To “Flash White Light from Ebony”: The Problem of Modernism in Jean Toomer’s Cane

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-05-18 01:50Z by Steven

To “Flash White Light from Ebony”: The Problem of Modernism in Jean Toomer’s Cane

Twentieth Century Literature
Volume 46, Number 1 (Spring 2000)
pages 1-19

Catherine Gunther Kodat, Professor of English and American Studies
Hamilton College, Clinton, New York

The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation–and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality that I shall call orthopaedic–and, lastly, to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental development.

—Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage” (Ecrits 4)

The idea of freedom, akin to aesthetic autonomy, was shaped by domination, which it universalized. This holds true as well for art-works. The more they freed themselves from external goals, the more completely they determined themselves as their own masters. Because, however, artworks always turn one side toward society, the domination they internalized also radiated externally.

—Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 17-18

My concern is solely with art. What am I?

—Jean Toomer to John McClure, July 22, 1922 (qtd. in Kerman 26)

The temptation to read Jean Toomer’s Cane as something of a modernist experiment in autobiography is strong, and scholars who do so fall into two camps: those who see the work as a tribute to the discovery of a true self, and those who read it as testimony to the failure of an attempt to make that discovery. Critics in the first camp take as their starting point Toomer’s own compelling story of the genesis of Cane: trapped in genteel poverty in Washington, D.C., caring for two ailing grandparents, feverishly working to train himself as a writer, he accepts a temporary job in the fall of 1921 at an industrial school for blacks in Sparta, Georgia, and there, exposed for the first time in his life to the Southern African American rural folk, discovers his creative voice. Those biographical readers of Cane who stress this flowering of Toomer’s creativity see the book as a lyrical celebration of rediscovered African American roots; content is stressed over form, as we are encouraged to read past Toomer’s style to uncover the racial, psychosocial meaning beneath. The poem in part 1, “Song of the Son,” is held to bear a truth at once personal and aesthetic: before he could become a great artist, Toomer—an olive-skinned young man who passed for white in college (Kerman 63)—first had to become black. Cane thus is cast as the mirror of Jean Toomer’s soul, reflecting to him a moment, however brief, of true racial vision and, it follows, great artistic achievement. The aesthetic importance of Cane thus lies less in its formal and stylistic experiments than in its unapologetic, nonbourgeois choice of the Southern black peasant as hero.

Events in Toomer’s life subsequent to Cane can seem to bolster this critical argument. In 1923, when Horace Liveright urged Toomer to stress his “colored blood” in the brief biography Boni & Liveright planned to use in publicizing Cane, Toomer objected: “My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine” (qtd. in Kerman 110-11). This first link in a long chain of racial disclaimers climaxed in the 1932 pamphlet “A Fact and Some Fictions,” in which Toomer wrote: “As for being a Negro, this of course I am not—neither biologically nor socially” (qtd. in Benson 43). Toomer “had considered the matter and was determined to erase, as much as possible, his connections to the Afro-American experience,” notes Nellie Y. McKay, concluding that this rejection had debilitating artistic consequences (199). The sense of wholeness and creative well-being that flowed from Toomer’s embrace of rural blackness evaporated as the author sought a “raceless,” philosophical (as opposed to a esthetic) unity of spirit. His writings became increasingly dry and didactic, and the vast bulk remained unpublished in his lifetime.

Thus, while Cane is seen as a pinnacle of achieved wholeness, a moment of aesthetic racial truth, Toomer himself is frequently portrayed as a peculiarly modern incarnation of “double consciousness“: the racially alienated man. The second group of biographical critics stresses this apparently divided nature of Toomer’s psyche and, far from seeing Cane as a unified, lyrical expression of race spirit, argues for a view of the work’s generic indeterminacy and fragmented formal properties as aesthetic embodiments of Toomer’s riven self. Alan Golding, for example, argues that “Toomer’s drive to make the pieces of Cane balance or cohere enacts on the formal level his struggle to reconcile both the contradictory spirits of North and South and the black and white within himself” (198). In a formulation that harkens back to W. E. B. DuBois’s articulation, in The Souls of Black Folk, of “double consciousness,” Golding writes: “Cane shows Toomer in 1923 intellectually an American and emotionally a black” (200).  In this view, the mirror of Cane is no longer whole but splintered, reflecting a fragmented vision of the self that interrogates–rather than celebrates–categories of racial identity and difference and the aesthetic practices that serve to elaborate those categories. In this emphasis of form over content, Cane is usually no longer seen as primarily a black text but a modern text, in the traditional, “universal” sense of the term. This universalizing approach has had some predictable effects: in two thoughtful essays, Rudolph P. Byrd has wondered whether Cane should be read as part of the African American literary tradition at all…

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Distancing the Proximate Other: Hybridity and Maud Diver’s Candles in the Wind

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2010-05-09 04:15Z by Steven

Distancing the Proximate Other: Hybridity and Maud Diver’s Candles in the Wind

Twentieth Century Literature
Volume 50, Number 2 (Summer, 2004)
pages 107-140

Loretta M. Mijares

The half-caste out here falls between two stools, that’s the truth.
—Maud Diver, Candles in the Wind

Miscegenation has long been recognized as one of the recurrent tropes of colonial discourse, and recent work has convincingly demonstrated that it was often enlisted in efforts to justify more authoritarian colonial rule. Critics such as Nancy Paxton and Jenny Sharpe have drawn attention to the ubiquitous theme of interracial romance and marriage in domestic fiction written by the British in India, a body of literature previously relegated to the genre of romance and dismissed as what Margaret Stieg calls “sub-literature” (3). While critics have begun to recognize that the focus of this large body of fiction on domestic arrangements expresses anxiety about interracial liaisons and miscegenation, few pay adequate attention either to the historical reality of the Eurasian community in existence during the periods they analyze or to the Eurasian characters in these works of fiction and their particular ideological function. The tendency of literary critics discussing miscegenation to categorize Eurasians and “natives” as equal threats in the domestic sphere is itself evidence of the success of this body of fiction’s strategic response to historical Eurasians: the disconcertingly familiar Eurasian is converted in fiction from proximate other to distant other, thereby relocating the anxiety generated by both the uncanniness of the Eurasian and the material threat this population posed to smooth colonial rule…

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