Professor explores ambition, infidelity and race in new book
Kathleen Pfeiffer explores race and friendship in her new book.
In the early 1920s, Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer and Jewish novelist and critic Waldo Frank shared a deep, spiritual and artistic bond that served not only as a foundation for their friendship, but as inspiration and motivation for their work.
Already an established author, Frank advised and assisted Toomer in the publication of his 1923 text, "Cane." Frank's novel, "Holiday," was published on the same day. The friendship unraveled shortly thereafter, however. Unknown to Frank, Toomer had begun an affair with his wife, which led to a decline in communication between the two. Toomer later accused Frank of a disingenuousness that many literary scholars and historians characterize as racial exploitation.
In her new book, "Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank," Oakland University Associate Professor of English Kathleen Pfeiffer explores a series of 121 letters the men exchanged between 1921 and 1924.
Until now, the letters had never been published in their entirety. Organized chronologically and fully annotated in Pfeiffer's book, they evoke the emotional intimacy, intellectual hunger and raw honesty that defined the friendship.
Pfeiffer suggests careful study of the correspondence in its full context reveals that the relationship between Frank and Toomer didn't follow a typical pattern of exploitation between established white authors and aspiring African American writers.
"What actually happened between them is more complicated, and in many ways, more human," Pfeiffer said. Having studied the lives and work of both men over the last decade, she has discovered both virtues and shortcomings that shaped the arc of their friendship.
"The raw material of the letters themselves is pretty compelling," Pfeiffer said. "I think the human flaws revealed in them are what make them so poignant."
An accomplished scholar on the topic of race and literature, Pfeiffer said she doesn't believe the men's friendship offers startling revelations about race relations in early 20th century America. Rather, she said, the most compelling aspects of the story are the interpersonal dynamics at play – dramatic elements that one would expect to see in the best of fictitious works.
"I think it shows just how beautiful and dramatic non-fiction can be," Pfeiffer said.
"Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank" is published by The University of Illinois Press.
Kathleen Pfeiffer, associate English professor explores race and friendship in "Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank."
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