Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution

Posted in Biography, Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2014-11-09 17:48Z by Steven

Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution

University of Illinois Press
July 2014
336 pages
6.125 x 9.25 in.
10 black & white photographs, 1 chart
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-252-03844-0

Barbara Foley, Professor of English
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Newark

Political and personal repression and its effect on the work of a Harlem Renaissance luminary

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 Examining his rarely scrutinized early creative and journalistic writings, as well as unpublished versions of his autobiography, she recreates the complex and contradictory consciousness that produced Cane.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.

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Jean Toomer’s Washington and the Politics of Class: From “Blue Veins” to Seventh-Street Rebels

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-01-18 01:44Z by Steven

Jean Toomer’s Washington and the Politics of Class: From “Blue Veins” to Seventh-Street Rebels

Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 42, Number 2 (Summber 1996)
pages 289-321

Barbara Foley, Professor of English
Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey

Familiarity, in most people, indicates not a sentiment of comradeship, an emotion of brotherhood, but simply a lack of respect and reverence tempered by the unkindly . . . desire to level down whatever is above them, to assert their own puny egos at whatever damage to those fragile tissues of elevation which constitute the worthwhile meshes of our civilization.

—Jean Toomer, 1921

It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete against another and that furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition.

—Jean Toomer, 1919

It is a critical commonplace that Jean Toomer’s Cane is a largely autobiographical work displaying its author’s discovery of his profound identification with African Americans and their culture. This concern is signalled in Toomer’s own often-quoted statements: the 1922 Liberator letter in which he remarked that “my growing need for artistic expression has pulled me deeper and deeper into the Negro group” and that, during his visit to Georgia the previous fall, “a deep part of my nature, a part I had repressed, sprang suddenly to life and responded” to the “rich dusk beauty” of “Negro peasants” with “folk-songs [at their] lips”; the 1923 letter to Sherwood Anderson noting that “my seed was planted in the cane- and cotton-fields, . . . . was planted in myself down there” (Rusch 16, 17). But the tenuousness of Toomer’s identification with his black ancestry– both before and after the composition of Cane—has also been noted: his 1914 registration at the University of Wisconsin as a person of “French Cosmopolitan” heritage (Krasny 42); his break with Waldo Frank over the latter’s labelling Cane as the work of a “Negro writer” and his reluctance to have excerpts included in Alain Locke’s The New Negro (1925); his subsequent statement to James Weldon Johnson that the “Negro Art movement. . . is for those who have and will benefit [sic] by it. . . [but] is not for me” (11 July 1930, TP, Box 4, Folder 119); his 1934 remark that “I have not lived as [a Negro], nor do I really know whether there is any colored blood in me or not” (Baltimore Afro- American, 1 December 1934: 1; cited in Hicks 9). Critics differ in their assessments of Toomer’s resolution to the dilemma of racial identification. Some view him as a perceptive commentator on the social construction of race who was–and continues to be—victimized by the pigeon-holing of a race-obsessed society (Bradley, Byrd, Hutchinson [1993]). Others view him as an elitist and a coward—even a racist—who, while briefly energized by an acknowledgement of his blackness in the Cane period, could not come to terms with being black in the United States and ultimately fled over the color line (Margolies, Gibson, Miller). Most scholars situate him somewhere in between these psychological and ideological poles. It is widely agreed, however, that Cane is a complex and contradictory articulation of racial consciousness by a complex and contradictory human being.

While I have no disagreement with the proposition that racial consciousness is central to Cane, I shall stress here an issue that is often obscured in discussions of Toomer’s attitudes toward and conceptions of race—namely, the imprint left by his consciousness of class. Scholars and biographers have noted that Toomer’s youth was spent in the financially comfortable and socially select environment provided in the home of his maternal grandfather, P. B. S. Pinchback, who had been Acting Governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction and subsequently became a prominent member of Washington’s light-skinned black elite. But they have tended to underemphasize the complex admixture of snobbery and social activism shaping the outlook of the aristocracy of color among whom Toomer was raised. Commentators have, moreover, frequently noted in passing Toomer’s youthful interest in socialist politics and working-class movements. But they have routinely dismissed this interest as a trivial phase and have seriously understressed the continuing left-wing political inflection in Toomer’s work. In most readings of Cane, in other words, race is decoupled from class: Toomer’s articulation of the problematic of racial identification is usually construed largely in isolation from considerations of economic power and social stratification. Even as they treat the patently social issues of race and racism, many Cane critics divest these questions of their full import by positing Toomer’s “search for identity” primarily as an individual’s subjective quest for reconciliation with his own mixed heritage, thus obscuring the historical and economic forces that render “race” such a profoundly ideological concept in the first place.

What I hope to demonstrate in this essay is that re-coupling race with class permits us to re-situate in history the consciousness that produced Cane—which, as my two epigraphs indicate, was contradictory indeed. I have elsewhere remarked that the first and third sections of Cane are much more fully engaged with the social realities of Hancock County, Georgia—its history of slave rebellion, its lynch violence, its oppressive religious and educational institutions–than is widely acknowledged (Foley forthcoming). I shall argue here that Toomer’s formative experiences among the capital’s “blue-veined” aristocracy of color, as well as his brief but passionate engagement with socialist politics, had a profound impact upon the categories through which he perceived and articulated racial issues in the Washington, D. C., portion of Cane

Read the entire article here.

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An Overview of the Event: Jean Toomer and Politics at the 2012 MLA

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-01-13 04:07Z by Steven

An Overview of the Event: Jean Toomer and Politics at the 2012 MLA

Gino Michael Pellegrini: Education, Amalgamation, Race, Class & Solidarity

Gino Pellegrini, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English
Pierce College, Woodland Hills, California

This is my general overview of the “Jean Toomer and Politics” special session roundtable at the 2012 MLA Annual Convention. First, I want to thank Professors Barbara Foley, Charles Scruggs, and Belinda Wheeler for their excellent presentations, and a special thanks to Professor George Hutchinson for starting the Q & A. I am very much looking forward to continuing this conversation!

In her presentation, Belinda Wheeler focused on the “documents” (census, marriage, and draft) that Byrd and Gates include in the second Norton Critical Edition of Cane to support their claim that Toomer was a Negro who passed as white. Wheeler discussed how the documents, when examined carefully and in aggregate, weaken their claim. The documents show (and this is a point that Barbara Foley also made) that Toomer sometimes identified as black and sometimes as white at different junctures in his life, and this assumes that it was Toomer who actually authored the documents. In countering their claim, Wheeler also drew upon interviews that she had conducted with Susan Sandberg, the daughter of Marjorie Content, Toomer’s second wife, as well as with Jill Quasha, a friend of Sandberg and Content who knew the family well and authored a book on Content’s photography. Toomer was married to Content from 1934 until his death in 1967, and Wheeler’s important bibliographic research sheds light on how Toomer, post-Cane, identified and lived. Her interviews suggest that Toomer did not waver from his basic position that he was an American, neither black nor white, and that he tried to live his life free from the influence of racial categories and standards…

Read the entire overview here.

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Jean Toomer and Politics (Session 465)

Posted in Literary/Artistic Criticism, Live Events, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2011-12-14 02:51Z by Steven

Jean Toomer and Politics (Session 465)

Modern Language Association
127th MLA Annual Convention
2012-01-05 through 2012-01-08
Washington State Convention Center
Seattle, Washington

A Special Session
Saturday, 2012-01-07, 12:00-13:15 PST (Local Time)
Room 6A, WSCC


Gino Pellegrini, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English
Pierce College, Woodland Hills, California


Barbara Clare Foley, Professor of English and American Studies
Rutgers University, Newark

Gino Pellegrini, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English
Pierce College, Woodland Hills, California

Charles Scruggs, Professor of English
University of Arizona

Belinda Wheeler, Assistant Professor of English
Paine  College, Augusta, Georgia

This roundtable will focus on the 2011 edition of Jean Toomer’s Cane, edited by Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and in particular on the editors’ provocative new thesis that Toomer was a Negro who chose to pass for white. Presenters will confront, examine, and discuss Byrd and Gates’s thesis.

For more information, click here.

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Rhetoric and Silence in Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father”

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2010-12-30 18:56Z by Steven

Rhetoric and Silence in Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father”

Cultural Logic: An Electronic Journal of Marxist Theory and Practice
46 pages
ISSN: 1097-3087

Barbara Clare Foley, Professor of English
Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey

When Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance first appeared in 1995, it was greeted with relatively modest sales but favorable reviews: critics welcomed a politician who actually possessed writerly skills. In the wake of Obama’s celebrated speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention and successful bid for the Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate, sales mounted, and a second edition appeared, this one containing the convention speech. In 2006, the audio book version, featuring the author as reader, won the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album. In 2007, a third edition was published, this time accompanied by an excerpt from Obama’s 2006 policy book, The Audacity of Hope. By July 2008, as the election neared, Obama’s autobiography had been on the best-seller list for 104 weeks. As of this writing in the summer of 2009, the book has sold millions of copies and been translated into eight different languages.

While Dreams from My Father has supplied some fodder for attacks by conservative pundits, it has for the most part inspired positive reviews, many of them bordering on hagiography. Toni Morrison praised Obama’s novelistic skill in “reflect[ing] on this extraordinary mesh of experiences that he has had.” Joe Klein, in Time, proclaimed that the book “may be the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician.” On the eve of Obama’s inauguration, Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times critic, described Dreams from My Father as “the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography [ever] written by a future president.” Indicating the book’s popular appeal, the hundreds of reviews recorded on give the now-President’s autobiography an overall rating of 4½ stars. An informal web-based survey of college course syllabi suggests that, either excerpted or in its totality, Obama’s autobiography is being frequently assigned to college students. Dreams from My Father has proven to be an outstanding success in commercial, critical, and popular terms.

Arguably, however, it is precisely because the President’s literary star has ascended to such heights that his text warrants critical scrutiny. For success in the U.S. book market is in large part a measure not just of literary excellence or authorial prominence but also of a text’s embodiment of normative assumptions about society and self. In particular, a narrative of ascent—of which Dreams from My Father is a prime example—characteristically invokes dearly held myths about bootstraps individualism and social mobility, however poorly such notions may mesh with the realities of life in modern capitalist society. In this post-millennial moment, rife with anxieties domestic and international, economic and political, there is a particular yearning for tales about individuals who have passed over barriers and triumphed over hardships, thereby affirming the nation’s transcendence of its ugly racial past and entry into a present that is, if not “post-racial”—the current popular buzz-word—at least qualitatively more benign. To the extent that the identity quest embarked upon and achieved in Dreams from My Father can be taken to illustrate the integrity of not just its central actor, but the nation that has chosen him to be its leader, the text functions as Exhibit A in the case for American progress.

My principal goal in this essay—which is directed primarily to teachers of Obama’s text—is to examine the various rhetorical maneuvers that the author deploys in order to render maximally persuasive his odyssey to self-knowledge. I shall engage in a study not just of literary devices—which Obama handles with considerable skill—but of the ideology of form. This project will involve textual analysis on both the macro-level—the text’s apparatus of prefaces and postscripts, its tripartite division, the structuring of its individual units—and the micro-level—its narrative voice, methods of characterization, deployment of metaphor. To a significant extent, however, the effect of Dreams from My Father is contingent upon what the text does not say—the structured silences that allow it to minimize or, on occasion, exclude material that might impede its ideological work. In order to read the text fully, I shall as needed move outside it—not just to events and situations in Obama’s own life that are elided in his narrative, but also to events in the life of the mysterious father who inhabits the core of the narrative. Although readers may find most provocative the occlusions and obfuscations discussed in the final portion of this essay, they are urged to view these in the context of Obama’s overall rhetorical project, in which the said and the not-said are indissolubly linked…

…“A broader public debate”: Narrative frames

The teleological structure of Dreams from My Father can be described in various terms: a narrative of ascent and quest; a record of redemption, reinvention and rebirth; an odyssey from isolation to belonging, alienation to community. Obama’s story is distinctly gendered—unabashedly Oedipal in its focus on fathers and sons—and raced—it places front and center the identity dilemma of a young man of mixed descent coming to terms with the dualisms and hierarchies of a society obsessed with racial categorization. As Obama puts it in his 1995 Introduction, the text records “a boy’s search for his father, and through that search a workable meaning for his life as a black American” (xvi). Dreams from My Father thus invokes such classic accounts of black male self-discovery as W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Malcolm X’s Autobiography, as well as various autobiographical and fictional writings of James Baldwin and Richard Wright—many of which are referenced, implicitly and explicitly in the course of Obama’s narrative. Where these earlier explorations of selfhood characteristically end in defeat or ambivalence, however, Obama’s journey—described throughout the text by means of a trope of voyaging, charting, and traveling the seas—ends in a triumphal homecoming. The text assures its readers that, although not without a few false starts that were soon corrected, its protagonist has moved from a child’s non-racial consciousness through an ambivalent Third Worldism to a confident blend of cosmopolitanism and American nationalism, bolstered by an ecumenical optimism that Obama loosely terms “faith.”…

Read the entire essay here.

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Posted in Biography, Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Novels, Passing on 2010-12-30 16:43Z by Steven


W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
January 2011 (Originally published in 1923)
560 pages
5 × 8 in
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-393-93168-6

Jean Toomer (1894-1967)

Edited by:

Rudolph P. Byrd (1953-2011), Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies and African American Studies
Emory University

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research
Harvard University

A masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance and a canonical work in both the American and the African American literary traditions, Cane is now available in a revised and expanded Norton Critical Edition.

Originally published in 1923, Jean Toomer’s Cane remains an innovative literary work—part drama, party poetry, part fiction. This revised Norton Critical Edition builds upon the First Edition (1988), which was edited by the late Darwin T. Turner, a pioneering scholar in the field of African American studies. The Second Edition begins with the editors’ introduction, a major work of scholarship that places Toomer within the context of American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. The introduction provides groundbreaking biographical information on Toomer and examines his complex, contradictory racial position as well as his own pioneering views on race. Illustrative materials include government documents containing contradictory information on Toomer’s race, several photographs of Toomer, and a map of Sparta, Georgia—the inspiration for the first and third parts of Cane. The edition reprints the 1923 foreword to Cane by Toomer’s friend Waldo Frank, which helped introduce Toomer to a small but influential readership. Revised and expanded explanatory annotations are also included.

“Backgrounds and Sources” collects a wealth of autobiographical writing that illuminates important phases in Jean Toomer’s intellectual life, including a central chapter from The Wayward and the Seeking and Toomer’s essay on teaching the philosophy of Russian psychologist and mystic Georges I. Gurdjieff, “Why I Entered the Gurdjieff Work.” The volume also reprints thirty of Toomer’s letters from 1919–30, the height of his literary career, to correspondents including Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson, Claude McKay, Horace Liveright, Georgia O’Keeffe, and James Weldon Johnson.

An unusually rich “Criticism” section demonstrates deep and abiding interest in Cane. Five contemporary reviews—including those by Robert Littell and W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke—suggest its initial reception. From the wealth of scholarly commentary on Cane, the editors have chosen twenty-one major interpretations spanning eight decades including those by Langston Hughes, Robert Bone, Darwin T. Turner, Charles T. Davis, Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, Barbara Foley, Mark Whalan, and Nellie Y. McKay.

A Chronology, new to the Second Edition, and an updated Selected Bibliography are also included.

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