restricted access Jean Toomer and the Terrors of American History (review)
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Reviewed by
Charles Scruggs and Lee VanDemarr. Jean Toomer and the Terrors of American History. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1998. 310 pp.

Jean Toomer’s Cane was arguably the most artistically accomplished work ever produced by an African American at the time when it was published in 1923. That work is a hodgepodge of short stories, poems, quasi-autobiographical vignettes, and a play that comprise what has been called a novel only because there is no other genre that one could fathom within which to place it, just as its author would likewise become an unfathomable entity for contemporary scholars. Shortly after Cane appeared, Toomer forsook his black identity and by 1931, in a privately printed pamphlet, he was announcing, “As for being a Negro, this of course I am not—neither biologically nor socially [. . .]. In biological fact I am [. . .] all American [. . .]. In sociological fact I am also American.” In the light of present-day biological anthropologists, Toomer might be regarded as a profoundly accurate commentator on the reality of racial composition. However, for quite some time, he has not been viewed that way at all. In fact, once Cane came back into print in the late 1960s, after decades of having been virtually ignored, critics chose instead to view the writer as psychologically disturbed.

As one might imagine, almost any help in unraveling the mystery of Toomer will be useful. Charles Scruggs and Lee VanDemarr have added immensely to the effort, explaining not only Toomer’s family background (largely “mulatto”) but also applying a crucial historical perspective to circumstances from Toomer’s birth to his early adulthood. The authors are excellent, for example, in explaining such factors as Toomer’s 1921 trip to Sparta, Georgia and how it affected the [End Page 1035] development of Cane. Indeed, their chapter entitled “Sparta” is essential reading for an understanding of how the undergroundlike characters in the final “Kabnis” section of Cane are representations of Sparta residents that the artist actually met. Such background is useful in comprehending the historical authenticity of this novel that critics already understood to be a reflection of Toomer’s visit to the southern town. Scruggs and VanDemarr further illuminate just how directly Sparta influenced the artist’s fictional town of Sempter.

This history that the two authors provide occasionally becomes bogged down, though, with unnecessary or tangential detail. For example, in their section on “The Rise of the City, the Crux of Modernity,” they report at length on the statistics of first- and second-wave immigrations to the United States. Those details are somewhat useful in terms of understanding the general era into which Toomer was born, but too much of the first part of their book is history explaining the lives of others, such as Van Wyck Brooks, Randolph Bourne, and Waldo Frank.

While Frank was Toomer’s artistic mentor who facilitated the publication of Cane, Scruggs and VanDemarr paint the picture of the writing of Cane as too much of a “partnership” or a “collaboration,” as opposed to Toomer drawing upon Frank’s advice as he needed it. After all, Frank was actually going to walk Toomer’s manuscript down to the offices of his own publisher and supply it with his stamp of approval. In many ways, a parallel could be drawn between Toomer’s experience with Frank and the manner in which slave narrators needed the approval of a prominent white person for successful publication.

Once Scruggs and VanDemarr delve into a literary analysis of Cane itself, the results are simply staggering. Their best chapter is “The Gothic Detective Story,” where they argue, “Toomer’s book is a mystery, and his various narrators act as detectives, with each story, sketch, or poem contributing a clue toward the mystery’s solution.” They go on to show how the novel asks repeatedly, about the tragic women at the beginning of the work, “Who gave them their child?” That question becomes a thread weaving its way through the novel to the point where Kabnis at the end of Cane “whirls the chicken by its neck, and throws the head away. Picks up the hopping body, warm, sticky, and hides it in...