- Jean Toomer and the Prison-House of Thought: A Phenomenology of the Spirit
Jean Toomer is a writer still primarily known as the author of Cane, a hybrid collection of poetry and short narrative pieces first published in [End Page 835] 1923. A modernist work that defies easy classification, Cane helped to ignite the Harlem Renaissance, and its influence can still be seen today in African-American authors from David Bradley to Alice Walker. Toomer himself remains something of a mystery, a man who wrote the most brilliant black-authored text of the 1920s and then asserted even as the book was published that he was in fact not black.
Toomer understood his assertion as a legitimate denial of American racial categories, of American racism, and he attempted to pass into a new life after Cane, becoming a kind of spiritual teacher and promoter, first in the Gurdjieffian movement, then in the Religious Society of Friends. In recent years, the trend in Toomer criticism has been to read Cane in the context of the author’s later life. Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge’s The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness (1987), Rudolph P. Byrd’s Jean Toomer’s Years With Gurdjieff: Portrait of an Artist 1923–1936 (1990), and Charles R. Larson’s Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen (1993) are books that have taken this approach, as have the books selecting from Toomer’s unpublished writings: Darwin T. Turner’s The Wayward and the Seeking (1980) and Frederik L. Rusch’s A Jean Toomer Reader (1993). Robert Jones’s Jean Toomer and the Prison-House of Thought is the most recent contribution to this group, and, like these earlier books, attempts to find a pattern which might explain both Cane and Toomer’s post-Cane writings.
The pattern Jones perceives is one of “reification” (a term borrowed from Georg Lukács) whereby Toomer regarded “an idealized abstraction of himself as if it possessed a material existence.” Jones argues that Toomer’s idealization of himself as beyond racialist definition was at odds with the realities of white America, but that Toomer sometimes escaped this solipsistic “prison-house,” as when he identified with the black folk spirit in Cane, or when later, in “Lost and Dominant” (an unpublished short-story collection), he described the modern world after the manner of Eliot’s The Waste Land. Jones’s thesis allows him to talk about the late published or unpublished writings with considerable insight, and he makes some penetrating distinctions, as in his comparison of Toomer’s commitment to two kinds of “idealism,” Gurdjieffianism and Quakerism. Quakerism assumes a dualism (God and man) that Gurdjieffianism conflates into “cosmic consciousness,” and hence when Toomer embraced Quakerism, he found himself confronted with a Kierkegaardian chasm that separated him from God, a tragic dilemma for someone [End Page 836] who had spent his later years pursuing the goal of spiritual wholeness.
Despite his occasional, theoretical excursions into the social implications of Toomer’s thought, much of Jones’s discussion takes a formalistic direction. He compares Toomer’s work to Gertrude Stein’s experimental prose and the Imagist and Symbolist poetry being written in the first decades of the century. He defines Cane as “a lyrical novel,” anatomizing its various parts in terms of metonymy and metaphor, attempting to distinguish between “Karintha” as a “lyrical narrative” and “Calling Jesus” as a “prose poem.” This taxonomy provides a useful frame for talking about a work that has been called everything from a collage to a short-story cycle to a novel; however, it also indicates a certain limitation in the reading of Cane. One of the best things in this book is Jones’s discussion of an unpublished tale called “The Eye,” and yet by discussing the story’s Gothic elements only in psychological terms, he overlooks the connection to Cane’s Gothicism which is rooted in the terror of history, of American slavery and racism. Because Jones believes that Toomer had “a...