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University of Oregon

The Letters of Jean Toomer


Author: Mark Whalan

Jean Toomer was a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance and in the  twentieth-century modernist movement, and this represents the first-ever  annotated collection of his correspondence. The letters included in the  volume were written in the five years surrounding Toomer’s publication  of his seminal work, Cane, and lend unique insight into the life,  aesthetics, politics, and work of a central figure in American  literature of the early twentieth century. This compilation offers  insight into Toomer’s simultaneous feelings of attraction to and  estrangement from rural Southern life, the influence of technology on  race and urban existence in America, and the contradictory pulls of folk  culture and modernist experimentation. The collection also charts the  motives underlying Toomer’s abandonment of the style that distinguished  Cane, and his growing fascination with the teachings of the mystic  G.  I. Gurdjieff in 1924. On a more personal level, Toomer’s struggles with  creative isolation and the small world of black Washington society-and  later with the New York literary avant garde-are made evident, as are  his intense and often domineering relationships with women. His  correspondents constituted a who’s who of 1920s intellectual life,  including Alain Locke, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Countée Cullen, Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson, Lewis Mumford, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, and Hart Crane.