The Wayward and the Seeking
In 1923, Jean Toomer published his first book, Cane, a collection of poetry, sketches in poetic prose, and several more traditional short stories, which contrasted the lives of rural blacks in Georgia and urban blacks in the North. Toomer called it “a swan-song” of “the folk-spirit” which would soon “die on the modern desert.”
Influential writers of the day, black and white, from Waldo Frank and Sherwood Anderson to W. E. B. DuBois and William Stanley Braithwaite, praised it and looked ahead to another book by this fresh and immensely talented voice. There was to be no other, although Toomer’s voice was far from silent.
This current volume, The Wayward and the Seeking, has been assembled by Afro-American literature critic and anthologist Darwin T. Turner to rectify and to explain that situation. It is divided into five sections (“Autobiographical Selections,” “Fiction,” “Poetry,” “Drama,” and “Aphorisms and Maxims”) and fills in the hitherto sketchy outline of his work previously available.
Several of these pieces were published in Toomer’s lifetime in major literary periodicals or anthologies, and several have been discussed in recent scholarship, but it is good to have them collected in one place, even though this collection is far from complete. Toomer’s work includes several more places and pieces of fiction of varying length, many other poems, and several purely philosophical works, as well as more extended autobiographies.
It is the autobiographical material here included which is one of the book’s key values. Editor Turner has made selections from several autobiographies or autobiographical fragments Toomer wrote over the years and has arranged them to present a clear, consecutive narrative, primarily of Toomer’s boyhood and young manhood, culminating in the publication of Cane when he was almost twenty-nine. Interspersed are relevant excerpts from his essay “On Being an American,” in which Toomer discusses his attitudes toward race and personhood. Later years are not dealt with, since Turner suggests that Toomer’s major concern during those years was his spiritual development rather than anything directly associated with his life as a writer.
It is regrettable that Toomer was unable to publish a full-length autobiography during his lifetime, for these selections reveal a superbly sensitive and rational mind and spirit of which America can never have enough. Written in a lucid style, often with passion, often with a faintly ironic view of himself and his experience, they have significance beyond his own life because of their many valuable insights, not the least of which is their view of life in turn-of-the-century Washington for a family of mixed blood.
Eugene’s boyhood was spent in what would be considered a white middle-class neighborhood. Racial heritage seems not to have been a concern in the family or the community. Indeed, the Toomer-Pinchback racial background was somewhat uncertain. All Toomer says he knew for sure is that his grandfather, P. B. S. Pinchback, announced that he had Negro blood when he was running for public office in Reconstruction Louisiana. He became Lieutenant Governor and Acting Governor, and helped to enact legislation favorable to blacks. Toomer, however, remained unsure to what extent Pinchback actually believed he had Negro blood.
With the vividness of a fiction writer, Toomer portrays his grandfather as a domineering Southern politico who remained in Washington with his family, enjoying the companionship of various political cronies, even though he lost his newly-won seat in the United States Senate when it was contested. Also well-drawn are the portraits of the rest of the family: a meek but strongly loving grandmother, ever sensitive to young Eugene’s mental-emotional state; a couple of uncles at various times, moving between not especially successful business and marital ventures; and finally a mother, with an independent spirit and yet bound to the home of her parents because of a dissolved marriage. Eugene’s father Nathan, like the two home-returning sons of grandfather Pinchback, did not measure up to the high notions of worldly success Pinchback harbored for his family, and he abandoned his wife before Eugene was born.
Toomer offers a fascinating view of middle-class boyhood at the turn of the century, describing his games, with a perceptive interpretation of the meaning of “fun,” his friendships, and his discovery of sex. His comments on sex are quite straightforward, and still relevant, as he criticizes the failures of an older generation to explain sex to their children.
He spent three years in New York with his mother and her new husband, but when she died, he returned to Washington with his grandparents. These high school years found Toomer in a neighborhood midway between the white and black worlds. He terms this colored community an aristocracy, composed of people with mixed racial background who possessed positions of authority and respect as well as financial stability, and again he emphasizes that race was not an issue.
After high school, Toomer embarked upon an extended period of higher education. He tried agriculture at the University of Wisconsin, physical culture in Chicago, history and sociology in New York, never completing a course of study but gaining new fields of interest through extensive readings in literature, politics (of the socialist bent), psychology, and sociology, until he was fully prepared for a place in the intellectual ferment of the teens and twenties. As his mind kept expanding, so did his experience, as he rejected the notion of success according to the standards of the world and of his grandfather, to whose home he would perpetually return during these “wandering years,” as Turner calls them. He worked as a gym instructor, store manager, librarian, even a Ford salesman, as he gradually realized that he wanted to focus his efforts strictly upon writing. So, he returned to his aging grandparents’ home in Washington, taking care of them while having a place to live and to write. He had a welcome three-month vacation from his nursing duties when he was offered a stint as substitute principal of a school in a small town in Georgia. Thus, he was introduced to a new world, which moved him so strongly that upon his return he was able to re-create it in the sketches, poetry, and often autobiographical stories of Cane.
Despite its acclaim by the literary elite of the day, Cane sold fewer than a thousand copies until it was reissued in 1969. Yet, even now it is among the least-known and least-read masterpieces in American literature, perhaps because then, as now, it was perceived as Toomer insisted he did not want it perceived or presented: chiefly as the work of a black writer rather than as...
(The entire section is 2818 words.)