“I alone have stood for a synthesis in the mind and spirit of analogous, perhaps, to the actual fact of at least six blood minglings. The history (sic) of five of these are available in some approximation to the truth… No picture of the southern person is complete without its bit of Negro-determined psychology” (Shruggs 89). Prophetic are the words Jean Toomer wrote to the admired colleague Waldo Frank in response to Frank’s ode to the United States, Our America: a Historical Memoir of the United State’s Cultural Make-Up. Toomer took issue with Frank’s exclusion of African descended citizens from the text and initiated a life-long friendship between the two writers. Frank became captivated by Toomer’s description of the “American Negro” which, along with other contemporaries Hart Crane, Alfred Kreymborg, and Lola Ridge, urged Toomer to travel back to his hometown South and experience America’s southern blackness (Rusch 16). The centerpiece of Toomer’s contribution to literature is Cane: a multi-faceted, cross-cultural depiction of an American Epic.
Toomer’s relentless search for definition-of-the-self proved to be the driving force in his creativity and artistic spontaneity. Before publication of Cane, Toomer seemed to “advertise his black blood;” however, when the writer traveled to Georgia to seek solace in “Negro studies” and begin preparation for the novel, he began to shy away from any labeling of his work or identity as African American literature (Scruggs 90). Frank encouraged the writer to visit the American Jim Crow ridden South and divulge himself into the world of the southern African-American; he believed that Toomer could play a major part in creating a new authentic American literature (Scruggs 90). Toomer’s pilgrimage to the South proved to be the origin of America’s most creative literary movement; Toomer’s journey brought him to the center of his racial confusion and caused the epiphany which brought him close to creating a new American race documented within Cane, which would ultimately lead to his downfall as a writer.
Widely noted, Jean Toomer refused to be labeled as a “New Negro” writer; his public image mirrored the ambiguity of his physical appearance, a light-skinned and multi-cultural visage, into his philosophy of literature and being a writer. In 1923, he referred to his racial identity as “American, simply an American” and later the next year refused to be included in African American writer collections (Scruggs 84). Following Cane, he shunned his African background completely when he stated that he was actually “white” and, in 1930, blamed his perceived blackness on Waldo Frank’s introduction to Cane (Scruggs 84). To Toomer, being a “Negro writer” stifled creativity and pigeon-holed him into category that he didn’t belong; the goal of his writing was to create a new form of literature. In Cane, Toomer weaves tales of tortured souls, each battling with identities which contrast his or her surroundings. These characters reflect Toomer’s own struggle with racial identity; the five cultures conflicted with his blood: French, Dutch, Welsh, German, Jewish, Native American, and African, catalyzed the writer’s tortured soul, and pouted into the pages of Cane.
Cane’s non-genre specific stories, poems, and drama all portray the relationship of white and black citizens in the South. The novel’s broken narratives, incomplete sentences, and nonsensical metaphors and similes reflect the consciousness of mosaic America. Toomer chooses words that offset each other, yet audibly exist in harmony. “The body of the world is bull-necked,” writes Toomer, and follows with the textually cacophonic, but beautifully alliterated: “A dream is a soft face that fits uncertainly upon it… God, if I could develop that in words” (Toomer 83). The broken, fragmented narrative illustrates the personal crises within the writer; Toomer, at the time of the novel’s writing, inserted his pain and anguish, his disassociation with his African-ness, into elegantly gentle tales of clashing societies, beliefs, and ideals.
The tension between the characters of Cane reflects Toomer’s distrust of racial stereotyping and conditional labeling. In “Esther,” Toomer creates a protagonist who contrasts the burgeoning awareness of King Barlo. Esther mirrors Toomer: she possesses African blood, but her features are of a white person. Her ambivalence of identity denies her place within a white world and the black world, illustrated by the white and black men on the corner who ignore her as she walks passed. Barlo’s direct connection with Jesus who whispers the story of a “big an black an powerful” African brought to his knees by “white-ant biddies” symbolizes the correlation of his words to his black awareness (Toomer 23). King Barlo begins Esther’s journey to her cultural awareness, a “starting point of the only living patterns that her mind was to know” (Toomer 23). Esther’s town begins a transcendental voyage after the appearance of King Barlo as once enemies find comfort and love within each other’s differences. Esther’s existence changes; her life transforms as her blackness awakens. Esther is renewed. She cannot embrace blackness in the beginning of her tale, instead she wishes for a black baby: a physical representation, a piece of genetic evidence documenting her blackness. When Esther witnesses the resurrection of King Barlo, metaphorically she is given her African child: a growing piece of blackness within her own being.
Toomer’s pilgrimage to the South awoke his inner African heritage, and he chronicled this awakening within the story of Esther. Yet Cane does not preach isolation of the races. If anything, Cane embraces the diversity within the people of the South even when his characters do not. Toomer wrote in his privately published book of aphorisms, “I am of no particular race. I am of the human race, a man at large in the world, preparing a new race” (Rusch 20). Cane’s “Bona and Paul” illustrates the separation of the races. The narrative moves from self-isolation to acceptance, to the perceptual blending of people. Paul confronts Bona on her rejection of a black face at a dance:
I came back to tell you, to shake your hand and tell you that you are wrong. That something beautiful is going to happen. That the Gardens are purple like a bed of roses would be at dusk. That I came into the Gardens, into life in the Gardens with one whom I did not know. That I danced with her, and did not know her. That I felt passion, contempt and passion for her whom I did not know. That I thought of her. That my thoughts were matches thrown into a dark window. All the while the Gardens were purple like a bed of roses would be at dusk. I came back to tell you, brother, that white faces are petals of roses. That dark faces are petals of dusk. That I am going out and gather petals. (80)
Toomer embraces cultural separation, yet recognizes the need to meld together. Toomer’s new race of people only begins when the petals of society are collected from separate areas and collected into one metaphoric garden. The idealist perception of race relations seems rather simplistic and drastically naïve to a reader which did not escape Toomer at the time of writing, when Paul turns back Bona is gone. Toomer accepts this “new American race” exists as an ideal, a utopian vision of all colors mixed together to form one.
A paradox exists within Toomer’s vision of a new race: if Toomer believes that awareness of one’s race is essential to personal identification as portrayed in “Esther,” and also the acceptance of darker and lighter skin tones as depicted in “Bona and Paul” begins Toomer’s new race of people, why would Toomer reject his own blackness? Toomer writes, “I had been, I suppose, unconsciously seeking – as man must ever seek – an intelligible scheme of things, a sort of whole into which everything fit” (Fullinwider 397). Toomer disowned black and white labels of people, but he only saw the world in black and white: Toomer believed in absolutes, that things either worked one way or they did not. Toomer did not believe that it was possible to identify people as “American” as well as “African” the same way that “European” is not attached to “American.” This search for the absolute resulted in the rejection of southern black culture; Toomer would view his pilgrimage to the South, the abrasiveness of white culture, and the conception of Cane “in the agony of internal tightness, conflict, and chaos. Never again in my life do I want those conditions…. Cane is a swan-song” (Scruggs 91). Toomer, thusly, ceased his work in New Negro Literature and began to search for new creation, a new race with an accompanying form of literary renaissance. Unfortunately, Toomer’s artistic expression faltered as illustrated in his 1932 unpublished novel Eight Day World: a meandering, clichéd depiction of Lost Generation-ites traveling to Europe in search of the self. It is as if Toomer’s desire to define himself, seek and slay the demon haunting his anguish, was the very thing which fueled his genius, ground-breaking writings and the creation of Cane. Clark University Professor S. P. Fullinwider, in his 1966 essay entitled “Jean Toomer: Lost Generation, or Negro Renaissance?” summed up the brief literary career and eventual fall:
“Eight Day World” ended as Toomer had ended, with all problems solved, with everyone satisfied. The artist could no longer express modern man’s restlessness and lostness. His work had become smug – and dead. Toomer had been modern in Cane. There the author confronted his readers with the pain of reality unmitigated by the pleasant knowledge of having in hand The Answer. Toomer’s artistic expression lost something once he had found his answer – it became didactic and it became unconvincing" (401).
Fullinwider, S.P. “Jean Toomer: Lost Generation, or Negro Renaissance?” Phylon 27.4 (1966): 396-403.
Rusch, Frederick L. :Form, Function, and Creative Tension in Cane: Jean Toomer and the Need for the Avant-Garde.” MELUS 17.4 (1992): 15-28.
Toomer, Jean. Cane: A Norton Critical Edition.. Liverwright Publishing. New York: 1988.
Scruggs, Charles. “Jean Toomer: Fugitive.” American Literature 47.1 (1975): 84-96.