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A Literary Friendship Begins and Ends in Greenwich Village: Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank

The 1923 literary masterpiece Cane has been firmly established as a landmark of the Harlem Renaissance. Often likened to the works of William Faulkner, this powerful blend of poetry and prose provides an intimate portrayal of the African American experience in the Deep South.

The creation of Cane can be attributed, in part, to the brief yet intense friendship between its writer, Jean Toomer, and Waldo Frank. Frank, a writer residing in Greenwich Village, served as Toomer’s guide through the literary landscape of the 1920s. With this friendship, Toomer bridged the bohemian scene in the Village and the vibrant culture and art of the Harlem Renaissance. Their friendship blossomed through letters, with Frank becoming a kindred spirit in the process. However, once Toomer relocated to Greenwich Village to reunite with Frank and celebrate the impending publication of Cane, his first book, it marked the beginning of the end for their friendship.

Letter 107. Frank to Toomer



    I’ve been thinking about you, and worrying a bit . . but have been silent
because your silence made me think you wanted it so. I go Sunday for a few
weeks in New Hampshire with the Ornsteins. In Sept. I hope to see you.
    My address for the next couple of weeks is care of Leo O., North Conway,
N H.
    I am more rested. Have been able to do absolutely no work, but sleep is a
bit better.
    No energy for a real letter.
    all my love
[handwritten] Not a single copy have I of Cane!

A little over a year into their correspondence, Toomer made the move to Greenwich Village with Frank’s assistance. However, their friendship stumbled. Toomer engaged in an affair with Frank’s wife, Margaret Naumburg, bonding over their shared interest in spiritualism and Freudian psychoanalysis. Naumburg had trained with Maria Montessori and would become a pioneer in the field of art therapy. Due to the affair, Toomer distanced himself and sought out other writing friendships. Frank, unaware of the affair and overwhelmed by his failing marriage, left for Europe.

Toomer spent only a year in the Village. Both he and Naumburg became followers of the philosopher/mystic George Gurdjieff, whom they followed to France. During this period, the correspondence between friends gradually slowed before ultimately ceasing. 

Pfeiffer posits that the breakup of the friendship was due to the affair, but in his autobiography, Toomer’s commentary reflects instead his changing feelings about his mixed racial identity. He attributes the dissolution of their friendship to Frank’s racial insensitivity, expressing disappointment in Frank’s foreword that emphasized Toomer’s identity as a Black writer. Over the years, his feelings toward Cane evolved in tandem with his ideas about race and identity. Initially consenting to the marketing of Cane as a Black novel, he later regretted this decision. He often articulated his desire to replace the black/white binary with the idea of an American identity that was racially “amalgamated” or mixed. Despite the deep intimacy on display in the letters between Frank and Toomer, Toomer’s personal explorations of racial identity became a space Frank could not traverse alongside him. 

You can explore more great writers of Greenwich Village on the “Homes and Haunts of Great Writers” tour on our Greenwich Village Historic District map, and on our Writers and Authors tour on our South of Union Square map. Learn more about African American history in our neighborhoods here and here.

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