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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Jean Toomer and Politics (Session 465)

Posted in Literary/Artistic Criticism, Live Events, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2011-12-14 02:51Z by Steven

Jean Toomer and Politics (Session 465)

Modern Language Association
127th MLA Annual Convention
2012-01-05 through 2012-01-08
Washington State Convention Center
Seattle, Washington

A Special Session
Saturday, 2012-01-07, 12:00-13:15 PST (Local Time)
Room 6A, WSCC


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


Barbara Clare Foley, Professor of English and American Studies
Rutgers University, Newark

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

Charles Scruggs, Professor of English
University of Arizona

Belinda Wheeler, Assistant Professor of English
Paine  College, Augusta, Georgia

This roundtable will focus on the 2011 edition of Jean Toomer’s Cane, edited by Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and in particular on the editors’ provocative new thesis that Toomer was a Negro who chose to pass for white. Presenters will confront, examine, and discuss Byrd and Gates’s thesis.

For more information, click here.

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Jean Toomer’s Conflicted Racial Identity [Reader Responses]

Posted in Articles, Biography, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2011-03-10 05:16Z by Steven

Jean Toomer’s Conflicted Racial Identity [Reader Responses]

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Charles R. Larson, Professor of Literature
American University, Washington, D. C.

To the Editor:

Congratulations to Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates Jr. for concluding that Jean Toomer was a Negro who decided to pass for white—the same conclusion I made in my biography of Toomer, Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen, published in 1993. Nothing like reinventing the wheel.

Kimberly A. Barrett, Vice President for Student Affairs
University of Montevallo, Montevallo, Alabama

To the Editor:

Despite the interesting investigative work of its authors, the recent Chronicle article on Jean Toomer was troubling to me because it served as another apparent grain of truth that sustains two deeply entrenched stereotypes. One of these is the myth of the confused mulatto who is disabled by incessant struggles with his or her racial identity. The other is the “one-drop rule“—the idea that anyone with an identifiable black person in his or her lineage is assumed black. I think it’s time we acknowledge the reality of the existence of the well-adjusted multiethnic/biracial white person. As the self-identifying African-American mother of a young man who fit that description while growing up, I’d like to share part of our story in the spirit of balance.

“Your mom is black?” was a frequent refrain and innocent nod to the notion of the one-drop rule when my son’s acquaintances met me for the first time. I must admit that I, too, did not escape the influence of this perennial rule. On those dreamy weekend mornings when my husband and I lay awake pondering who our child would look like, I smugly argued that of course our child would be black because one parent was black. My husband, on the other hand, who is white (of Irish and Danish descent) and a card-carrying member of a Native American tribe, asked with dismay, “Where am I in this equation?”…


Marcia Alesan Dawkins, Visiting Scholar
Brown University

To the Editor:

In their article on Jean Toomer, the authors Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates Jr. claim that Toomer suffered from a case of “conflicted racial identity” (“Jean Toomer’s Conflicted Racial Identity,” The Chronicle Review, February 11). Toomer, one of the first proponents of thinking about race in multiracial “American” terms, is now said to have been passing as white. The authors justify this assertion by presenting new evidence that Toomer identified himself differently based on location and situation.

It is true that Toomer most likely self-identified as “Negro” when he registered for the draft. It is also true that in Toomer’s era, and the eras in which his ancestors were identified, census takers were allowed to list racial designation as they perceived it. So, whether Toomer is listed as white or black on the census may say little about his own thoughts on racial identity. It may, however, say much about how he was perceived by the person taking the census and/or responding on his behalf. A similar case can be made for the marriage licenses. In the absence of a handwriting expert, eyewitness, or recorded conversation, it is not verifiable that Toomer self-identified as white or whether he was designated as white by the licensor.

Nevertheless, Byrd and Gates maintain that Toomer had to be passing—and therefore engaging in racial deception—because it is not documented that any of his “direct ancestors chose to live or self-identify as white.”

Flying in the face of decades’ worth of scholarship that builds on Toomer’s work, Byrd and Gates ignore Maria Root’sBill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage.” In it, Root states that multiracial people may identify differently over time, may identify differently than their parents or siblings, and that doing so is totally acceptable. As my colleague Ulli K. Ryder of Brown University put it, “It feels like Byrd and Gates have made a conflict where, in fact, there isn’t one.”…

Read the entire responses here.

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Jean Toomer’s Conflicted Racial Identity

Posted in Articles, Biography, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2011-03-10 04:26Z by Steven

Jean Toomer’s Conflicted Racial Identity

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Rudolph P. Byrd, Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies and African American Studies
Emory University

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research
Harvard University

On August 4, 1922, about a year before he published his first book, Cane, Jean Toomer, age 27, wrote to his first love, a black teenager named Mae Wright, confessing his ambivalence about the dogged pursuit by African-Americans of Anglo-American cultural ideals: “We who have Negro blood in our veins, who are culturally and emotionally the most removed from Puritan tradition, are its most tenacious supporters.” That would be one of the last times he admitted his own Negro ancestry, either publicly or privately. Six years later, Georgia O’Keeffe—Toomer’s friend and later lover—wrote to her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, describing the way Toomer, then living in Chicago, was identifying himself: “It seems that in Chicago they do not know that he has Negro blood—he seems to claim French extraction.”

When we were working on a new Norton critical edition of Cane, a masterpiece of modernism composed of fiction, poetry, and drama, we confronted the question of Toomer’s race. Literary critics and biographers have long speculated about how he identified himself, but too often they have chosen not to conduct research into public documents about the topic. Was Toomer—a central figure in two faces of American modernism, the New Negro (or Harlem Renaissance) Movement and the Lost Generation—a Negro who, following the publication of Cane, passed for white?

Toomer is known for proclaiming a new, mixed racial identity, which he called “American.” In an era of de jure segregation, such a claim was defiantly transgressive. But he may have been far more conflicted about his identity than his noble attempt to question American received categories of “race” might suggest…

…In the course of the 25 years between his 1917 and 1942 draft registrations, it seems that Toomer was endlessly deconstructing his Negro ancestry. During his childhood and adolescence in Washington, as a member of the mulatto elite, he lived in both the white and the black worlds. At times he resided in white neighborhoods, but he was educated in all-black schools. Toomer would write that it was his experience in that special world, “midway between the white and Negro worlds,” that led him to develop his novel “racial position” as early as 1914, at the age of 20, when he defined himself as an “American, neither white nor black.”…

…Why is it so important, as we read Cane, to understand Toomer’s conflicts over his racial identity? What light does it shine on scholarship about his work, about African-American literature, and the way our society has dealt with race? The first reason is the simple, or rather complicated, fact that Toomer himself thought it was important. Important? Toomer obsessed over it, endlessly circling back upon it in the comfortable isolation of his upper-middle-class home in Bucks County, Pa...

Read the entire article here.

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A New Look At The Life Of Jean Toomer

Posted in Articles, Biography, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2011-01-06 19:30Z by Steven

A New Look At The Life Of Jean Toomer

National Public Radio
All Things Considered

Robert Siegel, Host

Rudolph P. Byrd, Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies and African American Studies
Emory University

Jean Toomer received much acclaim for his portrait of African-American life in the early 20th century in his 1923 book Cane. The Harlem Renaissance author wrote vivid vignettes in a series of poems and short stories in the book. Next week, the book will be re-released with a new introduction written by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates and Emory University scholar Rudolph Byrd. In the 70-page introduction, the two scholars write that Toomer, a light-skinned black man of mixed heritage, chose to live much of his life as a black man passing as white. NPR’s Robert Siegel talks with Byrd about the life of Toomer.

Jean Toomer was a writer whose 1923 book “Cane” wove poetry, prose and drama into its glimpses of African-American life in the early 20th century. “Cane” earned him a place among the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, and a new edition of the book has a different take on Toomer’s life.

Toomer was a light-skinned man who spoke of himself as being neither white nor black. Well, two scholars of African-American literature, Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard and Professor Rudolph Byrd of Emory University contribute an introduction to the new book, which is to be published next week.

And they conclude that Toomer – his writings notwithstanding – lived much of his life as a black man passing for white. Their investigation is one of both textual criticism and genealogical research.

Professor Byrd joins us now. Professor Gates is not with us because his father, Henry Louis Gates Sr., passed away this week, and we send our condolences.

Professor Byrd, welcome to the program.

Professor RUDOLPH BYRD (African-American Studies, Emory University): Mr. Siegel, it’s a pleasure to be with you.

SIEGEL: And your conclusions are based on both facts and a reading of those facts. First, what did you find out?

Prof. BYRD: Oh, the newly unearthed facts are in census records. There’s a draft registration and his marriage license. The census records list Toomer as white. The draft registrations record Toomer as Negro. And then, the marriage license lists both the bride and groom as white.

What is fascinating about these findings is that, first of all, this is information that has been overlooked, and so it adds an important dimension to the long speculation about Toomer’s racial ancestry, which really began with the publication of “Cane” in 1923.

SIEGEL: Now, Toomer, in writings, distanced himself from the label Negro.

Prof. BYRD: Yes.

SIEGEL: But he did speak of lots of different blood that flowed in his veins.

Prof. BYRD: Yes.

SIEGEL: And he described himself as someone who had spent some years of his life – as they said in the day – in colored schools…

Prof. BYRD: Yes.

SIEGEL: …and many years living as white.

Is that accurate? Is his description of how he grew up accurate?

Prof. BYRD: It is and it isn’t. He did attend Henry Highland Garnet School, which was a black school. He did attend Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School, which was a black school…

Read the article here.  Listen to the interview (00:05:44) here.

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Scholars Say Chronicler of Black Life Passed for White

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2010-12-30 17:16Z by Steven

Scholars Say Chronicler of Black Life Passed for White

New York Times

Felicia R. Lee

Renown came to Jean Toomer with his 1923 book “Cane,” which mingled fiction, drama and poetry in a formally audacious effort to portray the complexity of black lives. But the racially mixed Toomer’s confounding efforts to defy being stuck in conventional racial categories and his disaffiliation with black culture made him perhaps the most enigmatic writer associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

Now Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard scholar, and Rudolph P. Byrd, a professor at Emory University, say their research for a new edition of “Cane” documents that Toomer was “a Negro who decided to pass for white.”…

…Toomer’s racial complexity has long been intriguing to critics and scholars, but Mr. Gates and Mr. Byrd’s assertion about his identity is certain to spark debate. Richard Eldridge, a Toomer biographer, said recently that he had not read the new edition — and will stand corrected if its case is persuasive — but that Toomer never “passed” in the classic sense of pretending to be white. Rather, he said, Toomer (whose appearance was racially indeterminate) sought to transcend standard definitions of race.

“I think he never claimed that he was a white man,” Mr. Eldridge said. “He always claimed that he was a representative of a new, emergent race that was a combination of various races. He averred this virtually throughout his life.” Mr. Eldridge and Cynthia Earl Kerman are the authors of “The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness” published in 1987 by Louisiana State University Press

…Yet this new edition of “Cane” documents that over the course of his life Toomer variously denied ever living as a black person; called himself racially mixed; and said he was a new kind of American, transcending old racial terms. Toomer did not want to be featured as a Negro in the marketing of “Cane” and later did not want his work included in black anthologies…

Read the entire article here.

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Posted in Biography, Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Novels, Passing on 2010-12-30 16:43Z by Steven


W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
January 2011 (Originally published in 1923)
560 pages
5 × 8 in
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-393-93168-6

Jean Toomer (1894-1967)

Edited by:

Rudolph P. Byrd (1953-2011), Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies and African American Studies
Emory University

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research
Harvard University

A masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance and a canonical work in both the American and the African American literary traditions, Cane is now available in a revised and expanded Norton Critical Edition.

Originally published in 1923, Jean Toomer’s Cane remains an innovative literary work—part drama, party poetry, part fiction. This revised Norton Critical Edition builds upon the First Edition (1988), which was edited by the late Darwin T. Turner, a pioneering scholar in the field of African American studies. The Second Edition begins with the editors’ introduction, a major work of scholarship that places Toomer within the context of American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. The introduction provides groundbreaking biographical information on Toomer and examines his complex, contradictory racial position as well as his own pioneering views on race. Illustrative materials include government documents containing contradictory information on Toomer’s race, several photographs of Toomer, and a map of Sparta, Georgia—the inspiration for the first and third parts of Cane. The edition reprints the 1923 foreword to Cane by Toomer’s friend Waldo Frank, which helped introduce Toomer to a small but influential readership. Revised and expanded explanatory annotations are also included.

“Backgrounds and Sources” collects a wealth of autobiographical writing that illuminates important phases in Jean Toomer’s intellectual life, including a central chapter from The Wayward and the Seeking and Toomer’s essay on teaching the philosophy of Russian psychologist and mystic Georges I. Gurdjieff, “Why I Entered the Gurdjieff Work.” The volume also reprints thirty of Toomer’s letters from 1919–30, the height of his literary career, to correspondents including Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson, Claude McKay, Horace Liveright, Georgia O’Keeffe, and James Weldon Johnson.

An unusually rich “Criticism” section demonstrates deep and abiding interest in Cane. Five contemporary reviews—including those by Robert Littell and W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke—suggest its initial reception. From the wealth of scholarly commentary on Cane, the editors have chosen twenty-one major interpretations spanning eight decades including those by Langston Hughes, Robert Bone, Darwin T. Turner, Charles T. Davis, Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, Barbara Foley, Mark Whalan, and Nellie Y. McKay.

A Chronology, new to the Second Edition, and an updated Selected Bibliography are also included.

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