves as minister in Nashville, Tennessee; works as financial agent at Fisk University

1894–96

Serves as chaplain and teacher at the State Normal School in Normal, Alabama

1895

Publishes Poems

1896

Publishes Songs of a Southerner

1897–99

Serves as pastor at a Congregational church in Memphis, Tennessee

1899–1911

Teaches geography and Latin at Central Colored High School, Louisville, Kentucky

1906

Publishes Old Greenbottom Inn and Other Stories

1911–19

Serves as principal, Paul Dunbar High School, Louisville, Kentucky

1916

Publishes Path of Dreams

1921–25

Lives in Los Angeles, California; attends the University of California Extension Division

1929

Publishes second edition of Path of Dreams

1934

Dies on May 17

In 1906, he published for $500 a novella and four stories, Ole Greenbottom Inn and Other Stories . The stories demonstrate his awareness of the literary richness and potential of African American life. Through the use of African American characters and places familiar to him, he was also able to show that this life contained material worthy of serious literature. The title story of the collection, “Old Greenbottom Inn,” is about interracial love. His final publication was The Path of Dreams (1916, reissued in 1929), which contains poetry from Poems , all but one of the stories from Old Greenbottom Inn , ten poems and a tribute to his son (“To Theodore”), and one new story (“Gabe Yowl”).

McClellan’s poetry is congruent with the themes, elements, and practices of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. At the same time, there is a covert treatment of racial issues. He writes about his home state, the seasons, and art. “A January Dandelion” begins “All Nashville is a chill” and his poem “The Hills of Sewanee” details his nostalgia for home: “And, far away, I still can feel/Your mystery that ever speaks.” Romantic themes are evident in such poems as “Love Is a Flame,” “Dogwood Blossoms,” and “In the Heart of a Rose.” In “The Feet of Judas,” McClellan responds to a humiliating incident which took place but which led to affirming his belief in God and purging himself of his anger and pain.

“The Feet of Judas” and other poems demonstrate the tension between white American and African American identities. In “The Color Bane,” McClellan shows how “caste should force this Negro queen/To cold and proud disdain.” He shows, also, overt joy in his people in “A September Night”: “joyous shouts/of Negro songs and mirth awake hard by/The cabin dance.” African American history, which is inextricably bound to American history, is detailed in “A Decoration Day.” In spite of what appears to be a quite and passive voice in some poems, McClellan vents his feelings with force but remains optimistic. For instance, in “Day Break” printed in Path of Dreams , there is a call to action and a note of optimism: “Oh! Men of my race, awake! Arise!/ Our morning’s in the air/ There’s scarlet all along the skies,/ Our day breaks everywhere.” The tone here and in other poems raises the issues and responses to race as those seen before and after his era. Like many African American artists, George McClellan donned a mask in his pursuit of art and fight for racial justice.

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