Jean Toomer, Technology, and Race
The close relationship between machine technology and the literature of American modernism has long been acknowledged. Indeed, it is hard to imagine Fitzgerald's work without its hyper-materialised cars (and metaphysically potent car crashes), or Dos Passos's USA without the representational possibilities of the camera eye. Other writers in the 1920s had equally famous fascinations with what cultural producers and critics often abstracted into the concept of “the machine”; William Carlos Williams described poetry as being “machines made of words,” and Hart Crane used one of the triumphs of American engineering, the Brooklyn Bridge, as the organising metaphor and structuring principle of his poem The Bridge, identifying his theme as “the conquest of space and knowledge.”1 Of course, writers' fascination with how machinery or technological innovation was effecting social change had not begun with modernism. Yet often goaded by the speed of innovation in the visual arts, some American modernist writers responded to what Cecelia Tichi has called a “gears-and-girders” world by rethinking their relation to time, space, communication and economy with an unprecedented radicalism. And in the 1920s – a decade which saw more cars in Manhattan than in the whole of Britain, Lindbergh's pioneering flight across the Atlantic, and the USA move decisively ahead of Europe in industrial productivity – this rethinking had a particularly pressing urgency. Jean Toomer was one of the writers who participated in this exercise, engaging with European art movements such as Dadaism and Futurism and their proposals for new relations between machine design and literary aesthetics.
c1 Mark Whalan is a lecturer in American Literature and Culture at the University of Exeter.