Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, and the Southern Imagination

For many African American writers during the Harlem Renaissance, the rural south proved to be fertile ground for the literary imagination. Two writers who explored how the South formed a landscape in which Black people could be re-imagined within literary traditions were Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston. While many artists during the Harlem Renaissance believed that their art should serve a noble purpose in uplifting the race, both Toomer and Hurston were less interested in political statements as they were in, as poet Langston Hughes wrote in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” presenting “our individual dark-skinned selves without fear and shame” (Patton 43-44). For Toomer, it was a matter of representing the beauty implicit in the “primitive” Blacks who populated the American south; for Hurston it was simply expressing and being her individualistic self, “achiev[ing] the unconscious Zora of Eatonville before the Hegira” (Baym 1517). At any rate, American southern towns played a significant role in shaping their views on and their own work with representational images of African Americans.

The artistic choices both Toomer and Hurston made in their work was developed out of their own personal experiences while traveling and/or living in the South. Their development, therefore, as writers came from conscious decisions to represent Black Americans in their “purest” sense. By this, purest is defined as being “unspoiled” by Americanized or modernistic values, particularly of the urban north. This was a chief concern of Jean Toomer, who was very much interested in capturing “these emotions of the ‘pure Negro'” before “[they] had completely conformed to the ‘general outlines of American civilization and chaos'” (Benson 27). Born in 1894 in Washington, D.C., Toomer was the grandson of P.B.S. Pinchback, a controversial political figure during the Reconstruction. Educated at various institutions, he developed an interest in reading and writing early on, and was heavily influenced by the writings of Sherwood Anderson, who became a close friend, Robert Frost, and other writers of the modernist period. Toomer wanted to write about Negroes in a new modernistic expression, one that was capable of representing the authentic and beautiful in Black American lives, but he had difficulty in finding the appropriate art forms in which to achieve that aim. According to Brian Joseph Benson and Mabel Mayle Dilliard, his main concern was “the problem of subjugating the materials he found within the black race to suitable literary forms” (21). Toomer wanted to develop a lyricism that was closely aligned with the folk songs and traditions found in Southern Black culture. It wasn’t until he traveled South where he observed Black Americans while reading some of Anderson’s works that he hit upon the exact materials for his art forms. In a letter to Sherwood Anderson in December of 1922, Toomer wrote:

While living in a cabin, listening to old folk melodies that Negro women sang at sundown, The Triumph of the Egg came to me. The beauty and the full sense of life that these books contain are natural elements, like the rain and sunshine, of my own sprouting. My seed was planted in the cane and cotton fields, and in the souls of the black and white people in the small southern town” (23).

His experiences down South made him realize that the rural Black Americans were not accurately represented in American literature. He also came to the conclusion that writers such as Anderson and another friend, Waldo Frank, were incapable of “creating art with Negro materials because their minds still “retained a few inhibiting wraiths concerning race and color” (25). Armed with his experiences down south and his own writing experiments, Toomer set out to capture the beauty of Negro life.
Zora Neale Hurston, likewise, was driven by her personal experiences as material for her artistic choices. Born and raised in the all-Black Floridian town of Eatonville, Hurston was well immersed in southern folkways and traditions. As a little girl, she would often listen to folk stories being told on the front porch of her home by the men of her town. Instilled with a sense of individualism and pride by her parents, Hurston left home and eventually became a maid in a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan company. Educated at Morgan State College in Baltimore, Howard University, and Columbia University, where she studied under famed anthropologist, Franz Boas, Hurston developed an interest in writing. Her work appeared in little magazines and journals. In 1929, Hurston traveled extensively down South collecting folk tales which would comprise her book Mules and Men, published a few years later. Hurston’s knowledge of and respect for Southern folk traditions formed the basis for many of her later short stories and novels. Her novels Jonah’s Gourd Vine and Their Eyes Were Watching God both took place in Eatonville.

Both Toomer and Hurston saw in the American south legitimate and authentic voices from the Black experience that they wanted to chronicle in their work. The representations of the rural South is a parallel to the Black American experience in the literary imagination. Faulkner and Anderson’s literary output are not without those representations. Therefore, the manner in which both Toomer and Hurston depict the rural South provides glimpses into their own beliefs of how Black Americans fit within that paradigm. In Cane, Toomer’s work which was published in 1923, the South exists as a means to express the beauty Toomer saw in African Americans at their purest sense. Divided into three sections, the book directs most of its focus on the South, though the second section takes place in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, acting as counterparts between the rural Southern atmosphere. Pastoral images figure prominently in much of the book. This is best exemplified in the poem “Georgia Dusk.”

“Georgia Dusk” appears in the first section of the book, which tells the stories of several Black women and their struggles. The poem is rife with symbolic images that are synonymous with the South. Each stanza is like a snapshot capturing specific scenes that are indolent of the south:

The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop,
And silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill,
Soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill
Their early promise of a bumper crop. (9-12)

The poem is very much centered within the southern landscape, revealing how closely aligned even industrial machinery is to that landscape. Other images evoke a ghostly and spiritual tone to the piece: “Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile/Curls up, blue ghosts of trees, tarrying low” (13-14) and “Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines,/Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs” (27-28). Spirituality emerges when the landscape and human interaction become whole:

Their voices rise…the pine trees are guitars,
Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain..
Their voices rise..the chorus of the cane
Is caroling a vesper to the stars..(21-21)

Toomer’s travels down South purposefully put him in close contact with Southern Blacks who “lived close to the soil,” (Benson 27) therefore his experiences with Black Southern life, agrarian, spiritual, rooted in the church, and soulful are reflected in this poem. What Toomer captures is how spirituality is very much a part of every day life for the Southerner, infused not only in the landscape-the sunsets, pines, canefields-but in objects that would seem devoid of spiritual matters, such as the saw-mills and buzz-saws. There is a beauty that he reveals in all aspects of Southern small-town life, one that exists even beneath the horror.

Cane does address the more horrific aspects of Southern small-town life, particularly to Southern Blacks in the poem “Portrait in Georgia.” The poem is about a lynching, but paints this portrait through parallel images of a young woman being lynched and the instruments of her lynching:

Hair-braided chestnut,
coiled like a lyncher’s rope,
Eyes-fagots,
Lips-old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath-the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
of black flesh after flame. (1-7)

Though both images are infused with one another, the young woman comes alive in the reader’s imagination even as she is symbolically and ritualistically being murdered. The poem seeks beauty in the form of the young girl, therefore, creating a far greater tragedy in her death. It also mourns for what the girl represents-the last sweet scent of cane: the death of the Southern Black peasantry.

The death of Toomer’s own nostalgic imagination of the South and of the rural Southern Black peasantry he praised in Cane was of great importance to the author. As Benson wrote, “Toomer believed that the literature of America ought to include the artistic expression of the ‘truth of the South’ before such a time in the future when the ‘Negro of the folk-song’ and of the ’emotional church’ had died completely away” (28). In this sense, Toomer felt that the Negro peasants he observed in the rural Southern towns represented the “pure” African past of his ancestors. This is hinted at in “Georgia Dusk” in the fifth stanza: “Race memories of king and caravan,/High-priests, an ostrich, and a juju man” (18-19). According to the Norton Anthology footnotes, a juju man is a “West African tribesman who controls the magical fetish or charm, or ‘juju.'” What is evoked in this poem is an African past (“race memories”) undiluted by modernism or “pseudourbanization” that bridges nature and spirit within the rural Southern landscape.

Like Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston found inspiration from her Southern background. Eatonville served as a backdrop for many of her stories. Her stories revealed the intercommunal lives of small town residents and the importance of oral history. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford relates her life story to a friend on a porch at sundown. The fact that the community knows about Janie, her notoriety, her life, and Janie’s own need to tell her story from her perspective, suggest the close-knit interactions of a small community. Lack of privacy plays figuratively in Hurston’s tales. “The Eatonville Anthology,” a series of stories Hurston told to friends at dinner parties and collected and edited by Alice Walker in I Love Myself When I am Laughing…and Then When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, is one such example of how small southern life becomes fodder for Hurston’s artistic output. The Anthology is a series of quick sketches of various members of the Eatonville community. Some of the sketches are humorous, some serious, but few are written with a judgmental eye. Rather, Hurston tells each story with a clear, observational tone. But, clearly, Hurston paints a portrait of small-town Southern life that explores both the good and the ugly. Some of the sketches reveal an intimacy which suggests how small-town lives are considered open books useful for artistic material. This is particularly true in “Turpentine Love,” “III,” “IX,” and “X.” In both “IX” and “X,” Hurston addresses the problem of spousal abuse in the community. Joe Clarke (whom Hurston modeled the character Jody Starks in Their Eyes Were Watching God) beats his wife whenever she makes a mistake in the store. Though the sketch is short, Hurston tells a great deal about how close-knit the community is: “They say he used to beat her in the store when he was a young man, but he is not so impatient now. He can wait until he goes home” (Baym 1510). This passage reveals how little privacy people in Eatonville have, and how much of their personal business is fodder for gossip. In “X,” Mrs. McDuffy is also a victim of domestic abuse. In this sketch, the community tries to intervene when Elijiah Moseley “asked Mr. McDuffy to stop beating her…” (ibid.) The community has little affect on the private matters of these two characters. Hence, even in a small-town environment, an individualistic streak runs strong. Characters will do as they please despite communal disapproval.

Individualism is a theme that runs throughout much of Hurston’s work. In the two examples I mentioned above, the wives-Mrs. Clarke and Mrs. McDuffy-still retain some of their own individualism despite the tyranny they face from their husbands. Mrs. Clarke, while in Sunday church, “shakes the hand of fellowship with everybody in the Church with her eyes closed, but somehow always misses her husband” (ibid.). Meanwhile, Mrs. McDuffy continues to shout and “tells her ‘determination'” in Church, despite the beatings she will receive from her husband. Both women, in their own way, reveal their personality and strength of will. Another example of individualism is “The Head of the Nail.” In this sketch, Hurston tells the story of two women, one the town vamp, Daisy Taylor, and the other Mrs. Laura Crooms. Daisy has an affair with Mrs. Crooms’ husband. Mrs. Crooms, “a meek little woman who took all of her troubles crying, and talked a great deal of leaving things in the hands of God,” (1512), confronts her husband’s mistress only after she is egged into it at the post-office by Walter Thomas. Daisy gets her come-uppance, but the story ends with the revelation that she has moved to Orlando where “[T]here in a wider sphere, perhaps, her talents as a vamp were appreciated” (1513). Hurston’s sly commentary reveals how Eatonville can also be inhospitable to those who did as they pleased.

Individualism was an important theme not only in Hurston’s work but in her life as well. Hurston strongly believed in the idea of personal responsibility and self-invention. This orientation was “engendered by her childhood experience in an all-Black Eatonville. Incorporated and run by Blacks, Eatonville was a model of Black ingenuity” (Plant 35). While Eatonville and its history helped develop Hurston’s sense of individualism and pride, she left her hometown to pursue her own interests. Hurston’s departure from her family and hometown had a great deal to do with her strained relationship with her father, who is described in the biographical introduction to her work in the Norton Anthology of American Literature as someone who “was not a family man and [who] made life difficult for his wife and eight children” (1506). Yet, while Hurston presents a sometimes idyllic picture of life in Eatonville, its close-knit communal relations, and its relative freedoms from the Jim Crow realities of Southern life, she never shied away from the less-than-complimentary aspects of life in Eatonville. This is true in “The Eatonville Anthology,” as well as in another short story, “The Gilded Six-Bits.”

“The Gilded Six-Bits” is a story about a young couple who live in a small Negro settlement in Florida. This story begins with the close intimacy between its two main characters, Joe and Missie May. Joe and Missie May clearly love each other, as is shown by their interaction as Missie May sets the dinner table, while Joe “chunks” money at their doorway, a sign both of his arrival home and his show of affection. The story’s tension is revealed when a newcomer arrives in town. Otis D. Slemmons is the antithesis of Joe and Missie May’s sweet, country naivetÃ?©. Slemmons, who is rich, owns the recently opened ice cream parlor in town. He seduces Missie May with his riches and worldliness. The two begin an affair. Joe catches them both in bed. Missie May later becomes pregnant with Slemmons’ child. The story’s emphasis on infidelity and greed set the story in motion, thus revealing an underside to small-town life that mirrors the sketches Hurston writes about in the Anthology.
Yet despite this, Hurston clearly favors Eatonville or small towns like it in this story. Slemmons’ character is not unlike the snake who invades the Garden of Eden, tempting Missie May from the innocence of her marriage with Joe and Joe from his own humble simplistic values.

Slemmons is the stereotypical portrait of the idle rich. Both Ford and Rockefeller’s heavy girth is described as being “spare built” in comparison to Slemmons (1521). He has gold teeth, another sign of his wealth, and is well-traveled. In other words, Slemmons represents the industrial urban north. His appearance does more than simply bring industry to the small town (this is already apparent since the town is dependent on the G and G Fertilizer works for its livelihood). Rather, he brings big city mores. His arrogance, pride, and swagger are in stark contrast to Joe’s humble simplicity. Joe is even impressed by Slemmons’ attitude and appearance. He compares himself to Slemmons and wishes he were more like him: “…Joe spent the time trying to make his stomach punch out like Slemmons’ middle. He tried the rolling swagger of the stranger, but found that his tall bone-and-muscle stride fitted ill with it” (1522). Though Missie May assures her love for him, she sleeps with Slemmons’ nonetheless. The story’s commentary is a rebuke against the “pseudourbanized” of the industrial north and the danger they represent in introducing northern urban values into the Edenic simplicity of small-town Southern mores.
The idyllic representation of the small southern towns in which she grew up might seem a bit too idyllic, given the stark realities of poverty and racism that were endemic during that period. In fact, Hurston was criticized by many of her male contemporaries for ignoring those realities in her work. Richard Wright and Alain Locke were among her many detractors. In a review of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Wright wrote that her use of dialects “manage[d] to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity,” but felt her work was “counter-revolutionary” to the interest of Black people nationwide. Locke also complained of her use of folklore, believing it posed an imposition on the reality of her characters’ lives (Bloom 80). Yet Hurston’s biographer, Robert E. Hemenway asserts in his essay “Crayon Enlargements of Life” that “[Hurston’s] fiction represented the processes of folkloric transmission, emphasizing the ways of thinking and speaking which grew from the folk environment” (81). Like Toomer, Hurston used the materials of the Southern small-town folk ways, language, folktales, and gossip to represent African Americans in their purest sense, without censor or fear of backlash. She was asserting her own right as a creative producer to authenticate and validate the experiences with which she grew up. Given the political and social changes that were occurring within America and the Black community during the early twentieth century, much of it through the political activism of such groups as the N.A.A.C.P. and the centering of the Black experience in the industrial urban north in the literary imagination, both Toomer and Hurston played a significant role in ensuring that the experiences of Southern Blacks, their folk traditions, values, and superstitions were not forgotten, devalued, or dismissed because of their potential transgression into stereotypes. Rather, Toomer and Hurston worked to ensure that those experiences and the people who lived them were freed from those stereotypes by presenting the full breadth and respect they deserved through their artistic skills. As Toomer himself wrote to friend Lola Ridge: “It would surprise you to see the anemia and timidity (emotional) in folk but a generation or so removed from the Negroes of the folk-songs. Full blooded people to look at who are afraid to hold hands, much less to love” (28). Both Toomer and Hurston displayed a fearlessness and love for their subjects that still rings true some seventy years after their work appeared in publication.

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