An Overview of the Event: Jean Toomer and Politics at the 2012 MLA
By Gino Pellegrini
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 biographic 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.
In his presentation, Charles Scruggs took issue with Byrd and Gates’s exclusion of Toomer’s political articles from 1919 as well as their disregard of the economic theme that is omnipresent in Cane. He found it curious that Byrd and Gates included essays by Foley and Pellegrini (both reference his political articles) in the second edition, but then made no mention of them in their sixty-three page introduction. Regarding scholarly flaws, Scruggs criticized Byrd and Gates for referring to Cane as a novel; it is more accurately described as a short-story cycle such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. Scruggs also questioned why Byrd and Gates had not defined and/or qualified their use of the term Lost Generation to classify Toomer and the group of artists and intellectuals to which he belonged (Young America), which included individuals such Randolph Bourne, Waldo Frank, Van Wyck Brooks, Sherwood Anderson, Lewis Mumford, Hart Crane, Gorham Munson, Georgia O’Keefe, Alfred Stieglitz, and others. Finally, Scruggs suggested that it was Mumford, not Frank, who possibly exerted the greatest influence on Toomer and Cane.
In her presentation, Barbara Foley suggested that the many scholarly flaws in the second edition are the result of Byrd and Gates’s “overreliance on secondary sources and failure to visit the archive.” Like Scruggs, she took issue with their exclusion of Toomer’s political writings, and their attempt to obscure his engagement with the ideas and politics of the radical left. Foley expressed her concern that Byrd and Gates, in their attempt to advance their own argument, impede readers from following “lines of inquiry” about Toomer and Cane that are of great importance within our current milieu. Foley also argued that Toomer continued to identify as a Negro writer after the publication of Cane—for example, in “The Negro Emergent” (1925). Toomer’s Negro identity “bears a close resemblance to the class-conscious and militant New Negro of A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen’s black Marxist journal the Messenger,” and can be understood in opposition to Alain Locke’s pro-capitalist, culturalist conception of the New Negro.
My presentation focused on the relationship between Toomer’s political/artistic vision and cultural pluralism, which we know today as multiculturalism. I claimed that his vision is incompatible with the cultural pluralisms of his mentors, Alain Locke and Waldo Frank. I made the point that many of the unresolvable tensions in Cane can be attributed to the young Toomer’s inability to clearly see this incompatibility—hence, his attempt to account for both “Negro and mixed-blood America” and to write as both a Negro and as a representative of mixed-blood America. Further, I suggested that his ugly breakup with Locke and Frank after the publication of Cane is indicative of his eventual realization that the vision he wanted to develop was at odds with both their versions of cultural pluralism—cosmopolitan or not. In particular, I discussed how Toomer’s post-Cane writings reveal that, in comparison to his mentors, he held divergent views on amalgamation, social assimilation, big business, and the power of the Anglo-Saxon group. Finally, I discussed how Toomer’s views on amalgamation and the American state anticipate, in many respects, the post-ethnic, cosmopolitan perspective that historian David Hollinger has developed over the past two decades.