A Jean Toomer Reader: Selected Unpublished Writings.
Frederick L. Rusch's A Jean Toomer Reader: Selected Unpublished Writings significantly enlarges our understanding of a major figure in American letters. The portrait of Jean Toomer which emerges from the seven sections of Rusch's expertly edited reader is of an artist engaged in an ambitious and lifelong intellectual project which found expression in a correspondence with many of the leading intellectuals of his generation, as well as in such genres as the aphorism, the essay, fiction, and autobiography.
The materials of section 1 of A Jean Toomer Reader provide insight into Toomer's mood and outlook shortly before the publication of Cane (1923). In this section, one discovers a collection of letters by Toomer to such writers as Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson, and Gorham Munson. Of particular importance is the inclusion of Toomer's reply to an inquiry from the editors of The Liberator in which he makes his first public statement regarding his ancestry. Spanning the months between July 1922 and March 1923, these letters chart the stages of Canis composition, its principles of organization, and its deep structure, along with Toomer's mounting sense of excitement as well as anxiety in the weeks before the publication of his first and last book of fiction. These letters also chart Toomer's evolving friendship with Frank and Munson: the former in whom Toomer confided his yearnings and ambitions as a writer deeply affected by the South, the latter in whom Toomer confided his deep awareness of Frank's influence as well as his effort to preserve the distinctive sound of his own emerging written voice. Rusch's orderly sequencing of these letters yields fresh insight into the process of Cane's composition as well as Toomer's disposition during this fruitful period in his literary career. While there is some necessary repetition, Rusch's fine selection of letters builds upon Toomer's correspondence from this period which appears in the Norton edition of Cane edited by Darwin Turner.
Section 2 of A Jean Toomer Reader is composed solely of an autobiographical excerpt entitled "The Experience." The longest work of prose in the reader, "The Experience" is taken from part II of the unpublished and twice- rejected autobiography "From Exile into Being," which Toomer wrote between 1937 and 1946. By including this excerpt from one of Toomer's six autobiographies, Rusch expands the extant body of published writings by Toomer. "The Experience" and other excerpts from "From Exile into Being" do not appear in Turner's The Wayward and the Seeking, the first collection of writings by Toomer. Guided by a different objective as an editor, the emphasis in Turner's collection is upon the forces which shaped Toomer's development as an artist, whereas Rusch emphasizes those forces which shaped Toomer's development as a spiritual reformer. In their very fine biography of Toomer, The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness, Cynthia E. Kerman and Richard Eldridge provide perceptive analysis of the expansion of consciousness recorded in "The Experience." Now for the first time we have not only an analysis of this out-of-body experience which occurred on an April evening at the 66th Street "L" station in Manhattan, but we also have Toomer's own artful and detailed rendering of it.
The third and fourth sections of Rusch's reader are comprised of cultural and literary criticism focusing upon the New Negro Movement and Toomer's growing alarm regarding the expansion and uses of technology. Section 5 is comprised solely of an undated short story entitled "Monrovia," a story of love and death with all the trappings of a fairy tale. Toomer's poetic observations regarding the relationship between region and imagination are the focus of section 6 of A Jean Toomer Reader. The briefest and most eclectic, the seventh and final section of the reader contains an essay, letters and excerpts from letters to Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, and an aphorism. Spanning the years 1934 to 1946, this section is dominated by Toomer's tribute to his friends O'Keeffe and Stieglitz.
Rusch's reader spans the years 1922 to 1948, and each of the seven sections is preceded by useful commentary which evokes the historical and literary context for each selection. A Jean Toomer Reader is an important work of scholarship. It enriches and complicates, through the medium of Toomer's own written thoughts, our knowledge and estimation of the philosopher-poet who occupies a central place in the evolving tradition of American and African American letters.
While the emphasis in Rusch's A Jean Toomer Reader is upon the scope and context of Toomer's writings as a spiritual reformer from 1922 to 1948, the very complex life of the man who produces them is one of two subjects in Invisible Darkness, an effort by Charles R. Larson to make the lives of Toomer and Nella Larsen at last visible to contemporary readers. The provocative title of Larson's double biography, the first to focus upon two major figures of the New Negro Movement, is also an artful play upon race and the slippery practice of racial classification. As a biographer, Larson seeks not only to cast aside the darkness that presumably still obscures the lives of Toomer and Larsen (a strange intimation given the enlarging body of work on these two writers), but also to reveal the dark or African strain in the lives of two authors of mixed ancestry. Although not always cast with an awareness of the current scholarship on race (bell hooks, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Anthony Appiah), definitions and constructions of race, along with their translation into works of literature, are the themes at the very core of Larson's argument to join the lives of Toomer and Larsen into a single biography.
The strong contrasts in the lives of Toomer and Larsen endow this double biography with a certain symmetry essential to the ordering of two very different and very distinct lives. Larson's decision to explore questions of race, gender, and identity against the backdrop of a seminal arts and political movement with the lives of Toomer and Larson as the framework is certainly original. Larson's effort to distill new meaning through this imaginative pairing of lives, thereby deepening our knowledge of a particular period, would possess greater force if there had been substantive as well as numerous points of intersection between the lives of his subjects.
The rich interplay of shared lives as well as shared intellectual interests which contribute to the success and appeal of Louis Simpson's Three on the Tower - a masterful examination of the lives of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams - is unfortunately lacking in Invisible Lives. Except for their rather brief meeting in 1925 at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library, where Larsen was employed as a librarian and where Toomer was lecturing and presiding over a discussion group centering upon the psychological theories of Georges I. Gurdjieff, the lives of Larsen and Toomer never overlapped, or so the current state of scholarship suggests. Interestingly, there is an absence of agreement in the scholarship concerning when this first and last meeting actually occurred, as well as a certain vagueness regarding its impact upon Toomer and Larsen. According to Larson, the meeting between Toomer and Larsen occurred in the "fall of 1925" (42). In The Lives of Jean Toomer, Kerman and Eldridge write that this meeting occurred in the "late spring of 1925" (144). Further, Larson writes that subsequent discussions of Gurdjieff's theories and methods "were held in private homes," but he is unclear about the extent and nature of Larsen's participation in them. Kerman and Eldridge write that Toomer "met with the Harlem group for about a year" (144), and like Larson they neither describe nor characterize Larsen's participation in the discussions of the "Harlem group."
While there is apparently little overlap in the lives of Larsen and Toomer, Larson records one striking coincidence. One of the most favorable reviews of Larsen's Quicksand (1928) was written by Margery Latimer, the future first wife of Toomer. Published in the New York World in 1928, Latimer's laudatory review appeared three years after the Toomer/Larsen meeting at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library and three years before Toomer's controversial marriage to Latimer in 1931.
Invisible Lives begins in 1919 - the year in which, as Larson writes, Toomer reaffirmed his vocation as a writer, and in which Larsen married Elmer S. Imes, a shameless philanderer who serves as the inspiration for an early short story by Larsen ominously entitled "The Wrong Man." Larson's double biography begins in early adulthood; that is to say, at the precise moment when Toomer and Larsen have the world before them and, they hope, soon at their feet. Interestingly, as the narrative moves forward in time from 1919 to the respective deaths of Larsen and Toomer on March 30, 1964 and 1967 (curiously, they share the same death date), it also moves backward in time, for the penultimate section of this four-part biography is devoted completely to the childhoods of these writers. Three of the four sections in Invisible Lives are ordered by an alternating narrative. Very provocatively, the first section is entitled "In the Middle." In this section, Larson describes in a rather straightforward fashion the entrances of Toomer and Larsen into Manhattan's literary scene, beginning with the circumstances of Toomer's debut and ending with those which defined in part Larsen's entry into the glamorous world of letters. In contrast, "End Game," section 2 of the biography, ably sets forth the increasing problems of money, productivity, and personal alienation each author confronted, with the life of Larsen as the point of departure and Toomer's ever enlarging cluster of challenges as the destination. In "Childhood," section 3, Larson returns to the narrative patterns of section 1. "Invisible Darkness," the fourth and final section, is a rather brief and not always balanced judgment of the lives of Toomer and Larsen as adjudicated in the court of Larson.
While not so much in evidence in other sections of Invisible Darkness, Larson's slippery hold upon the conventions of fairness and impartiality assumes its most troubling manifestation in the final section of the biography. In recalling Elmer S. Imes's dalliances, Larson moves to that same well-known tendency in Toomer and, most incredibly, writes that it was Larsen's "good fortune that she did not become another name on Jean's list of sexual conquests, though she shares an affinity with some of his victims" (198). Most preposterously, the "victims" are none other than Mabel Dodge Luhan and Margery Latimer. Larson provides nothing in the way of new evidence to support this fresh charge of sexual exploitation, and this uncharitable and false charge compromises the integrity of his biography.
Was Luhan victimized by Toomer? One of Luhan's letters to Toomer which appears in the carefully researched biography of Kerman and Eldridge tells a decidedly different story: "You see, Jean, I am trying to subjugate your will to mine - it is my talent - my whole mechanism works together to this end - to seduce your spirit - as I have always been doing." Is this one of the many "pathetic letters" which Larson claims Luhan wrote to Toomer? At the very least, this letter complicates Larson's unsubstantiated claim of Luhan as a "victim" of Toomer's philandering. Setting aside its bogus mysticism, the manipulative prose of Luhan's letter lays bare her intentions: She is determined to "seduce" Toomer. Very fortunately for Toomer, Luhan, who was in her second marriage at the time of this letter's composition, was unsuccessful in the vulgar designs for which she was notorious. Of course, Larson must be familiar with the facts of Luhan's well-known sexual escapades, but he chooses to write a different story.
Was Margery Latimer, in "her brief marriage and awful death," victimized by Toomer? Although far from perfect, the conjugal life of Latimer and Toomer was, as Kerman and Eldridge describe it, marked by mutual admiration and respect. Strangely, Larson holds Toomer responsible for Latimer's death after giving birth to their first and only child. Kerman and Eldridge inform us that it was Latimer's decision to give birth at home, and she did so fully aware of the risks. Kerman and Eldridge also write that Latimer's parents "never presumed any fault in Jean and retained a warm relationship with him thereafter" (206). Surely Larson must be familiar with these facts, but again he chooses to write a different story.
Just as surely as Toomer emerges as the manipulative, sexually obsessed egoist who is fearful of being exposed as a black wolf passing as a white wolf (unfortunately Larson advances a decidedly uncomplex reading of Toomer's extremely complex racial position), Larsen emerges as the principled and disciplined altruist in her final vocation as nurse. "While Jean Toomer enhanced his ego," writes Larson, "Nella Larsen engaged in a totally different relationship with her fellow travellers. While Jean undertook the dubious task of guiding their souls, Nella followed the humanitarian approach and attended to their bodies" (206). In the final moments of the final chapter of Invisible Darkness, Larson smugly praises Larsen's work ethic: "Fortunately, she was talented and hard-working. The evidence is clear that she gave everything she had to her profession as soon as she began her training as a nurse - as she did to her careers as librarian and writer" (207). Of course, the fact that Toomer was not self-supporting after his second marriage only increases our contempt for him and our admiration for Larsen. This is the final and damning judgment which Larson encourages, notwithstanding the encomia of Toomer's achievements as an artist which are scattered throughout the biography.
While there are many moments in Invisible Darkness which resist caricature and the reduction of the materials of tragedy into melodrama, as a biographer Larson fails to rise above certain biases in the final movements of his readable biography. In Kerman and Eldridge's The Lives of Jean Toomer and Thadious M. Davis's Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman's Life Unveiled fairness and compassion in the rendering of the lives of Toomer and Larsen are in greater evidence.
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|Author:||Byrd, Rudolph P.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1996|
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