THE LIVES OF JEAN TOOMER

A Hunger for Wholeness By Cynthia Earl Kerman

And Richard Eldridge

Louisiana State University Press

411 pp. $29.95

JEAN TOOMER (1894-1967) is known primarily for Cane (1923), a remarkable collection including a play, poems, and sketches of Afro-American life in rural Georgia, Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York. In Cane Toomer captured, with lyrical poetic grace and pictorial beauty, the rapidly dying world of rural southern blacks. He foresaw the harsh consequences and brutal realities awaiting them in concrete urban jungles and on mean city streets.

In The Lives of Jean Toomer, Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge conclude that Cane reflects Toomer's own search for identity, his "attempt to bond the pieces into a meaningful whole. Many tensions -- between blacks and whites, rural and urban people, blue blood and peasant, the idealized and the cynical -- were as much a part of the fabric of Jean Toomer as they were of Cane. And, as in the book, the attempt to blend the opposites was never fully realized."

Kerman and Eldridge have written the most comprehensive account of Toomer's life to date. Although they cover much of the territory already deeply explored by previous scholars Darwin Turner and Nellie Y. McKay, The Lives of Jean Toomer is distinguished in several ways. While other scholars have devoted their primary attention to Jean Toomer, the curiously unfulfilled artist, rather than to the arresting phenomenon of the man, Kerman and Eldridge provide not only a panoramic view of the artist, but a sense of the paradoxical, contradictory (and as they suggest near the end of their work) somewhat sick personality of the man.

The biographers conducted an impressive array of interviews with those who knew Toomer at various places and periods of his life. And they dedicate their book to Marjorie Content Toomer, Toomer's second wife, who gave them "countless hours of interviews." Finally, the authors were allowed to examine the contents of Jean Toomer's "tin box," his deposit box for "his most precious, private possessions." The box was available only to Toomer himself during his life time, and his wife had not disturbed the contents.

The ambiguous issue of Toomer's race surfaces via the tin box. Toomer was what was once called a "voluntary Negro," for he was fair enough to pass for white. His maternal grandfather, Pinckney B.S. Pinchback, "remarkably resembled Andrew Carnegie and was occasionally mistaken for him." But Pinchback chose to live a rather spectacular life as a black, if aristocratic, American. During the 1870's, he was a successful, though controversial, politician in Louisiana. He eventually became lieutenant governor and when the governor was impeached for attempted bribery, Pinchback became governor of the state for a month or so. Apparently, Pinchback was able to use his status as a black to his political advantage. But according to a letter (dated April 30, 1863) found in Toomer's tin box, his sister, Adeline B. Safford, considered herself white and strongly urged her brother to follow suit. "If I were you Pink . . . I would take my position in the world as a white man as you are and let the other go . . . I have nothing to do with the negroes am not one of them. Take my advise dear brother and do the same."

After the publication of Cane, Toomer began to regard himself as neither white nor black and partially blamed his grandfather for the ethnic confusion. The biographers quote Alice Walker's comment on this matter: "Cane was for Toomer a double 'swan song.' He meant it to memorialize a culture he thought was dying, whose folk spirit he considered beautiful, but he was also saying goodbye to the 'Negro' he felt dying in himself. Cane then is a parting gift, and no less precious because of that. I think Jean Toomer would want us to keep its beauty, but let him go." Walker, of course, does not mean that Toomer had finally decided to cross the color line and pass for white, for Toomer struggled relentlessly to avoid all social or ethnic classification.

TOOMER'S life was devoted in zealous turns to writing, the teachings of George Gurdjieff, later to the Society of Friends, and finally, near the end of his life, a return to Gurdjieff.

Misfortune struck early. His father, Nathan Toomer, deserted his family a year after Toomer's birth, and his mother returned to her parents' home in Washington D.C., with her infant son. She divorced her first husband, married Archibald Combes, and moved to Brooklyn in 1906. She died of appendicitis in 1909. Toomer was forced to return to Washington and live with his strict grandparents.

Kerman and Eldridge give a detailed account of Toomer's youth, his high school years at Dunbar and his efforts to control himself physically, in particular what he considered his evil and self-destructive masturbatory urges. He turned his room into a gymnasium and took so many cold baths that his grandfather complained about his excessive drain on the water supply.

They also tell the story of Toomer's eclectic and unsuccessful life as a student at successive colleges.

They recount his literary life before and after Cane, his involvement with Waldo Frank, Gorham Munson and Hart Crane, as well as Alain Locke and W.E.B. DuBois.

Around the time of Cane's publication, Toomer was introduced to the thought of philosopher George Gurdjieff after encountering the work of one of Gurdjieff's disciples, P.D. Ouspensky. Gurdjieff was a Russian mystic who had established an institute at Fontainebleau outside Paris. The authors describe him as follows: "He wore a copious, flowing moustache but kept his head as clean shaven as an egg. Solid in body but mercurial in spirit, he might appear to the visitor as forbidding, arbitrarily cruel, or severe and utterly wise." Gurdjieff urged his followers to strive for "true individuality and the development of a higher consciousness."

Toomer turned to the teachings of Gurdjieff in order to unify his mind and body and raise himself to a higher level of consciousness. In many ways his efforts to become a "universal man" mirrored his literary goals, for Toomer saw art as "a religious experience and the writer as a prophet," according to the authors. They quote a letter from Toomer to Sherwood Anderson in which he wrote 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."

But neither Gurdjieff nor the Society of Friends, which Toomer also looked to for spiritual enlightenment, enabled Toomer to realize fully his own pursuit of wholeness and expanded consciousness, let alone lead the multitudes to such lofty heights. He did, however, seem to have a large talent as an advisor and confidante, especially with women. The authors provide extensive testimony of those who passionately assert that Toomer showed them the light and the truth. Near the end of The Lives of Jean Toomer, Kerman and Eldridge offer what seems a controversial interpretation as a partial explanation of Toomer's complex life, or as they put it, "lives."

Based on discussions about Toomer with psychiatrist Gerald G. May, the authors conclude: "What Jean Toomer manifested may have been something of the type of condition that used to be labeled 'manic depressive' and is now called 'bipolar affective disorder.' " But their diagnosis is not entirely persuasive. They rely predictably on "the psychodynamics of Jean's childhood," the apparent sense of loss and abandonment he experienced after his father deserted him and his mother died. "He was left very much alone and had to make his own forms and rules," they write. "He was convinced that only by being different or special could he be loved."

However, this dubious interpretation does not significantly detract from a careful and thoughtful biography. It belongs on the shelf with a growing number of first-rate scholarly biographies of Afro-American men and women of letters.

Near the end of their book, the authors summarize eloquently the nature and significance of Toomer's real achievement:

"In his fumbling but persistent efforts to reach different levels of consciousness, potential capacities, to connect mind and brain, the personal and the cosmic, to match the inner development of the human spirit to the outer in a struggle to save the world, he anticipated a movement of the 1980s . . . The role of the artist-prophet, who sees through and beyond society, may have been better filled by Toomer than he could have guessed."

Horace Porter teaches English at Dartmouth College.