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On Jean Toomer and Social Class

Barbara Foley

The omission of any serious consideration of class in most Toomer criticism has divested Toomer's work of a crucial social and historical dimension. In part the blame for this distortion can be laid upon Toomer himself, whose comments about his own writing tended to stress its mythic, lyrical, and transhistorical qualities—that is, those features that have subsequently come to be seen as definitive of high modernism. In part, however, the stripping away of history from Toomer's early texts—most crucially affecting Cane—has been carried out by critics approaching Toomer through the lens of a high modernist a priori. That is, seeking a representation largely untrammeled by specific historical reference, many Toomer critics have, not unsurprisingly, discovered such a representation. This high modernist a priori has frequently been compounded by an anti-Marxist a priori which posits that writers' left-wing commitments—unless codified and repeatedly articulated as explicit doctrine—should not be taken especially seriously. Such a premise conveniently prevents scholars from asking the questions that would enable them to uncover those primary texts that would refute the premise in Toomer's case, the almost universally neglected 1919 writings published in the New York Call. The resurrection of these writings does not require us to conclude that Toomer "really was" a radical after all; as I have been suggesting, Toomer's class politics were as contradictory as his racial politics. But these writings—as well as the multiple references to social stratification throughout Toomer's portraiture of Washington society—require us to adjust the lenses through which we read his work.

The obfuscation of social and historical references in Cane and other early 1920s Toomer texts has also been enabled, moreover, by the dominant critical tendency to decouple race from class—or, in commentary acknowledging their interrelation, to assert that this relation is conjunctural rather than dialectical. Even analyses that reject essentialist notions of race and read Toomer as a racial deconstructionist avant la lettre ordinarily treat "race" itself as a largely autonomous—if highly mediated and socially constructed—phenomenon. What is revealed in Toomer's autobiographical, dramatic, journalistic, and fictional writings of the period beginning in 1919 and extending up to the 1930s, however, is that his conceptualization of American racial discourses and practices was profoundly shaped by his awareness of class—not only as a set of subject positions but also as a set of social relations and a basis for theorizing those social relations. We have recently been reminded that "race matters." Toomer, I believe, would have us remember that "class matters" as well—"matters," indeed, as the "matter" that makes "race" such a persistently agonizing and complex issue in U. S. society and in the texts wherein that society is represented.

from "Jean Toomer's Washington and the Politics of Class: From 'Blue Veins' to Seventh-Street Rebels," Modern Fiction Studies 42 (Summer 1996), 289-321.

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