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To Make a New Race

To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance

Jon Woodson
Copyright Date: 1999
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  • Book Info
    To Make a New Race
    Book Description:

    Jean Toomer's adamant stance against racism and his call for a raceless society were far more complex than the average reader of works from the Harlem Renaissance might believe. InTo Make a New RaceJon Woodson explores the intense influence of Greek-born mystic G. I. Gurdjieff on the thinking of Toomer and his coterie--Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larson, George Schuyler, Wallace Thurman--and, through them, the mystic's influence on many of the notables in African American literature.Gurdjieff, born of poor Greco-Armenian parents on the Russo-Turkish frontier, espoused the theory that man is asleep and in prison unless he strains against the major burdens of life, especially those of identification, like race. Toomer, whose novelCanebecame an inspiration to many later Harlem Renaissance writers, traveled to France and labored at Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. Later, the writer became one of the primary followers approved to teach Gurdjieff's philosophy in the United States.Woodson's is the first study of Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance to look beyond contemporary portrayals of the mystic in order to judge his influence. Scouring correspondence, manuscripts, and published texts, Woodson finds the direct links in which Gurdjieff through Toomer played a major role in the development of "objective literature." He discovers both coded and explicit ways in which Gurdjieff's philosophy shaped the world views of writers well into the 1960s. Moreover Woodson reinforces the extensive contribution Toomer and other African-American writers with all their international influences made to the American cultural scene.

    Jon Woodson, an associate professor of English at Howard University in Washington, D.C., is a contributor to the collection,Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960. He has published articles inAfrican American Reviewand other journals.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-709-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-28)

    With a once oracular aphorism that has been diminished to a tragic commonplace, W. E. B. Du Bois stated in 1903 that “The problem of the twentieth Century is the problem of the color line” (The Souls of Black Folk239). I have recalled Du Bois’s poignant assessment to place in perspective the careers of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (mystic, psychologist, writer, composer, and teacher of sacred dance) and Jean Toomer (African-American avant-garde writer, social visionary, and disciple of Gurdjieff). A contemporary reading of Du Bois’s statement is likely to overlook its implication of the imperiled nature of modern life that...

  7. 1 Jean Toomer: Beside You Will Stand a Strange Man
    (pp. 29-46)

    Jean Toomer was the subject of numerous literary studies after what amounts to his rediscovery in the late 1960s. Toomer is a controversial writer and is equally celebrated as an African-American literary progenitor of the Harlem Renaissance and defamed as a tragically misguided figure who was unable to come to terms with his racial identity. Fundamentally, Toomer was a violator of taboos, and this contributes to many of the difficulties that arise in trying to understand his complex personality. In particular, Toomer’s controversiality stems from his rejection of racialism, a stand that is even today not without many detractors, for...

  8. 2 Wallace Thurman: Beyond Race and Color
    (pp. 47-74)

    As the editor of two short-lived but influential Harlem literary magazines.Fire!!andHarlem, experimental quarterlies devoted to and published by younger Negro artists, Wallace Thurman was an important figure in organizing the avant-garde of the Harlem Renaissance. Thurman followed his Los Angeles associate Arna Bontemps to Harlem in 1924 and found employment as a journalist. In his journalistic work he was a colleague of George Schuyler. Thurman’s literary activities were centered on the residence for Negro artists—the “Niggerati Manor” described in his novelInfants of the Spring—where he convened the young experimentalists of Harlem, a group including...

  9. 3 Rudolph Fisher: Minds of Another Order
    (pp. 75-96)

    In his introduction toThe City of Refuge: The Collected Stories of Rudolph Fisher, John McKluskey describes Dr. Rudolph Fisher as

    one of the Harlem Renaissance writers who attempted to affirm the complexity of black urban culture while steering clear of exotica and oversentimentality, two dangers of his moment…. In just less than ten years, fifteen of his short stories were published. Of these, ‬“The City of Refuge,” his first, and “Miss Cynthie” are the best known today. Both were included inThe Best American Short Storiescollections for their respective years of publication. Fisher was also the author of...

  10. 4 Nella Larsen: The Anatomy of “Sleep”
    (pp. 97-122)

    From the purview of literary criticism, Nella Larsen is an exceedingly troublesome author. George Hutchinson observes that, in part, bothQuicksandandPassingare “satire[s] of black and white obsessions with ‘racial integrity’—though this critique has yet to be recognized in the scholarship surrounding the novel[s]” (344). According to Jonathan Little, her work has been consistently underrated because it lacks “triumphant characters or affirming political messages” (173). Little notes that this view has caused critics to “miss some of the insights that Larsen’s pervasively ironic vision offers” (173). Little’s discussion of Larsen’s use of irony makes two points that...

  11. 5 George Schuyler: New Races and New Worlds
    (pp. 123-146)

    There is a notable disparity among the literary careers of the Harlem group. Wallace Thurman and Rudolph Fisher died in 1934. Thurman had published two novels and collaborated on another novel and a play; he also authored some unpublished plays and two screenplays. Fisher published two novels and more than a dozen short stories, had one play produced, and wrote on medical topics. Like Jean Toomer, after some initial success, Nella Larsen found herself without an audience for her work, although she continued to write for several years. Whereas Toomer preserved his unpublished manuscripts, Larsen destroyed her unpublished novels, and...

  12. 6 Zora Neale Hurston: The Self and the Nation
    (pp. 147-170)

    Zora Neale Hurston’s first novel,Jonah’s Gourd Vine(1934), is a fictional treatment of the contentious marriage of her parents. The story of a smooth-talking, wife-beating, philandering, jack-leg preacher who runs away whenever he is confronted by difficulties did not provide Hurston with a vehicle for the comprehensive presentation of Gurdjieff’s system. Hurston is primarily a storyteller, and her solutions to the problems posed by the “objective” aesthetic tend to achieve a high degree of literary polish. Hurston allegorizes, mythologizes, and symbolizes Gurdjieff’s esoteric concepts, where Toomer and her colleagues in the Harlem group often allowed jargon, didacticism, abstract schemes,...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 171-178)

    Wallace Thurman’sInfants of the Springconcludes with a description of the title sheet, which is all that remains of Paul Arbian’s illegible novel: “Beneath this inscription, he had drawn a distorted, inky black skyscraper, modeled after Niggerati Manor, and on which were focused an array of blindingly white beams of light. The foundation of the building was composed of crumbling stone. At first glance it could be ascertained that the skyscraper would crumple and fall, leaving the dominating white lights in full possession of the sky” (184). Ekphrasis (the verbal representation of visual art) is not common in the...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 179-182)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 183-190)
  16. Index
    (pp. 191-202)