- Purchase/rental options available:
Criticism 43.4 (2001) 462-468
[Access article in PDF]
Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance
The Evidence of Things Not Said
Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance edited by Genevieve Fabre and Michel Feith. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001. Pp. 256. $52.00 cloth; $22.00 paper.
The Evidence of Things Not Said by Lawrie Balfour. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001. Pp. 192. $17.50 paper.
In his dedication to the posthumously published Juneteenth, Ralph Ellison eulogizes "That Vanished Tribe into Which [he] Was Born, / The American Negroes." As culled from over 2,000 manuscript pages by his literary executor, John McCallahan, Juneteenth, like Invisible Man, traces the extinction of Alain Locke's "New Negro" by forces both intrinsic and extrinsic to the former Africans, not the least of which is the phenomenon of "passing," a Trojan Horse strategy that straddles the boundary between the intraracial and the interracial as simultaneous self-extinction and transcendence. Following a line of thought [End Page 462] already displayed by the accessorized identities of Rinehart in Invisible Man, Ellison's posthumous send-up of ethnic and racial machinations demonstrates, à la Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Morrison and others, that "passing" is the sine qua non of what it means "to be" an American. Thus, to a certain extent, Juneteenth can be read as an appended chapter to Jean Toomer's Cane, a book which, as Werner Sollors notes in his contribution to a new collection of essays on Toomer, analogously depicts the "disappearing African culture on the American continent." And if Ellison's work also foretells the coming "black" man, those "race men" whom Toomer had to both embrace and repel, James Baldwin's work in toto relentlessly puts "black men" on stage in order to both gape at and gaze beyond them. For Toomer and Baldwin, these reactions to the dilemma of race and racism in America add up to Ellisonian ambivalence, the theses and antitheses of twentieth-century America in the throes of giving birth to America "tomorrow," when men will one day live as they have been created, as equals.
But not, necessarily, women. In these essays that reassess the value and position of Jean Toomer's work and life in relation to the Harlem Renaissance in particular and modernism in general, the question of gender is never addressed explicitly. The absence is significant because Toomer weds his vision of the coming America to the "new race," those of mixed racial and ethnic blood. Although contributor Diana Williams oversimplifies Toomer's endorsement of general eugenics tenets in the early part of the twentieth century, Toomer's reversal of the hierarchical oppositions undergirding value-laden racial theories—"pure" blood v. "mixed" blood—is, as she notes, a kind of "natural aristocracy." Insofar as this "aristocracy" depends on women as well as men, to say nothing of the cultural apparatus of heterosexual norms, feminist and queer readings of Toomer seem justified. Nonetheless, in Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance, Williams and twelve other critics examine Toomer's life and work in almost every other important (and not so important) context: the other arts (music and painting), modernity as a cultural force, the political ramifications of Cane as well as Toomer's nonfiction work, and the marketing problems around Cane given Toomer's reluctance to have himself blurbed as a "Negro author." The range of topics ensures that most, if not all, readers of Toomer will find at least one essay of interest in this collection.
For this reader's part, the most illuminating essays, aside from Williams's, are those by George Hutchinson, Charles-Yves Grandjeat and Michael Soto. All three depict the paradoxical struggles of Toomer's desire to establish himself as a writer per se (that is, as an "American"), his resistance and acquiescence to the racial pigeonholing of his supporter Waldo Frank and publisher Horace Liveright (the ironies of their surnames notwithstanding), and his attempt to overcome racial fixation in Cane even as he confesses that his inspiration for artistic creativity is drawn from, and privileged by, "the Negro group...