Jean Toomer Toomer, Jean (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jean Toomer 1894–1967

Black American novelist, short story writer, poet, and dramatist.

Toomer was one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance. "While his contemporaries of the Harlem School were still experimenting with a crude literary realism," according to Robert A. Bone, "Toomer had progressed beyond the naturalistic novel to 'the higher realism of the emotions,' to symbol, and to myth." His major work, Cane, is an extraordinary collection of prose and poetry combined in an experimental novel. It blends rural folkways with urban avant-garde culture.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 13.)

Jean Wagner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is no easy matter to determine the specific share of the poet in the work of Jean Toomer, for the whole process of his thinking, and his art as a narrator, obey the behests of his poetry. His poetic inspiration spreads far beyond his verse writings, and Jean Toomer could neither think, nor tell a tale, nor describe except as a poet. So any attempt to cling to the traditional distinctions between the literary genres would be vain in the case of a writer who, like many other creative artists of his generation, subjects form to ceaseless experimentation in his endeavors to forge a truly fitting instrument of expression for himself. (p. 259)

It would be easy enough to paint the portrait of Jean Toomer as a child of the "Lost Generation." But in so doing one must take care not to overdraw certain features. "The postwar writers, in their feeling that their experiences were unique, revealed their ignorance of the American past" [according to Malcolm Cowley in Exile's Return]. While Toomer to some extent shared their sense of unease, he in no way shared their misappreciation of the past. On the contrary, his ceaseless introspection and his clairvoyance in recognizing the sources of his anxiety helped him to reach an awareness, not only of his own uprootedness, but also of the values embodied in the past, and more particularly in the earth that is inseparable from it. Admittedly the time had arrived to shake off all subjection to the past, to put off the old man and enter fully into the light of a new age. But would it not be an adventurer's blind folly to commit oneself to the future without finding out, first of all, from where one came? (pp. 264-65)

Very early Toomer came to see such a pilgrimage to … [his Georgia] origins as a necessity, and from it he brought back the magnificent sheaf of Cane….

Cane is an impressionist symphony in which Toomer brings together into a vast choir all Georgia's earth and people. His purpose is not to describe them to us, but to allow himself to be fused with the soul of the South which they epitomize and breathe out, and to relive an obliterated past through the echoes they awaken within his own consciousness. (p. 265)

[The] entirely personal meaning of Toomer's pilgrimage, and the poetic symbolism which gives it expression, are the ele-ments that maintain the unity of this interlocking succession of poems, tales, sketches, and impressions that lead on to the book's final drama. But where does narrative end and poetry begin? How allot their proper shares to fiction and to autobiography? Where draw the boundary between novel and lyricism? All these questions beset the reader at every page of this astonishing book, many of whose threads have yet to be disentangled. Poetry always gains the upper hand.

Cane can no more be summarized than can a painting by Pissarro or a composition by Debussy. Here the symbol reigns supreme, as if it alone could penetrate to the intangible depths of reality. (pp. 266-67)

The whitest of the Negro poets, Toomer saw himself as the living symbol of slavery's fundamental contradiction. He senses how master and slave confront each other in his bastard soul, and the poet in him projects this antinomy upon the Georgian landscape, which is all at once earth and sky, dusk and dawn, hideousness and beauty. Finding his way back to the land of sugarcane and cotton, Toomer returns also to the origins of slavery…. (p. 267)

"Georgia Dusk" appears aimed at imbuing us with the feeling that, in the spiritual desert to which slavery has reduced the South, only the voice of African atavism remains to protect the rights of poetry and of the spirit. It alone still vibrates in harmony with nature, and thus it is recognized at least as a provisional value. (p. 269)

Just as he had no intention of castigating the South in Cane, he also had no intention of composing an apologia for his race and its African atavism. He had returned to the origins in order to rise above race, not to reestablish a bond with it….

"Harvest Song," despite a certain obscurity, might well be seen as establishing the balance of profit and loss in Toomer's Georgian pilgrimage. (p. 270)

Hunger, blindness, and deafness are symbols of deficiency and frustration, while the harvest image, on the contrary, expresses riches, expansiveness, and contentment. The coexistence of these two series of antithetical images in the poem is significant, reflecting the inner division of a poet who is himself "a cracked grain like the oats."…

Thus it cannot be said that Toomer lacked identification with his people, since his own voluntary return to the people enabled him to discover that the elements at war within his own...

(The entire section is 1980 words.)

Robert Bone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The decisive factor in Toomer's life and art was his ambivalence toward his blackness…. ["Cane"] is in fact a poetic celebration of his black identity, all the more poignant for the complicated tensions with which the subject was surrounded….

Toomer's symbol for his blackness is the Southern cane…. Cane represents the sweetness of life. It is connected obviously with sex, with a fullness of emotion, with a sense of soil, of rootedness, of the pain and beauty of the Negro past. It is expressive, moreover, of a deep yearning for the rural South. To read "Cane" is to feel at once the strength of the Negro's Southern heritage. Down home is still the bloody shrine of the black man's heart.

At the same time that he searches for his ethnic roots, Toomer is drawn toward universal values. Primarily a poet, his tradition is the transcendental strain of Walt Whitman and Hart Crane. If race dissolves in Toomer's writing, it is because the flesh dissolves as it struggles to transcend itself….

The form of "Cane" is a function of the author's universal vision. The book is a miscellany of stories and sketches, interspersed with poems, and culminating in a one-act play. Like its author, "Cane" defies classification, flying in the face of a priori judgments…. The style, which is modernist and highly metaphorical, supports the author's philosophical intentions….

Part I of "Cane," which is...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Richard Eldridge

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The interlocking of man and nature [in Cane] creates a verbal tone-poem which reveals the mystery and spirituality that Toomer was so fond of describing…. [The central images of the book are] dusk, the moment of mystery, equipoise, and deep (purple) feeling; cane, the profound grip into the earth that nurtures life; fermentation, the creative power that gives life purpose. These images are "oracular" through the medium of the prophet-poet, who reveals the mystery of the spiritual life to those who are in danger of losing it forever. (p. 189)

Dusk is an integral part of Karintha and is used throughout the rural scenes of Georgia to describe the mystery and depth of experience with which Toomer infuses Cane. (p. 192)

If dusk is the medium through which the subtle flux of nature is projected, then song is the human counterpart. The lyrical sketch "Karintha" illustrates the extent to which song shapes the style of much of Cane, for the opening piece was originally in the play "Natalie Mann," to be recited with the accompaniment of drums and guitar. The description of Karintha is a melange of repeated images, chants, songs, and prayers, the effect of which is a shadowy mood-piece. As in his later writings, Toomer in Cane seldom explores the inner reaches of character. Often those whom he describes are used as emblems for the greater meaning that Toomer has in mind. Karintha is such a person. We know little or nothing of her personality. Her motives and emotions remain as indistinct as the dusk which surrounds her. (p. 193)

While the poetic quality of Toomer's prose is in many respects bolder and more successful than much of his poetry, the poems nevertheless are an essential part of his "song." As in his prose, many of his poems are dusk songs, reflecting not only the mood of the land but also the sense of the people. (p. 194)

As in the sadness of Karintha's waste, Toomer's dusk poems often are commentaries on the sadness of a dying culture. "Song of the Son" … has correctly been singled out as embodying the central idea of Toomer's Southern experience. In the poem, dusk is connected most clearly with Toomer's thesis of the "swan-song" of the black folk heritage. (p. 195)

"Song of the Son" is … a song, too formal for blues but nevertheless a song of lamentation and hope, held together by the image of the setting sun. (p. 196)

In many ways, Toomer's poems are more traditional in conception than are the poetic aspects of his prose. Poems like "Song of the Son" and "Georgia Dusk" are standard fare in terms of stanza, rhyme, line length, and imagery. "Evening Song," another of Toomer's dusk poems, is an uneven compromise between boldness and timid tradition. As in his other dusk poems and stories, Toomer tries to interchange images of nature with emotions of humans. (p. 198)

At his best though, Toomer links recurrent images together so that both are mutually reinforced, as he does with dusk and song. Another image closely connected with dusk which recurs throughout his Georgia sketches is the color of purple, which combines the dominant color of the evening half-light with the deepness of skin pigment and the profundity of the peasant's experience....

(The entire section is 1352 words.)

J. Michael Clark

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Part One [of Cane] shows the South's passionality through its portraits of instinctively natural sexuality, of irrationally embraced tradition and social order, and of the tragedy which erupts when these conflict. Part Two, in contrast, illustrates order rationalized and idolized; machinery, industry, and sophistication have repressed and purged persons of any genuine passion. Despite its also offering tragedy, then, that the South at least experiences the passions of love, lust, anger, and murderous hate is preferred to the sterility of the North; Part Three, then, shows the incompatibility of the Northern lifestyle in the South. (p. 320)

Ambivalence and ultimately failure in human...

(The entire section is 670 words.)

Bernard W. Bell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Following the publication of Cane, Toomer, convinced by personal experience and extensive reading that "the parts of man—his mind, emotions, and body—were radically out of harmony with each other," discovered the method for unifying these three centers of being in the teachings of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, the "rascal sage." A synthesis of Western science and Eastern mysticism, Gurdjieff's system was a rigorous discipline that taught self-development and cosmic consciousness through self-awareness, sacred exercises, temple dances, and various psychic feats…. [Toomer wrote] voluminously, but most of these writings, which repudiate racial classifications and celebrate a Gurdjieffian vision of life, were...

(The entire section is 748 words.)

Toni Morrison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In The Wayward and the Seeking] race is unequivocally the overriding preoccupation of Jean Toomer's life: not Blackness or even being a Negro, but having (or having to have) a race at all. For a man who apparently had no more Negro blood than Dumas père or Pushkin, the drop or two that he does, or might have … bedevils his days and his intellect. (p. 1)

What makes Toomer's position on race so interesting to speculate on, is the fact that the best work he did came from three months in Sparta, Georgia, during which he identified with "black people, life and soul."… Of the stories included here, "Withered Skin of Berries" is quite the best, rivaling easily the heights achieved in...

(The entire section is 234 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Wayward and the Seeking includes autobiographical selections, short fiction, poetry, two plays, and a number of Toomer's aphorisms and maxims … a representative selection of Toomer's creative efforts between 1924 and the mid-1930s. It is an important work because, for the first time, it provides an opportunity for understanding the relationship between the man and the artist and, by extension, the relationship among the boundaries of personal freedom, social limitations, and the creative process. (p. 158)

[Autobiography] is important to any study of Toomer, both because of Toomer's interest in that literary form as a tool of introspection, a method of evaluating and understanding the...

(The entire section is 650 words.)

Darryl Pinckney

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Opaque and lyrical, Cane was much influenced by the imagists…. [The women of the first section are] isolated, suffering from impossible longings, doomed to live out their disappointments in men, or sustained by withdrawal, by sullen defiance—these characters, and their circumstances, are made vivid in a few, sudden strokes…. The characters are not full in the usual sense. Toomer is more interested in the drift of feelings, in elevated portraits of common events….

There is nostalgia for a natural and instinctive way of life in Cane. The second section contains six stories taking in the black life of Washington and Chicago, cities filled with repressed, frustrated souls. The...

(The entire section is 1317 words.)