Jean Toomer's adamant stance against racism and his call for a
raceless society were far more complex than the average reader of
works from the Harlem Renaissance might believe. In "To Make a New
Race" Jon Woodson explores the intense influence of Greek-born
mystic G. I. Gurdjieff on the thinking of Toomer and his
coterie--Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larson, George Schuyler, Wallace
Thurman--and, through them, the mystic's influence on many of the
notables in African American literature.
Gurdjieff, born of poor Greco-Armenian parents on the
Russo-Turkish frontier, espoused the theory that man is asleep and
in prison unless he strains against the major burdens of life,
especially those of identification, like race. Toomer, whose novel
"Cane" became an inspiration to many later Harlem Renaissance
writers, traveled to France and labored at Gurdjieff's Institute
for the Harmonious Development of Man. Later, the writer became one
of the primary followers approved to teach Gurdjieff's philosophy
in the United States.
Woodson's is the first study of Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem
Renaissance to look beyond contemporary portrayals of the mystic in
order to judge his influence. Scouring correspondence, manuscripts,
and published texts, Woodson finds the direct links in which
Gurdjieff through Toomer played a major role in the development of
objective literature. He discovers both coded and explicit ways in
which Gurdjieff's philosophy shaped the world views of writers well
into the 1960s. Moreover Woodson reinforces the extensive
contribution Toomer and other African-American writers with all
their international influences made to the American cultural
Jon Woodson, an associate professor of English at Howard
University in Washington, D.C., is a contributor to the collection,
"Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960." He has published
articles in "African American Review" and other journals.
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