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JEAN TOOMER: THE BRIDGE BETWEEN HARLEM AND THE LOST GENERATION Parizo – American Literature.

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Presentation on theme: "JEAN TOOMER: THE BRIDGE BETWEEN HARLEM AND THE LOST GENERATION Parizo – American Literature."— Presentation transcript:

1 JEAN TOOMER: THE BRIDGE BETWEEN HARLEM AND THE LOST GENERATION Parizo – American Literature

2 Who was Jean Toomer?  Toomer was a multi-racial Southerner living in various parts of Georgia, including Atlanta, Augusta, and Decatur. He was a teacher and principal.  He was a writer and poet who got swept up in the Harlem Renaissance. He moved to Harlem in his late 20’s.  There he became a successful writer of plays and short stories.

3 Waldo Frank’s “Our America” (1919)  Social Critic Waldo Frank wrote a book called “Our America”. He attempted to gather all the stories of every culture living in the 20 th - Century United States.  He left out Africans.  Jean Toomer, who had African blood in his veins, began writing Frank letters complaining of the omission. The two writers began arguing the validity of Black America.

4 Toomer in a letter to Waldo Frank  “I alone have stood for a mixing in the mind and spirit of racial identity, perhaps, to the actual fact of at least six racial identities. The history (sic) of five of these are, in some truths, in your book, but no picture of the Southern person is complete without the mind and personality of the African” (Scruggs 89).  SOURCE: Scruggs, Charles. “Jean Toomer: Fugitive.” American Literature 47.1 (1975):  “I alone have stood for a synthesis in the mind and spirit of analogous, perhaps, to the actual fact of at least six blood minglings. The history (sic) of five of these are available in some approximation to the truth, but no picture of the Southern person is complete without its bit of Negro-determined psychology” (Scruggs 89).  SOURCE: Scruggs, Charles. “Jean Toomer: Fugitive.” American Literature 47.1 (1975):

5 Toomer’s Argument  Toomer argued within the letters that nothing created from European or Asian or Hispanic American citizens could be authentically original, due to overwhelming cultural influences.  Only the African, and the Southern African, could create authentic, original American culture.

6 Frank’s influence on Toomer  Toomer, challenged by Frank, returned to his native South to conduct “Negro Studies” – documenting the plight of the Southern African.  Frank believed that Toomer’s racial ambivalence could create a new form of authentic American literature (Scruggs 90).  SOURCE: Scruggs, Charles. “Jean Toomer: Fugitive.” American Literature 47.1 (1975):

7 Toomer on the Southern African-Americanism  “[The Southern Negro’s] dream is a soft face that fits uncertainly upon it (the head of America)… God, if I could develop that in words” (Toomer 83).  SOURCE: Toomer, Jean. Cane: A Norton Critical Edition.. Liverwright Publishing. New York: 1988.

8 Toomer in the South  Toomer’s journey to the south brought him to the center of his racial confusion and caused the epiphany which brought him close to creating a “new American race”.  The result was his novel Cane.  Critics recognize Cane as the height of literary creativity of the 20 th Century – and its success would lead to Toomer’s downfall.

9 Toomer on Race and Cane  Cane embraces the diversity within the people of the South even when his characters do not. Toomer wrote in his privately published book of thoughts and ideas, “I am of no particular race. I am of the human race, a man at large in the world, preparing a new race” (Rusch 20).  Toomer did not believe that the term “African” could be attached to “American” – the same way “European” is not attached. He felt that if you are “American”, you cannot recognize yourself as “African” or “European”.  SOUCE: Rusch, Frederick L. :Form, Function, and Creative Tension in Cane: Jean Toomer and the Need for the Avant-Garde.” MELUS 17.4 (1992):

10 Cane by Jean Toomer  In Cane, a collection of short stories and poems, Toomer weaves tales of tortured souls, each battling with identities which contrast his or her surroundings. In his stories, those who hang on “racial identity” are doomed to die similar to Shakespearean tragedy. And those who do not, can be punished by those who do.

11 Disconnection from Race  The broken, fragmented narrative within Cane illustrates the personal crises within the writer; Toomer, at the time of the novel’s writing, inserted his pain and anguish, his disassociation with his African-ness, into elegantly gentle tales of clashing, yet blending, societies, beliefs, and ideals. His sentences are elegant, beautiful, and passionate – almost dreamlike.

12 Toomer’s New Race (from “Bona and Paul” – Cane)  Paul confronts Bona after she refused to dance with a black man: I came back to tell you, to shake your hand and tell you that you are wrong. That something beautiful is going to happen. That the Gardens are purple like a bed of roses would be at dusk. That I came into the Gardens, into life in the Gardens with one whom I did not know. That I danced with her, and did not know her. That I felt passion, contempt and passion for her whom I did not know. That I thought of her. That my thoughts were matches thrown into a dark window. All the while the Gardens were purple like a bed of roses would be at dusk. I came back to tell you, brother, that white faces are petals of roses. That dark faces are petals of dusk. That I am going out and gather more petals (80).

13 The Success of Cane  Cane’s popularity could not be measured.  Cane’s success made Toomer exactly what he didn’t want to be – labeled as a black writer.  Toomer refused to accept this identification as a “New Negro Movement Writer” – even denying his blackness in a 1930 interview (Scruggs 89).

14 Complications of Race  Toomer rejected being referred to as a “black writer” – he felt this was a simplification of race and its complex paradox. He felt that being identified as “black” stifled his creativity.  In 1923, he stated: “[I am] American, simply American” when asked what race he identified with.

15 Toomer on His Rejection of Blackness  “I had been, I suppose, unconsciously seeking – as man must ever seek – an intelligible scheme of things, a sort of whole into which everything fit” (Fullinwider 397).  SOURCE: Fullinwider, S.P. “Jean Toomer: Lost Generation, or Negro Renaissance?” Phylon 27.4 (1966):

16 Toomer Bows Out  This search for the absolute resulted in the rejection of southern black culture; Toomer would view his pilgrimage to the South, the abrasiveness of white culture, and the conception of Cane “in the agony of internal tightness, conflict, and chaos. Never again in my life do I want those conditions…. Cane is a swan-song” (Scruggs 91).  Toomer, thusly, ceased his work in New Negro Literature and began to search for new creation, a new race with an accompanying form of literary renaissance.

17 Failed Comeback  Toomer’s artistic expression faltered as illustrated in his 1932 unpublished novel Eight Day World: a meandering, clichéd depiction of Lost Generation- ites traveling to Europe in search of the self.  Toomer’s desire to define himself, seek and slay the demon haunting his anguish, became the catalyst, the very thing fueling his genius, creating ground- breaking writings and the creation of Cane.

18 SP Fullinwider in “Jean Toomer: Lost Generation, or Negro Renaissance?” (1966)  “Eight Day World” ended as Toomer had ended, with all problems solved, with everyone satisfied. The artist could no longer express modern man’s restlessness and lostness. His work had become smug – and dead. Toomer had been modern in Cane. There the author confronted his readers with the pain of reality unmitigated by the pleasant knowledge of having in hand The Answer. Toomer’s artistic expression lost something once he had found his answer – it became didactic and it became unconvincing” (401).  Fullinwider, S.P. “Jean Toomer: Lost Generation, or Negro Renaissance?” Phylon 27.4 (1966):

19 Toomer’s Farewell  Toomer moved to upstate Pennsylvania to escape from the media spotlight. He joined a sect of the Quakers and lived the rest of his life in complete isolation from society. He died in 1967.

20 Portrait in Georgia Hair – braided chestnut, coiled like a lyncher’s rope Eyes – fagots Lips – old scars, or the first red blisters Breath – the last sweet scent of cane And her slim body, white as ash of black flesh after flame.


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