Jean Toomer - an innovative literary work―part drama, part poetry, part fiction―powerfully evoking black life in the South. Rich in imagery, Toomer’s impressionistic, sometimes surrealistic sketches of Southern rural and urban life are permeated by visions of smoke, sugarcane, dusk, and fire; the northern world is pictured as a harsher reality of asphalt streets
Jean Toomer, Cane, Liveright, 2011. [1923.]
“A breakthrough in prose and poetical writing. . . . This book should be on all readers’ and writers’ desks and in their minds.”―Maya Angelou
First published in 1923, Jean Toomer’s Cane is an innovative literary work―part drama, part poetry, part fiction―powerfully evoking black life in the South. Rich in imagery, Toomer’s impressionistic, sometimes surrealistic sketches of Southern rural and urban life are permeated by visions of smoke, sugarcane, dusk, and fire; the northern world is pictured as a harsher reality of asphalt streets. This iconic work of American literature is published with a new afterword by Rudolph Byrd of Emory University and Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University, who provide groundbreaking biographical information on Toomer, place his writing within the context of American modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, and examine his shifting claims about his own race and his pioneering critique of race as a scientific or biological concept.
“By far the most impressive product of the Negro Renaissance, Cane ranks with Richard Wright's and Ralph Ellison's as a measure of the Negro novelist's highest achievement. Jean Toomer belongs to that first rank of writers who use words almost as a plastic medium, shaping new meanings from an original and highly personal style.”
A literary masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane is a powerful work of innovative fiction evoking black life in the South. The sketches, poems, and stories of black rural and urban life that make up Cane are rich in imagery. Visions of smoke, sugarcane, dusk, and flame permeate the Southern landscape: the Northern world is pictured as a harsher reality of asphalt streets. Impressionistic, sometimes surrealistic, the pieces are redolent of nature and Africa, with sensuous appeals to eye and ear.
Jean Toomer, The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer, University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
This volume is the only collected edition of poems by Jean Toomer, the enigmatic American writer, Gurdjieffian guru, and Quaker convert who is perhaps best known for his 1923 lyrical narrative "Cane." The fifty-five poems here -- most of them previously unpublished -- chart a fascinating evolution of artistic consciousness.
The book is divided into sections reflecting four distinct periods of creativity in Toomer's career. The Aesthetic period includes Imagist, Symbolist, and other experimental pieces, such as "Five Vignettes," while "Georgia Dusk" and the newly discovered poem "Tell Me" come from Toomer' s Ancestral Consciousness period in the early 1920s. "The Blue Meridian" and other Objective Consciousness poems reveal the influence of idealist philosopher Georges Gurdjieff. Among the works of this period the editor presents a group of local color poems picturing the landscape of the American Southwest, including "Imprint for Rio Grande." "It Is Everywhere," another newly discovered poem, celebrates America and democratic idealism. The Quaker religious philosophy of Toomer's final years is demonstrated in such Christian Existential works as "They Are Not Missed" and "To Gurdjieff Dying."
Robert Jones's clear and comprehensive introduction examines the major poems in this volume and serves as a guide through the stages of Toomer's evolution as an artist and thinker. "The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer" will prove essential to Toomer's admirers as well as to scholars and students of modern poetry, Afro-American literature, and American studies.
An important figure in African-American literature, Jean Toomer (1894—1967) was born in Washington, DC, the grandson of the first governor of African-American descent in the United States. A poet, playwright, and novelist, Toomer’s most famous work, Cane, was published in 1923 and was hailed by critics for its literary experimentation and portrayal of African-American characters and culture.
As a child, Toomer attended both all-white and all-black segregated schools, and from early on in his life he resisted being classified by race, preferring to call himself simply American. A descendent of both white and black heritage, his father left his family when he was only one year old, leaving Toomer to be raised by his mother and grandfather—Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback—who had been a Union soldier during the Civil War and later served as Acting Governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction.
After graduating from the highly regarded all-black Dunbar High School, Toomer began to travel extensively, attending colleges over the next few years in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Chicago, and finally, New York, where he wrote and published many short stories, plays, and poems. Perhaps his best-known work during this time was his long lyrical poem, Blue Meridian, which pointedly captured his hopes and dreams for racial unity.
In 1922, he moved to Sparta, Georgia to become a school principal. It was from this trip to the South that he began writing heavily about the African-American experience, eventually culminating with the publication of his most famous work, Cane, an experimental collection of stories and poems. It was hailed by critics and is seen as an important part of the Harlem Renaissance. The work is also categorized with that of other writers of the time, such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot, for its contributions to Modernism. In his introduction to Cane, Waldo Frank wrote that, "a poet has arisen among our American youth who has known how to turn the essences and material of his Southland into the essences and materials of literature."
Cane is structured in of three parts. The first third of the book is devoted to the black experience in the Southern farmland. As Bernard W. Bell noted, "Part One, with its focus on the Southern past and the libido, presents the rural thesis." Houston A. Baker, Jr., called Toomer's style "Southern psychological realism." Toomer infused much of the first part with poetry. "In the sketches, the poet is uppermost," wrote Robert Littell. "Many of them begin with three or four lines of verse, and end with the same lines, slightly changed. The construction here is musical." The second part of Cane is more urban and concerned with Northern life. Charles W. Scruggs noted that Toomer revealed the importance of the second section in a letter to the author's brother shortly before the publication of Cane. "From three angles, Cane's design is a circle," Scruggs quoted Toomer as writing. "Aesthetically, from simple forms to complex ones, and back to simple forms. Regionally, from the South up into the North, and back into the South again." The conclusion of the work is a prose piece entitled "Kabnis." Bell called this final part "a synthesis of the earlier sections." The character of Kabnis, Bell claimed, represented "the Black writer whose difficulty in reconciling himself to the dilemma of being an Afro-American prevents him from tapping the creative reservoir of the soul."
Praise for Toomer's writing is extensive. Baker cited his "mysterious brand of Southern psychological realism that has been matched only in the best work of William Faulkner." Kenneth Rexroth was no less impressed. "Toomer is the first poet to unite folk culture and the elite culture of the white avant-garde," he contended, "and he accomplishes this difficult task with considerable success. He is without doubt the most important Black poet." Critics such as Bell and Gorham Munson praised Toomer's use of language. "There can be no question of Jean Toomer's skill as a literary craftsman," asserted Munson. "Toomer has founded his own speech." Bell attributed Cane's "haunting, illusive beauty" to "Toomer's fascinating way with words." He wrote, "The meaning of the book is implicit in the arabesque pattern of imagery, the subtle movement of symbolic actions and objects, the shifting rhythm of syntax and diction, and the infrastructure of a cosmic consciousness."
After the publication of Cane, Toomer continued to write prodigiously; however, most of his work was rejected by publishers. He became increasingly interested in the teachings of George I. Gurdjieff, a Greek spiritual philosopher, and turned to teaching Gurdjieff's beliefs in America. Finally, Toomer embraced the Quaker religion and lived his last decade as a recluse. Toomer stopped writing literary works in 1950 and died in 1967. - www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/jean-toomer
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.”
They lob this intellectual grenade in their introduction to the book, which W. W. Norton & Company is to publish next month. Their judgment is based on “an analysis of archival evidence previously overlooked by other scholars,” Mr. Byrd and Mr. Gates write, including Toomer’s draft registrations and his and his family’s census records, which they consider alongside his writings and public statements.
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.
Toomer’s life — he was born in 1894 and died in 1967 — traversed many shifts in American racial politics, including times of soul-sapping racial oppression. And while he ended up writing other poetry, essays and drama, “Cane,” published in the Jim Crow era, was a sensation in its time and remains his contribution to the American literary canon.
The book includes sketches of city life, portraits of rural women and a loosely autobiographical section titled “Kabnis” about a conflicted, racially mixed man. Toomer’s experimental mesh of forms and lyrical language made black experiences “the metaphor for the human condition” and modernity itself, Mr. Gates and Mr. Byrd write. In a recent interview Mr. Gates called “Cane” the most sophisticated and “blackest” book of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement it helped catalyze.
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.
The 472-page Norton volume includes the first edition of “Cane,” Toomer’s letters, essays, his autobiographical writing and more than 20 interpretive essays about Toomer and the book. It is intended to follow up the first Norton critical edition, published in 1988, and to take Toomer scholarship into the 21st century.
The volume uses official documents collected by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, a genealogist who helped untangle Michelle Obama’s ancestry and who has worked with Mr. Gates on his PBS television shows about family roots.
Toomer’s maternal grandfather, P. B. S. Pinchback was the first black lieutenant governor of Louisiana (during Reconstruction) and was briefly the acting governor, in 1872 and 1873. Toomer, though, theorized that his grandfather (the son of a white father and a racially mixed mother) only claimed to have Negro blood to ally himself with newly enfranchised black men.
The book includes census data showing that Toomer’s parents and grandparents always identified as black or mulatto, and Mr. Gates said they identified that way culturally as well.
Toomer’s official record stands in marked, and sometimes confusing, contrast. Registering for the draft in 1917, he was identified as a Negro, as he was in a 1942 draft registration document. But 1920 and 1930 federal census reports identified him as white. In 1931, when he married a white woman, both bride and groom were identified as white on the marriage license.
Mr. Gates and Mr. Byrd contend that because Toomer’s birth place was incorrect on the 1920 report, someone else might have responded on his behalf. But in 1930, they argue, it is likely that Toomer furnished the details himself. Tellingly, a 1934 article in a black newspaper quoted him as saying that he did not really know whether he had “colored blood.”
And while he was registered as a Negro for the draft in 1942, he had been living as a white man for years in Bucks County, Pa., with Marjorie Content, his second white wife, Mr. Gates said.
“He was running away from a cultural identity that he had inherited,” Mr. Gates said. And this came with consequences: “He never, ever wrote anything remotely approaching the originality and genius of ‘Cane,’ ” Mr. Gates said. “I believe it’s because he spent so much time running away from his identity.”
“I feel sorry for him,” he added.
In an interview Mr. Byrd, a professor of American studies at Emory, said the new research “resets the starting point for discussions about Toomer’s racial background, and its influence on his art.” (Mr. Byrd said that Toomer’s art and time were also consumed by his involvement as a teacher of the philosophy of G. I. Gurdjieff, the Russian psychologist and mystic.)
Mr. Gates and Mr. Byrd write that Toomer’s rejection of racial labels and racial essentialism may find an intrigued (and even receptive) audience among a new generation of readers in the age of Obama.
The new edition reintroduces Toomer and his role as one of the first writers to move beyond the idea that any black ancestry makes you black, an assumption on which the racial pecking order is founded, said William L. Andrews, a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Farah Jasmine Griffin, a literature professor at Columbia University, said the census information would be useful in her teaching but didn’t alter her views of Toomer or “Cane.”
“The bottom line,” she said in an e-mail, “is that he wrote his most powerful, provocative and beautiful book during a period in which he was actively identifying himself as partially black and discovering and claiming to honor that part of his identity.”
“Unlike many others,” she added, “because of the way that he looked, he could choose to deny that identity later in life.”
Given Toomer’s views, Mr. Andrews said, he probably felt no need to inform people about “the African strain” in his heritage. “If people didn’t ask,” he said, “I expect he didn’t tell.” -