Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

The Reluctant Witness: What Jean Toomer Remembered from Winesburg, Ohio

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

The Reluctant Witness: What Jean Toomer Remembered from Winesburg, Ohio

Article excerpt

"Winesburg, Ohio and The Triumph of the Egg are elements of my growing. It is hard to think of my maturing without them."

--Jean Toomer to Sherwood Anderson, December 18, 1922

The Sherwood Anderson whom Toomer said he admired was the Anderson who affirmed the value of existence despite the painful loneliness, isolation, and existential angst experienced by his characters. As he told Anderson,

   Your acute sense of the separateness of life could easily have led to a
   lean pessimism in a less abundant soul. Your Yea! to life is one of the
   clear fine tones in our medley of harsh discordant sounds. Life is measured
   by your own glowing, and you find life, you find its possibilities deeply
   hopeful and beautiful. It seems to me that art in our day, other than its
   purely aesthetic phase, has a sort of religious function. It is a religion,
   a spiritualization of the immediate. And ever since I first touched you, I
   have thought of you in this connection.

As we know, the religious impulse and the affirmation of life did find their way into Cane (1923), the brilliant hybrid short-story cycle that helped inspire the Harlem Renaissance, but Anderson's real influence is hinted at in a complaint Toomer made to Waldo Frank: Anderson, Toomer said, only saw in Cane themes commensurate with his own, "a sense of the tragic separateness, the tragic sterility of people." In actuality, what Toomer did was to take Anderson's "sense of ... tragic separateness" and put that theme in a horrific sociological context. The Toomer who wrote of the collapsing house in "Becky" as the South in ruins, or who described a brutal lynching in "Portrait in Georgia" in terms of Petrarchan conventions, or who identified with Kabnis's paranoia in "Kabnis," was the Toomer who changed Anderson's nightworld of human personality in Winesburg, Ohio (1919) into the nightmare of racial oppression in Cane. That is, Anderson's real influence on Toomer's Cane was not the "spiritualization of the immediate," but Kabnis's realization that "things are so immediate in Georgia," for Toomer understood that the South's "intangible oppression" reshaped the lonely "grotesques" of Winesburg into the anguished souls in Halsey's cellar. Despite his wish to see himself as "The First American" in which his "six blood minglings" represented a "synthesis" in microcosm of the utopian future predicted by Frank in Our America (1919), Toomer would recontextualize Winesburg's small-town's psyche into a southern Gothicism that underlined his own social position in the American scene as an African-American.(1)

A common theme in Anderson's stories is the clash between an inchoate inner life and the all too tangible facts of human experience. In Winesburg, Anderson uses words like "adventure" and "hands" not only to link stories but also to express man and woman's desperate attempts to break through the finite world of social and physical limitation to some hidden truth or vital connection. The attempts, however, almost always fail, as doors, walls, and houses become Anderson's metaphors for the barriers placed between the shadowy world of desire and human fulfillment. As he has a character say in the story "Seeds" in The Triumph of the Egg (1921): "To be sure she is a grotesque, but then all the people in the world are grotesques. We all need to be loved. What would cure her would cure the rest of us also. The disease she had is, you see, universal. We all want to be loved and the world has no plan for creating our lovers." For Anderson the Incarnation means that the flesh (canis) of the world creates a more or less permanent veil between self and other, expression and feeling, desire and fulfillment, that is overcome only at "rare moments."(2)

Thus, while often grounded in a social and/or historical context, Anderson's "grotesques" are not always foregrounded in that context. They appear to the old storyteller in a dream in "The Book of the Grotesque," as they pass in procession, one by one, devoid of all context except the context of dream. …

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