Jean Toomer, Artist

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

In the 1960’s, when teachers of literature across the country became aware of the ethnocentricity of traditional courses in fiction and began searching for alternative works for their reading lists, one of the first books suggested by historians of Afro-American literature was Jean Toomer’s Cane. Published first in 1923 and not reprinted until 1967, Cane was hard to find and once found tended to evoke questions that were not easy to answer: Where did this book come from? Who was Jean Toomer? Why have people never heard of him? What else did he write?

Nellie Y. McKay’s critical biography, Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936, provides at least a partial answer to these questions as well as to other, more difficult ones. Toomer was a figure who simultaneously infuriated and mystified those who knew him. His writing career was short—he published no imaginative work after 1930, although he lived until 1967—and for most of his life he was virtually unknown, despite the enormous popularity of his first book. A light-skinned man of racially mixed ancestry, Toomer wrote powerfully of black dilemmas and black folk culture, but he refused to identify himself as a “Negro” author. Because of this refusal, he lost the emotional and psychological support he needed to define himself and to keep writing. It is the central argument of this book that Toomer was a “true son of America” whose confusion and ambivalence about the question of race was at once tragic and symbolic.

Nathan Eugene Toomer was born in Washington, D.C., in 1894. The sense of alienation and detachment that often plagues the sensitive child was fostered in Toomer’s case by the somewhat peculiar circumstances of his upbringing. His father deserted his mother shortly after his birth, and young Jean was largely reared by his stern and charismatic grandfather, the onetime Louisiana politician P. B. S. Pinchback. Pinchback’s Caucasian features would have allowed him entry to white social circles, but he chose to identify himself as black. He was an officer in a black regiment during the Civil War and was active in Reconstruction politics in New Orleans in the years that followed. When he moved to Washington, he lived in an integrated neighborhood and had friends of all races, but Jean, who also spent some years in Brooklyn and New Rochelle, New York, with his mother and a stepfather, was shuttled back and forth between black and white schools. Toomer feared his grandfather and felt different from his classmates. Although outgoing and socially successful, he began to withdraw and to develop an active inner life.

Toomer entered the University of Wisconsin in 1914. Since he moved in both black and white social circles, he decided to define himself without regard to color, simply as an American. At first he was an academic and social success, but within a few months, following a pattern that would become habitual, he turned against his friends, claiming that they were fickle and shallow, and dropped out of school. He was in and out of several colleges in the years that followed, holding part-time jobs now and then but usually supported by his grandfather. For a year or two he lived in Greenwich Village, where he met Waldo Frank and Hart Crane and began to write dramatic sketches. He read widely and leapt from enthusiasm to enthusiasm, immersing himself in evolutionary theory, sociology, German literature, and Buddhist theology.

Cane was the product of a three-month sojourn in rural Georgia. The immediacy of nature in the rural South and the complex personalities of the Southern Negroes he encountered overwhelmed him, and he started to write about his experiences on the train as he returned to Washington. He worked on the book for nearly a year, feeling for the first time at harmony with himself and capable of achieving a goal that seemed worthwhile.

McKay devotes three long chapters of her book to analyzing and explicating Cane, a distinctive and powerful work, which she sees as an expression of Toomer’s attempt to come to terms with his racial heritage and with the special role of artist and outsider that he had chosen or that had been thrust upon him. Cane has three sections: the first, a sensual evocation of Georgia folk culture; the second, a series of sketches depicting the problems of the black urban middle class in Washington; and the third, a six-scene drama, “Kabnis,” which takes as its hero a Northern black schoolteacher who is visiting the South for the first time. “Kabnis” is...

(The entire section is 1881 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Library Journal. CIX, July, 1984, p. 1328.