Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance.
This collection of essays on Jean Toomer is very much a French affair. Its two editors are French and teach at French universities, and over half the contributors of the thirteen essays are either French or European. The result of a conference held on the Harlem Renaissance in Paris in January, 1998, this book offers many fresh insights, and the prose is almost always lucid, an amusing irony in the latter instance since it has been the importation of French theory that has made so much American criticism opaque. Another virtue is that the essays express multiple points of view with very little repetition. Naturally there is some overlap, but the topics range from one (by Michael Soto) that focuses on the way Cane was advertised, to another (by Monica Michlin) that reads "Karintha" through a feminist lens, to another (by Martha Jane Nadell) that connects Toomer to two visual artists of the period, the painter Georgia O'Keefe and the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. One of the editors, Genevieve Fabre, has writte n a stunning piece on "Kabnis" and "Harvest Song," whose subtitle is "Toomer's Cane and the Harlem Renaissance."
Yet herein lies a problem. For a book entitled Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance, we learn very little in either Fabre's essay or elsewhere about the Harlem Renaissance or about Toomer's relationship to it. Moreover, although the word modernism appears in the titles of two essays, nothing is said about the modernist form that most influenced Toomer's conception of Cane, the short-story cycle. Toomer specifically acknowledged his debt to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and The Triumph of the Egg (1921), but it should also be noted that the short-story cycle, or some hybrid version of it, was in vogue immediately before and after Cane's publication (1923). In addition to W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Toomer knew Du Bois's Darkwater (1920), Paul Rosenfeld's Musical Portraits (1920), and Waldo Frank's City Block (1922). And, of course, Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time (1924), William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain (1925), and Eric Walrond's Tropic Death (1926) would soon follow Cane.
There is also a good chance that, as he was thinking about what would go where in Cane, Toomer was reading T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, a poem whose "different voices" function as a kind of short-story cycle. The poem was published with great fanfare in the United States in the November 1922 issue of The Dial, precisely at the time when Toomer was composing Cane's middle section and revising "Kabnis." Indeed, one hears echoes of Eliot's poem in "Kabnis." Described by Toomer as "a dead fish man," Father John is a kind of Fisher King, his cellar a wasteland of blasted lives, and, as the questing knight, Kabnis fails to ask the right questions of Father John, thus leaving the issue of whether past will revitalize the present in some doubt, as it is in Eliot's poem. In this respect, Francoise Clary, who writes an interesting essay on "the significance of the water metaphor" in Cane, might have compared her theme to what Edmund Wilson, writing on The Waste Land in The Dial only a month after the poem was publishe d, called "The Poetry of Drouth."
What is fascinating about the Toomer-Eliot connection is that Toomer saw Eliot as an "American" author. As Michael Soto observes, he wrote Liveright upon the latter's acceptance of Cane in January, 1923: "I am glad to be in the fold. There is no other like it. The American group with Waldo Frank, Gorham B. Munson, TS Eliot-well, it simply cant be beaten." If this is true, why is the "American" emphasis ignored in a book that purports to be about Toomer and his intellectual milieu? Should not an investigation of Toomer's relationship to the Harlem Renaissance begin with the group of "American" intellectuals with whom he identified, especially Waldo Frank? It is no exaggeration to say that Frank's Our America (1919) inspired Toomer to write Cane. When Frank asked that someone step forward to chart the presence of "the African on the American continent", his was the "call" that Toomer answered, as Toomer more than once admitted; and without Frank-as friend, confidant, and, most importantly, as editor--Toomer wou ld not have produced the Cane that we have. Moreover, Toomer's response to the "our" in Our America was a reflection of his desire to join a group of artists and intellectuals who were engaged in renewing American society at its multi-cultural core. If one is looking for the source of the complex interplay of political radicalism, cultural nationalism, and aesthetic excitement that went into the Harlem Renaissance, one must start with the intellectual vortex that first created Toomer.
One could point to other missed opportunities. For instance, the main title of Genevieve Fabre's essay, "Dramatic and Musical Structures in 'Harvest Song' and 'Kabnis,'" develops a theme mentioned by two other contributors: that "music" in some form or another played an important role in Cane, either in terms of connecting motifs or strategies of aesthetic progression. Since Toomer had first thought of becoming a composer, this aspect of Cane is hardly surprising. What is surprising is that no one mentions Rosenfeld's Musical Portraits as an influence on Cane, especially since Toomer knew Rosenfeld and was reading his essays in The Seven Arts (1916-17) and The Dial. In Musical Portraits, as Lewis Mumford noted, Rosenfeld turned criticism into an art form by using the musical motifs of his composers to link their various portraits into a whole greater than the sum of their individual parts, thereby creating the equivalent of a literary symphony.
Another major problem with this collection of essays is that some critics continue to read Cane as a Gurdjieffian document, even though no proof exists that Toomer had ever heard of Gurdjieff--or Ouspenski either--before 1923. Why chase after Russian mystics when we know precisely who Toomer was reading in 1921-22? Not only was he reading the short-story cycles, but also the complete Seven Arts, Hart Crane's early poetry, Kenneth Burke's essays in The Dial, Lewis Mumford's The Story of Utopias (1922), and all of Waldo Frank, including essays that Frank had written on Jules Romains and unanimisme. Why don't our French editors start with Romains, as seen through Frank's eyes? They would seem to have a head start on the rest of us. But, alas, what begins as a promising venture into uncharted territory by critics unbesotted by critical jargon ends by giving us a Toomer whose fangs are removed. This is a convenient portrait of Toomer if we wish to see the Harlem Renaissance as a literary movement that sacrificed p olitical radicalism for the politics of art, but this is not the Toomer who influenced the Gothic side of the Harlem Renaissance in such texts as Walrond's Tropic Death, Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928), or Wallace Thurman's The Blacker the Berry (1929).
Despite the intelligence and occasional brilliance of these essays, they fail to fulfil the promise implied by the volume's title, thus leaving untold the tale of the historical contexts that produced Cane.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2002|
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