One of my all time favorite writers has been Jean Toomer. His melding of poetry and fiction in his most famous novel Cane, will always be a classic work that lingers with me. He idealizes the black south of the early 20th Century, but he does so in a way that neither glorifies and or falsely praises thus becoming maudlin, or trivializes and belittles. Cane is a series of vignettes, interspersed with poems, that speak to the soul of the characters within. Although considered a Harlem Renaissance writer, there never seems for Toomer to be a strong connection with his fellow Black writers of the time, and thus for the most part, seems to me to be a Renaissance writer by circumstance alone.
Born Nathan Pinchback Toomer in Washington, D.C., Jean was of mixed racial descent and spent his childhood attending both all-white and all-black segregated schools. In his early years Toomer resisted racial classifications and wished to be identified only as an American. Toomer attended several colleges for short stints but did not take a degree. The readings that he would undertake and the lectures he attended during his college years shaped the direction his writing would take. After leaving college, Toomer published some short stories, devoted several months to the study of Eastern philosophies and took a job as a principal in Sparta, Georgia. The segregation Toomer experienced in the South lead Toomer to identify more strongly as an African-American. In 1923, Toomer published the experimental novel Cane, his most famous work. A series of poems and short stories about the Black experience in America, Cane was hailed by critics and is seen as an important work of both the Harlem Renaissance and the Lost Generation. In 1926 Toomer went to France to attend the Gurdjieff Institute and was associated with G. I. Gurdjieff until 1935. Toomer was prolific during this period, writing plays, the novel The Gallonwerps and several poems and short stories that appeared in The Dial.
Georgia Dusk by Jean Toomer
The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
The setting sun, too indolent to hold
A lengthened tournament for flashing gold,
Passively darkens for night's barbecue,
A feast of moon and men and barking hounds,
An orgy for some genius of the South
With blood-hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth,
Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.
The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop,
And silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill,
Soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill
Their early promise of a bumper crop.
Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile
Curls up, blue ghosts of trees, tarrying low
Where only chips and stumps are left to show
The solid proof of former domicile.
Meanwhile, the men, with vestiges of pomp,
Race memories of king and caravan,
High-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,
Go singing through the footpaths of the swamp.
Their voices rise . . the pine trees are guitars,
Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain . .
Their voices rise . . the chorus of the cane
Is caroling a vesper to the stars . .
O singers, resinous and soft your songs
Above the sarcred whisper of the pines,
Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines,
Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs.
Reapers by Jean Toomer
Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones
Are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones
In their hip-pockets as a thing that's done,
And start their silent swinging, one by one.
Black horses drive a mower through the weeds,
And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds,
His belly close to ground. I see the blade,
Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.
BOOKS ON OR BY JEAN TOOMER:
The lives of Jean Toomer : a hunger for wholeness
Jean Toomer, artist : a study of his literary life and work, 1894-1936
The Negro novel in America
The collected poems of Jean Toomer
Jean Toomer reader : selected unpublished writings