Jean Toomer

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 1980 words.)

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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 consciousness were also those dividing his people within theirs. But one cannot say that he made himself entirely one with the destiny of his people, for they had no choice but to assume the burden of slavery along with the burden of daily life, while Toomer had striven for an awareness of his inner division, not in order to accept it, but to transcend it.

Yet the conscious or subconscious content of these antithetical elements did not fully reveal itself to him; this may explain why he instinctively turned to the symbol as a means of reaching a synthesis. (p. 271)

[It] is by means of the symbol that Toomer will seek to make himself whole, in that second stage of his poetic thought that is represented by "Blue Meridian."…

"Blue Meridian" is beyond a doubt the concluding step in a long process of meditation, for its central idea is already contained in embryo in an essay published seven years earlier and entitled "Race Problems and Modern Society."

In this essay, Toomer begins by noting "the changes of forms and of modes" that had occurred at a constantly accelerated pace during his own lifetime….

Alongside this development there is, contrariwise, a strengthening of some other forms of modern society which, remaining exempt from the dissolution noted above, even tend to expand and establish themselves more firmly. In particular these are, according to Toomer, the Western world's economic, political, legal, and military concepts, which dig themselves in and work against the evolutionary forces.

He proceeds by placing, within the context of these related yet hostile movements, the racial problems, especially those of the United States, which cannot be considered apart from the other principal forms of the social order. Here the effect of the evolutionary factors is to bring about an ever closer resemblance between such Negro social types as the businessman, politician, educator, student, writer, etc., and the corresponding white types. Yet, on the other hand, whites and blacks shut themselves up ever more tightly in their separatism with the consequence, for example, that interracial marriage becomes no less heinous in the eyes of blacks than of whites.

Given this crystallization of the race question, Toomer is led to advocate, as a way out of the impasse, "a selective fusion of the racial and cultural factors of America, in order that the best possible stock and culture may be produced."

Though the line of argument in this essay is buttressed by scientific considerations, Toomer's thinking is essentially that of a poet and humanist….

Race, in ["Blue Meridian"], acquires a totally different dimension from what we encountered in Cane. As in the essay discussed above, it takes its place in the much vaster setting of the "Myth of America," to adopt Hart Crane's expression. (pp. 272-73)

The fundamental thesis of "Blue Meridian" is the need for a regenerated America, to be achieved through the regeneration of each individual and each community composing it, of an America once more united around the spiritual dream of its founders…. That Toomer's is truly a Whitman-like vision of the unity of mankind may be recognized in … passages of "Blue Meridian" … where the nervy, muscular, elliptical style proceeds via a series of additions and emendations, jumping boldly from one image to the next but always maintaining a plenitude of vigor and conviction….

In his search for the reasons that would explain [the degradation of the American dream], Toomer showed himself to be both more objective and more profound than most other Negro Renaissance poets. (p. 275)

The black race too must bear its share of blame for the decline of the American ideal. To the splendor of the common heritage it did indeed contribute the beauty and the fervor of its spirituals and secular songs, which epitomize universal human values. But it had not been able to exert on itself the effort required to redeem these values from the degrading slave matrix in which, through its own fault, it is still choking…. (p. 276)

The result of this perversion of the original dream, and of the fissure that has rent the individual's heart, is that every American, in a sense, has become a Negro…. (p. 277)

Man's greed for profit and the overall priority he has assigned to material civilization, the destroyer of primordial beauty, have not only disfigured the Creator's handiwork but even divided the creature against himself…. Toomer, though surveying the whole of American civilization, does not let the race problem drop out of sight. He situates on the same plane the disfigurement of the human being by racial prejudice ("on children brands") and the fouling of nature by industrial proliferation.

If the source of corruption is man, man can also end it…. A prime necessity, no matter what the context, is a great and generous act of emancipation, from which there will arise the fraternal love of man for man, in universal freedom. (p. 278)

In [the second part of "Blue Meridian"] there reappear themes and sequences already met with in the first part, but now they are transfigured. Assuredly, the new America has yet to be inaugurated, but it has already been born within the poet's heart. Rising to the sphere toward which he dreams of leading all the men and women of his country, he at last savors the joys of inner unity regained, and in exaltation he would radiate this spiritual benefit to the whole of America.

Thus Toomer achieves the synthesis of the warring elements which, at the end of Cane, seemed irreconcilable. (pp. 279-80)

Toomer has welded all living men into a unity and even linked up into a living chain the whole of humanity past, present, and future….

[The] ultimate driving force behind the whole body of Jean Toomer's work is his ardent longing for unity at the highest level of the spirit. Setting out from the immediate data of racial difference, he rapidly soars above them—too rapidly for the taste of those who, unable to imagine any universe not black and white, were not internally ready to join him in his pursuit of the Blue Meridian. They had expected him to be a poet of his race, but he resolved to be purely the poet of man. Did this provide sufficient reason for the accusation that he had repudiated his origins and abandoned his own people? One can scarcely believe that Jean Toomer, with a mind so tempered and with a soul so generous, could have toyed even fleetingly with the notion of treason. Quite to the contrary: it would seem that we must count him among the very great for having refused, for his own part and on behalf of his fellows, the shackles that are worn by men divided. (p. 281)

Jean Wagner, "Jean Toomer," in his Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, translated by Kenneth Douglas (© 1973 by The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois; reprinted by permission; originally published as Les Poètes Nègres des Etats-Unis, Librarie Istra, Paris, 1962), University of Illinois Press, 1973, pp. 259-81.

Robert Bone

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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 set in rural Georgia, consists of a series of portraits of Southern peasant women. These women embody the non-cognitive values that Toomer associates with "cane." Taken together, the stories comprise a critique of Western rationalism…. What emerges is a portrait of a prerational society: hot blooded, violent, elemental….

[In Part II we] move from the value system of the black peasantry to that of the black bourgeoisie. The theme of the best stories ("Avey," "Theater," "Box Seat") is the liberation of the Negro intellectual from the repressive morality and imitative life-style of the Negro middle class….

Part III is concerned with the black writer's quest for a usable past. (p. 3)

In the last analysis, Toomer addresses himself to a certain kind of vulnerability…. A black man without a sense of roots, without a strong affirmative feeling toward his blackness, will remain forever vulnerable. That is the wisdom which issues from the author's private suffering.

"Cane" represents a pilgrimage to the soil of one's ancestors. It is a spiritual journey that every black American must undertake if he hopes to discover his authentic self. Toomer confronts the black man with the pain and the beauty of his Southern heritage. That pain, and the power to transform it into beauty, is what the younger generation means by "soul." (p. 34)

Robert Bone, "'Cane'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 19, 1969, pp. 3, 34.

Richard Eldridge

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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. (p. 199)

Another important element of the soul's response to the land is the religious expression, whether in song, sermon, prayer, or vision. The image of the Christ in a characteristically folk interpretation is part of the design of Cane. Toomer uses both "Christ" and "Jesus" in ways that depart from traditional church use…. Toomer makes clear in his autobiography that he is against organized religion, which includes the formal Christian churches, but he expresses the validity of the spontaneous religious experience that is identifiable with the soil. The worship of growth, harvest, continuity, and the hope of personal salvation are the extensions of the intuitive trust in the seasons' repetition. For those working the land, Jesus is an expression of that hope, for in Jesus lies the mythic embodiment of toil, suffering, death, deliverance, and forgiveness…. "Face" is indeed a description of one who has suffered a life of pain and privation, and in that respect it is a face reflective of the archetypal Christian suffering. Relating the face too closely to that of a specific religious figure deprives it, however, of associations with the rural peasant and his personal struggle with the land and social forces, both of which try to dominate him…. As in traditional descriptions of women derived from the courtly love poems, Toomer itemizes various physical attributes and attaches an image to each one, usually with religious undertones. Toomer plays with the tradition in ironic ways, though with a beauty perhaps far more profound than that usually found in poems of the courtly tradition. The beauty of the woman is not derived from her static association with ideal and therefore spiritually "superior" attributes. Instead, her beauty is an inward growth of one who has loved and suffered for it, a beauty not of innocence but of the deepest experience like that expressed in the Pietà or the Caritas Romana. (pp. 200-02)

King Barlo, the preacher in "Esther" …, links the African pagan with the white Christian heritage. As in many mythical tales, Barlo's religious enlightenment is akin to sexual awakening. His vision is powerful because his physical attributes are powerful: he is the best cottonpicker, knifer, fighter, gambler, and lover in the area. To be invested with such physical strength gives one the spiritual command needed to be effective. (pp. 203-04)

King Barlo is not just the apotheosis of an African god, nor does he necessarily represent a contrast between pagan and Christian religious thought. In a sense, Barlo is a pagan Christian, fusing his spontaneous folk outbursts with a Christian view of God as deliverer. He is godly in a classical Greek sense: less holy than grandiosely human, and therefore worthy of admiration if not reverence. In a similar way, the poem "Conversion" casts an image of the fusion of African zest with Christian ideology. Like King Barlo, the "African Guardian of Souls" has moved into a new culture which, though debasing him, has not deprived him of his liveliness and joy. (p. 206)

The mixture of the two cultures into an African-American blend brings us once again to the metaphor of dusk, for that time not only is expressive of the Southern landscape and of the imminent absorption of African culture into American culture but also is … the symbol of the mulatto trapped between two worlds, like dusk between day and night. Toomer never forgets the white element in his characters…. Toomer's portrayals in Part One range in hue from the deep-black Barlo to the purely white Becky. Most are somewhere in the dusk between, the mulatto acting out Toomer's struggle to accommodate both worlds. (p. 207)

Just as Becky's whiteness flows into the black world, so also in the short story "Fern" do Fern's contrasting qualities blend into each other. Toomer felt that racial mingling is a "flowing" of one part into another making "white" or "black" characteristics an impossibility. (p. 209)

Ultimately the problem with Fern, as it is with many of Toomer's women, is that everything flows into her but nothing flows back out. Toomer's women who have most appeal have little urge to reciprocate, and Toomer's men become victims of the unreturned gift. (pp. 210-11)

["Blood-Burning Moon"] is the story that typifies most dramatically the conflict and the union of black and white…. The white Bob Stone and the black Tom Burwell are but reflections of each other; their significance is their togetherness….

The link between Bob and Tom is not only through Louisa's thoughts and the animals' alarm. Tom and Bob are mirrors of each other even in their actions. (p. 212)

"Blood-Burning Moon" embodies the very elements that so attracted, and so repelled, Jean Toomer in his sojourn to find lasting roots in the soil of the South. (p. 214)

Richard Eldridge, "The Unifying Images in Part One of Jean Toomer's 'Cane'," in CLA Journal (copyright, 1979 by the College Language Association), Vol. XXII, No. 3, March, 1979, pp. 187-214.

J. Michael Clark

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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 interrelationships seem to characterize not only the episodes of Part One but also those of the entire work…. The intensity of [the failure to communicate] is tragic…. (p. 321)

This tragedy is so deep because of the meaning that interaction has for Toomer, for his characters seeking wholeness in relationship … [never realize] that the chaos is within themselves and is further fragmented by their superimposed order. It is, then, a struggle for involvement in life, acceptance of chaos. To illustrate this, Toomer uses the device of men (as limits, controls, definitions) seeking to possess women (as instinctive, silent, passive, elusive)…. The intended redemptive outcome, could these two forces/sexes come together, would be self-knowledge. This seems to depend on instinctual spontaneity of the self, which has been repressed in the North/in men and reduced to sex in the South/in women whereas mutuality of passions in balance to rationality could produce salvation. That encounter remains merely carnality between strangers is essentially out of fear; though self-knowledge is desired and necessary for interpersonal wholeness, fear of its disclosures is stronger. A secondary theme within this abortive quest for self-knowledge occurs at the level of equally unrequited striving for racial fusion and spiritual harmony against the damning social order, which is also shown as a conflict of active males and passive females…. (pp. 321-22)

[The] women in Part One actually stand in the forefront, the men serving only as ploys in the conflicts the women incarnate. The women are the frustration of the dreams and visions of self-knowledge, the instinctive, passional victims of both men's and society's inability to transcend depersonalizing orders…. Finally, even as woman cannot neutralize man, nor passionality be harmonized by rationality, neither is Toomer's God/Messiah in natural processes able to embrace the ordering materialism of non-natural, mechanized society. The women also incarnate and express this hopeless, natural Jesus/God, whether in Dionysian acts or Jewish chanting. Thus seeing the scope of Toomer's women, generalized out of his themes, a detailed character-by-character study will give this flesh, incarnating the tragedy of Toomer's … vision, the impossibility of genuine I-Thou human interrelationships and their consequence, the frustration of redemptive self-knowledge-in-relationship. (pp. 322-23)

Toomer's women are one-sided. They basically all stand under the rubric of sex object, whether as passive (Karintha, Becky, Fern), or as active (i.e., irresponsible—Carma, Louisa), whether as Virgin (Esther, self-defined by sex) or as mother (Becky). Equally objectionable, however, is his one-sided treatment of men. Men are no more generalizable as coldly rational, ordered, and carnal than women are all passional, chaotic, and ethereal. From a feminist perspective, one can appreciate that at least women carry the seeds of redemption; men apparently do not and are by inference hopeless, damned. Unfortunately, many, although not all men and women, especially in the South, do still see themselves in this way. Toomer's use of this motif cannot further the demise of stereotypical self-punishment whose results are tragic (e.g. Esther). Perhaps, however, Toomer is to be actually credited for he does indeed portray not only stereotypical caricatures, but also the tragedy accruing to them—frustrated redemption for all. His, then, is a prophetic call to transcend our stereotypes and roles and enter into genuine relationships. (pp. 333-34)

J. Michael Clark, "Frustrated Redemption: Jean Toomer's Women in 'Cane,' Part One," in CLA Journal (copyright, 1979 by the College Language Association), Vol. XXII, No. 4, June, 1979, pp. 319-34.

Bernard W. Bell

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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 rejected by publishers.

The most significant exception is "Blue Meridian" a long Whitmanesque poem. "Blue Meridian" is the poetic zenith of Toomer's quest for identity. It represents the resolution of a long process of agonizing emotional and intellectual turmoil over the problems of race and aesthetics as viewed through the prism of his own personal crisis….

As with Cane, the chief symbol of "Blue Meridian" is implicit in its title. In the context of the poem, the meridian, which generally denotes the highest point of prosperity, splendor, and power, symbolizes the Spirit of mankind. On the geographical and astronomical planes it also represents the imaginary circles which connect both geophysical poles and the circle passing through the celestial poles….

Retracing the stages of man's development and the process by which the new American was born, Toomer invokes the primeval forces of life waiting to energize select men to a higher form of being. (p. 78)

The poet is firm in the conviction that the capacity for growth is common to all men and has always been present in America. Past generations, however, have not fully realized their human potential and, by extension, the promise of the nation and the universe.

Toomer's purpose, then, is not the glorification of the common man but the celebration of "A million million men, or twelve men," the result of a long process of natural selection and self-realization…. [The] real man, the new man, must manifest Understanding, Conscience, and Ability. Defective men—those who lack or fail to acquire these three attributes—become the fertilizer for perpetuating the promise of eternally awake souls. (pp. 78-9)

Because man is responsible for his own downfall and spiritual blight, he must follow the poet's example and assume the responsibility for his own regeneration.

In the second section of the poem Toomer lustily calls forth the new American and shows him the highway to love and "unstreaked dignity."… Breaking free from his islandized condition and fixing his sight on universal man, Toomer, like Whitman, becomes the Creator calling into being a new world order…. (p. 79)

Unlike Whitman's bombast and the unqualified democratic strain of his America, Toomer's social imperatives and expansive mood affirm a Gurdjieffian world of beings who have realized the value of intelligence, conscience, and ability.

But were it not for his imaginative use of concrete symbols, we would surely be lost in a sea of abstractions. In this section of the poem a waterwheel becomes the agent for invigorating the soul. But first the poet acknowledges the regenerative influence of a special woman in his life…. This mystical experience marks the spiritual rebirth of the poet.

The poem now approaches its final stage, the Blue Meridian, with the poet heralding the dawn of a new people, the synthesis of contrasting and conflicting forces….

For Toomer, America was the majestic base "Of cathedral people," a people who were genuinely interracial and capable of cosmic consciousness. Thus, as the streams of humanity merge, as the forces of Nature are reconciled and all divisions harmoniously resolved, the poem reaches its final stage….

At the end of Cane, the apparent analog for the Black Meridian section of the poem, Toomer left us with only the promise of self-realization. In "Blue Meridian" he moved beyond race to become the prophet of a new order of man known as the American. But rather than a betrayal of race for a cheap chauvinism, Toomer's poetic resolution of his private and public quest for identity represents a genuine effort to cast off all classifications that enslave human beings and inhibit the free play of intelligence and goodwill in the world. (p. 80)

Bernard W. Bell, "Jean Toomer's 'Blue Meridian': The Poet as Prophet of a New Order of Man" (© Indiana State University 1980; reprinted with the permission of the author and Indiana State University), in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 14, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 77-80.

Toni Morrison

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[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 Cane. But it was Toomer's artistic and racial sensitivity that made him so expert in rendering the machinations of race and color-as-class. He has indisputably keen insight into the "tragic mulatto" theme popular in the period and he is never ambivalent or fuzzy when dissecting the black middle class. His autobiographical material, the play, the short stories, are extraordinary in that respect. But aside from his fascinating, marvelously written autobiographies, there is little else of similar power. The aphorisms, maxims, and a long, bad Whitmanesque poem expounding racelessness and universal harmony are embarrassing. (p. 13)

Toni Morrison, "Jean Toomer's Art of Darkness," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), July 13, 1980, pp. 1, 13.


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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 self, and because it is our main source of information about the development of his life. Toomer wrote a great deal about himself, often weaving autobiographical elements into his fiction, as in the writing of Cane…. Toomer's penchant for examining his own experiences probably began many years earlier and grew out of his childhood preoccupation with his interior world….

Here we have his reflections on his life from early childhood through his fourteenth year, his descriptions of his family, his account of how Cane was written, and the immediate subsequent events. This account of Jean Toomer's life is a moving description of the struggle between a fickle fate over which he had no control and a young man's resolve to rise above its caprice. The possibility of failure was intolerable to him and his unrelenting search for a life's work, carried out by discarding one option after another in fast succession for many years, resulted from an inordinate fear of not succeeding….

His autobiographical accounts are permeated with explanations of his racial origins. The meaning of race, a troubling question for him, was at the center of his thinking for much of his life. He never understood why the world refused to accept him as a member of the human race, as an American, neither white nor black, but as the total of all that had gone into his making. He firmly believed in the concept of nonracial identity; it was the rest of the world that found this untenable.

Of the fiction included in this book, one story, "Withered Skin of Berries," is reminiscent of Cane, combining themes of race, identity, and racial prejudice. The remaining two emphasize the barrenness of the modern world and man's alienation. Toomer spoke for spiritual rebirth and for a return to values more closely allied to a unity with the natural world. Although flawed by overt didacticism, the pictorial language reminds us of Cane and Toomer's enviable command of metaphor….

Two of his previously unpublished works, "Natalie Mann" and "The Sacred Factory," are included here: one a provocative approach to the black middle class, the other stressing the futility of life when spiritual values are missing. These works give us an idea of the direction of Toomer's thought during a period when he had given up literature in favor of a more philosophic and religious approach to the problems of the human condition. (p. 159)

From The Wayward and the Seeking we see that Toomer claimed literature as a tool for human growth and development. Disaffected with the world of art by 1923, he nevertheless saw himself as a writer concerned with Western civilization, and with America in particular. The Gurdjieff philosophy which he embraced held out a promise of cosmic consciousness, and he accepted the challenge to apply it to American life. In reading his later writings, we are aware that Toomer sublimated the artist in himself after Cane, but his ability to use language in a powerful way was not lost. Had he received encouragement from sympathetic publishers and help from competent editors, he might have continued as a productive writer. (p. 162)

Nellie Y. McKay, "Forerunners in the Tradition of Black Letters," in Harvard Educational Review (copyright © 1981 by President and Fellows of Harvard College), Vol. 51, No. 1, February, 1981, pp. 158-62.∗

Darryl Pinckney

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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 contrast between the rural and the urban seems somewhat sentimental, but Toomer's language is sufficiently distant….

Here, too, irresolute, indolent women slip from man to man; irritated young men come to see the impossibility of getting what they want by conforming to conventional white values; a black man, self-conscious and apologetic to the outside world when he is attracted to a white woman, loses her; men and women are fearful of expressing love and lose it. A recurring theme of this section is how respectability, for middle-class blacks, is a kind of paralysis, an inhibition that results in self-denial….

When writing of the South, Toomer was a detached observer. In the city sketches he draws more on his own experience, and many of the male protagonists are reflections of an inflated image of himself. The long final section of Cane, "Kabnis" is an allegorical attempt to fuse the two themes of the Southland's naturalness and the repressed nature of an educated, northern black, Ralph Kabnis…. Hope is apparently represented by the strong-willed Lewis, also a northern black in search of his identity. Unlike Kabnis, he is able to leave the South rather than sink into it, able to learn from what he has seen and depart, as Toomer did in real life….

[Toomer] does not conceive of sex as exotic, demonic, or decadent. Cane does not have the appeal of the illicit; the characters are not having fun that will be paid for later. The pessimism here is so strong that even the seductions are solemn. There is a peculiar innocence in Cane which supports the yearning, elaborate language, the saturation in a wistful sensuality. (p. 34)

Cane, unlike most books of the period, is a psychological novel rather than a sociological one. Intimacy is seen as a path toward spiritual completion, and everyone in Cane is haunted by the wish to achieve some harmonious, perfected state. Life is seen and understood from the inside. The conflicts are internal, the rules of society merely assumed…. [It] reads like an hommage to the lost ways that were so attuned to "the orthodoxies of the body," as Kenneth Burke once called a fundamental aspect of black folk life.

Toomer was something of a mysterious figure to his friends, and perhaps this obscurity accounts for his legend…. The Wayward and the Seeking does much toward increasing our understanding of him. Included in this volume are excerpts from previously unpublished autobiographies …; there short stories …; two experimental dramas in an Expressionistic style; twelve poems; and selections from Toomer's privately printed book of aphorisms and maxims, Essentials (1931). It must be said, however, that the quality of the work is disappointing. The untutored genius of Cane seems here more like a chagrined auto-didact.

Toomer attempted several autobiographies, each with a different thematic emphasis. [Editor Darwin T. Turner] has drawn from these documents and arranged them in such a way as to form a coherent story of Toomer's life up to the publication of Cane. (pp. 34-5)

Toomer became an ardent disciple of Georges Gurdjieff…. It is Gurdjieff who has most influenced the tone of the autobiographical pieces. Toomer aspires to be, like Gurdjieff, the teacher, the guide, the sage, and this ends in much posturing, in a romantic imagining of himself and his family.

Moreover, the autobiographical passages make strange demands on the reader's patience and willingness to believe….

There is something very sad too in Toomer's idealized portrait of himself. He was never able to make an agreeable or interesting protagonist of himself…. Toomer apparently was certain that there were important lessons for everyone in his experience, but it is not clear what these were, especially as the pall of Gurdjieff hung more and more over the page. The autobiographies sag with tedious descriptions of Toomer's young life, his obsession with his transformation from an alert, clever, inquisitive, mischievous, popular boy to the morbid, sensitive iconoclast, thrilled and sickened by the discoveries of sex, anxious for an ennobling mission. There are intriguing references to domestic troubles …, but Toomer is self-servingly reticent. He concentrates on himself, on his path toward enlightenment and Gurdjieff, his "mission."

Still, one can piece together some clues, particularly to the emotional strain he must have suffered as a boy. (p. 35)

The experiences that Toomer recounts of his life after high school strike a thoroughly contemporary note in what they reveal of his restlessness. [He relocated often and returned to Washington several times, only to leave again.]… Finally, Toomer decided to remain in Washington until his writing "lifted him out."

It did so with Cane. But the three stories included in The Wayward and the Seeking reveal the difficulties Toomer had with his writing after Cane. "Withered Skin of Berries," composed early in his career, is in the style of Cane, a lyrical exploration of a woman's inner life, her search for love, her confusion over the attentions of both a white and a black man. "Winter on Earth" is a sort of prose poem about wintry austerity and desolation. "Mr. Costyve Duditch" is the least successful story, a clumsily rendered narrative about a lonely and foolish man. Toomer attempts to bring ideas from Gurdjieff into his work, though it is not clear how Toomer interpreted his ideas beyond vague allegorical representations. (pp. 35-6)

Toomer's work after Cane concentrates on themes of spiritual liberation, free development of mind, body, and soul, and the need for psychological reform. He also turned away explicitly from racial subjects. Yet the subtlety of his prose was lost—not so much because Toomer no longer wrote about blacks as because he was didactically urging his readers to strive toward a higher consciousness…. The plays ["Natalie Mann and "The Sacred Factory"] show the same unfortunate tendency as the short prose works: an urge to preach. Toomer tries to create messianic young men who will educate the feelings of trusting females. But his dramatic gifts were not equal to his desire to portray the struggle for self-knowledge and freedom….

Though Toomer became disillusioned with Gurdjieff after various scandals, he never abandoned the philosophy and even headed several Gurdjieff groups across the country. In his fiction after Cane Toomer tried to convey his vision as a missionary. Much of the fiction was autobiographical, or had characters modeled on himself, and none of it worked. Even his most direct expressions in philosophical tracts and poems were failures….

The problem Toomer's work presents is not so much his attitude toward race—his ideas came from improvisation, the accommodation a passionately private person tried to make with the world. The problem, the sadness of Toomer, was that his lyrical gift could not hold his free-fall into philosophy. Toomer did not accept the limits of choice imposed by the tragedies of history and became a propagandist. He could not name the thing he longed to escape and retreated into a vestal masochism not unlike that of the little black boy in the lines of Blake. Once, however, during his quest for grace, Toomer suffered the sea change and had his transfiguring moment, which produced Cane. (p. 36)

Darryl Pinckney, "Phantom," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. 28, No. 3, March 5, 1981, pp. 34-6.


Toomer, Jean (Vol. 13)


Toomer, Jean (Vol. 4)