Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank by Kathleen Pfeiffer (review)

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews on 2014-08-22 14:54Z by Steven

Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank by Kathleen Pfeiffer (review)

Volume 37, Number 3, Summer 2014
pages 735-739
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2014.0094

L. Lamar Wilson

Jean Toomer’s Cane remains one of the most enigmatic works that emerged during the last century. In the past three decades, critics have probed auto/biography, psychoanalysis, sociopolitical and theological discourse, gender studies, and Toomer’s own critical essays for answers to questions raised by his exploration of racial and national identity and dislocation, black male and female sexuality, and the metaphorical topoi of the United States North and South in the text. Nellie McKay, Robert B. Jones, Rudolph P. Byrd, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Karen Jackson Ford, Mark Whalan, and Kathleen Pfeiffer have unearthed insightful details about the circumstances surrounding Toomer’s formation of a complex racial identity, his life in the immediate years preceding Cane’s creation and publication, and the text’s impact on his subsequent writing and the Afro-modern and postmodern canons.

Whalan’s Letters of Jean Toomer: 1919–1924, published in 2006, and Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank, Pfeiffer’s 2010 response, have been particularly important. Letters gives scholars access to Toomer’s willingness to emphasize whatever aspects of his racial and cultural identity would appeal to black and white literati alike at any given moment during the years bookending Cane’s 1923 publication. Moreover, through Letters, Toomer’s co-dependency on Waldo Frank, his closest friend and mentor at the time, comes into fuller focus vis-à-vis impassioned declarations of artistic allegiance and filial devotion. With Brother Mine, Pfeiffer complicates critical notions of their relationship, offering a chronological collation of epistles between the two men. From Frank’s first letter to Toomer in October 1920, Pfeiffer implicates Frank in encouraging Toomer, who was initially reserved and professional, to open up to his input and affections and to the possibilities of publication available to him as a modernist “Negro” poet. In her introduction, Pfeiffer links the dissolution of their friendship to Toomer’s affair with Frank’s wife, art therapist Margaret Naumburg, and marks Toomer a turncoat. However, she discounts the betrayal Toomer expressed feeling in his autobiography of having been reduced to “a fraction of Negro blood” when, in fact, he desired to create “a synthesis in the matters of the mind and spirit analogous, perhaps, to the actual fact of at least six blood minglings” (qtd. in Pfeiffer 29). Ultimately, it would seem the strictures of America’s “one-drop rule” on the social status of one marked black was as much to blame.

What makes Brother Mine compelling, then, is that which made the earliest English and American readers fond of Pamela, The Power of Sympathy, and other epistolary novels: an intimate look at a complex love story. Readers see two men finding homosocial solidarity as they manipulate the constructs of race in the poetry that would become one of the New Negro Renaissance’s first critically acclaimed works. They also see Toomer offer Frank critical feedback on Holiday, Frank’s version of their trip to Spartanburg, South Carolina, which their letters often romanticize—while offering scant details. They read some of the most honest confessions in print of a white American man’s obsession with and hunger to embody blackness, and they witness Toomer deftly navigating his multiracial identity. As he and his beloved Jewish brother reach for a raceless identity neither can attain in America, readers watch them commit the ultimate crime: interracial love. Frank’s gleeful interest in the black American experience is palpable as he alludes to the pleasures and challenges he and Toomer encounter as they venture into the US South. Moreover, it is clear that Frank is living vicariously through Toomer’s relationships with his grandmother, best friend Ken, and on-again, off-again girlfriend Mae. What emerges from their dialogue is both men’s problematic conception of a kind of Lacanian jouissance subsumed in blackness, which Toomer calls a “soil [that] is a good rich brown” that “should yield splendidly to our plowing” in an August 3, 1922, letter in which he makes final plans for the pair’s Spartanburg excursion (59).

Central to the poetic re-envisioning of Cane that emerges in Brother Mine is the homo-social desire that permeates every page. As Pfeiffer notes, the almost…

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Individualism, Success, and American Identity in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2012-10-04 03:59Z by Steven

Individualism, Success, and American Identity in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

African American Review
Volume 30, Number 3 (Autumn, 1996)  
pages 403-419

Kathleen Pfeiffer, Professor of English
Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan

The title character in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man embodies the paradox of race and color because he is both legally black and visibly white. The Ex-Colored Man’s response to this paradox defies his audience’s expectations: He believes that it’s possible for blacks to aspire and succeed in America, yet he decides to seize his own opportunity for success by passing as white. Passing in general and the Ex-Colored Man’s narrative in particular have long been viewed as instances of racial self-hatred or disloyalty. Both are predicated, so the argument goes, on renouncing blackness—an “authentic” identity—in favor of whiteness, an “opportunistic” one. These previous interpretations have insisted on a “racially correct” way of reading the text. However, such readings try to categorize a character who often resists categories. Must the Ex-Colored Man’s embrace of the potential for success to which his white skin avails him be seen simply as his co-optation by a culture founded on “white” values? Must passing necessarily indicate a denial of “blackness,” or racial self-hatred and nothing more?

When we look at the Ex-Colored Man as a person who values individualism, who is idiosyncratic, undisciplined, and inclined towards improvisation, we invite a much richer and more complex reading. When we recognize that the Ex-Colored Man demonstrates ambivalence about whiteness as well as blackness, we avail ourselves of the novel’s more complicated nuances. Not strictly fiction, yet not entirely autobiographical, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man reveals the instability of generic distinctions in much the same way that the Ex-Colored Man’s passing reveals the instability of racial distinctions. A textual changeling, the book is taxonomically slippery, encoding into its very pages the sort of disarray and ambivalence which passing evokes; the book’s own stubborn resistance to easy categorization thus suggests the constructed nature of distinctions separating texts as well as races. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, like the ideology of segregation, incorporates fundamentally contradictory attitudes. In turn, the Ex-Colored Man demonstrates the degree to which this segregation logic permeates our most deeply embedded beliefs about identity, race, and the U.S.A.

Because the book first appeared anonymously in 1912, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was, understandably, construed by its initial readers as the genuine autobiography of a light-skinned black man who had successfully passed into white society. It was, in fact, a fictional account written by James Weldon Johnson. The narrative’s opening paragraphs offer contradictory motives for the document that follows. At once a divulger of secrets, a confidence man, a trickster figure, and a confes-…

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Nigger Heaven

Posted in Books, Media Archive, Novels, United States on 2012-09-30 21:34Z by Steven

Nigger Heaven

University of Illinois Press
2000 (Originally published in 1926)
336 pages
5.5 x 8.25 in.
Paper ISBN: 978-0-252-06860-7

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964)

Introduction by:

Kathleen Pfeiffer, Professor of English
Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan

Foreward by:

Philip Levine

A controversial but appealing, amusing, and vivacious celebration of Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s

No other contemporary novel received the volume and intensity of criticism and curiosity that greeted Nigger Heaven upon its publication in 1926. Carl Van Vechten’s novel generated a storm of controversy because of its scandalous title and fed an insatiable hunger on the part of the reading public for material relating to the black culture of Harlem’s jazz clubs, cabarets, and social events.

“The book and not the title is the thing,” James Weldon Johnson insisted with regard to Nigger Heaven, and the book is indeed a nuanced and vibrant portrait of “the great black walled city” of Harlem. Opening on a scene of tawdry sensationalism, Nigger Heaven shifts decisively to a world of black middle-class respectability, defined by intellectual values, professional ambition, and an acute consciousness of class and racial identity.

Here is a Harlem where upper-class elites discuss art in well-appointed drawing rooms; rowdy and lascivious drunks spend long nights in jazz clubs and speakeasies; and politically conscious young intellectuals drink coffee and debate “the race problem” in walk-up apartments. At the center of the story, two young people—a quiet, serious librarian and a volatile aspiring writer—struggle to love each other as their dreams are slowly suffocated by racism.

This reissue is based on the seventh printing, which included poetry composed by Langston Hughes especially for the book. Kathleen Pfeiffer’s astute introduction investigates the controversy surrounding the shocking title and shows how the novel functioned in its time as a site to contest racial violence. She also signals questions of racial authenticity and racial identity raised by a novel about black culture written by a white admirer of that culture.

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‘Brother Mine’ highlights unique relationships

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2012-05-18 00:37Z by Steven

‘Brother Mine’ highlights unique relationships

The Oakland Post: Oakland University’s Independent Newspaper
Rochester, Michigan

Ryan Hegedus

Reading other peoples’ mail can land you in serious trouble with the government.
Or, in the case of Dr. Kathleen Pfeiffer, it can land you a book deal.
Pfeiffer, an associate professor of English at Oakland University, is the author of “Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank, a back-and-forth account of over 120 letters between the two in the 1920s.”
Toomer, a young black author, began writing to Frank, an established white writer in New York, and the book details the unique friendship between the two.
“Dr. Pfeiffer’s work provides an important tool for understanding the dynamics of the relationship between Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank,” said associate history professor and chair of the history department, Karen Miller. “Both Toomer and Frank were participants in the conflict over the construction of racial identity. Their correspondence helps us to understand how the debates over race worked themselves into friendships.”
In the summer of 1993, Pfeiffer was deciding on the topic of her dissertation at Yale University, and ended up at the university’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, one of the country’s best resources for African-American literature. The opportunity gave her the chance to do research in the primary archives.
It was at Beinecke that she decided on the topic of race passing.
Race passing was a “hot topic” in American literature at the turn of the century, Pfeiffer explained, where people who were legally defined as black because of previous generations, were actually light enough to pass for a white person.
“These people would take on a new identity and pass for white,” Pfeiffer said. “They would have this better opportunity as a white person than they would have as a black person, but then there would be all of this guilt and sense of loss because they’d have to leave their families. That’s really what my dissertation was about — about stories of characters who ‘pass.’”…

Read the entire article here.

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Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank

Posted in Anthologies, Biography, Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-05-18 00:28Z by Steven

Brother Mine:  The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank

University of Illinois Press
208 pages
6 x 9 in.
14 black & white photographs

Edited by:

Kathleen Pfeiffer, Associate Professor of English
Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan

An extraordinary literary friendship, preserved in letters

The friendship of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank was one of the most emotionally intense, racially complicated, and aesthetically significant relationships in the history of American literary modernism. Waldo Frank was an established white writer who advised and assisted the younger African American Jean Toomer as he pursued a literary career. They met in 1920, began corresponding regularly in 1922, and were estranged by the end of 1923, the same year that Toomer published his ambitiously modernist debut novel, Cane.

While individual letters between Frank and Toomer have been published separately on occasion, they have always been presented out of context. This volume presents for the first time their entire correspondence in chronological order, comprising 121 letters ranging from 200 to 800 words each. Kathleen Pfeiffer annotates and introduces the letters, framing the correspondence and explaining the literary and historical allusions in the letters themselves.

Reading like an epistolary novel, Brother Mine captures the sheer emotional force of the story that unfolds in these letters: two men discover an extraordinary friendship, and their intellectual and emotional intimacy takes shape before our eyes. This unprecedented collection preserves the raw honesty of their exchanges, together with the developing drama of their ambition, their disappointments, their assessment of their world, and ultimately, the betrayal that ended the friendship.

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Race Passing and American Individualism

Posted in Books, Identity Development/Psychology, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States on 2011-01-17 00:19Z by Steven

Race Passing and American Individualism

University of Massachusetts Press
February 2003
176 pages
Cloth ISBN: 1-55849-377-8 (Print on Demand)

Kathleen Pfeiffer, Professor of English
Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan

A literary study of the ambiguities of racial identity in American culture

In the literature of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America, black characters who pass for white embody a paradox. By virtue of the “one drop” rule that long governed the nation’s race relations, they are legally black. Yet the color of their skin makes them visibly-and therefore socially-white.

In this book, Kathleen Pfeiffer explores the implications of this dilemma by analyzing its treatment in the fiction of six writers: William Dean Howells, Frances E. W. Harper, Jean Toomer, James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset, and Nella Larsen. Although passing for white has sometimes been viewed as an expression of racial self-hatred or disloyalty, Pfeiffer argues that the literary evidence is much more ambiguous than that. Rather than indicating a denial of “blackness” or co-optation by the dominant white culture, passing can be viewed as a form of self-determination consistent with American individualism. In their desire to manipulate personal identity in order to achieve social acceptance and upward mobility, light-skinned blacks who pass for white are no different than those Americans who reinvent themselves in terms of class, religion, or family history.

In Pfeiffer’s view, to see race passing as a problematic but potentially legitimate expression of individualism is to invite richer and more complex readings of a broad range of literary texts. More than that, it represents a challenge to the segregationist logic of the “one drop” rule and, as such, subverts the ideology of racial essentialism.

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