How Jean Toomer Rejected the Black-White Binary

Posted in Articles, Biography, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2021-08-29 01:32Z by Steven

How Jean Toomer Rejected the Black-White Binary

The Paris Review

Ismail Muhammad

…to be a Negro is—is?—
to be a Negro, is. To Be.

—from “Toomer,” by Elizabeth Alexander

Jean Toomer had a complex relationship to his first and only major publication, the 1923 book Cane. The “novel,” which Penguin Classics has recently reissued with an introduction by the literary scholar George Hutchinson and a foreword by the novelist Zinzi Clemmons, is a heterogeneous collection of short stories, prose vignettes, and poetry that became an unlikely landmark of Harlem Renaissance literature. Its searching fragments dramatize the disappearance of African-American folk culture as black people migrated out of the agrarian Jim Crow South and into Northern industrial cities. It is a haunting and haunted celebration of that culture as it was sacrificed to the machine of modernity. Toomer termed the book a “swan song” for the black folk past.

The literary world was then (as it is now, perhaps) hungry for representative black voices; as Hutchinson writes, “Many stressed the ‘authenticity’ of Toomer’s African-Americans and the lyrical voice with which he conjured them into being.” This act of conjuring lured critics into reflexively accepting the book as a representation of the black South—and Toomer as the voice of that South. As his one-time friend Waldo Frank remarked in a forward to the book’s original edition, “This book is the South.” Cane transformed Toomer into a Negro literary star whose influence would filter down through African-American literary history: his interest in the folk tradition crystallized the Harlem Renaissance’s search for a useable Negro past, and would be instructive for later writers from Zora Neale Hurston to Ralph Ellison to Elizabeth Alexander…

Read the entire article here.

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Jean Toomer’s ‘Cane’ and the Ambiguity of Identity

Posted in Articles, Biography, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2019-01-04 20:14Z by Steven

Jean Toomer’s ‘Cane’ and the Ambiguity of Identity

NYR Daily
The New York Review of Books

George Hutchinson, Newton C. Farr Professor of American Culture
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

A drawing of a sugar cane field in South Carolina, by Edouard Riou, late nineteenth century
Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy/De Agostini Picture Library/Bridgeman Images

Jean Toomer’s Cane was greeted in 1923 by influential critics as the brilliant beginning of a literary career. Many stressed the “authenticity” of Toomer’s African Americans and the lyrical voice with which he conjured them into being. His treatment of black characters contrasted starkly with both the stereotypes of earlier work by (mostly) white authors and the then current limitations of African-American problem fiction. As Montgomery Gregory pointed out for the new black magazine Opportunity, Toomer had avoided “the pitfalls of propaganda and moralizing on the one hand and the snares of a false and hollow race pride on the other hand.” Waldo Frank wrote, in the foreword to the book, “It is a harbinger of the South’s literary maturity: of its emergence from the obsession put upon its mind by the unending racial crisis—an obsession from which writers have made their indirect escape through sentimentalism, exoticism, polemic, ‘problem’ fiction, and moral melodrama. It marks the dawn of direct and unafraid creation.”

The unusual features and effectiveness of Cane can be attributed to the fact that its author was in rapid transition, vocationally, geographically, socially, and intellectually, between different identities. His unsettled position derived from both a complicated personal history and the unusual cultural moment in which he emerged as an artist. Born just two years after his famous grandfather, P.B.S. Pinchback—a former governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction—had moved from a palatial home in New Orleans to a smaller, though fashionable, house in Washington, Toomer never really knew the father for whom he was originally named. His mother, Nina, gave birth to him just nine months after a wedding of which her father disapproved and then found herself abandoned when Nathan Pinchback Toomer (as Jean was first named) was only a year old. Nina moved back to her autocratic father’s home, on the condition that she change the boy’s surname to Pinchback and his first name to anything other than Nathan (her husband’s name). Eventually, the first name became Eugene, after a godfather; but friends called the boy “Pinchy.” His mother called him Eugene Toomer and his grandparents, Eugene Pinchback. Ambiguity of identity and a strong intuition of the arbitrary nature of social labels came early to Toomer…

Read the entire article here.

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A Breezy Chameleon, Blurring Social Borders

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2014-02-17 17:21Z by Steven

A Breezy Chameleon, Blurring Social Borders

The New York Times

Jennifer Schuessler, Staff Editor

When the literary scholar George Hutchinson was in the archives at Howard University one afternoon a decade ago, he thought he knew which story of a neglected African-American woman writer he was chasing.

He was at work on a biography of Nella Larsen, whose classic Harlem Renaissance novel “Passing” was rediscovered in the 1970s. But while poking around, Mr. Hutchinson noticed a listing for the papers of Anita Thompson Dickinson Reynolds, an obscure contemporary of Larsen’s, and decided to take a look.

There, amid a jumble of letters and cassette tapes, lay an unpublished memoir breezily recounting the Zelig-like adventures of a woman who had starred in some of the first black films made in Hollywood, mingled with the Harlem Renaissance elite, been drawn by Man Ray and Matisse in Paris and touched down in Spain during its Civil War, before packing up her Chanel dresses and heading home to a more conventional life as a psychologist.

It was a story of passing stranger than anything Larsen had imagined, recounted with uncommon sexual frankness and blithe disregard for racial barriers. “I was fascinated by the way she threaded together all these different worlds, with this total nonchalance,” Mr. Hutchinson said in a recent interview. “I had never read anything like it.”

Previously, Reynolds’s name had survived mainly in a few scattered footnotes. But now, Harvard University Press is publishing her memoir, as “American Cocktail: A ‘Colored Girl’ in the World.”…

Read the entire book review here.

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American Cocktail: A “Colored Girl” in the World

Posted in Autobiography, Books, Media Archive, Monographs, Women on 2014-02-12 07:59Z by Steven

American Cocktail: A “Colored Girl” in the World

Harvard University Press
352 pages
5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
20 halftones
Hardcover ISBN 9780674073050

Anita Reynolds (1901-1980), actress, dancer, model, and psychologist


Howard Miller, Professor of Education and Chair in the Department of Secondary Education
Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, New York

Edited by:

George Hutchinson, Professor of English and Newton C. Farr Professor of American Culture
Cornell University

Foreword by:

Patricia J. Williams, James L. Dohr Professor of Law
Columbia Law School

This is the rollicking, never-before-published memoir of a fascinating woman with an uncanny knack for being in the right place in the most interesting times. Of racially mixed heritage, Anita Reynolds was proudly African American but often passed for Indian, Mexican, or Creole. Actress, dancer, model, literary critic, psychologist, but above all free-spirited provocateur, she was, as her Parisian friends nicknamed her, an “American cocktail.”

One of the first black stars of the silent era, she appeared in Hollywood movies with Rudolph Valentino, attended Charlie Chaplin’s anarchist meetings, and studied dance with Ruth St. Denis. She moved to New York in the 1920s and made a splash with both Harlem Renaissance elites and Greenwich Village bohemians. An émigré in Paris, she fell in with the Left Bank avant garde, befriending Antonin Artaud, Man Ray, and Pablo Picasso. Next, she took up residence as a journalist in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War and witnessed firsthand the growing menace of fascism. In 1940, as the Nazi panzers closed in on Paris, Reynolds spent the final days before the French capitulation as a Red Cross nurse, afterward making a mad dash for Lisbon to escape on the last ship departing Europe.

In prose that perfectly captures the globetrotting nonchalance of its author, American Cocktail presents a stimulating, unforgettable self-portrait of a truly extraordinary woman.

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Jean Toomer and American Racial Discourse

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-01-14 02:06Z by Steven

Jean Toomer and American Racial Discourse

Texas Studies in Literature and Language
Volume 35, Number 2, Anxieties of Identity in American Writing (Summer 1993)
pages 226-250

George Hutchinson, Booth Tarkington Professor of Literary Studies; Adjunct Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies; Adjunct Professor of American Studies
Indiana University, Bloomington

The culture which will transcend, and thus unite, East and West, or the Earthlings and the Galactics, is not likely to be one which does equal justice to each, but one which looks back on both with the amused condescension typical of later generations looking back at their ancestors.

Knowledge of what cannot be said… signals the rock-bottom shape, the boundaries, of our situation in the world; it is the ethical, in the classical sense of the term.

An undated poem kept in a tin box that no one but the author ever saw in his lifetime bears haunting witness to the great lack of Jean Toomer’s existence:

Above my sleep
Tortured in deprival
Stripped of the warmth of a name
My life breaks madly. . . .
Breaks against world
Like a pale moth breaking
Against sun.

In their biography of the poet, The Lives of Jean Toomer, Cynthia Kerman and Richard Eldridge discuss the relationship of this poem to Toomer’s sense of lacking a permanent and certain name, deriving from the fact that his name had changed during his childhood and that different family members called him by different names. His grandfather, for example (the patriarch with whom he lived to young adulthood and who died, Toomer claimed, the day after he completed the first draft of “Kabnis”), would not acknowledge the name he had been given at birth. “Jean Toomer” itself is a later fabrication of the author…

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The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2012-01-13 04:56Z by Steven

The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White

Harvard University Press
January 1996
560 pages
6-3/8 x 9-1/4 inches
Hardcover ISBN: 9780674372627

George Hutchinson, Booth Tarkington Professor of Literary Studies; Adjunct Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies;  Adjunct Professor of American Studies
Indiana University, Bloomington

It wasn’t all black or white. It wasn’t a vogue. It wasn’t a failure. By restoring interracial dimensions left out of accounts of the Harlem Renaissance—or blamed for corrupting it—George Hutchinson transforms our understanding of black (and white) literary modernism, interracial literary relations, and twentieth-century cultural nationalism in the United States. What has been missing from literary histories of the time is a broader sense of the intellectual context of the Harlem Renaissance, and Hutchinson supplies that here: Boas’s anthropology, Park’s sociology, various strands of pragmatism and cultural nationalism—ideas that shaped the New Negro movement and the literary field, where the movement flourished. Hutchinson tracks the resulting transformation of literary institutions and organizations in the 1920s, offering a detailed account of the journals and presses, black and white, that published the work of the “New Negroes.” This cultural excavation discredits bedrock assumptions about the motives of white interest in the renaissance, and about black relationships to white intellectuals of the period. It also allows a more careful investigation than ever before of the tensions among black intellectuals of the 1920s. Hutchinson’s analysis shows that the general expansion of literature and the vogue of writing cannot be divorced from the explosion of black literature often attributed to the vogue of the New Negro—any more than the growing sense of “Negro” national consciousness can be divorced from expanding articulations and permutations of American nationality. The book concludes with the first full-scale interpretation of the landmark anthology The New Negro.
A courageous work that exposes the oversimplifications and misrepresentations of popular readings of the Harlem Renaissance, this book reveals the truly composite nature of American literary culture.

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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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Nella Larsen and the Veil of Race

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2010-10-24 01:33Z by Steven

Nella Larsen and the Veil of Race

American Literary History
Volume 9, Number 2 (Summer, 1997)
pages 329-349

George Hutchinson

People see what they want to see, and then they’ll claim you.  Not claim you, but label you. Because it’s not really about claiming you.  The white people don’t want you around.  You’re not really white… And for Blacks—and it’s not for all Blacks—there’s sort of this feeling that, yeah, she is black and yes, we’ll call her black, but she’s not black like we are… I was recognized by the black community as an outstanding black student, of course.  That used to upset me, that they would claim me because I did well academically, but I wasn’t a part of their world.

Heidi Durrow, daughter of Danish mother and African-American father, quoted in Lise Funderburg, Black, White, Other

White studies of cultural syncretism, transnationalism, and “hybridity” have lately become all the rage, there is one area in which claims of racially “hybrid” identity are still subtly resisted, quietly repressed, or openly mocked.  The child of both black and white parents encounters various forms of incomprehension in a society for which “blackness” and “whiteness” seems to constitute two mutually exclusive and antagonistic forms of identity.  Moreover, the shift to terms presumably marking ethnic or cultural descent—“European” and “African”—has done little to clarify the situation of those “black” subjects who are at the same time, say, German, or, as in the case of the young woman quoted above, Danish-American.

For more than a decade, the strongest Nella Larsen scholarship has been motivated by a reaction against earlier approaches to her fiction that stressed the importance of biracial subjectivity, connected to fiction of the “tragic mulatto.”  The best recent criticism tends to focus on other issues, particularly feminist themes.  Often the difficulties of Larsen’s mulatto characters are treated as metaphors for supposedly more important issues such as black and/or female identity generally…

Read or purchase the article here.

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In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line

Posted in Biography, Books, Media Archive, Monographs, United States, Women on 2010-06-12 00:41Z by Steven

In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line

Harvard University Press
May 2006
624 pages
6-3/8 x 9-1/4 inches
37 halftones
Hardcover ISBN: 9780674021808

George Hutchinson, Newton C. Farr Professor of American Culture
Cornell University

  • 2006 Booklist Editor’s Choice
  • 2006 Honorable Mention of the Professional/Scholarly Publishing Annual Award Competition, Biography & Autobiography
  • Finalist, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards, Biography Category
  • 2007 Christian Gauss Award for literary scholarship or criticism, Phi Beta Kappa Society
  • Choice Magazine A Best Academic Book of the Year

Born to a Danish seamstress and a black West Indian cook in one of the Western Hemisphere’s most infamous vice districts, Nella Larsen (1891-1964) lived her life in the shadows of America’s racial divide. She wrote about that life, was briefly celebrated in her time, then was lost to later generations–only to be rediscovered and hailed by many as the best black novelist of her generation. In his search for Nella Larsen, the “mystery woman of the Harlem Renaissance,” George Hutchinson exposes the truths and half-truths surrounding this central figure of modern literary studies, as well as the complex reality they mask and mirror. His book is a cultural biography of the color line as it was lived by one person who truly embodied all of its ambiguities and complexities.

Author of a landmark study of the Harlem Renaissance, Hutchinson here produces the definitive account of a life long obscured by misinterpretations, fabrications, and omissions. He brings Larsen to life as an often tormented modernist, from the trauma of her childhood to her emergence as a star of the Harlem Renaissance. Showing the links between her experiences and her writings, Hutchinson illuminates the singularity of her achievement and shatters previous notions of her position in the modernist landscape. Revealing the suppressions and misunderstandings that accompany the effort to separate black from white, his book addresses the vast consequences for all Americans of color-line culture’s fundamental rule: race trumps family.

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