restricted access Jean Toomer's Years With Gurdjieff: Portrait of an Artist, 1923-1936 (review)
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Reviewed by
Rudolph P. Byrd. Jean Toomer's Years With Gurdjieff: Portrait of an Artist, 1923-1936. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1990. 211 pp. $30.00.

We can take the title of this book metaphorically. Jean Toomer spent two months with philosopher/psychologist George Ivanovich Gurdjieff in the summer of 1924; the book is really, as Rudolph Byrd says in his Introduction, an "effort to examine the influence of Gurdjieff's theories on Toomer's development as a writer." Furthermore, it is clear from the Introduction that Byrd also intends the book to be a revisionist evaluation of Toomer's canon.

Byrd begins with a discussion of Cane that uses Toomer's own analysis of the work's "spiritual curve"; Byrd's discussion starts with "Bona and Paul" (a short story in the middle of the work) and ends with "Harvest Song," (a poem preceding "Bona and Paul"). The second chapter, "The Years With Gurdjieff," gives us a more detailed and subtle discussion of Toomer's racial views and Gurdjieff's ideas than we have had in Toomer scholarship. Chapters Three, Four, and Five cover Toomer's unpublished fiction, drama, and poetry, respectively. A Conclusion suggests the range and depth of Toomer's influence on African-American writers.

Byrd's evaluation argues two general points: 1) Toomer's canon (including the unpublished material) is a unified and coherent body of work; and 2) Gurdjieff's ideas may have exerted a helpful influence on Toomer the man, but they were a bad influence on Toomer the writer. The first point, which is truly revisionist, is persuasively argued. The second point is in the beaten path of Toomer criticism, and although Byrd goes further down the path than other critics have gone, he still comes in the end to a logical cul de sac.

A commonly held view in Toomer criticism is that Toomer fled his race to become white and abandoned his art to become a disciple of a psychological guru. Toomer's work, in this view, is discontinuous; there is a break after Cane. [End Page 735]

Byrd argues convincingly that there is no break. He makes three points in support of that argument. He argues first that Toomer's racial views and self description were logical, subtle, complex, and consistently maintained through the entire period of this study (1923-1936). Byrd's startling assertion, persuasive in context, is "that Toomer is not an African-American author but that Cane . . . is an African-American work." Next, Byrd asserts that Toomer's intellectual interests and the evolution of his thought before Cane make his involvement in the Gurdjieff work a predictable turn rather than a surprising detour. That is, if he hadn't found Gurdjieff, Toomer would have invented him. Finally, Byrd argues that Toomer's published and unpublished writing show a remarkable consistency of theme and purpose. When he makes these points Byrd's logic is sound, his illustrations are representative and relevant, and his structure is tight (the end of each chapter, for instance, contains a carefully worded transition to the next).

When Byrd argues that Gurdjieff was a detrimental influence on Toomer's writing, he is less persuasive. Byrd admires "The Blue Meridian," a long poem published in 1936, and believes that "The Sacred Factory" (1927) "is a drama deserving production and scholarly study." Herein lies his logical problem. If he argues that Toomer managed even once to write an artistically sound work while under Gurdjieff's influence, he leaves a hole in the "bad influence" argument; an exception to a generalization calls the generalization into question. Byrd also discusses the failings of a play written around the time of Cane ("Natalie Mann," 1922), well before Toomer's Gurdjieff period. If Toomer not only succeeded artistically during the Gurdjieff period but failed before the Gurdjieff period, it becomes very difficult to attribute his artistic failures to Gurdjieff's influence; the "bad influence" argument becomes a seive. The most intriguing point about Toomer's canon is really this: the characteristics that dominate Toomer's failures (pomposity, implausibility) are mirror images of the characteristics that dominate his successes (rhetorical "richness," nonrealistic presentation).

Byrd's more common argument...