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  • Visions of Their America:Waldo Frank's Jewish-Modernist Influence on Jean Toomer's "Fern"
  • Michael Yellin (bio)

Jean Toomer's "Fern" (1921), which was included in his modernist masterpiece Cane, revolves around the comparison between the appearance of the title character, the daughter of an impoverished black sharecropper, and a Jewish cantor's mournful singing. This comparison belongs to the long tradition of identification between African Americans and Jews, which began with African American slaves reading themselves into the biblical narrative of Hebrew slaves escaping bondage in Egypt. Although Toomer's narrator alludes to slavery and the "common delta" of the Nile and the Mississippi, his version of this identification is significantly different from those that came before it because it references a religious figure from contemporary Jewish culture. Indeed, Toomer modernized the allusion by imagining similarities between an African American woman and Jewish man who could possibly have met (however unlikely) in 1920s America. More importantly, the question of each character's place in modernity is central to Toomer's representation of them.

Although the pathos that Toomer evokes through this comparison is readily accessible, critics have struggled to explicate the specificity of his allusion. Most have assumed that Toomer is alluding to biblical Hebrews. 1 William Boelhower is one critic who acknowledges that Toomer imagines a modern bond of suffering between African Americans and Jews: "Under slavery, African Americans were subjected to biopolitical conditions similar to those of the Jews in the concentration camps of the 1940s: becoming a people foreign to itself, without form, denied self-definition, and incapable of myth" (205). Boelhower goes on to explain that African Americans became "a people with people" through a 'gift economy,' or an "inextricable network of obligations, reciprocities, and acts of politeness" (206). Fern, he says, is a "conduit" over which the exchange of pain and suffering takes place (Boelhower 206). She sacrifices her body, "[e]mptying herself in a gesture of extreme and total abjection," in service to her people.

The anachronistic reference to the Holocaust aside, Boelhower correctly identifies the modern resonance of Toomer's comparison between African Americans and Jews. However, he does not account for Toomer's ambivalent identification with suffering. Moreover, he ignores a key element of Fern's identity: her racial hybridity. 2 At the conclusion of the text, Toomer reveals Fern's Jewish surname—Rosen—thereby declaring that this African American character is also Jewish. Toomer replaces the allegorical, trans-mythical identification between African Americans and Jewish Americans with a racial hybrid who embodies the regeneration of American culture. This movement from allegory toward racial fusion is connected to Toomer's misgivings about the political significance of suffering and spirituality, expressed in his 1920s notebook, and his ambivalent identification with Waldo Frank.

Waldo Frank was a Jewish intellectual who wrote Our America (1919), a seminal modernist jeremiad that criticizes America's slavish adherence to the pioneer pragmatism of its Puritan forefathers and announces the important role Jews will play in America's future. His portrait of Jewish avant-garde composer Leo Ornstein in this text influenced Toomer's representation of Fern. Frank declares that Ornstein's connection to Jewish history, particularly his embrace of Jews' history of suffering, provides him with enough potential spiritual energy to lead the regeneration of [End Page 427] American culture. Playing with the notion that a history of suffering simmers with energy, Toomer implicitly invokes Frank's modernist conception of a usable past in "Fern." Moreover, by ascribing a distinctly modern sense of beauty and historical significance to a marginalized and impoverished figure, Toomer responds to Frank's call to challenge the "genteel tradition" of white Christian cultural hegemony.

As "Fern" develops, however, Toomer breaks away from Frank's ideas. Examining the structural and tropic similarities between Frank's portrait of Ornstein and Toomer's description of Fern's canefield breakdown shows that the latter is an implicit rebuttal to the former. Whereas Ornstein is a virile Jewish prophet who transmutes a history of suffering, Fern is a frigid martyr who collapses under the weight of such a history. Fern's body does not become a conduit for the release of revolutionary energy; rather, it becomes...


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