Jean Toomer is a phantom of the Harlem Renaissance. Pick up any general study of the literature written by Afro-Americans and there is the name of Jean Toomer. In biographies and memoirs of Harlem Renaissance figures, his name is invoked as if he had been one of the sights along Lenox Avenue. Toomer’s name appears in unexpected places too—among the editors and contributors of New Masses (May 1926); in America & Alfred Stieglitz (1934); in a recent biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. He is present in the letters of the young Hart Crane. Toomer, who sometimes denied he was a Negro, belongs as much to the downtown avant-garde scene of the Twenties as he does to the Negro Awakening.
Toomer’s one commercially published work, Cane, was a stunning critical success when it appeared in 1923. Few other works in Afro-American literature—one thinks of Native Son and Invisible Man—have inspired equal reverence. Sherwood Anderson and Waldo Frank wrote rhapsodically of Toomer’s achievement. Langston Hughes has described how young writers in Harlem studied the text. Yet the book sold fewer than 500 copies when it was first issued, and Toomer was unable to find a publisher for his eccentric writings after Cane. When he later disclaimed Afro-American culture, this repudiation—rather than the refusal of publishers to print his later work—was thought by many to be the cause of his “silence,” his disappearance from the literary world. In any event, when Toomer died in a nursing home near Philadelphia in 1967 at the age of seventy-three, his name was largely forgotten.
Cane was inspired by Toomer’s first experience in the deep South. Born and reared in Washington, Toomer was offered a job as acting principal at an agricultural college and traveled to Sparta, Georgia, in 1921. There he heard the spirituals, observed the folkways of rural black life. The intense feelings that pervade Cane derive from this experience. Indeed many of the stories, poems, and sketches that comprise this extraordinary work were written on the train home to Washington three months later.
Opaque and lyrical, Cane was much influenced by the imagists. It is divided in three sections. The first consists of sketches of five black women and one white woman in Georgia. 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. “Men always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.” Karintha grows up, men still pursue her. “She has contempt for them.” The characters are not full in the usual sense. Toomer is more interested in the drift of feelings, in elevated portraits of common events. “Becky was the white woman who had two Negro sons. She’s dead; they’ve gone away. The pines whisper to Jesus. The Bible flaps its leaves with an aimless rustle on her mound.”
In another sketch, Fern is finished with men. “When she was young, a few men took her, but they got no joy from it…. Something inside of her got tired of them.” Esther dreams for years about a man only to find him grotesque when she finally goes to him. Passive, brooding Louisa in “Blood Burning Moon” cannot choose between her white lover, Bob, and her black lover, Tom. Bob attacks Tom and is killed. Tom is then burned at the stake. Carma’s infidelities drive her husband to the chain gang. “She had others. No one blames her for that.” The melancholy of the inner life finds a metaphor in Toomer’s descriptions of the pine needles, the cotton flowers, the pine smoke of the Georgia landscape.
The stories are connected by elegiac poems, which serve as a sort of tragic chorus, echoing the themes of the stories. The sad movement of life is evoked in a swift image or in a serene phrase.
Wind is in the Cane. Come along
Cane leaves swaying, rusty with talk,
Scratching choruses above the guinea’s squawk,
Wind is in the Cane. Come along.
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:
Money burns the pocket, pocket burns,
Bootleggers in silken shirts,
Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs,
Whizzing, whizzing down street-car tracks
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. The country women in the first section must live with the consequences of their actions and the people of the second section cannot act at all.
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. On a futile pilgrimage to the South he is alienated from the hypocritical, cowardly middle class, separated from the folk by cultural differences, too skeptical of religion to accept its comforts, and too cut off from his emotions to respond to challenging women. 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.
Many novels of the Harlem Renaissance celebrated “primitivism” as a rebellion against conventional values. Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven and Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem have pages of cabaret jazzers racing uptown and downtown in search of cheap thrills. Toomer, however, 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. Even the landscape is eroticized: “Full-lipped flowers/Bitten by the sun/ Bleeding rain/Dripping rain like golden honey….”
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. Toomer regarded Cane as a “swan song,” a farewell to natural cycles as the center of black life shifted from the countryside to the cities. Indeed, 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. Attractive to women, he was by all accounts handsome—he was often compared to Adolphe Menjou—athletic, passionate. The Wayward and the Seeking does much toward increasing our understanding of him. Included in this volume are excerpts from previously unpublished autobiographies, written between 1928 and 1947; three short stories, one written early in his career and the others published in literary magazines in 1928; 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 autodidact.
Toomer attempted several autobiographies, each with a different thematic emphasis. 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. “Some cells heard my birthcry. Something within me remembers the first entrance of air into my lungs.” Toomer tells us that in preparing to write his autobiography he induced a vision of his birth and gained a “very ancient hatred of the womb.” He is not above standing in awe of his feelings.
Toomer became an ardent disciple of Georges Gurdjieff, whom he met the year Cane was published, in 1923, and he studied at Gurdjieff’s institute in France in 1924 and 1928. 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. Of his parents, Toomer remarks that “their carriage and manner were those of aristocrats.” He learned very early not to think of himself as ordinary. Toomer was the grandson of Pinckney B.S. Pinchback (1837-1921), an influential black figure in Louisiana Reconstruction politics. Pinchback dominates Toomer’s memories of his youth in Washington. He is ambivalent toward his grandfather, presenting him on one page as generous, wise, abundant in his feelings, and then on another page as strict, tyrannical, bewildered by his decline. Toomer preferred to remember him as a “dramatic adventurer.”
“Pinchback’s father was what is called a white man…Pinchback’s mother possibly had some dark blood…. He claimed he had Negro blood, linked himself with the cause of the Negro, and rose to power…. I would judge that the admixture of dark blood or bloods, whatever they were, occurred in his mother’s line two or more generations before her.” It is altogether weird of Toomer to argue that political opportunism made his grandfather choose to be black.
Pinchback was the son of Eliza Stewart and her white master, Walter P. Pinchback, who freed his family and sent them from Georgia to Cincinnati. His death ended Pinchback’s formal education. Pinchback became a cabin boy on Ohio riverboats, then a steward on steamers cruising the Mississippi. He ran a blockade in 1862 and raised a company for the Union Army in New Orleans, but resigned to protest the unequal treatment of black soldiers. Pinchback was elected to the state senate in 1868, eventually becoming acting governor for forty-three days in 1872. He was elected to the US Senate in 1873, but the Senate refused to seat him. When the carpetbaggers lost power, Pinchback retired to Washington, but remained active in political affairs as an adviser to Booker T. Washington. Some of his correspondence is included in The Booker T. Washington Papers (volumes six and seven, 1977).
In his memories of her, Toomer’s mother, Nina Pinchback, was suitably refined, high strung, and gracious. Not surprisingly, “she wrote occasional poetry, played the piano, sang, danced marvelously.” His father, however, he remembers seeing only once. Nathan Toomer was fifty-two when he married Toomer’s mother. He was “an upstanding figure, above medium height, broad shouldered, well-nourished, weighing around two hundred pounds…. He was of English-Dutch-Spanish stock. I gather that he lived in the South as a white man. Did he have Negro blood? It is possible.” Give the stealthy tar brush its due. According to Toomer, when his father ran short of money he went South. Letters came less frequently until none came at all. Turner notes that other members of the family claimed that Nathan Toomer, married Nina for money, and that when he realized Pinchback would not loosen the purse strings, he deserted.
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—not in the stories, in the autobiographies, or, one gathers from Turner, in the unpublished novels. 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 in the Pinchback household, 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. In 1905, when he was eleven, his mother left him for a summer in the care of others and his grandparents went away as well. That fall he was taken seriously ill, and when he recovered he was a changed boy, withdrawn and morose. His mother remarried shortly after, the family home was sold, and he was sent to New Rochelle. When his mother died in 1909, he returned to his grandparents in Washington, but their health and finances were steadily ebbing away. “For the first time,” he writes, “I lived in a colored world.”
The experiences that Toomer recounts of his life after high school strike a thoroughly contemporary note in what they reveal of his restlessness. He went to the University of Wisconsin in 1914 to study agriculture—“drinking beer and raising hell in the tradition of American college life.” Apparently he was accepted there as white and he kept quiet about his ancestry. Disenchanted with farming, Toomer returned to Washington. His grandparents were “shocked.” This was to become a pattern. Toomer enrolled in several colleges—in Massachusetts, Chicago, and New York—over the next seven years, taking up various studies, from physical education to biology. His stay at each was brief. He held a variety of odd jobs in towns throughout the East and the Midwest. He read voraciously. During this period he also suffered a breakdown. And always, the return to Washington, the bitter disappointment of his grandfather, and then another flight. 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. According to Darwin Turner’s essay on Toomer included in In a Minor Chord (1971), Toomer’s unpublished plays, novels, and poems elevated “instruction above art” in their attempts to show implicitly how Gurdjieff’s discipline and perceptions lead to self-fulfillment.
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. Obsessed with his journeys into “strange lands of experience,” Toomer, according to Turner, was unaware of his limitations as a writer: his inability to sustain a dramatic plot, to delineate character, to write about himself effectively. Literature was to have no other purpose outside showing the way toward “Being.”
Turner’s assessment of Toomer’s problems as a writer are clearly confirmed by the dramas in The Wayward and the Seeking. “Natalie Mann” is more interesting in what it reveals of Toomer’s loathing of provincial, middle-class blacks. But “The Sacred Factory,” a “modern morality play”—the characters are meant to be universal, symbolic of the human condition—is dull and crudely done. The plays 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.
Turner observes that Toomer placed more value on his work as a spiritual reformer than he did on his life as an artist. 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.
How much did Toomer’s attitudes not only toward Gurdjieff but toward race itself have to do with the failure of his books after Cane? Langston Hughes, in his autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), ridicules Toomer for trying to spread the teachings of Gurdjieff among the poor of Harlem. “So Jean Toomer shortly left his Harlem group and went downtown to drop the seeds of Gurdjieff in less dark and poverty stricken fields…and the Negroes lost one of the most talented of all their writers.”
Arna Bontemps, in an essay “The Negro Renaissance: Jean Toomer and the Harlem Writers of the 1920s” (1966), recalls that “the rumors that Toomer had crossed the color line began circulating when his name stopped appearing in print.” Bontemps rejects the notion that Toomer was merely “passing” for white, that it was not passing in the classic sense since Toomer was not hiding. “He seemed too concerned with truth to masquerade. One wants to believe that Toomer’s mind came at last to reject the myth of race as it is fostered in our culture.” He believes Toomer turned away from racial themes in order to write more broadly about people, about problems of individual conscience. Bontemps notes that black writers of the time failed to recognize the sophistry in Toomer’s notion that books about whites were about people while those about blacks were not.
What Toomer himself said about race was often confusing and contradictory. He refused permission for his work to be included in James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry (1930). Yet he did not oppose inclusion of his work in Sterling A. Brown’s The Negro Caravan (1941). Toomer was introduced to Anderson and Frank as a black writer, which he did not, in the beginning of his career, discourage. “As near as I can tell, there are seven race bloods within this body of mine…. As I become known, I shall doubtless be classed as a Negro. I shall neither fight nor resent it.” And, in talking of Cane, he explained, “My growing need for artistic expression has pulled me deeper and deeper into the Negro group.” But in the later, Gurdjieff years, Toomer blamed Anderson, Frank, and Horace Liveright for spreading the idea that he was black—and he spoke of it with exasperation, as a conspiracy against him. Toomer claimed that his work was rejected because he was expected to produce another Cane. Interestingly enough, statutory definitions of race always, always included such phrases as “any Negro blood whatsoever.”
Toomer wrote in Essentials, “I am of no particular race. I am of the human race, a man at large in the world, preparing a new race.” He wrote to Nancy Cunard in 1932: “Though I am interested in and deeply value the Negro, I am not a Negro.” Toomer’s conviction was that race was of no importance. Perhaps the smorgasbord resolution to the question of his identity was inspired by the immediate difficulties of his personal life. Scandal surrounded Toomer’s marriage to a white woman in 1931, and after she died in childbirth, Toomer married another white woman. He remarked at the time, “I would consider it libelous for anyone to refer to me as a colored man.” In Toomer’s time, words such as “black” or “Negro” or “colored” had much psychosemantic significance and it was not unusual for people of his generation to refuse all three designations, insisting they were “creole.” Toomer claimed that racial distinctions were anyway meaningless.
The implication that Toomer’s inspiration faltered when he denied being a Negro suggests a tainting wish for retribution, a neurotic alertness to the wages of treason among black artists, to what offends the carefully monitored collective black conscience. The influence of Gurdjieff is an additional embarrassment since his doctrine of transcendence of the body and national differences is antithetical to the ideologies that have gained the most allegiance in Afro-American history.
Yet would Toomer be easier to describe if he had, like Claude McKay, gone to the Soviet Union instead of the Prieuré at Fontainebleau? The once radical McKay died an ardent Catholic and even Zora Neale Hurston’s rightwing opinions of her later years trouble those who invest her with the martyrdom of a woman ahead of her times. Cultural heroes in Afro-American history serve an important symbolic function and their quirks as human beings are like landmines to their vigilant followers. Example is everything and nothing must be allowed to threaten the idea of black history as a heroic drive up Jacob’s ladder.
It is distressing to think of the years of labor which Toomer devoted to his late poetry, particularly the long poem, “The Blue Meridian,” in which he celebrates the fusion of the races—one of those attempts to find a self-sufficient language to express his secret mythology which results in something impenetrable. How painful to think of Toomer casting about, groping, hopeful, and then despairing, churning out manuscript after manuscript, receiving rejection after rejection. He went many places in search of spiritual solace, even to India, and he became a Quaker in the late Forties, lecturing and writing meditative pamphlets. Had it not been Gurdjieff, it would doubtless have been something else.
Handsome, curious, variously talented—Toomer did not lead a life true to his own nature. For all the promise of his early years, he seems to have suffered profoundly from a collapse of will. 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.
March 5, 1981