- Reviewed by
As the criticism of Afro-American literature approaches maturity, several distinctive modes have emerged: (1) a mode of historical excavating in which critics such as Sterling Brown, Robert Bone, and Barbara Christian bring attention to previously neglected writers and works; (2) a mode of cultural and/or political contextualizing in which critics such as Ralph Ellison, Sherley Anne Williams, and Addison Gayle advance diverse and often conflicting arguments concerning [End Page 420] the duties of the Afro-American writer; and (3) a mode of critical theorizing in which critics such as Robert Stepto, Barbara Smith, and Houston Baker consider Afro-American materials in the terms familiar to contemporary theoretical discourse. Although heated critical debates at times obscure the interdependence of modes, the best critics working in each recognize the utility of insights and information generated by other approaches. The recent shift of attention to the theoretical mode poses a clear challenge to critics of Afro-American fiction. To add substantially to our understanding they must not simply impose preexisting theoretical approaches on the Afro-American canon; rather, they must reshape those approaches in response to the full range and integral values of the excavated materials. The five books under review here, spanning the three modes, suggest both the potential pitfalls and increasing subtlety of the developing tradition.
Nellie McKay's critical biography of Jean Toomer signals a new stage of historical excavation. Previous critics in the mode have provided the necessary foundations for further work with studies of genres (Bone's The Negro Novel in America, Jean Wagner's Black Poets of the United States), movements (Christian's Black Women Novelists, Nathan Huggins' Harlem Renaissance), or unquestionably major figures (Michel Fabre's The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, Robert Hemenway's Zora Neale Hurston). Turning her attention to one of the most enigmatic figures of the Harlem Renaissance era, McKay demonstrates the value of granting extended attention to Toomer, who despite publishing only one novel occupies a position of central importance in the history of Afro-American fiction.
The core of Jean Toomer, Artist lies in McKay's assertion that the myriad apparent contradictions of Toomer's life and career—he was involved with leftist politics, literary modernism, Jungian psychology, Gurdjieffian mysticism, and the Society of Friends—can be comprehended (if not resolved) by recognizing his lifelong search for "a way of life in which his mind, body, and intellect would be in harmony consistently." This convincingly argued thesis enables McKay to avoid the types of simplifications frequently advanced in discussions of Toomer's complex attitude toward his racial identity; she neither condemns him for repudiating his blackness nor denies the paradoxes inherent in his attempt to envision a new "American" race. Although McKay appropriately devotes the majority of her attention to an extended reading of Cane, she provides intriguing summaries of Toomer's more obscure writings, including several unpublished novels and the story sequence "Lost and Dominant," which, if accepted for publication, might have encouraged him to devote himself to the development of his literary talents. The best extended reading to appear to date, McKay's three-chapter discussion of Cane employs an essentially conservative critical approach, relying (sometimes excessively) on a careful explication of plot details and symbolic structures. Informed by an unobtrusive feminist sensibility that draws attention to the sensitivity toward women extremely unusual in American male writers, Jean Toomer, Artist makes an important contribution to the developing understanding of the ways in...