Academic journal article MELUS

"A Small Man in Big Spaces": The New Negro, the Mestizo, and Jean Toomer's Southwestern Writing

Academic journal article MELUS

"A Small Man in Big Spaces": The New Negro, the Mestizo, and Jean Toomer's Southwestern Writing

Article excerpt

Taos is an end-product. It is the end of the slope. It is an end-product of the Indians, an end-product of the Spaniards, an end-product of the Yankees and puritans. It must be plowed under. Out of the fertility which death makes in the soil, a new people with a new form may grow. I dedicate myself to the swift death of the old, to the whole birth of the new. In whatever place I start work, I will call that place Taos.

--Jean Toomer, "A Drama of the Southwest (Notes)" (n.d., c. 1935) (1)

A photograph of Jean Toomer taken by his second wife, Marjorie Content, shows him posed at a table with his typewriter before him, replete with a sheet of paper. (2) Content was a noted photographer and this portrait has the posed look of a book jacket. Its composition seems highly constructed: the ream of paper next to the typewriter and the books on the shelf in the background are perfectly placed. The writer is artfully posed with his hand under his chin, as if thoughtfully contemplating his work. Words are barely visible on the sheet of paper exiting Toomer's typewriter; the distance from which this portrait has been taken has obscured them. They appear faint, apparitional, and illegible. The year is 1935, more than a decade after the publication of Cane (1923). While this image might be read as contrived, as little more than a fantasy of authorship for a writer who, according to most critical accounts, had already "failed" by this date, the possibility of this photograph as documentary evidence remains. After all, this is the same year that Charles Scruggs and Lee VanDemarr suggest that Toomer's writing reengaged with "a radical analysis of the politics of his time," although "not ... an open discussion of racial matters" (219).

Like Content's photograph, scholarship on Toomer has continued to represent dichotomously the writer best known for Cane. In effect, critics and biographers have created two Jean Toomers. One is the writer of Cane, often considered the signal text of the Harlem Renaissance. He is politically engaged, interested in race, and aesthetically experimental. This Toomer looks back to the Southern past and slavery, and views black folk as sources for emergent, modernist, New Negro sensibilities. The other Toomer is post-Cane and is not a poet, but a psychologist, philosopher, or spiritual guru. This second Toomer disconnects himself from the New York literary scene of Waldo Frank, Broom, or Harlem. He denounces his black heritage, marries white women, and becomes little more than a literary mouthpiece for his spiritual mentor, George Gurdjieff. The promise of Toomer's early experimental writing is thus diminished and he is characterized as never again achieving the "literary merit" of Cane. Charles R. Larson, for example, wonders "why Jean Toomer failed as a writer after the publication of that one brilliant work. What diminished whatever potential there was in his later works?" (xiii). These oppositional narratives about Toomer's career have remained relatively untroubled.

Content's photograph, however, raises more than just the question of whether Toomer was writing in this period. It also exposes where he was writing. This is not an image captured in Sparta, Georgia, in the small cabin adjacent to the school where Toomer acted as substitute principal, a domicile eerily recreated in the "Kabnis" section of Cane. It is also not the lush interior of Toomer's childhood brownstone in Washington, DC, its propriety mimicked in the stifling atmosphere of Mrs. Pribby's house in Cane's "Box Seat." Nor is it the Chicago dorm room recorded in "Bona and Paul," perhaps modeled on Toomer's education at that city's American College of Physical Training. Instead, this photograph shows Toomer's books stacked neatly on the imperfectly curved bookshelf of a hand-built adobe house. He writes by the warmth of a distinctive, semi-circular kiva fireplace, a fixture of Pueblo architecture in the New Mexican Southwest. …

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