Countee Cullen, The Ballad of the Brown Girl. An Old Retold (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1927). 8vo., black cloth and beige boards, with paper spine label printed in black. First edition. One of five hundred copies, especially issued by Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life. The Dedication Copy, marked “A” (with the printed dedication: “To Witter Bynner”) and inscribed: “To Witter – For whom this poem was written, with no thought of the pleasurable friendship it would bring. Sincerely, Countee Cullen,” on the extra colophon leaf; with Bynner’s library bookplate.
Witter Bynner once concocted an esoteric rating to evaluate Countee Cullen’s first volume of verse, Color. Using zeros and wing-shaped marks, the Brooklyn-born bard and editor graded each poem (poor, average, good, excellent): 36 scored zero; 13, one wing; 7, two wings; and one (“Incident”), three wings. The 1925 assessment reflected Bynner’s own lofty standards and honest perception of Cullen’s writing. Two years earlier in the Witter Bynner Undergraduate Poetry Contest, the New York University sophomore disappointingly won “honorable mention” for “The Ballad of the Brown Girl” by judges Carl Sandburg, Alice Corbin, and Bynner. According to biographer David Levering Lewis, in November (two months before The Crisis announced the contest winners), Bynner had discreetly consoled Cullen about being outvoted in ceding the poem top prize.
When the exquisitely crafted tale about a doomed interracial relationship was published in 1927, Bynner inherited the first copy. Although the pages were never cut, the dedicatee’s memory was unquestionably clear: still present on the title page is the faint imprint of three wing-shaped marks.