Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution

Posted in Biography, Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2014-11-09 17:48Z by Steven

Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution

University of Illinois Press
July 2014
336 pages
6.125 x 9.25 in.
10 black & white photographs, 1 chart
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-252-03844-0

Barbara Foley, Professor of English
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Newark

Political and personal repression and its effect on the work of a Harlem Renaissance luminary

The 1923 publication of Cane established Jean Toomer as a modernist master and one of the key literary figures of the emerging Harlem Renaissance. Though critics and biographers alike have praised his artistic experimentation and unflinching eyewitness portraits of Jim Crow violence, few seem to recognize how much Toomer’s interest in class struggle, catalyzed by the Russian Revolution and the post–World War One radical upsurge, situate his masterwork in its immediate historical context.

In Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution, Barbara Foley explores Toomer’s political and intellectual connections with socialism, the New Negro movement, and the project of Young America. Examining his rarely scrutinized early creative and journalistic writings, as well as unpublished versions of his autobiography, she recreates the complex and contradictory consciousness that produced Cane.

Foley’s discussion of political repression runs parallel with a portrait of repression on a personal level. Examining family secrets heretofore unexplored in Toomer scholarship, she traces their sporadic surfacing in Cane. Toomer’s text, she argues, exhibits a political unconscious that is at once public and private.

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Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank by Kathleen Pfeiffer (review)

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews on 2014-08-22 14:54Z by Steven

Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank by Kathleen Pfeiffer (review)

Volume 37, Number 3, Summer 2014
pages 735-739
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2014.0094

L. Lamar Wilson

Jean Toomer’s Cane remains one of the most enigmatic works that emerged during the last century. In the past three decades, critics have probed auto/biography, psychoanalysis, sociopolitical and theological discourse, gender studies, and Toomer’s own critical essays for answers to questions raised by his exploration of racial and national identity and dislocation, black male and female sexuality, and the metaphorical topoi of the United States North and South in the text. Nellie McKay, Robert B. Jones, Rudolph P. Byrd, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Karen Jackson Ford, Mark Whalan, and Kathleen Pfeiffer have unearthed insightful details about the circumstances surrounding Toomer’s formation of a complex racial identity, his life in the immediate years preceding Cane’s creation and publication, and the text’s impact on his subsequent writing and the Afro-modern and postmodern canons.

Whalan’s Letters of Jean Toomer: 1919–1924, published in 2006, and Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank, Pfeiffer’s 2010 response, have been particularly important. Letters gives scholars access to Toomer’s willingness to emphasize whatever aspects of his racial and cultural identity would appeal to black and white literati alike at any given moment during the years bookending Cane’s 1923 publication. Moreover, through Letters, Toomer’s co-dependency on Waldo Frank, his closest friend and mentor at the time, comes into fuller focus vis-à-vis impassioned declarations of artistic allegiance and filial devotion. With Brother Mine, Pfeiffer complicates critical notions of their relationship, offering a chronological collation of epistles between the two men. From Frank’s first letter to Toomer in October 1920, Pfeiffer implicates Frank in encouraging Toomer, who was initially reserved and professional, to open up to his input and affections and to the possibilities of publication available to him as a modernist “Negro” poet. In her introduction, Pfeiffer links the dissolution of their friendship to Toomer’s affair with Frank’s wife, art therapist Margaret Naumburg, and marks Toomer a turncoat. However, she discounts the betrayal Toomer expressed feeling in his autobiography of having been reduced to “a fraction of Negro blood” when, in fact, he desired to create “a synthesis in the matters of the mind and spirit analogous, perhaps, to the actual fact of at least six blood minglings” (qtd. in Pfeiffer 29). Ultimately, it would seem the strictures of America’s “one-drop rule” on the social status of one marked black was as much to blame.

What makes Brother Mine compelling, then, is that which made the earliest English and American readers fond of Pamela, The Power of Sympathy, and other epistolary novels: an intimate look at a complex love story. Readers see two men finding homosocial solidarity as they manipulate the constructs of race in the poetry that would become one of the New Negro Renaissance’s first critically acclaimed works. They also see Toomer offer Frank critical feedback on Holiday, Frank’s version of their trip to Spartanburg, South Carolina, which their letters often romanticize—while offering scant details. They read some of the most honest confessions in print of a white American man’s obsession with and hunger to embody blackness, and they witness Toomer deftly navigating his multiracial identity. As he and his beloved Jewish brother reach for a raceless identity neither can attain in America, readers watch them commit the ultimate crime: interracial love. Frank’s gleeful interest in the black American experience is palpable as he alludes to the pleasures and challenges he and Toomer encounter as they venture into the US South. Moreover, it is clear that Frank is living vicariously through Toomer’s relationships with his grandmother, best friend Ken, and on-again, off-again girlfriend Mae. What emerges from their dialogue is both men’s problematic conception of a kind of Lacanian jouissance subsumed in blackness, which Toomer calls a “soil [that] is a good rich brown” that “should yield splendidly to our plowing” in an August 3, 1922, letter in which he makes final plans for the pair’s Spartanburg excursion (59).

Central to the poetic re-envisioning of Cane that emerges in Brother Mine is the homo-social desire that permeates every page. As Pfeiffer notes, the almost…

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The Hunter and the Farmer: Jean Toomer’s Depression-Era Masculinist Writings

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2014-05-01 20:01Z by Steven

The Hunter and the Farmer: Jean Toomer’s Depression-Era Masculinist Writings

Volume 6, Number 1 (2008)

Anastasia C. Curwood, Visiting Fellow
James Weldon Johnson Institute for Race and Difference
Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

In 1937, after he had written the novel Cane, left the African-American culture of Harlem, studied under the mystic Georges Gurdjieff in France, lost his wife to childbirth, and married for the second time, Jean Toomer sought to publish a series of essays. The subjects varied, but the most common theme was masculinity—men’s prerogatives, natures, and responsibilities. He theorized women’s temperaments as well, but it was clearly the study of maleness that captured his attention.

Toomer’s interest was noteworthy given the fact that he became ever more concerned with sexuality and gender as he left behind his African-American identity. Toomer did not intend to “pass,” as is commonly assumed—he actually wanted to be raceless, or of the “American” race. In his adopted home in the Pennsylvania countryside, Toomer attempted to construct his life based entirely on his masculinity. In Toomer’s opinion, his entire household—his white wife, his light-skinned daughter, and various temporary occupants—was a social experiment in supporting his masculine genius and creativity.

This essay is an intellectual history of Toomer’s self-construction. Using his diaries and published and unpublished writings, I will explain how Toomer saw his own male identity and how, although he had renounced his blackness, his racial identity mediated his ideal of his gender.

Read the entire article here.

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Jean Toomer and Cultural Pluralism

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2014-03-27 01:52Z by Steven

Jean Toomer and Cultural Pluralism

Gino Michael Pellegrini: Education, Race, Multiraciality, Class & Solidarity

Gino Michael Pellegrini, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English
Pierce College, Woodland Hills, California

[This short paper was originally written for “Jean Toomer and Politics,” a Special Session Roundtable at the 2012 MLA Conference in Seattle. I have made a few edits.]

In disagreeing with Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates Jr., I will not directly critique their support and rhetorical strategies. Instead, I will put forth my own interpretation of Toomer’s political vision. Toomer saw literature as his means to address socioeconomic inequalities, transform himself, and influence people in a manner that would advance the promise of democracy in America. We should ask then, not whether he identified as black or white, but what his political vision is, what it is not, and what it entails. Specifically, I argue that his political vision conflicts with the cultural pluralisms of his mentors, Alain Locke and Waldo Frank, and anticipates some postethnic, cosmopolitan, and multiracial perspectives that have emerged in recent history in strong opposition to the limitations and problems of multiculturalism…

Read the entire paper here.

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Trope Theory, Cane, and the Metaphysical Case for Genre

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2013-12-03 04:16Z by Steven

Trope Theory, Cane, and the Metaphysical Case for Genre

Volume 46, Number 3 (Fall 2013)
pages 239-263
DOI: 10.1215/00166928-2345605

Katie Owens-Murphy
Department of English
University of Minnesota, Duluth

Although we rely regularly on genre as a conceptual apparatus for our scholarship and course offerings, genre studies as a theory and methodology has never quite recovered from the opposition of Jacques Derrida, whose well-known essay “The Law of Genre” (1980) accused literary taxonomies of distorting the inherently indeterminate meanings of texts by imposing arbitrary restrictions, or “laws,” on our reading practices. This essay surveys the major objections to genre criticism lodged by its principal critics (especially Derrida) before introducing and advocating “trope theory,” a concept from a branch of analytic philosophy called metaphysics, in response to these objections. It then provides a sustained formal analysis of Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) to demonstrate trope theory’s superior ability to account for generically hybrid narrative texts and its ability to yield a seemingly infinite number of readings and interpretations.

Read or purchase the article here.

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My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine…

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2013-10-11 03:43Z by Steven

My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine… I do not expect to be told what I should consider myself to be.

Jean Toomer to his publisher Horace Liveright (September 5, 1923)


Jean Toomer: The Fluidity of Racial Identity

Posted in Articles, Biography, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2013-05-20 03:57Z by Steven

Jean Toomer: The Fluidity of Racial Identity

Face to Face: A blog from the National Portrait Gallery
Smithsonian Institution

Elizabeth Brevard, Intern
Catalog of American Portraits
National Portrait Gallery

Jean Toomer / Marjorie Content / Gelatin silver print, c. 1934 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution ©Susan L. Sandberg

An author, philosopher, and spiritual adviser, Washington, D.C., native Jean Toomer (1894–1967) challenged the accepted race and social labels during the mid-twentieth century. Toomer’s father left his wife and son in 1895, forcing the single mother to move in with her father, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, the former governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction and the first U.S. governor of African American descent.

Toomer was of European and African American ancestry, which sometimes allowed him to pass in society as a white man. For example, his registration for the draft identifies him as African American, but both of his certificates of marriage to white women list him as white (Byrd and Gates).

Most of his formative years were spent in all-white neighborhoods, although he attended the all-black Dunbar High School in Washington. The profound and varied racial influences within Toomer’s life would inspire his writing and his philosophical pursuit to transcend the self, as seen in his novel Cane and his poem “The Blue Meridian.”

After his graduation from high school in 1914, Toomer questioned the labeling of race according to skin color, instead embracing his self-appointed identity as an “American.” In his words:

I wrote a poem called “The First American,” the idea of which was that here in America we are in the process of forming a new race, that I was one of the first conscious members of this race. . . . I had seen the divisions, the separatisms and antagonisms . . . [yet] a new type of man was arising in this country—not European, not African, not Asiatic—but American. And in this American I saw the divisions mended, the differences reconciled—saw that (1) we would in truth be a united people existing in the United States, saw that (2) we would in truth be once again members of a united human race (Turner, ed., The Wayward and the Seeking, p. 121)…

Read the entire article here.

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Jean Toomer and the History of Passing

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2013-03-18 05:08Z by Steven

Jean Toomer and the History of Passing

Reviews in American History
Volume 41, Number 1, March 2013
pages 113-121
DOI: 10.1353/rah.2013.0016

Matthew Pratt Guterl, Professor of Africana Studies and American Studies
Brown University

Jean Toomer. Cane. With a new afterword by Rudolph B. Byrd, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011. 472 pp.(paper).

In 2011, Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., issued a new Norton Critical edition of Jean Toomer’s 1923 novel, Cane, a work widely seen as one of the finest expressions of black culture in the twentieth century. Both men have written on Toomer, on race, and on literature. Byrd, recently deceased, was the author of the finely wrought Jean Toomer’s Years With Gurdjieff (1990). Gates is a famous scholar of African American studies. In op-eds for the Chronicle of Higher Education, in the pages of the New York Times, and on the radio stream of NPR, the editors, drumming up attention, accused Toomer of “passing” for white, a provocation rooted, they felt, in the evidence, but also sure to guarantee book sales and critical attention. “He was running away from a cultural identity that he had inherited,” Gates said to Felicia Lee in one of these paratextual interviews; “He never, ever wrote anything remotely approaching the originality and genius of Cane. I believe it’s because he spent so much time running away from his identity.” Gates then added, “I feel sorry for him.”

This damning conclusion that Toomer engaged in racial subterfuge is somewhat off-putting because it runs counter to just about everything written about Toomer since the 1980s. It also pushes back against the foundational assumptions of the “bi-racial” and “mixed-race” movements—both of which prioritize self-identification and self-fashioning outside of official categories—and challenges recent histories of race and passing. Still, because of the unique editorial authority of this pair, the new edition of Cane will surely become a consumer triumph.

“Jean Toomer may have been a bit of a cad and a man who had a fondness for the company of white women,” wrote Sharon Toomer, the author’s great granddaughter, in response to an interview with Gates in the New York Times, “but to say . . . that he decidedly passed for white is an explosive accusation that demands nothing short of evidence—€”not interpretation.” She continued: “In countless documents, Toomer said he wanted to be identified as an American. That is different from deciding to pass for white.” But how is it different? And what is that evidence? And what, finally, is that interpretation? Answering these questions brings us to the far edge of African American studies, African American history, and African American literature; indeed, it carries us across a threshold where, as Kenneth Warren recently suggested, the future of these robust and important fields is decidedly uncertain. Answering them also clarifies the purpose of this new edition of Cane, which appears designed to rewrite the past and redirect the future.

Every American historian should be familiar with Cane because the work captures so many themes and plot points of the post-WWI era. Uniquely structured even in an era of formal experimentation, Cane was a revolutionary text when first published, and it remains an object of extraordinary debate today. The loosely organized, scattershot novella gathers up familiar plot points of post-emancipation African American history and rearranges them into discrete vignettes, capturing a race increasingly adrift in an age of traumatic transformations: from rural to urban, from the violent medieval to the depersonalized modern, from locally grounded to wandering and migratory. Each little piece was saturated with symbolic or metaphorical detail. And the book, slender and enigmatically titled, looked different, too, with cryptic arcs and half-circles appearing in no discernable sequence, marking major thematic breaks. Readers of Cane knew they held in their hands something special and exciting, even if they weren’t entirely certain what to make of it.

Toomer believed firmly and consistently that he was neither white nor black, but both and much more. The tall, lanky descendent of P. B. S. Pinchback—€”the Reconstruction-era governor of Louisiana (a whimsical man who occasionally enjoyed playing at white)—€”Jean Toomer was, in the years prior to the publication of Cane, a questing soul in search of a racial identity outside of contemporary realities, hoping…

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Biography of American Author Jean Toomer, 1894-1967

Posted in Biography, Books, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2012-08-05 03:38Z by Steven

Biography of American Author Jean Toomer, 1894-1967

Edwin Mellen Press
248 pages
ISBN 10:  0-7734-7088-3; ISBN 13:  978-0-7734-7088-0

John Chandler Griffin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus
University of South Carolina, Lancaster

This comprehensive biography of writer Jean Toomer, known as the Herald of the Harlem Renaissance, uses previously untapped sources, including lengthy meetings with Toomer’s widow and associates. It examines his ancestors and early life, the publication of Cane in 1923, and then the strange events of his later life, including his association with Waldo Frank and his wife Margery Naumberg, through whom he would come to be involved with Georges Gurdjieff, an Armenian mystic. It examines his marriages, his involvement with Quakerism, his declining health (and subsequent involvement with psychic healers such as Edgar Cayce and Ron Hubbard). The volume includes an interview with Marjorie Content Toomer, his widow, and a Jean Toomer bibliography.

Table of Contents

  • Foreword
  • 1. The Racial Enigma of Jean Toomer
  • 2. A Search for Identity
  • 3. A Literary Breakthrough
  • 4. Waldo Frank and the Publication of Cane
  • 5. Toomer Meets Margaret Naumberg and Georges Gurdjieff
  • 6. Toomer Becomes a Gurdjieffian
  • 7. From Rags to Riches
  • 8. A Life in Decline An Interview with Margery Content Toomer
  • A Jean Toomer Bibliography
  • Index
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Jean Toomer, Mulatto and Modernist: the Fused Race and Fused Form of Cane

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-05-18 03:49Z by Steven

Jean Toomer, Mulatto and Modernist: the Fused Race and Fused Form of Cane

Oklahoma State University
May 1997
76 pages

Rhonda Lea McClellan

Submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate College of the Oklahoma State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of MASTER OF ARTS


In the fall of 1993, I enrolled in Dr. Leavell’s modern/contemporary literature course that examined familiar “novels” under a different form, the short story cycle. We discussed how familiiar texts, like Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Faulkner’s Go Down Moses, and Hemingway’s In Our Time, labeled by critics as novels, could be viewed under the definitions of a different genre. As we analyzed this genre, I thought how vulnerable art and artists are at the hands of critics who define pieces based on literary traditions. Chagrined, I thought of the pieces of literature that I could have misread.

When we finally turned the pages of Jean Toomer’s Cane and examined the pioneering strategies of this modern writer, the consequences of misleading critiques became apparent to me. Rarely do we read of the Harlem Renaissance without seeing the name Jean Toomer. Accordingly, scholars contend that Toomer contributed to the awakening of the African-American experience in the 1920s and that his Cane secured his place in the African American canon.

But after reading biographical sketches, I found that Toomer, as an orphaned mulatto, rarely felt as if he belonged to any racial category. Moving between both black and white, rich and poor, young and old, Toomer knew little about securing his social position. He defined race as a social institution, an unjust categorization of Americans, creating a prejudice and fragmented society. Toomer, therefore, refused to be placed within these confines. As a result of my reading, I believe that Toomer’s social “drifting” is his personal illustration that Americans should not feel restricted to social categories and that Americans do not lead isolated lives but actually share a common experience-alienation. In fact, as an ostracized young man, he found only one way to find peace within his world, and that peace came from writing. His alienation gave Toomer an objective perspective that lead to his social and literary philosophies.

From Dr. Leavell’s emphasis on the importance of literary form and theme, I realized that critics fail to understand Cane’s structure relative to its theme. If critics did not apprehend Toomer’s racial ideology presented in Cane, how could they interpret the significance of the text’s structure? A man who would not be confined to one race could not limit his art to conventions of one culture. In Cane, Toomer fuses the art forms of the African-American with the European.

I see Toomer, a man eventually marginalized because of his racial ambiguity, creating a text, Cane, that follows the traditions of American literary pursuits. In the tradition of Franklin, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Whitman, Toomer attempts to create an American character and structure. Toomer’s mulatto represents modern man, and he presents these isolated characters in a modern, fragmented society. He fuses his racial ideology into Cane’s structure. Like its multi-racial characters, Cane’s structure depends on the aesthetic conventions of many races. Toomer’s literary innovations with form and theme make him a Modernist. Because of his ethnicity, however, Toomer found his text as much on the periphery as himself.

After Toomer voiced his racial views and his literary aspirations, scholars would contend that Toomer “deserted his people.” I maintain that readers misinterpret Cane’s projection of his mixed-race characters and the significance of its multi-cultural form. Critics have not fully understood Toomer or Cane. Toomer’s views blur lines that critics fail to reevaluate.

After examining Toomer and his text, I can appreciate the complexity of a man who refused categorization and a book that evades literary classification. In the first chapter, I will place Toomer in American literary traditions and provide biographical details that influenced his social views. In the second chapter, I will discuss Toomer’s racial and social ideology and its impact on Cane. In the third chapter, I will focus on the theme and structure of Cane’s prose. In the fourth chapter, my focus will shift to the merging of Cane’s poetic theme and structure. Opposing other critics who have placed Toomer in the African-American canon, I propose that Jean Toomer, who was influenced by white Modernist writers, such as Anderson and Frank, experiments with a national character-the mulatto-and a national form-a structure blending the art forms of the African American and European American-and writes within the broader traditions of American literature.

Read the entire thesis here.

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