(Masterpieces of American Literature)

While still working on Cane in 1920 and 1921, Toomer wrote a 126-line poem he called “The First American,” which was published as “Brown River, Smile” in 1932. By that time, he had expanded it considerably, and the 835-line “Blue Meridian” was included in the 1936 anthology New American Caravan. Toomer has written of the poem’s long gestation period: “Years were to pass . . . before the germ of ’The First American’ could grow and ripen and be embodied in ’The Blue Meridian.’” That germ, according to Toomer, 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. . . .”

Written in free verse, “Blue Meridian” is in the expansive Walt Whitman tradition, with echoes of such poems as “Song of Myself” (1855). More directly, it shows the influence of Hart Crane’s longer, loosely connected sequence of poems The Bridge (1930), which examines America’s past and present and looks ahead to the future. Crane and Toomer, who knew each other, both treat the unifying nature of human experience and Americans’ relationship to country and God; in each poem, moreover, the Mississippi River is a central, almost mythic, symbol.

The three parts of Toomer’s work open with references to a meridian. First is the Black Meridian, “sleeping on an inland lake.” The second section begins with a stanza that tells of the White...

(The entire section is 561 words.)