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Jean Toomer

Race, Repression, and Revolution

Barbara Foley

Publication Year: 2014

The 1923 publication of Cane established Jean Toomer as a modernist master and one of the key literary figures of the emerging Harlem Renaissance. Though critics and biographers alike have praised his artistic experimentation and unflinching eyewitness portraits of Jim Crow violence, few seem to recognize how much Toomer's interest in class struggle, catalyzed by the Russian Revolution and the post-World War One radical upsurge, situate his masterwork in its immediate historical context.In Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution, Barbara Foley explores Toomer's political and intellectual connections with socialism, the New Negro movement, and the project of Young America. Examining his rarely scrutinized early creative and journalistic writings, as well as unpublished versions of his autobiography, she recreates the complex and contradictory consciousness that produced Cane.Foley's discussion of political repression runs parallel with a portrait of repression on a personal level. Examining family secrets heretofore unexplored in Toomer scholarship, she traces their sporadic surfacing in Cane. Toomer's text, she argues, exhibits a political unconscious that is at once public and private.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

My abiding interest in Jean Toomer has indebted me to many scholars, informants, and friends over the years. The late Robert B. Jones first piqued my interest in Toomer. Kent Anderson Leslie was of great assistance in ferreting out biographical information, securing permission to publish Toomer family photographs...

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Toomer Genealogical Charts

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pp. xi-xii

These three genealogical charts will help the reader untangle Jean Toomer’s complicated family history. The first maps Toomer’s ancestry, beginning with his maternal grandfather, P. B. S. Pinchback. The second outlines the three marriages of Nathan Toomer, Jean Toomer’s father. The third sets forth the family tree of...

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pp. 1-16

In the literature of the Socialist movement in this country there is to be found a rational explanation of the causes of race hatred and, in the light of these, a definite solution, striking at the very root of the evil, is proposed. It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete...

Part I

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1. Touching Naked Reality: Socialism, the Labor Movement, and the Embers of Revolution

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pp. 19-50

The scholarship on Jean Toomer has largely overlooked the substantial evidence indicating his serious early interest in leftist politics, as well as his abiding leftist conscience. Toomer’s publications in the Socialist press, when taken into account at all, have been routinely interpreted as expressions of a youthful romanticism...

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2. The Tight Cocoon: Class, Culture, and the New Negro

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pp. 51-83

It has often been argued that Jean Toomer found his Negro identity in Cane only to lose it soon thereafter. He was presumably dismayed by Horace Liveright’s decision to “feature Negro” in the publicity for Cane; distressed at Waldo Frank’s identifying Toomer as a Negro in his preface to Cane; and furious when Alain...

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3. The Experiment in America: Sectional Art and Literary Nationalism

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pp. 84-119

Jean Toomer’s mid-1922 letter to Claude McKay—written soon before the poet would travel to the USSR, where he was to participate in the Fourth World Congress of the Comintern—testifies not just to Toomer’s attraction to current developments in the Soviet Union but also to his increasing fascination with what...

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4. All the Dead Generations: Jean Toomer's Dark Sister

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pp. 120-152

At some point in the 1930s, Jean Toomer wrote a poem titled “Be with Me” that ends with the plea, “Do you, dark sister, / Not forsake me.” The poem’s address to this “dark sister” can be interpreted as a reference to the phases of transcendence set forth in the doctrines of George Gurdjieff. The poem can also be interpreted...

Part II

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5. In the Land of Cotton: "Kabnis"

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pp. 155-187

In the publicity sketch accompanying Liveright’s advertisement for Cane, Jean Toomer wrote that “there can be no cumulative and consistent movement, and of course no central plot to such a book. It is sheer vaudeville. But if it be accepted as a unit of spiritual experience, then one can find in Cane a beginning,...

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6. Georgia on His Mind: Part 1 of Cane

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pp. 188-220

Jean Toomer wrote most of the poems and sketches in part 1 of Cane during the six months following his completion of the first draft of “Kabnis” in January 1922. He undertook the fall 1922 trip to South Carolina in the company of Waldo Frank in part because, as he wrote to his friend in July 1922, “the impulse which sprang from...

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7. Black and Brown Worlds Heaving Upward: Part 2 of Cane

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pp. 221-252

In part 2 of Cane, Toomer’s critique of capitalist modernity comes to the fore. The voice heard in his New York Call writings of 1919 and 1920 is once again audible, and the 1919 Washington race riot—for him the key domestic event emerging from the postwar conjuncture—signals the arrival of the urban New Negro as...

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Coda: Black Super-Vaudeville: History and Form in Cane

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pp. 253-256

We now turn to a brief consideration of the relationship between history and form in Cane. Given the wide range of interpretations of the text’s parts, it comes as no surprise that critics have offered dramatically differing interpretations of the whole. Some have discerned a progression toward resolution and synthesis...


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pp. 257-302


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pp. 303-322

About the Author, Publisher Notes

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252096327
E-ISBN-10: 0252096320
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252038440

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Toomer, Jean, 1894-1967 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Modernism (Literature) -- United States.
  • Harlem Renaissance.
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