JEAN TOOMER OR HOW THE FAILED RACE MAN PERFORMED MODERNITY By ROBIN NUZUM A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF ARTS UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 2003
ii ACKNOWLEDGMENTS It is indeed true that a writerÂ’s project of putting thought to page is also a condensation of many other conversations, dynamics of support and contributions of every sort. While it is impossible to recount all of the contributors to this project, it is necessary to name a few. The foremost debt of gratitude belongs to my thesis director, Dr. Tace Hedrick, whose unwavering support and faith in the project and its writer did allow me the opportunity to attempt to give Jean Toomer a reading that was closer to what we both believed he deserved. I also thank her for the general sanity that we allowed to prevail concerning all the projectÂ’s inevitable trials and tribulations. Dr. Malini Schueller brought her usual and dependable rigor and thoroughness to the subject as well as support and commitment, even from across the globe. Peter Silitch was a friend whose outside readership, and interest in Jean Toomer, was as professional and helpful as anyone c ould hope for. His wife, Elizabeth, provided editorial assistance, and they both provided every function of supportive friendship to me during the process. Beloved friends Dr. Shaya Isenberg and Bahira Sugarman phoned and emailed in their love and support from the beach and at the critical momentsÂ—as they always do. It makes such an inestimable difference. Mary Jane SchaerÂ’s quite invisible presence as the Â“one who would one day transform the entire transcript into an appropriate documentÂ” lent a level of support that defies the logic of the fact that I have never met her and could not be underestimated given my phobias concerning that task.
iii Finally, there are no words to express the gratitude and love I feel for my parents, Bob and Suzy, whose support and faith in me exceed even the stratospheric limits of the supportive function of parenting. And to JT himself, I think he knows I did my best, and I surely thank him for the best that was his.
iv TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ................................................ii ABSTRACT............................................................v INTRODUCTION .......................................................1 ARGUMENT...........................................................3 Itâ€™s All in the Context................................................3 The Reception of Cane ...............................................6 Toomerâ€™s Own Racial Pronouncements or the Problem of Racial Binary ........7 The Vulnerability and the Vision ......................................11 Engendering the Race Man ...........................................14 Modernist Questing for Answers......................................21 Gurdjieffâ€™s Modernity ..............................................24 The Toomer/Gurdjieffian Synthesis....................................28 Notes............................................................32 CONCLUSION........................................................33 REFERENCES........................................................34 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH..............................................36
v Abstract of Thesis Presen ted to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts JEAN TOOMER OR HOW THE FAILED RACE MA N PERFORMED MODERNITY By Robin Nuzum December 2003 Chair: Tace Hedrick Major Department: English The thesis explores the intersections of the figure of the race man, prevailing notions of modernity and race and the life and work of intellectual and writer Jean Toomer. By tracing the racial politics and protocols embedded in the race man ideal, the paper exposes the necessity of Toomerâ€™s socalled â€œflightâ€ to the metaphysical idealism of the Russian mystic Gurdjieff. It also dem onstrates the ways in which this move mimics a performance of modernity for this great mode rnist writer and thinker. These claims are argued with particular attention to the racial binaries that ha ve constituted much of U.S. racial politic s and ideology.
1 blank INTRODUCTION This project is an exploration of the impact of the figure of the race man on the multi-racial writer Jean Toomer. The purpose of the project is to first make apparent the ways in which this figure, when applied as a descriptor and a means of evaluation of Toomer, became a pathway towards invariable failure for Toomer at the very moment of his greatest successÂ—the publication of his masterwork Cane in 1923. This lack of success as a race man then provoked the necessity of Toomer's search for another, more suitable path, for fulfillment of his very modernist aspirationsÂ—both as a writer and a social leader and reformer. Toomer, like many intellectuals and artists in the 1920's, understood the world to be in a state of crisis. Like Toomer, many of them understood their function as artists and thinkers as addressing and rectifying the sense of impending doom that was the overall experience of modernity. For the sake of this work, I define modernism as artistic and intellectual response to modernity. Modernity is the experience of modernization which often included a sense of contradictions at the very core of the relation between the human, society and the modernization process. Modernism as a period is most often dated between 1890-1930Â—very firmly within the time period this project explores with regard to Jean Toomer. Toomer's well-regarded novel Cane is stylistically modernist in its montage of stories, poems and vignettes and functionally modernist in content and approach as Toomer illuminates the reality of modernization's impact on the dying Black folk culture
2 of the American South in the early part of the twentieth century. The novel is based, in part, on Toomer's own experiences in Georgia in 1921. His expressed aim in writing the pieces that make up this collection was to show the brokenness of the modern condition in comparison to the last vestiges of the rural Black south in its integrity. Ultimately, Cane was, in Toomer's words, a swan song. Toomer's life-long obsession then became to restore what is broken to wholeness and to make his life and work serve this purpose in a most integrated way. In the end, the failed race man Toomer did learn to perform modernity in ways ultimately supportive of his own gender and racial complexity; his wholeness. This is also, then, a story of how he did it.
1 Susan Hegeman, Patterns for AmericaÂ—Modernism and the Concept of Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 51.2 Hegeman, 51. 3 ARGUMENT ItÂ’s All in the Context IÂ’m leaving the shining ground, brothers, I sing because I ache, I go because I must . . . Jean ToomerÂ—Â“The Blue MeridianÂ” In her book Patterns for AmericaÂ—Modernism and the Concept of Culture , Susan Hegeman chronicles how an emerging concept of culture in the early twentieth century paved the way for Black leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois to posit new models for African American participation in American life. In particular, the influence of Franz BoasÂ’ thought on DuBois helped give Â“credence to a significant de-emphasis on Â‘raceÂ’ as a biological category and a corresponding new in terest in developing positive descriptions of what a specifically African American Â‘cultureÂ’ might contain.Â”1 This change created space Â“beyond and apart fromÂ” the scientific racism of the day and later evolved into the Harlem Renaissance literary strategy of highlighting and making known the profound contributions of African Americans to an expanded understanding of Â“America.Â” As Hegeman notes, these Black intellectuals took Â“as a founding premise the idea that Black Americans possessed a particular cultural heritage.Â”2 The writer Jean ToomerÂ’s entrance onto the stage of American literary history was governed by this type of understanding of culture and its logic of cultural contribution. In
4 3 Hazel Carby. Race Men (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 4.4 Ibid., 36.5 W.E.B. DuBois. (1903) The Souls of Black Folk (rpt. New York: New York American Library 1982), 52. particular, Toomer wrote his masterwork Cane in response to what he understood as his mentor Waldo FrankÂ’s omissions of Black S outhern rural life in FrankÂ’s own treatment of his 1919 Our America. Ironically, ToomerÂ’s success at this enterprise and participation in the logic of these emerging cultural constructs created difficulties and obstacles for him well beyond what he could have imagined. Before I can return to the issue of ToomerÂ’s now legendary difficulties, another contextual backdrop needs to be elucidated. It is the operating figure of the Â“Race ManÂ” of which W.E. B. DuBois is the exemplar. In her 1998 text Race Men , Hazel Carby proclaims Â“for a century, the figure of the race man has haunted black political and cultural thought.Â”3 A key figure in this historical trajectory is W.E.B. DuBois. His success as a superior Black man, coupled with his visionary leadership, positioned DuBois as a worthy race man. His larger cultural agenda for African Americans had profound and far-reach ing effects. As noted in my comments about emerging notions of cultural contribution, Carby summarizes thus: Â“in DuBoisÂ’ geneaology of race and nation, black people are both integral to the nation-state and essential to its future.Â”4 This claim is made alongside the statement of DuBois that black men are Â“the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness.Â”5 These were new modern terms for the position of Blacks in America and DuBois set them in his seminal text The Souls of Black Folks published in 1903.
5 6 Carby, 10. For DuBois however, it would take the significant contribution of the Â“talented tenthÂ” to persuade white America of its need for the Â“Race ManÂ” and his people. And for the race man himself, it would take sacrifice. In his expressed intent DuBois begins to constitute the Â“race manÂ” (of whom he is the prototype) as one who Â“intends to limit his strivingÂ” Â“in so far as that strife is incompa tible with others of my brothers and sisters making their lives similar . . . I am firmly convinced that my own best development is not one and the same with the best development of the world and here I am willing to sacrifice.Â”6 This sacrifice of individual desire was critical for DuBois. Again, this was a sentiment that would have costly consequences when applied to the multi-racial Toomer as his desires to have himself adequately understood chafed against much of the racial ideology of the day.iWhat I wish to demonstrate here is the inevitable failure of Jean Toomer as a race manÂ—as an exemplary man living a life of self -sacrifice for his peopleÂ—even as this was the most available lens through which he was constructed. I will trace the particularities of gender and race as they specifically dwell within the race man figure as well as the ways in which they created problems for Toomer, both in his work and in his selfunderstanding. I will then begin to chart the course taken by the Â“failed-race manÂ” who nonetheless, must perform a very modern task of making himself whole for the sake of a world in peril. He can also then, in fact, perform modernity as well. By following the solitary genius Gurdjieff and adopting and prom oting his spiritual world-view and total system, the Â“failed-race manÂ” can mimic a performance of the race man in a way productive of self-inclusion.
6 7 Jean Toomer, Cane , ed. Darwin Turner (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1988), 121.8 Ibid., 121.9 Rudolph Byrd, Jean Toomerâ€™s Years with Gurdjieffâ€”Portrait of an Artist, 19231936 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990), 1.10 Siobhan Somerville, Queering the Color Lineâ€”Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 131. The Reception of Cane I held a fair position as men rate things, Even enviableâ€” I could taste flavors in a grain of sand, My eyes saw loveliness . . . â€œThe Blue Meridianâ€ At age 28, Jean Toomer published his first literary work Cane . The year was 1923. Arna Bontemps suggested that an entire generation of writers â€œwent quietly madâ€ over Cane ; but the fact is, they were not at all quiet about it. In the foreword to Cane the wellknown novelist Waldo Frank wrote: A poet has arisen among our American youth who has known how to turn the essences of materials of his Southland into the essences and materials of literature. . . . The fashioning of beauty is ever foremost in his inspiration. . . . He has made songs and lovely stories of his land . . . [ Cane ] is a harbinger of a literary force of whose incalculable future I believe no reader of this book will be in doubt.7 Sherwood Anderson proclaimed Toomer the only Negro â€œto have consciously the artistâ€™s impulse.â€8 Afro-American literary critics such as William Stanley Braithwaite also endorsed Toomer as an â€œartist of the race.â€ He was described by Alfred Kreymborg as â€œone of the finest artists among the dark race, if not the finest.â€9 As literary critic Siobhan Somerville summarizes, â€œmuch of this praise emphasized Toomerâ€™s position as a gifted voice for African American culture.â€10 Toomer was believed by many to have â€œcapturedâ€
7 the rural Southern Black experience in a haunting and revealing way. This gift for exposing black cultural beauty put him squarely within the traditions I have been describing; that of a Â“race manÂ” who perf orms a superior function by claiming and illuminating Â“the raceÂ” for his people and their national context. The problem, of course, began when Toomer said he was not a Negro. And yet he had succeeded exceedingly well at the cultural task of bringing Black culture to positive life. This fissure between the further completion of a much needed project and the impossible possibility that this endeavor was performed by someone other than a Â“negroÂ” was too much for the prevailing cultural logic. Toomer was crashing fast as a Â“race man,Â” his denials were received as betrayal. He was certainly not performing the requisite sacrifice required of a true race man . The only alternative, was to sacrifice Toomer the artist instead. It was a literary version of Â“kill the messenger.Â” Jean Toomer would attempt to Â“killÂ” himself, by way of eradicating his ego. By reconstituting himself on a higher level, Toomer could recast the messianic race man function into something capable of embracing and promoting the Â“first AmericanÂ”Â—his new designation. ToomerÂ’s Own Racial Pronouncements or the Problem of Racial Binary It is a new America To be spiritualized by each new American. Â“The Blue MeridianÂ” For the purposes of my argument hereÂ—that is, to illuminate the underlying racial and cultural logic that led to ToomerÂ’s many difficultiesÂ—it is necessary to elucidate the earliest contexts of the controversies surrounding ToomerÂ’s racial identity. In April of 1923, six months before CaneÂ’s publication, Toomer was made aware of the reason behind speculation about him from the following letter. (There had been other such
8 11 Byrd, 55.12 Ibid. moments prior, Toomer later tells.) Claude A. Barnett, director of the Associated Negro Press wrote to Jean Toomer: For some time we, and by we I mean a group of three friends, the other two of which are literary men, one colored the other white, have wondered who and also what you are. There have been several arguments, the literary men contending that your style and finish indicated that you we re not Negroid, while I, who am but the business manager of a news service, felt certain that you wereÂ— for how else could you interpret Â“usÂ” (my emphasis) as you do unless you had peeked behind the veil.11As Rudolph Byrd further explains, Â“In this racial debate, BarnettÂ’s position was that Toomer, owing to his ability to interpret certain aspects of African-American experience and culture, was African American.Â”12 The fact that no other possibility could be imagined is most revelatory of the underlying conceptual dynamics of the time. Also, it is worthy of recall to mention that to Â“deconstructÂ” these notions at the time would also be to undermine, or significantly recast, an important modern political intervention for African AmericansÂ—that of showing the wo rthiness of African Americans by showing their particular cultural achievements, especially in the form of gifted and talented individual men. Nevertheless, Toomer was a man of principle where his own life and ideas were concerned so he proceeded aheadÂ—in the Â“foolÂ” sense of the word, leaving the angel behindÂ—with the following response. The arguments you have had with your friends , the different points of view and the consequent contentions, are not at all peculiar to your group. The fact is that I have had inquires of like nature come in from New Orleans, New York, Milwaukee, and Hollywood. The true and complete answer is one of some complexity, and for this reason perhaps it will not be seen and accepted until after I am dead. (This sounds quite solemn, but I assure you that I am capable of the saving smile.) The answer involves a realistic and accurate knowledge of racial mixture, of nationality as formed by the interaction of tradition, culture and environment, of the artistic nature
9 13Byrd, 56-57.14 Catherine Gunther Kodat, Â“To Â‘Flash White Light from EbonyÂ’: The Problem of Modernism in Jean ToomerÂ’s Cane,Â” Twentieth Century Literature 46 (2000): 2. in relation to the racial or social group, etc. All of which is too heavy and thick to go into now. Let me state then, simply, that I am the grandson of the late P.B.S. Pinchback. From this fact it is clear that your contention is sustained. I have Â“peeped behind the veil.Â” And my deepest impulse to literature (on the side of material) is the direct result of what I saw. In so far as the old folk-songs, as these are Negro, I am, body and soul, Negroid. My style, my esthetic, is nothing more nor less than my attempt to fashion my substance into works of art. For it, I am indebted to my inherent gifts, and to the entire body of contemporary literature. I see no reason why my style and finish could not have come from an American with Negro blood in his veins. The pure fact is that they have, and hence your friendsÂ’ contentions are thrown out of court.13 (my emphasis) ToomerÂ’s designation of an American with Negro blood did not fit the binary constructs of his inquiring peers. Leaving aside the fact, that from my view, there are numerous anti-racist, pro-African American statements in ToomerÂ’s response, what is more important to note here, is how the prevailing notions I have been elucidating kept these statements from being heard as such, or from being enough to counter any conception of him as a race traitor who simply wished to Â“pass.Â” (Such an assessment persisted for many decades to follow.) Nevertheless, Toomer continued on with further intellectual interventions that would take the former Â“double-bindsÂ” of the racial binary into a more inclusive, less maddening place. As Catherine Gunther Kodat so brilliantly summed up ToomerÂ’s experiences (as well as the logic behind them), Â“Ordered to be black, Toomer refused, and thereby discovered that, by default, he must Â‘beÂ’ white.Â”14Finally, it is certainly no accident that Toomer used metaphors of Â“court and trialÂ” in response to those who were accusing him. He was standing trial within an entire system of cultural logic and racial classification.
10 15 Werner Sollors, Â“Modernism and Race,Â” in Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Genevieve Fabre and Michel Feith (New Burnswick: Rutgers University Press, 33).16 Ibid., 34.17 Ibid., 34. ToomerÂ’s interventions involved relaying something of his complex racial composition and also attempting a new schema that would include a recognition of it. Racially, I seem to have (who knows for sure) seven blood mixtures: French, Dutch, Welsh, Negro, German, Jewish, and Indian. Because of these, my position in America has been a curious one. I have lived equally amid the two race groups. Now white, now colored. From my own point of view I am naturally and inevitably an American..15Nearly a decade later in 1931, at the time of his marriage to Margery Lattimer, Toomer was still attempting these conceptual interventions. There is a new race in America. I am a member of a new race. It is neither white nor black nor in-between. It is the American race, differing as much from white and black as white and black differ from each other. It is possible that there are Negro and Indian bloods in my descent along with English, Spanish, Welsh, Scotch, French, Dutch, and German. This is common in America, and it is from all these strains that the American race is being born. But the old divisions into white, black, brown, red are out worn in this country. They have had their day. Now is the time of the birth of a new order, a new vision, a new ideal of man. I proclaim this order. My marriage to Margery Latimer is the marriage of two Americans.16Yet as Werner Sollors notes, Â“The World Telegram headline read Â‘Negro Who Wed White Novelist Sees New RaceÂ’. Whatever Toomer saw, the newspaper failed to see.Â”17But ten years ahead just tells the persistence of the problem and is ahead of our story. Jean Toomer wrote very eloquently and movingl y about the social ramifications of such a racial binary system in Cane. Some reviewers have characterized Cane as a long meditation on ToomerÂ’s personal struggle concerning his own Â“biracialÂ” identity. I find this view extremely
11 reductive even as ToomerÂ’s personal experiences of race clearly did inform the view point that made this a great work of art. This view is reductive for at least two reasons: one, it ignores the great social commentary that the work performs, extending far beyond anyoneÂ’s Â“personalÂ” struggle and secondly, it ignores the equally powerful commentary Cane produces on many subjects such as the loss of a sacred world-view, the inhibiting, repressive qualities associated with so-called sexual mores (and their social and individual consequences), important geogra phical differences between North and South and of course, the problems of moderniza tion and increasing urbanization and their deleterious effects. Toomer wanted his work to be received in all its complexity just as he wished his racial identity to be received as such. Nevertheless, Cane is an indictment of the American binary racial classification system of its day as well and performs its redress in a way characteristic of modernismÂ’s fascination with irreconcilable difference and contradiction. This places the novel in the vulnerable territory of loss and impossible history. The Vulnerability and the Vision But out of our past comes hell, Rushing us, sweeping us, Winding us, blinding us, Mistakes and hates, Habits, blights, and greeds, Out of the past they come And they are hell. Â“The Blue MeridianÂ” As stated, the novel Cane is an indictment of the American binary racial classification system. The Â“novelÂ” itself is r eally a collection of short stories and poems arranged figuratively in a circle. This circle symbolizes an original unity found in the land that is the setting of the novel as well as in ToomerÂ’s own journey of consciousness.
12 Yet the symbol of the broken circle found throughout the text suggests it is a circle that is in the process of searching for completion. ToomerÂ’s work in Cane demonstrates his deep and profound understanding of the impact of Â“binary logicÂ” on an individual and on a country. It was a problem he knew intimately and he helped his readers experience the pain of it through Cane . This exposure and openness to pain and suffering results in a sense of vulnerability throughout the novel. Toomer also shows in this novel, new conceptions of masculinity, affect and consciousness. These are reflections of ToomerÂ’s developing vision. The types of human relating and experience found in Cane Â’s mysticism foretells the path Toomer will use to take himself and his readers away from the binds of such binaries as constituted race in America. I wish to turn now to how this indictment of AmericaÂ’s racial system is performed in the story of Becky in Cane . As Toomer begins, Â“Becky was the white woman who had two Negro sons. SheÂ’s dead; theyÂ’ve gone away. The pines whisper to Jesus. The Bible flaps its leaves with an aimless rustle on her mound.Â” Thus begins a story in which Toomer will invoke the figure of Jesus and the Â“realÂ” teaching of the Bible to interrupt the social arrangements that lead to BeckyÂ’s ongoing and inevitable tragedy. What is less forthrightly clear from Toomer is how this tragedy is also the tragedy of the Â“two sons.Â” It does appear that Toomer directs his sympathy more to white Becky, who the town hopes will secretly die. She earned the disrespect of white and black alike when she dared to intermingle her life stuff with a Negro. Nevertheless, Toomer, of course, is not himself unaware that this situation is also the two sonsÂ’ existential tragedy. He does mention briefly their terrible dilemma. Â“White or colored? No one knew, and least of all themselves. We, who had cast out their mother because of them, could we take them in? They answered black and white folks by
13 18 Toomer, 8. shooting up two men and leaving town. Â‘Godam the white folks; godam the niggers,Â’ they shouted as they left town.Â”18 It is not a huge leap to think of these two sons as representing Â“whiteÂ” and Â“blackÂ” America, especially in so far as they believe themselves to be separate. Nor to understand that Toomer is suggesting that the current social arrangements of race could only lead each to condemn the other while, tragically, condemning themselves. For Toomer however, Becky is the most maligned figure because it is she herself who insists on something else, who forces the hand of the system by engaging in intimate intermingling between the races. Her flatout refusal of the prescribed prohibitions forces the Â“townÂ” as civilization to find a liminal place for her. Though they wish her dead, they donÂ’t dare do it themselves, nor do they desire to assume responsibility for the act. Instead, the people wish for an unconscious execution of Becky, so they place her at the edge of the town-where people do pass by on trainsÂ—with the equally unconscious hope that she will show them something different of themselves. The fact that Becky is suggested to be Â“crazyÂ” or unstable is also a reflection of her symbolic reflection as Â“motherÂ” America whose system of racial classification and its concomitant social relations do not originate in sanity. Toomer shows the current racial protocol is dangerous and highly destructive as evidenced by how violence consistently emerged from any challenges to its logic. I believe one of the things that makes Cane a magnificent work of art is that Toomer crafts both his raw vulnerability and as well as his subtle vision into his complex text. However, this same artful and fruitful combination of vulnerability melded with
14 19 Carby, 10.20 Ibid., 11. vision is also very present in ToomerÂ’s representations and characterizations of masculinity and gender relations in Cane. Engendering the Race Man Free the sexes From the penalties and proscriptions That allegedly are laid on us Because we are male and female. Â“The Blue MeridianÂ” Hazel CarbyÂ’s recent interrogation of the race man trope brings a pointed critique to its gendered nature. In referring to the DuBois quote I discussed, Carby notes beneath the surface of this apparent sacr ifice of individual desire to become an intellectual and a race leader is a conceptual framework that is gender-specific; not only does it apply exclusively to men, but it encompassesonly those men who enact narrowly and rigidly determined codes of masculinity.19She goes on to explain that DuBois constructed particular personal, political, and social characteristics of a racialized masculinity to articulate his definition of black leadership. He was particularly concerned about the Â“moral uplift of a peopleÂ” and felt that this was best accomplished Â“by planting in every community of Negroes black men with ideals of life and thrift and civilization, such as must in time filter through the masses and set examples of moral living.Â” After weighing the political and social needs of what he imagined to be the race, he judged the worth of black male intellectuals and would-be race leaders according to those needs20(my emphasis). It is worthwhile now to turn to DuBoisÂ’ own assessment of Toomer. After writing that Â“The world of black folk will some day arise and point to Jean Toomer as a writer who first dared to emancipate the colored world from the conventions of sexÂ” and clearly designating Toomer as one of Â“usÂ” by writing Â“Jean Toomer is the first of our writers to hurl his pen across the very face of our sex conventionality,Â” Du Bois ends with a more cautionary endorsement of Toomer.
15 21 Toomer, 171. Toomer does not impress me as one who knows his Georgia but he does know human beings. . . . His emotion is for the most part entirely objective. One does not feel that he feels much and yet the fervor of his descriptions shows that he has felt or knows what feeling is. His art carries much that is difficult or even impossible to understand. The artist, of course, has a right deliberately to make his art a puzzle to the interpreter (the whole world is a puzzle) but on the other hand I am myself unduly irritated by this sort of thing. (he goes on to cite examples) . . . All these essays and stories . . . (are) still for me . . . partially soiled. Toomer strikes me as a man who has written a powerful book but who is still watching for the fullness of his strength and for that calm certainty of his art which will undoubtedly come with years.21Besides making this rather maddening report on ToomerÂ’s artistry, DuBois makes critical engendered statements about Toomer in this passage. He very much assumes the role of the Â“elderÂ” evaluator. He notes, perhaps significantly, that Toomer strikes him as a man who has written a powerful book. This is, I suppose, as opposed to a woman who might have written it. Nevertheless, he is not yet fully a Â“manÂ” because he is Â“still watching for fullness of his strengthÂ” nor does his art yet possess the Â“calm certaintyÂ” of years. ToomerÂ’s art and his manhood are evaluated together-they are somehow reflective of one another. If his art is difficult or confusing, so must be his manhood. Though these particular examples may seem minor, it is not inconsequential that DuBois attacks (albeit in contradictory ways) ToomerÂ’s relationship to affect and feeling. DuBois first notes that his Â“emotion is for the most part objective.Â” It is a long-standing injunction of masculinity that if one, as a male, demonstrates Â“emotionalityÂ” it is imperative to insure that it is also somehow Â“objectiveÂ” and Â“rational.Â” Next DuBois states about Toomer that, Â“one does not feel that he feels much.Â” Then, DuBois proclaims that the Â“fervor of his descriptions shows that he has felt or knows what feeling is.Â” These later descriptions seem to be naming an inadequate or under-developed type of
16 feeling in Toomer though we know that DuBoisÂ’ final criticism of Toomer is that his art lacks a Â“calm certainty.Â” It is nearly impossible to ascertain exactly what form of affect would be acceptable or desirable for DuBois. I hasten to add that this clear ambivalence is most certainly linked to gender and prevailing constructions of masculinity. The artist, if he is male, provides many complications to the injunctions against male feeling as artists are supposed to be able to feel and express feelings in relation to their vision and commentary. Nevertheless, a work such as Cane that evokes deep feelings of loss, grief and longing appears to constellate added ambivalence about the gender of its maker. It is therefore necessary for DuBois to alternate between Â“manÂ” and Â“artistÂ” as a descriptor of Toomer. Each role carries differing valences and social prescriptions. Yet Toomer as artist threatens much with regards to gender, as he did similarly with race. DuBoisÂ’ own commentary on ToomerÂ’s Â“feeling self,Â” I believe, is reflective of the type of ambivalence many people felt about Toomer, including even Toomer himself. Leaving the subject of affect and masculinity aside temporarily, let me return to other propositions about the cultural and social impact of a figure like W.E.B. DuBois. As Hazel Carby makes clear, Â“It is important not only to recognize the varied and complex ways in which DuBois developed a public persona that was crafted to embody the philosophy he espoused, but also to analyze the ideological effect of such embodiment on his philosophic judgments. My contention is that these judgments reveal highly gendered structures of intellectual and political thought and feeling; these structures are embedded in specific ways in The Souls of Black Folk, first published in 1903, reprinted twenty-four times by 1940, revived in the 1960s and 1970s, and now
17 22 Carby, 2223 Somerville, 135. regarded as a founding text in the study of black culture.Â”22 It is worthwhile to note the connections these time periods share with Jean ToomerÂ—first, they reflect decades prior to the publication of Cane as well as those concurrent with the writing career of Toomer. Finally, the later periods reflect times of reprinting of Cane in which the ongoing critical reception of Jean Toomer and of Cane were highly determined by these types of ongoing constructions. I will turn now to the highly Â“genderedÂ” commentary on Toomer by contemporary African American literary critic Henry Louis Gates. In 1987, Gates offered the following analysis of ToomerÂ’s racial Â“disidentification.Â” In a curious and perhaps perverse sense, ToomerÂ’s was a gesture of racial castration, which, if not silencing his voice literally, then at least transformed his deep black bass into a false soprano. Toomer did not want so much to be white as most of us . . . would have it; rather, he sought to be racially indeterminate, which [Barbara] Johnson suggests to be the nature of the castrato. ToomerÂ’s curiously nationalistic gesture toward indeterminacy, to be Â“just American,Â” certainly helps to explain the shared reactions of (male) critics to the false soprano of his racially neutered and mystical works, such as Essentials.23So, in a curious form of logic, if the Â“race manÂ” fails at his race, he simultaneously fails at his gender as well. But not only does he quiver or shake at the shores of masculinity constructions (such as we see in DuBoisÂ’ represention of Toomer where he, at least at any time, could Â“reconformÂ” to masculinity), at this juncture, Toomer is understood to have Â“castratedÂ” himself, to have passed out of manhood for good. This particular defection leaves no room for any later reconsideration. If Toomer understood that his proclamations about race might Â“e-raceÂ” him from AmericaÂ’s racial map, how could he have possibly understood that such a move would Â“dis-engenderÂ” him as well? If , as I
18 24 Carby, 7.25 Somerville, 143. suspect, Toomer had particular vulnerabilities around Â“manhoodÂ” and relations with women in general, it is at last a fortuitous fate that he was not alive to receive this particular type of criticism as well. Nevertheless, its extremity, as well as its persistence, affirms and congratulates Hazel CarbyÂ’s insi ghtful observations that this sort of Â“race manÂ” configuration (and it ideological effects) is fully operative one hundred years later. Indeed, Essex Hemphill said it best I am eager to burn this threadbare masculinity this perpetual black suit I have outgrown.24In her book Queering the Color LineÂ—Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture , Siobhan Somerville does a close textual reading of Cane noting the many appearances of the word Â“queerÂ” in ToomerÂ’s text. She calls upon historical studies of the 1920Â’s by George Chauncey to suggest that Â“queerÂ” Â“circulated widely in New York City during this period to describe men who engaged in same-sex sexual activity.Â”25While I do not dispute this analysis or the legitimacy of this particular valence of the word Â“queerÂ” as applied to Toomer, I find it more cautious to use and understand its presence to signify an Â“unstableÂ” or problematic masculinity in Toomer ie his experience and that of his characters. It seems a better explanation that when the character Lewis is described as Â“queerÂ” that this signifies discomfort with who he is as a man. His difference may also signal homosexual desire, but it may not. What also seems clear is that ToomerÂ’s characters are enormously invested in their romantic liaisons and couplings with women.ii
19 26Somerville, 141.27Toomer, 242. It is much beyond the scope of this project to explicate the full Â“genderÂ” reading of the text Cane . It is critical to note, however, that prevailing structures of masculinity and in particular, racialized masculinity are at work in both Cane and in Jean ToomerÂ’s larger critical reception. I have focused here on the particular manifestations of acceptable Â“affectÂ” that have determined the race man which now includes, by my argument, the successful African American writer. The partic ular constructions that are the precursors to ToomerÂ’s deep interest in mysticism are the Â“participatory, melding, mergingsÂ” that characters in Cane experience with rural, black women but that also takes place between Kabnis and Lewis near the bookÂ’s end. Somerville has cited the latter as an example of homoeroticism for both Toomer and Kabnis. [LewisÂ’] eyes turn to Kabnis. In the inst ant of their shifting, a vision of the life they are to meet. Kabnis, a promise of a soil-soaked beauty: uprooted, thinning out. Suspended a few feet above the soil whose touch would resurrect him. ArmÂ’s length removed from him whose will to help. . . . There is a swift intuitive interchange of consciousness. Kabnis has a sudden need to rush into the arms of this man. His eyes call, Â“Brother.Â” And then a savage, cynical twist-about within him mocks his impulse and strengthens him to repulse Lewis. His lips curl cruelly. His eyes laugh. They are glistening needles, stitching. With a throbbing ache they draw Lewis to.26 My purpose in showing this passage here is to point out its different conceptions of affect, masculinity, consciousness and therefore, human relating. Yet indeed, the passage also partakes of the wholesale rejection of these alternatives that so vexed Toomer. When Toomer himself recalled his feelings while in Georgia, he wrote that Â“ at times I identified with the whole scene so intensely that I lost my own identity.Â”27 Losing oneÂ’s Â“identityÂ” through a participatory, affective experience of nonduality is not often a model
20 28 Cynthia Kerman and Richard Eldrige, The Lives of Jean ToomerÂ—A Hunger for Wholeness (Baton Rouge: Lousiana State University Press, 1987), 377.29 Somerville, 161. to be found in any decadeÂ’s notions or conscriptions of masculinity. That is, until the writer Jean Toomer met the Russian mystic George Ivan Gurdjieff in 1923. Before a fuller exploration of this new a nd critical relationship, I wish to conclude my remarks about the role of stigmatized masculine affect in ToomerÂ’s life and work. Cynthia Kerman and Richard Eldridge make the following penetrating observation about Toomer. The genius he displayed at his best came largely from his unusual intensity of feeling and experience, which took him beyond the normal boundaries between material and non-material, between animate and inanimate, between possible and impossible.28As I have discussed here, these personal and other qualities took Toomer far beyond the binary constructions of race and gender, both in his day, and in many days and ages to come. If his next attempt, the Â“mysticalÂ” stage, was more than doomed to failure, it is perhaps now obvious why there was simply no other choice for Toomer but to follow the leader Gurdjieff there, to again push the boundary between possible and impossible. And lest this characterization seems too lofty, it was indeed informed as well by the vulnerable side of ToomerÂ—the need for control and a sense of personal power that would make him comfortable with his self and less vulnerable to the assessments of others. It was something of this Toomer saw the first time his eyes met Gurdjieff. Presently I saw an unforgettable figure of a man walking down one of the aisles, looking at people as he moved along, looki ng for what? His head was shaven. He wore a tuxedo. But what a monk! And I might add, as I did at the time, what a man! My first impression was of the whole body of this man, and something of the individual in the body.29
21 30Byrd, 75. He later describes other early impressions he had of Gurdjieff Power-something more than strength of body, something in addition and other than strength of mind. Though he contained it, it came out of him, this deep, pervasive, unfathomable power. I soon became sure that I had never seen any other man with power of this kind. But how was he using it? For good, for evil? How would he use it on me should I become one of his pupils? From this time on I had no peace until I had finally settled this question so far as I was concerned.30So was the fateful meeting and joining with Gurdjieff sealed for Toomer. While it is clear that he was looking for and witnessing a different type of manhood, Toomer as intellectual also found important answers to many other Modernist quests in the Gurdjieff system. Modernist Questing for Answers It was a world of crying men and hard women, A city of Goddamn and Jehovah Baptized in finance Without benefit of saints . . . Â“The Blue MeridianÂ” When Toomer produced Cane he was working artistically with questions that faced and concerned many modernists. The rise of industrialization and urbanization had called into question many relied-upon assumptions of how the human would function securely, both within himself and with his human co mmunity. Questions of alienation, disruption, fragmentation and chaos disturbed the minds of Modernist writers and artists. There were fears that the world was in a great crisis. Toomer describes it thus The modern world was uprooted, the modern world was breaking down, but we couldnÂ’t go back. There was nothing to go back to. Besides, in our hasty leaps into the future, we had burned bridges. The soil, the earth was still there, even under city pavements and congested sky scrapers. But such peasantry as America had hadÂ—and I sang one of its swan songs in Cain [sic] Â—was swiftly disappearing, swiftly being industrialized and urbanized by machines, motor cars, phonographs, movies. Â“Back to nature,Â” even if desirable,
22 31 Sollors, 20-21.32 Byrd, 8.33 Ibid., 63. was no longer possible, because industry had taken nature into itself. Even if he wanted to, a city person could not become a soil person by changing his locale and living on a farm in the woods. So then, whether we wished to or not, we had to go on.31I state this, in part, because again, I do not wish to fall into a reductive trap that suggests that ToomerÂ’s move to the Russian mystic and philosopher G.I. GurdjieffÂ—whom he encountered shortly after the publication of Cane Â—was only precipitated by a personal failure or struggle. Toomer was very much an accomplished intellectual of his time and his responses reflect this modern context out of which he originates. It has been strongly suggested (mostly from hindsight) that the project of modernity was (is?) a search for a master narrative, an over-arching story or system that unites and explains. Toomer himself adopts such an a pproach in his new relationship to Gurdjieff and GurdieffÂ’s system. I had been, I suppose, unconsciously seekingÂ—a man must ever seekÂ—an intelligible scheme of things, a sort of whole into which everything fit, or seemed to fit, a body of ideas which held a consiste nt view of life and which enabled one to see and understand as one does when he sees a map.32When Toomer discovered a pamphlet descri bing the history and mission of GurdjieffÂ’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, he states that he Â“read it eagerly, making happy exclamations as I came upon passage after passage that said just what I wanted said.Â”33 He further attests In it I found expressed, more completely and with more authority than with anything possible from me, just the condition of man which I myself had realized. Moreover, a method, a means of doing something about it was promised. Here was
23 34 Ibid., 64.35Ibid., 64.36 Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 305. the work that gave man direction and helped him move on the way out of the chaos of modern civilization. Here was a work th at indicated what must be done in order to achieve a balanced development. Here was a work whose scope was greater and more complete than anything I had dreamed of. Here, in fine, was truth.34As critic Rudolph Byrd succintly summarizes, Â“plainly, Toomer believed that the search for an Â‘intelligible schemaÂ’ was at an end. It seems that in Gurdjieff Toomer had found everything he had been searching for and more.Â”35 The next decade of ToomerÂ’s life was spent performing this nonrace man form of modernity by dedicating his life to the work of the Â“solitaryÂ” genius Gurdjieff. Frederic Jameson noted three types of aesthetic modernism in his now classic work Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism . The first two periodic movements responded to the machine. He has noted, while describing types of modernisms, that a third must be added. Â“To these should be added the modernism of the isolated Â‘genius,Â’ organized, unlike the two periodic movements (with their emphasis on the organic transformation of the life-world, and on the avant-garde and its social mission, respectively), around the great Work, the Book of the World-secular scripture, sacred text, ultimate ritual mass (MallarmeÂ’s Livre) for an unimaginable new social order.Â”36 This characterization is reflective of Gurdjieff, as he and his disciples undertook the Â“great workÂ” of establishing a new race of man. Under Gurdjieff, the highly developed metaphysics, the ritualized movement and theater, the intended selfdevelopment through stages of sleeping to wakeful consciousness, all reflect a
24 37 Byrd, 95. 38 Rita Felski, The Gender of Modernity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 170.39 Byrd, 76. conception of how growth would occur toward s a Â“new social order.Â” The once racially conflicted and misunderstood Toomer pronounced after his immersion within the Gurdjieffian system, Â“ I am of no particular race. I am of the human race, a man at large in the human world, preparing a new race.Â”37 This quest for Â“newnessÂ” has also been consistently described as a characteristic of modernism. However as Rita Felski suggests, Â“If the valorization of the new can be seen as an inescapable feature of the modern condition, it nevertheless assumes different guises and may work to diverse ends.Â”38 This is very much so with the workings of Gurdjieffian metaphysics, a project whose complexity is too vast for this one. Nevertheless, this metaphysical project did participate in the modernist search for newness as is clearly reflected in the following description of the effects on the Gurdjieffian work on Toomer: a body purified, energized, strengthened, a mind able, lucid, with greatly increased power to grasp and comprehend. Freed of many a constricting habit, you are ready for new experience. You feel and in some [sense] are a new man.39GurdjieffÂ’s Modernity We are waiting for a new God. For revelation in our day, For growth towards faceless Deity. Â“The Blue MeridianÂ” As I previously stated, the form of modernity that Gurdjieff enacted is best understood on its own terms. In fact, Gurdjieff hi mself would have flatly denied that his
25 40 Jon Woodson, To Make a New RaceÂ—Gurdjieff, Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi,1999), 2.41 Ibid., 3.42 Felski, introduction. project was in any sense modern. Without using the term himself, the Gurdjieff system more accurately subscribes to notions now designated under the nomenclature Â“Perennial PhilosophyÂ”Â—an esoteric doctrine and set of practices that reappears with some consistency throughout many ages and historical circumstances. This does not mean that Gurdjieff was not particularly attuned to the problems and perils of his age. In fact, he worked to devise a method and approach to conform precisely to those conditions as he both saw and experienced them. Jon Woodson makes the claim that Â“GurdjieffÂ’s firsthand experience of the Russian Revolution gave him an exaggerated perception of history.Â”40 This exaggerated perception however, was finally clearly nestled in esoteric/occult conceptions of truth that never conformed to a strictly materialist or modern view of history or human process. Nevertheless, we can see a confluence of Gurdjieffian philosophy with the problems, perils, ideas and even methodologies of other modernist intellectuals of his day. In particular, Â“like other modernist totalities,Â” the Gurdjieff system Â“negotiated the polarities of crisis and renovation that characterize the modern spirit.Â”41 As I echo Rita FelskiÂ’s emphasis on modernities,42 it is important to note that while many similarities and points of comparision exist between Gurdjieff and other modernists, their final differences may prove of more importance than any generalities. This said, I wish to further explore the very particular intersection of the twoÂ—Gurdjieff and modernismÂ—and their relation to the writer and individual Jean Toomer.
26 43 Frederick Karl, Modern and Modernism: The Sovereignty of the artist, 1885-1925 (New York: Atheneum Press, 1985), 41.44 Edward Pavlic, Crossroads ModernismÂ—Descent and Emergence in African American Literary Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 5. Frederick Karl in Modern and Modernism: The Sovereignity of the Artist, 1885-1925 stated, what Â“we must trace in the development of Modern is that set of coordinates in which different conceptions of the self emerged in different languages. The self would surface in unpredictable ways as a means of countering power and authority that also developed in unpredictable ways.Â”43 This paper has been about tracing the impact of the Â“coordinatesÂ” of the race man and its subsequent ideologies upon Toomer. ToomerÂ’s headlong trajectory into the Gurdjieff work would simulate other modernist reconstitutions of the self in the turn towards reconfigured subjectivity as a source of renewal. But it is important to add , that these forays are always constituted and inspired by material conditions of power. For this reason, ToomerÂ’s move into Gurdjieffian metaphysics cannot be read as identical to those modernists who did not suffer the battle of Â“the color lineÂ” in the manner that he did. Yet, as Edward M. Pavlic notes, Â“for modernist types of all varieties, unities gave way to multiplicities. Lived experience was proved to be a multidimensional play of nonresolving realities. The unity, stability, rationality, and autonomy of personal identity were replaced by several modernist understandings of the plurality, flux, irrational and variable nature of modern self-awareness.Â”44 Gurdjieffian teaching existed as a type of understanding of this flux, in particular with regard to the person and his or her experience of subjectivity. Gurdjieff scholar Jon Woodson notes the following: The central insight of the system was that man is not a unified being, but is instead a being in whom the Â“IÂ” (ego, identity, self) is relative and impermanent. The
27 45 Woodson, 346 Byrd,79 impermanence of the Â“IÂ” is a result of Â“consciousnessÂ” being the compound result of consciousness, subconsciousness, and instinct (thought, feeling and organic automism). According to Gurdjieff, all the catastrophes that take place in human life, at whatever scale, arise from the fact, that, in his fragmented condition, man does not know himself for what he is and is not.45What humanity is, for Gurdjieff, is quite different than for most other Modernist writers and thinkers. According to Gurdjieff, the human within its normal adult development is not fully formed. When a human is Â“asleepÂ” (and most human beings are), he is simply a Â“mechanical being.Â” Â“Gurdjieff argued that man as he is is not a complete being. Nature is responsible for only so much of manÂ’s own development. If we wish to develop further we must do so by our own efforts.Â”46In fact, it was this Â“post-evolutionaryÂ” being that interested Gurdjieff most. He believed, as Toomer later did as well, that this superior being could be cultivated through rigorous training of awareness and consciousness. Gurdjieff postulated a four-stage schemata of conscious human development. In the first stage, we are merely physically asleep and we cannot even order our thoughts or physical activity. Therefore it is the lowest stage of consciousness. The second stage is Â“waking consciousness.Â” It is the ordinary life awareness of fulfilling oneÂ’s obligations. The third stage is referred to as Â“self-consciousness.Â” It is only at this stage that we possess any objective awareness of ourselves. This stage makes possible for the first time a human will that originates from a unified individuality that is permanent and unchangeable. The fourth possible stage of human evolution is what Gurdjieff called Â“objective consciousnessÂ” and Toomer referred to as Â“cosmic consciousness.Â” Â“In this exalted state, we can know the full truth about
28 47Byrd, 8148Ibid., 81. everythingÂ” and Â“see the world as it is.Â”47 It is important to note that this final stage is ineffable, postlinguistic and nonconceptual.48 It was to these Â“coordinatesÂ” that postCane Toomer re-created his sense of self, his lifeÂ’s purpose and his literary work. The Toomer/Gurdjieffian Synthesis The east coast is masculine The west coast is feminine The middle region is the childReconciling force And generator of symbols. Â“The Blue MeridianÂ” After his initial encounter with Gurdjieff and the Gurdjieff work in 1924, scholars assume that Toomer taught, studied and utilized Gurdjieffian ideas and systems intensely for at least fifteen years. Toomer became, in fact, a high-ranking teacher in the Gurdjieff school and was one of the few selected disciples of Gurdjieff to stay on in France after Gurdjieff decided to dismantle the headquarters there at Chateau du Prieue. Indeed, the months Toomer first spent in the French international headquarters of GurdjieffÂ’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, appear to be, by all accounts, among the happiest and most fulfilled of ToomerÂ’s life. These two months in 1924 of lived experience of Â“The Work,Â” as it was called, set the template for much of ToomerÂ’s adult life. As I stated previously, the Gurdjieffian Â“coordinatesÂ”Â—of a fluctuating divided self that must be cultivated into a unified self capable of willed actionÂ—became, in large part, the Jean Toomer Â“coordinatesÂ” for negotiating reality and effecting needed change. Though Toomer spent many hours in many years, teaching the Gurdjieff system of ideas,
29 49 Byrd.50 Jean Toomer, The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer, ed. by Robert B. Jones and Margery Toomer Latimer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988),50. he also continued to write with the goal of becoming an Â“objective artist.Â” Though this is an aspect of Gurdjieffian thought and work worthy of exploration in terms of a philosophy of art, all that needs to be noted for these purposes is that Toomer became, for quite some time, merely a mimic of Gurdjieff in his writing. Critics such as Rudolph Byrd and others have bemoaned the lack of quality of ToomerÂ’s literary work at the time.49 Gone were his once lyrical gifts for a sense of loss, pathos and mystery only to be replaced by a pedantic, metaphysical proselytizing voice masquerading as a writer of literature. (Indeed later Toomer himself, also shared this assessment.) It was not until 1936, when the poem The Blue Meridian was fully written that the Toomer corpus began again to show the breathtaking poetic and literary talent of the man who composed Cane. Yet this work is exemplary of much else of importance to us as well. Besides being considered ToomerÂ’s second greatest work (after Cane) , the Blue Meridian embodies the use and application of GurdjieffÂ’s ideas to the particular contexts of American life by Toomer. It is in this work, that we can see clearly the ways in which Toomer recasts the Â“earlier race manÂ” into a more inclusive, salvific figure and mediator of AmericaÂ’s crises and needs. This figure is the blue meridian. Before exploring this figure, we should first observe ToomerÂ’s intention as it is so clearly stated at the onset of the poem. This opening incantation states the prophecy and the means of achieving it: It is a new America, to be spiritualized by each new American.50
30 51 Woodson, 4. Recall that Toomer once proclaimed himself to be the first conscious member of a new auspicious future race called Â“The American.Â” In ToomerÂ’s view, those who can make for themselves this more inclusive identification could help re-structure the racial divisiveness of American life to date. In other words, they have the power to create a new future. Yet in Gurdjieffian thought, race is not recognized. As Jon Woodson notes, Toomer himself helped launch a Â“Gurdjieffian assault against American racialist culture.Â”51 This was his peculiarly Â“AmericanÂ” contribution to the worldwide proliferation of GurdjieffÂ’s philosophy, in various forms. Then with the help of an inclusive, redeeming, American democracy and landscape, Toomer melded a metaphysical/esoteric world-view into his own Â“American epic poem,Â” ultimately calling it Â“The Blue Meridian.Â” The poem is as electrifying as the coming future it prophesizes, yet it also contains ToomerÂ’s now hallmark quality of vulnerable vision as well. The poet as prophet, at his or her best, both sees the devastation and proclaims a way through the destructive darkness to, in ToomerÂ’s words, the Â“Big Light!Â” Yet who or what is the blue meridian? It is certainly a figure and a symbol whose color and hue is symbolic of both synthesis as well as a healing. It is also a man of blue or purple whose mediation catalyzes transformation on the American landscape. It is an amalgamation of channeled forces that Toomer the conjurer hurls into American space. In the end, it is difficult to ascertain if the figure is a reflection of some displaced, inflated messianic fantasy of ToomerÂ’s Â“selfÂ” or if it is better understood as the mediator, the effective figure and symbol Toomer and America never had and so surely needed. Gurdjieff himself clearly carried this ideal for an inestimable amount of time for Jean
31 52Toomer, Collected Poems, 72.53Toomer, Collected Poems, 72. Toomer. But if Gurdjieff was a person who was quite easy to admire, he was also one who did not share the easy love that might make idealization more permanent. Gurdjieff, Toomer believed for some time, would map the course of how to live a redeeming life in the modern catastrophe. It was this type of new vision that inspired the Â“Blue Meridian Toomer,Â” who is now a synthesis himself of the many Toomers that came before. Yet to give Toomer the conscious artist the final benefit of the doubt as to what the Blue Meridian symbolizes best, the Blue Meridian stands as an effective symbol for what Toomer called Â“the highway of the third.Â”52 I will let the words he crafted make the final say: A strong yes, a strong no, With these we move and make drama, Yet may say nothing of the goal. Black is black, white is white, East is east, west is west, Is truth for the mind of contrasts; But here the high way of the third, The man of blue or purple, Beyond the little tags and small marks, Foretold by ancient seers who knew, Not the place, not the name, not the time, But the aim of life in men, The resultant of yes and no Struggling for birth through ages. We are the new people, Born of elevated rock and lifted branches, Called Americans.53ToomerÂ’s call is not (only) for the messianic Â“IÂ” but the spiritualized Â“usÂ” who are capable of traveling the highway of the third until we arrive at new humanity. ToomerÂ’s own experiences of tragedy, as well as his vision of his countryÂ’s tragedy in the land of
32 i. The Â“race manÂ” trope and its prescribed ethos were in full operation by the early 1920s when Jean Toomer produced Cane. The Â“race manÂ” figure had effects far beyond the life of Jean Toomer. The developed projects of what this trope means, as well as its history, are to be found elsewhereÂ—see especially Black Metropolis and Race Men. ii. Again, while this would not exclude what we would now call a bisexual orientation, it does not do justice to the text to ignore the complex relations with women and their relationship to gender construction that Toomer suggests. dualisms that formed American racial life, created in him a deep desire for a new type of America, as well as a new American. This vision of an unexpected third Toomer invoked for all the new Americans (those truly capable of inclusion of all) to, at last, claim. Notes
1 Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West, The African American CenturyÂ—How Black Americans Have Shaped our Country (New York: Touchstone, 2000), 114. 33 blank CONCLUSION And so I shall end this story, at the point in ToomerÂ’s narrative when the failed race man finds himself emerging Â“a new kind of ma nÂ” with a new kind of vision. The story goes on (the liberation is not fully permanent nor continuous) but the Â“non-raceÂ” man does continue the struggle to help liberate himself and others much likeÂ—and not likeÂ—the ethos of the Â“race manÂ” by which he was judged. He sheds the perpetual black suit of W.E. B. DuBois and dons the combination monk/aristocratic garb of GurdjieffÂ—or does he? The answer to this question is another writerly project, another role to engage, another story to tellÂ—performing as we do within the structures, questions and inventive possibilities of our own times. Perhaps the next Toomer Â“storyÂ” will not be predetermined after all. For as Henry Louis Gates has suggested, Â“Toomer wanted all possibilities in playÂ” and even if he Â“may have come up shortÂ” Â“the attempt compels us back to him again and again in our attempts to move forward.Â”1
34 REFERENCES Byrd, Rudolph P. Jean Toomerâ€™s Years with Gurdjieffâ€”Portrait of an Artist 1923-1936. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1990. Carby, Hazel V. Race Men. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998. DuBois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: New York American Library, 1982. Felski, Rita. The Gender of Modernity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Gates, Henry Louis and Cornel West. The African-American Centuryâ€”How Black Americans Have Shaped our Country. New York: Touchstone, 2000. Hegeman, Susan. Patterns for Americaâ€”Modernism and the Concept of Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Karl, Frederick. Modern and Modernism: The Sovereignty of the Artist, 1885-1925. New York: Atheneum Press, 1985. Kerman, Cynthia and Richard Eldridge. The Lives of Jean Toomerâ€”A Hunger for Wholeness. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987. Kodat, Catherine Gunther. â€œTo â€˜Flash White Light from Ebonyâ€™: The Problem of Modernism in Jean Toomerâ€™s Cane.â€ Twentieth Century Literature 46, no.1, 2000. Pavlic, Edward. Crossroads Modernismâ€”Descent and Emergence in African American Literary Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Sollors, Werner. â€œModernism and Race.â€ In Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance , edited by Genevieve Fabre and Michel Feith. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001. Somerville, Siobhan B. Queering the Color Lineâ€”Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000. Toomer, Jean. Cane. Ed. Darwin T. Turner. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1988.
35 Toomer, Jean. The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer. Ed. Robert B. Jones and Margery Toomer Latimer. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Woodson, Jon. To Make a New RaceÂ—Gurdjieff, Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
36 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Robin Nuzum received her Bachelor of Arts in religion from the University of Florida in 1991. She then went on to complete two masterÂ’s degrees in ChicagoÂ—a Master in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago and a Master of Divinity from Chicago Theological SeminaryÂ—both completed in 1995. She is currently a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist continuing her studies at the University of Florida in literature and culture.