THERE IS A CONVICTION, among black people who monitor such things, that black artists who marry whites peak at precisely that point. That is, whatever heights they and their talent may have attained -- that's it. They never get any better. They don't necessarily lose their talent; they just maintain the plateau they have reached at the time of the intermarriage. Thus you have no black artist, who has entered such a union, whose work matures as he or she does, or that becomes more powerful than in his or her youth.
Examples of black Americans who married "their own" and who ripened into ancient geniuses, men and women who in their sixties and seventies got better at what they did, are pointed to and debated furiously. The artist of an integrated marriage who finds his career at a standstill inevitably attributes this phenomenon to the racism of his field, but the blacks who have analyzed the situation (mostly old people, of course, old enough to have surveyed the careers of several "cases") believe otherwise.
The data on the subject, like most folk wisdom, is both informed and wild with inaccuracies, but anyone who wishes to collect his own data could begin with Jean Toomer, both of whose marriages occurred after writing Cane -- a shiveringly beautiful book of overwhelming perception -- and who then abandoned or was denied the career that he and most of the literary world believed was his brillianat destiny. To have continued to write works like Cane would be more than enough genius for any life; to have written only it ought to be enough for any writer. And calling attention to Toomer's race and marriages is not improper -- it is inevitable and very much to the point because it is not possible to read The Wayward and the Seeking, edited by Darwin T. Turner, without joining Toomer in his intricate struggles and problems with race.
In this collection of his writings, race is unequivocally the overriding preoccupation of Jean Toomer's life: not Blackness or even being a Negro, but having (or having to have) a race at all. For a man who apparently had no more Negro blood than Dumas pere or Pushkin, the drop or two that he does, or might have (he refers to it as "dark blood, probably Negro possibly Indian") bedevils his days and his intellect. It took the joy from the publication of Cane for him since, in the introduction to that book, Waldo Frank muffed the point, and Horace Liveright wanted to exploit that drop in the book's publicity; it occasioned quarrels with colleagues and fellow writers who wanted to include him in collections of Negro writers; and it seems to have driven him away from belles lettres into a sustained search for and definition of a new race called "American" and toward a spiritual reformation which focused on harmony, nature and other chubby ideas that floated like blimps above the hurly-burly of everyday politics. (He abandoned Shavian socialism after working 10 days in a shipyard in New Jersey with "real" laborers, noting that nothing fine could come from them.) Pestered by and on account of that little drop, he hated being called Negro, but denied "denying his race" -- the ultimate racial dilemma.
What makes Toomer's position on race so interesting to speculate on, is the fact that the best work he did came from three months in Sparta, Georgia, during which he identified with "black people, life and soul." By his own admission the "growing need for artistic expression had pulled him deeper and deeper into the Negro group," a group which alone stimulated in him the best writing he did. Toomer was annoyed by repeated urgings to write another Cane. He could not, he insisted, because Cane was the swam song of a people and its way of life: Modern life, industrialism and so on had sounded the death knell. While that is a familiar complaint of authors who see their own bereft lives as indicative of the state of all mankind and its separate parts, it may have been for Toomer a genuine finish with black, meaning artistic, life. Of the stories included here, "Withered Skin of Berries" is quite the best, rivaling easily the heights achieved in Cane. But it was Toomer's artistic and racial sensitivity that made him so expert in rendering the machinations of race and color-as-class. He has indisputably keen insight into the "tragic mulatto" theme popular in the period and he is never ambivalent or fuzzy when dissecting the black middle class. His autobiographical material, the play, the short stories, are extraordinary in that respect. But aside from his fascinating, marvelously written autobiographies, there is little else of similar power. The aphorisms, maxims, and a long, bad Whitmanesque poem expounding racelessness and universal harmony are embarrassing.
Grandson of P.B.S. Pinchback; resident of Washington, D.C., at one of its most interesting periods; student of agriculture and physical fitness; humanist, Jean Toomer was also and especially a disciple of Georges Gurdjieff, founder of the Institute for Man's Harmonious Development. His association with this movement preceded the publication of Cane, but not the writing of it. If it is true, as Toomer says, that the three months of identification with blacks brought on Cane, then an important question is whether the Gurdjieff philosophy and teachings helped or hindered his subsequent artistic vision, and whether it was the protection from Blackness his editors thought it was, or the serious and challenging adventure Toomer thought it was. Toomer had been labeled and introduced to the literary world as a Negro, to his chagrin; did the label function as a seal both of approbation and closure forcing him to quit the whole business after an occasional Dial and Broom piece were published in 1928? Was the racism of publishers central to his choice or convenient to it? These are questions Turner has addressed elsewhere, and which bear further probing in the definitive biography one hopes he will write. In any case, one must trust Turner rather than Toomer, for the former is a scholar of fastidiousness and perception (as the collection shows), while the latter, in his five attempts at autobiography, veils and misleads as much as he reveals.
Darwin Turner has done an extraordinary job of selecting parts of the unpublished autobiographies -- "Earth Being" (1928); "Outline of an Autobiography" (1931-32); "On Being an American" (1934); "Incredible Journey" (1940); -- and putting them together to form a coherent, chronological portrait of this gifted man. The style and tone change from one autobiography to another, yet what emerges is most certainly a clearer picture than any one of the autobiographies by itself would have provided. It must have been a brutal task, and Turner should applaud himself for having succeeded at it. It is not the final work -- that was never intended -- but it is a compendium of material vital to Toomer readers and students of American literature. It includes only material relevant to Toomer's literary life. There were, one suspects, other lives he lived, perhaps as compelling if not more so, and the total mystery of it is still intact, but that seems to have been Toomer's fault and his intention, not Darwin Turner's. Toomer decided what was "worth" knowing about himself, and when he is wrong (for our purposes), Turner alerts us to the omission.
In spite of Jean Toomer's yearning for racelessness, his horror of "dark blood," what is astonishing is how eloquent he was about the drop that bedeviled him; how moving he was about those who shared it. What would have been no more than an after-dinner story in France or Russia became an opus in this country where, racially speaking, the difference between one snowflake and an avalanche does not exist. I would be a little disappointed in any library -- personal or institutional -- of American letters that did not contain Cane. I would have similar reservations about a library of American literature that did not also include The Wayward and the Seeking.