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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Rhythms in Poetry Jean Toomer (1894-1967)

[7104] Marion Post Wolcott, Cut Sugarcane Being Carried to the Trucks for USSC (1939), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-051089-E].

Born in Washington, D.C., Nathan Eugene Toomer was raised by his grandparents. He studied at several universities, including the University of Wisconsin, Massachusetts College of Agriculture, and New York University. After college, he held a variety of jobs, including ship fitter, car salesman, and physical education teacher. Enamored of the art scene in Greenwich Village, Toomer soon became part of the intellectual crowd, making friends with people like Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson, Hart Crane, Alfred Stieglitz, and the renowned benefactress Mabel Dodge. His short stories and poetry, which he published in The DialBroomThe LiberatorOpportunityCrisis, and other magazines, received high praise from Allen Tate and Kenneth Burke; indeed, his work was well received in both the white and the black communities. His ability to straddle cultures became a mixed blessing for Toomer, as he struggled to secure a stable identity in a nation with a long habit of dividing itself along racial lines. Light-skinned enough to “pass,” Toomer grappled with his complicated racial identity all his life. Toomer was not alone in this predicament; novelists James Weldon Johnson and Nella Larsen both explored the notion of passing in their fiction.

In 1923, Toomer’s most famous work, Cane, won the approval of critics and his fellow artists, though the book never sold well. Sometimes referred to as a prose poem, Cane is not easily categorized; it includes verse and prose pieces. For young black writers, like Jessie Fauset and Charles S. Johnson, Toomer’s unconventional work confirmed the belief that African American artists could form a movement and use art to fulfill political aims. At a time when the Harlem Renaissance was just beginning to take shape, Toomer’s Cane, with its candid picture of rural and urban African American life, its picture of women, and its critique of modern industrialism, provided much-needed encouragement and promise; Cane endured as one of the most important works of the Harlem Renaissance.

Cane also proved to be Toomer’s best work. He left New York for France, and although he received generous financial support from Mabel Dodge, he did not manage to publish anything that gained the acclaim of Cane. In 1924 he traveled to Fontainebleau to study with the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff, whose work he later taught in America. He experimented with communal living, and in 1932 he married a woman he met in one of these communities, Marjorie Latimer, a white woman from a prestigious New England family. She died in childbirth after only one year of marriage. In 1934, Toomer married another white woman, also named Marjorie. These marriages caught the attention of the media, and in his later years Toomer was often evasive about the question of his race. After the 1920s, Toomer virtually disappeared from the literary scene, but he did not stop writing. His unpublished plays, poems, and autobiographical sketches were collected in The Wayward and the Seeking(1980) after his death.

Teaching Tips

  • It’s useful to talk about “passing” in relation to Jean Toomer. He was a pivotal figure in the Harlem Renaissance, despite his relatively early exit from New York, precisely because he was able to straddle both white and black cultures so easily. Toomer’s choice later in life to live as white rather than black also raises interesting questions about his art. How does he represent the struggle with racial identity? What does it mean to have the ability to change one’s racial identity?
  • Depending on their familiarity with postmodern literature, your students may not find it odd that Toomer mixes poetry and prose; however, during his own day this was a highly innovative strategy. Students should be encouraged to ask what the relationship is between the prose and verse sections, as well as to question why Toomer couldn’t just write Cane in one of these genres. What does Toomer say in verse that he didn’t say in prose, and vice versa?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is the significance of the title Cane? What associations come to mind? In the second and last stanzas of “Georgia Dusk” Toomer uses “cane” as an adjective. What is he describing? Who is the “genius of the South”?
  2. Context: Toomer’s descriptions of Fern link her to the landscape of the South and raise a number of questions. What was happening in the South between 1900 and 1930? What does this tell us about her? How would you characterize the relationship between Fern and the landscape? Why is she described as “cream-colored”? Why does she have such a mysterious effect on men? Why does the narrator mention cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington? Why does the narrator ask so many questions? The narrator leaves our questions unanswered. What is the effect of this ambiguous ending?
  3. Exploration: One of the most striking qualities of Cane is its use of multiple genres. In fact, one of the hallmarks of modernist literature is the authors’ penchant for mixing genres, particularly prose and verse. Why does Toomer blend so many genres-poetry, short stories, sketches, and a play-in Cane? What effect does this shift among types of writing produce? How does his method compare to that of other writers in this unit?

Selected Archive Items

[3696] Dorothea Lange, Plantation Overseer. Mississippi Delta, near Clarksdale, Mississippi (1936), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-009596-C DLC]. 
White overseer and landowner with black workers. Sharecropping initially appealed to freedmen because it promised benefits they had previously been denied. However, most sharecroppers ended up working in conditions that weren’t much better than slavery, while whites retained economic, social, and political power.

[4099] Anonymous, Tenants (c. 1880-1900), 
courtesy of Duke University, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. 
Photograph of African American tenant farmers or sharecroppers in the field. Although sharecropping gave African American families more control over their labor, it was rarely lucrative.

[5510] J. C. Coovert, White Cotton, Black Pickers and a Gin (1915), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-120480 DLC]. 
Cotton was an important but resource-taxing and labor-intensive southern crop. Although the Southern Agrarians romanticized agricultural life, work on cotton plantations was difficult and rarely lucrative for African Americans.

[7104] Marion Post Wolcott, Cut Sugarcane Being Carried to the Trucks for USSC (1939), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-051089-E].
Photograph of a worker for the United States Sugar Corporation in Clewiston, Florida. African Americans labored in harsh conditions for many southern agricultural companies.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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