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  • An Epistolary Friendship
  • Barbara Foley (bio)
Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank. Kathleen Pfeiffer, ed. University of Illinois Press. 208pages; cloth, $45.00.

Kathleen Pfeiffer has done a great service to scholars of American modernism in general, and the Harlem Renaissance in particular, by bringing out the full body of correspondence between Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank. The young mixed-race Toomer was an ambitious but unknown writer when he met Frank in 1920; his experimental Cane (1923), which Frank played no small role in revising and midwifing, is now viewed as one of the landmark works of American literature. By contrast, the Jewish Frank, four years older and by 1923 the prominent author of five works of fiction and the radical cultural manifesto, Our America (1919), is now largely a footnote in the history of modernism. Living in different cities—Toomer in Washington, Frank in New York—the two men began in early 1922 an epistolary friendship that rapidly became passionate and intimate, in which they routinely addressed one another as “brother” and signed off with “love.” Before Toomer moved to New York in mid-1923, indeed, the two spent time face to face only once, during a week-long fall 1922 trip to Spartanburg, South Carolina, which would yield material not only for Cane but also for Frank’s lynching novel, Holiday (1923), both of which would be brought out by the avant-garde publisher Horace Liveright the following year. Until now, only Toomer’s end of this friendship has been available in its entirety (see Mark Whalan, ed., The Letters of Jean Toomer, 1919–1924 [2006]). Brother Mine redresses this imbalance, documenting both sides of what was—at least for a time—one of the most productive interracial American literary friendships to date.

This collection of correspondence helps to challenge and complicate the widely received notion that, in the 1920s, relationships between established white mentors and aspiring African American artists were almost always characterized by white-on-black paternalism, if not overt exploitation. A renarration of the Frank-Toomer relationship is especially valuable, since Toomer’s highly inaccurate 1931 retrospective account has dominated almost all the scholarly commentary on his and Frank’s early 1920s interconnection—from Darwin Turner’s excerpted patchwork of Toomer’s unpublished autobiographies in The Wayward and the Seeking (1983) to Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates’s Second Norton Critical Edition of Cane (2011). Toomer would later write that he felt angered and unmoored when Frank, in his foreword to Cane, referred to Toomer as a Negro, even though Toomer had, he claimed, shared with his friend his view that all people living in the United States—himself included—were members of an “American race” surpassing biological characterization. Often coupled with Toomer’s equally inaccurate 1934 account of his supposed indignation at Alain Locke for publishing parts of Cane without Toomer’s permission in The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925), Toomer’s propensity for reconfiguring the past has not only cast Frank (and Locke) in a negative light; it has also reinforced the erroneous notion that Toomer—who would indeed eventually pass over the color line and deny his Negro ancestry—refused to acknowledge this ancestry even before Cane hit the bookstores. Pfeiffer’s careful reconstruction of the men’s correspondence makes it crystal-clear that they both discussed publicizing Cane as a “Negro” text, and that Frank tested out in advance with Toomer the key ideas that would appear in the “Foreword.” Pfeiffer further links Toomer’s untroubled racial identity with his unpublished anonymous 1923 review of both Cane and Holiday, “The South in Literature,” in which he baldly asserted that the differences between the “temperaments” manifested in the two texts were attributable to Cane’s having been authored by a man of “Negro descent,” while the author of Holiday was of “white descent.” (This crucial text is usually overlooked by critics, even though it was republished in 1996 in Robert B. Jones, ed., Jean Toomer: Selected Essays and Literary Criticism.) While Toomer always hoped for a world in which “race” would be obsolete, these materials conclusively demonstrate Toomer’s easy acceptance of...


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