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Jean Toomer

Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution

Barbara Foley
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 368
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    Jean Toomer
    Book Description:

    The 1923 publication of Cane established Jean Toomer as a modernist master and one of the key literary figures of the emerging Harlem Renaissance. Though critics and biographers alike have praised his artistic experimentation and unflinching eyewitness portraits of Jim Crow violence, few seem to recognize how much Toomer's interest in class struggle, catalyzed by the Russian Revolution and the post–World War One radical upsurge, situate his masterwork in its immediate historical context. In Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution, Barbara Foley explores Toomer's political and intellectual connections with socialism, the New Negro movement, and the project of Young America. Examining his rarely scrutinized early creative and journalistic writings, as well as unpublished versions of his autobiography, she recreates the complex and contradictory consciousness that produced Cane. Foley's discussion of political repression runs parallel with a portrait of repression on a personal level. Examining family secrets heretofore unexplored in Toomer scholarship, she traces their sporadic surfacing in Cane.Toomer's text, she argues, exhibits a political unconscious that is at once public and private.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09632-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Readers routinely scan rapidly through the epigraphs to critical studies, assuming that the chunks of quotation highlight key features of the argument to come. When we reencounter these quoted passages, we experience a flash of recognition that affirms both their original importance and their subsequent centrality to the argument in process. Epigraphs thus conventionally—and somewhat redundantly—gesture toward presence, rather than absence, toward typicality, not anomaly. I ask readers to glance back over the three quotations reproduced above. The first is taken from an article Jean Toomer published in the SocialistNew York Callin the wake of the...

  6. PART I

    • CHAPTER 1 Touching Naked Reality: Socialism, the Labor Movement, and the Embers of Revolution
      (pp. 19-50)

      The scholarship on Jean Toomer has largely overlooked the substantial evidence indicating his serious early interest in leftist politics, as well as his abiding leftist conscience. Toomer’s publications in the Socialist press, when taken into account at all, have been routinely interpreted as expressions of a youthful romanticism soon abandoned. His two-week-long experience working in a New Jersey shipyard in December 1919, which presumably proved to him the proletariat’s indifference to its own exploitation, is often cited as the terminus of his fascination with socialism. The 1998 publication of Charles Scruggs and Lee VanDemarr’sJean Toomer and the Terrors of...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Tight Cocoon: Class, Culture, and the New Negro
      (pp. 51-83)

      It has often been argued that Jean Toomer found his Negro identity inCaneonly to lose it soon thereafter. He was presumably dismayed by Horace Liveright’s decision to “feature Negro” in the publicity forCane; distressed at Waldo Frank’s identifying Toomer as a Negro in his preface toCane; and furious when Alain Locke included inThe New Negro: An Interpretation(1925) some of the sketches and poems fromCanewithout Toomer’s permission, thereby affirming Toomer’s public persona as a person of African descent at a time when Toomer was in rapid retreat from self-identification as a black man....

    • CHAPTER 3 The Experiment in America: Sectional Art and Literary Nationalism
      (pp. 84-119)

      Jean Toomer’s mid-1922 letter to Claude McKay—written soon before the poet would travel to the USSR, where he was to participate in the Fourth World Congress of the Comintern—testifies not just to Toomer’s attraction to current developments in the Soviet Union but also to his increasing fascination with what he called the “American Experiment”—the literary nationalist-cum-modernist movement that was going forward under the banner of Young America and largely identified with the critic and novelist Waldo Frank. Although Toomer’s period of maximum involvement with the Young Americans (1922–24) followed upon his earlier passions—his interest in...

    • CHAPTER 4 All the Dead Generations: Jean Toomer’s Dark Sister
      (pp. 120-152)

      At some point in the 1930s, Jean Toomer wrote a poem titled “Be with Me” that ends with the plea, “Do you, dark sister, / Not forsake me.” The poem’s address to this “dark sister” can be interpreted as a reference to the phases of transcendence set forth in the doctrines of George Gurdjieff. The poem can also be interpreted as an articulation of Toomer’s inner conflicts in the wake of his passing over the color line: the speaker, regretting having “walked away / Seeking I knew not what,” finds himself strangely suspended between life and death. What will be...

  7. PART II

    • CHAPTER 5 In the Land of Cotton: “Kabnis”
      (pp. 155-187)

      In the publicity sketch accompanying Liveright’s advertisement forCane, Jean Toomer wrote that “there can be no cumulative and consistent movement, and of course no central plot to such a book. It is sheer vaudeville. But if it be accepted as a unit of spiritual experience, then one can find inCanea beginning, a progression, a complication, and an end.” While this description apparently describes the sequential structure ofCane, starting with “Karintha” and ending with “Kabnis,” Toomer’s December 1922 comment to Waldo Frank suggests a quite different conception of his text’s organizing scheme:

      From three angles, CANE’s design...

    • CHAPTER 6 Georgia on His Mind: Part 1 of Cane
      (pp. 188-220)

      Jean Toomer wrote most of the poems and sketches in part 1 ofCaneduring the six months following his completion of the first draft of “Kabnis” in January 1922. He undertook the fall 1922 trip to South Carolina in the company of Waldo Frank in part because, as he wrote to his friend in July 1922, “the impulse which sprang from Sparta, Georgia last fall has just about fulfilled and spent itself.” The two prose texts in part 1 that he composed on returning from Spartanburg—“Esther” and “Blood-Burning Moon”—display a significant shift, both stylistic and thematic, from...

    • CHAPTER 7 Black and Brown Worlds Heaving Upward: Part 2 of Cane
      (pp. 221-252)

      In part 2 ofCane, Toomer’s critique of capitalist modernity comes to the fore. The voice heard in hisNew York Callwritings of 1919 and 1920 is once again audible, and the 1919 Washington race riot—for him the key domestic event emerging from the postwar conjuncture—signals the arrival of the urban New Negro as history-making proletarian. Situated mostly in the nation’s capital, the stories and poems here call into question the limitations of metonymic nationalism; if the liberation of the submerged masses is to occur, it will have to be part of a worldwide “heaving upward” of...

  8. Coda: Black Super-Vaudeville: History and Form in Cane
    (pp. 253-256)

    We now turn to a brief consideration of the relationship between history and form inCane. Given the wide range of interpretations of the text’s parts, it comes as no surprise that critics have offered dramatically differing interpretations of the whole. Some have discerned a progression toward resolution and synthesis; others a suspended state of fragmentation and division; still others a triumphant achievement of polyphony and hybridity. With a few noteworthy exceptions, however, commentaries onCanehave largely overlooked the text’s engagement with history. They may addressCane’s representation of the present as an outgrowth of the past, its connection...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 257-302)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 303-322)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 323-324)