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Jean Toomer and Politics Update: The Passing of Rudolph Byrd

Gino Pellegrini

The day after “Jean Toomer and Politics” at the 2012 MLA Annual Conference I learned from a Norton representative who had worked on the second Critical Edition of Cane that Rudolph Byrd, the co-editor with Henry Louis Gates Jr., had recently passed away. Byrd was a professor of American Studies at Emory University and the founding director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference. I had emailed Byrd and Gates in March to see if they were interested in participating in the special session. Byrd replied to me with a gracious and encouraging email.

Had we known of his passing, the overall tone of the session would have been somewhat different. Of course, Byrd’s passing is a separate issue from his and Gates’s scholarship in the second edition, and their scholarship was a target of our critique. Nevertheless, his death and his health (he was apparently sick for years) raise interesting questions about his collaboration with Gates on the second edition, which I hope Gates will address one day.

The next day, Monday, I visited the Emory University website to read Byrd’s obituary. There I found a link to the Rudolph Byrd Memorial Blog that was set up for grievers to share their thoughts and memories. Reading many of the posts, I learned that Byrd was a great teacher, and a warm, sincere, and caring human being who had an enormous impact on many students, colleagues, and friends—which in my view is an accomplishment of the greatest value.  He is missed by many, and I am saddened that I did not get a chance to meet him in person.

An Overview of the Event: Jean Toomer and Politics at the 2012 MLA

By Gino Pellegrini

This is my general overview of the “Jean Toomer and Politics” special session roundtable at the 2012 MLA Annual Convention. First, I want to thank Professors Barbara Foley, Charles Scruggs, and Belinda Wheeler for their excellent presentations, and a special thanks to Professor George Hutchinson for starting the Q & A. I am very much looking forward to continuing this conversation!

In her presentation, Belinda Wheeler focused on the “documents” (census, marriage, and draft) that Byrd and Gates include in the second Norton Critical Edition of Cane to support their claim that Toomer was a Negro who passed as white. Wheeler discussed how the documents, when examined carefully and in aggregate, weaken their claim. The documents show (and this is a point that Barbara Foley also made) that Toomer sometimes identified as black and sometimes as white at different junctures in his life, and this assumes that it was Toomer who actually authored the documents. In countering their claim, Wheeler also drew upon interviews that she had conducted with Susan Sandberg, the daughter of Marjorie Content, Toomer’s second wife, as well as with Jill Quasha, a friend of Sandberg and Content who knew the family well and authored a book on Content’s photography. Toomer was married to Content from 1934 until his death in 1967, and Wheeler’s important biographic research sheds light on how Toomer, post-Cane, identified and lived. Her interviews suggest that Toomer did not waver from his basic position that he was an American, neither black nor white, and that he tried to live his life free from the influence of racial categories and standards.

In his presentation, Charles Scruggs took issue with Byrd and Gates’s exclusion of Toomer’s political articles from 1919 as well as their disregard of the economic theme that is omnipresent in Cane. He found it curious that Byrd and Gates included essays by Foley and Pellegrini (both reference his political articles) in the second edition, but then made no mention of them in their sixty-three page introduction.  Regarding scholarly flaws, Scruggs criticized Byrd and Gates for referring to Cane as a novel; it is more accurately described as a short-story cycle such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. Scruggs also questioned why Byrd and Gates had not defined and/or qualified their use of the term Lost Generation to classify Toomer and the group of artists and intellectuals to which he belonged (Young America), which included individuals such Randolph Bourne, Waldo Frank, Van Wyck Brooks, Sherwood Anderson, Lewis Mumford, Hart Crane, Gorham Munson, Georgia O’Keefe, Alfred Stieglitz, and others. Finally, Scruggs suggested that it was Mumford, not Frank, who possibly exerted the greatest influence on Toomer and Cane.

In her presentation, Barbara Foley suggested that the many scholarly flaws in the second edition are the result of Byrd and Gates’s “overreliance on secondary sources and failure to visit the archive.” Like Scruggs, she took issue with their exclusion of Toomer’s political writings, and their attempt to obscure his engagement with the ideas and politics of the radical left. Foley expressed her concern that Byrd and Gates, in their attempt to advance their own argument, impede readers from following “lines of inquiry” about Toomer and Cane that are of great importance within our current milieu. Foley also argued that Toomer continued to identify as a Negro writer after the publication of Cane—for example, in “The Negro Emergent” (1925).  Toomer’s Negro identity “bears a close resemblance to the class-conscious and militant New Negro of A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen’s black Marxist journal the Messenger,” and can be understood in opposition to Alain Locke’s pro-capitalist, culturalist conception of the New Negro.

My presentation focused on the relationship between Toomer’s political/artistic vision and cultural pluralism, which we know today as multiculturalism. I claimed that his vision is incompatible with the cultural pluralisms of his mentors, Alain Locke and Waldo Frank. I made the point that many of the unresolvable tensions in Cane can be attributed to the young Toomer’s inability to clearly see this incompatibility—hence, his attempt to account for both “Negro and mixed-blood America” and to write as both a Negro and as a representative of mixed-blood America. Further, I suggested that his ugly breakup with Locke and Frank after the publication of Cane is indicative of his eventual realization that the vision he wanted to develop was at odds with both their versions of cultural pluralism—cosmopolitan or not. In particular, I discussed how Toomer’s post-Cane writings reveal that, in comparison to his mentors, he held divergent views on amalgamation, social assimilation, big business, and the power of the Anglo-Saxon group.  Finally, I discussed how Toomer’s views on amalgamation and the American state anticipate, in many respects, the post-ethnic, cosmopolitan perspective that historian David Hollinger has developed over the past two decades.

Jean Toomer and Politics: Introduction

Gino Michael Pellegrini

The occasion that brings this special session roundtable together at the 2012 MLA Annual Conference is the recent publication of the second Norton Critical Edition of Jean Toomer’s Cane, in which the editors Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. articulate their provocative new thesis that Toomer “was a Negro who decided to pass for white” (lxx). More specifically, they depict Toomer in their “Introduction” as a self-serving, disingenuous, and conflicted individual who saw Cane as a means to escape his black ancestry and pass into a life of white privilege. They wonder, given the highly segregated milieu in which he grew up, how he could have possibly reached the conclusion that he was not a Negro, but the embodiment of a new race, and the harbinger of a new America. They conclude that he was an anomaly not only within the black community but also within his own family given that Federal Census records show that his “mother, father, grandfather, and grandmother all self-identified as Negroes” (lxvi).

With their provocative new thesis, Byrd and Gates have created the need for additional critical conversations about his work, life, and legacy. Indeed, they express their “hope” in their Chronicle article that the new edition and, in particular, the genealogical documents they provide, will quote “provoke discussion and debate” about Toomer and lead to readings that are more “sympathetic” than theirs. Hence, they are likely pleased that we are gathered here to challenge their reading of Toomer.

Specifically, presenters in this roundtable agree that the Byrd/Gates thesis deflects critical attention away from what might be most relevant in Toomer for contemporary audiences—namely, his political vision. In other words, Byrd and Gates impede readers from working toward a sound understanding of Toomer and Cane by neglecting the question of his politics. In opposition to Byrd and Gates, presenters in this roundtable will deliver papers that foreground, examine, and flesh out Jean Toomer the political radical. Though presenters differ in their interpretations, a common aim amongst presenters is to investigate, recover, and delineate the ideas, intellectual influences, tensions, circumstances, and limitations within Toomer’s milieu that constituted his political vision. Another important aim of this roundtable is to contemporize Toomer’s vision. That is, we want to consider how his vision, however construed, might constructively address present-day stalemates over issues of multi-culture, identity politics, class, amalgamation, and solidarity.

Jean Toomer and Politics

465. Jean Toomer and Politics

Saturday, 7 January12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 6A, WSCC

A special session

Presiding: Gino Pellegrini, Pierce Coll.

Speakers: Barbara Clare Foley, Rutgers Univ., Newark; Gino PellegriniCharles Scruggs, Univ. of Arizona; Belinda Wheeler, Paine Coll.

Session Description:

This roundtable will focus on the 2011 edition of Jean Toomer’s Cane, edited by Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and in particular on the editors’ provocative new thesis that Toomer was a Negro who chose to pass for white. Presenters will confront, examine, and discuss Byrd and Gates’s thesis.

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