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Gorham B. Munson oral history interview on Jean Toomer



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Gorham B. Munson oral history interview on Jean Toomer, 1969 | Amistad Research Center

By Andrew Salinas

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Collection Overview

Title: Gorham B. Munson oral history interview on Jean Toomer, 1969Add to your cart.

Primary Creator: Munson, Gorham Bert (1896-1969)

Extent: 2.0 Folders

Date Acquired: 07/27/1969

Subjects: Content, Marjorie, 1895-1984, Frank, Waldo David, 1889-1967, Gurdjieff, Georges Ivanovitch, 1872-1949, Pinchback, Pinckney Benton Stewart, 1837-1921, Toomer, Jean, 1894-1967

Forms of Material: Sound recordings

Languages: English


Oral history interview with Gorham B. Munson, who discusses the life and literary career of Jean Toomer.

Scope and Contents of the Materials

This collection consists of an oral history interview recording and transcription with Gorham Munson, which chiefly centers on the life and career of Harlem Renaissance poet and novelist Jean Toomer. The interviewer is India M. Watterson, who conducted the interview at the Wellington Hotel in New York on June 27 and 28, 1969. Gorham Munson, a literary critic and scholar, was a self-proclaimed "early champion and friend of Toomer." Also included in the collection is a letter published in The New York Times Book Review on Jean Toomer.

Munson describes first learning of Jean Toomer in association with his involvement with the publication of the literary magazine Broom in 1922, then meeting him at a dinner engagement with Waldo Frank shortly thereafter. Munson explains how Toomer and Frank had lived together for a short time in the South and that Toomer had helped Frank pass as a "very light-skinned Negro" in preparation for a book Frank was writing.

Munson details how he and his wife, noted dancer Elizabeth Delza, housed Hart Crane while he struggled to find employment at an advertisement agency in New York -- causing Jean Toomer to defer his own move to New York. Munson depicts Toomer's eventual Greenwich Village enclave as an African American center of that neighborhood. Toomer began to set himself up as a freelance writer, and reviewed Munson's book on Waldo Frank for S4N magazine. Toomer's affair with Waldo Frank's wife, Margaret Naumburg, soon led to the estrangement of Frank and Toomer.

Munson, a member of the Gurdjieff movement himself, discusses Toomer's affiliation with George I. Gurdjieff and his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, whose ideas Munson posits as essential to understanding Toomer himself. After studying with Gurdjieff in France, Toomer returned to New York and positioned himself as something of a leader within the movement. Munson suggests that Toomer was ill-equipped to instruct others due to a lack of proficiency of Gurdjieff dances, and Toomer was often taken to mimic Gurdjieff’s language and mannerisms in instruction. Upon another trip to France, Toomer was appointed as a leader of Gurdjieffian ideas in Harlem, where Harlem Renaissance figures Aaron Douglas and Harold Jackman were members of Toomer's group. Ultimately, Toomer is asked to move to Chicago and start a Gurdjieff group there.

Beyond just the mimicry of Gurdjieff's speech and mannerisms, Munson claims that Toomer's writing suffered due to his imitation of Gurdjieff. Rather than the sensual and lyrical writing that characterizes Cane, his writing became more allegorical and, in the opinion of Munson, Toomer's writing became too preoccupied with self-amusement.

Munson briefly discusses Toomer's literary influences, chiefly Waldo Frank and Sherwood Anderson. Munson mentions how Toomer's thoughts and writings on race are often misunderstood, and he suggests that publication of his essay, "The Negro Emergent," would help to clarify some of his thoughts on race and essentialism. Munson claims that Toomer was not disappointed in the insignificant sales of his novel Cane, and that his immersion in the philosophies of Gurdjieff probably helped contain any regrets about the failure of Cane to establish him as a writer.

Munson claims that along with his move to Chicago to start a Gurdjieff center, Toomer also began to deliberately set to become a "man of mystery." Though he did not embellish his past, he obscured his racial origins and literary past to perhaps strengthen his image as a mysterious occult leader, which Munson terms a "deliberate mild mystification." Later in his life, Munson claims, Toomer would deny any racial origin. He mentions a Time magazine article, which discussed an experimental colony in Wisconsin by him and his wife, Margery Latimer, and its emphasis on his racial origin. Toomer was upset by this, and he wanted both a retraction and to sue the magazine. Due to this incident, Munson had the realization that Toomer was not only trying to be mysterious about his origins, but he "actually was trying to blot out any suggestion that he had Negro blood."

Munson and Toomer, from their beginning of their relationship, had "freely discussed his Negro antecedents." Though he never talked about his father, he was extremely fond of his grandmother and "had an admiration for [his grandfather] Governor (P. B. S.) Pinchback" who, according to Toomer, was "too fond of horses." By the 1950s, however, Toomer fully acknowledged his African American ancestry.

Munson characterizes his relationship with Toomer, which was affected by relocation and ambition: "I must say I was less intimate with Jean after 1927. After he went to Chicago, I saw him less often and knew him less well...When he entered into the Gurdjieff work, Jean's ambition was such that he began to outstrip his old friends or to set up as a leader...He exchanged less often on an equal basis. I don't mean to say he put on airs or anything like that...but it was a kind of setting up of some distance between him and his development and you as a fellow striver who perhaps was not as far along as he. Jean had a great ambition to be a leader, and it may be that was, in the end, his undoing."

Consequently, Munson had only met Margery Latimer once, but acknowledges that "that's a chapter that needs a good deal of illumination." He describes Toomer's marriage to Marjorie Content, the daughter of a wealthy member of the New York Stock Exchange. Due to him being "well-married," Toomer was free to pursue his interests, write, house "a kind of salon" at their home, and spend much time at the theater. Soon, the Toomers bought a large farm and relocated to Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Jean Toomer soon had an idea to establish an institute for the development of man along the lines of Gurdjieff's institute in France. Munson states that Toomer was again trying to imitate Gurdjieff, and "these imitations were embarrassing." However, when his father-in-law died, Toomer did not receive the fortune that he had expected and the bulk of the wealth had instead gone to his father-in-law's new wife. At that point, it was clear that the Toomers would never have the funds to start an institute at their Doylestown farm.

Munson revisits Toomer's Chicago period to comment on his book, Essentials, a collection of aphorisms. Munson, who himself had written an unpublished introduction to the book, pans the book as a "very derivative" retelling of "some of Gurdjieff's ideas in a rather bare, uninteresting way." He briefly describes Toomer's involvement in the Society of Friends (Quakers) before mentioning his decline in health in the 1940s. He again mentions Toomer's frequent "bad imitation" of Gurdjieff, which included, at times, broken English, and he characterizes much of Toomer's life after he went to Chicago as a "life of lying." He claims that "Jean pretended to be more than he was. He assumed the development and psychology beyond the point that he had ever reached; he ascribed to himself powers and knowledge which he had not really attained. Some would say he had a fantasy...of himself as a master of psychological teaching, psychological knowledge. It doesn't seem to me that he could have deceived himself to that extent. He play-acts as a spiritual leader." Toward the end of Toomer's life, Munson quotes Toomer as to saying "I have put on too much of an act."

Munson describes Toomer's involvement with the circle of Alfred Stieglitz, which included Paul Rosenfeld. He immersed himself in L. Ron Hubbard’s theory of dianetics, where he was qualified as an instructor. Munson describes Toomer's educational background and his lack of preparation for conventional employment. Munson briefly details Toomer's failing health, and states that his death was largely unannounced in major newspapers. Munson ends the interview talking about Toomer's literary legacy, commenting on Arna Bontemps statement that Toomer faded into "white obscurity," and his relationship with Marjorie Content. Munson acknowledges that he is not the most authoritative source in terms of discussing the final fifteen years of Toomer's life.

Biographical Note

Born in Amityville, New York, in 1896, Gorham Munson graduated from Wesleyan University in 1917. Munson married Elizabeth Delza, a professional dancer and dance instructor, in 1921. Around this time, Munson lived in Greenwich Village and was a close associate of Hart Crane, Waldo Frank, and Jean Toomer. In 1922, he founded the little magazine Secession, whose contributors included Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Waldo Frank, and William Carlos Williams. He taught a popular professional writing course at The New School in New York for over thirty years. The author and editor of numerous publications, Munson was also a leader of the American Social Credit Movement and a follower of Gurdjieff's American movement.

Subject/Index Terms

Content, Marjorie, 1895-1984
Frank, Waldo David, 1889-1967
Gurdjieff, Georges Ivanovitch, 1872-1949
Pinchback, Pinckney Benton Stewart, 1837-1921
Toomer, Jean, 1894-1967

Administrative Information

Repository: Amistad Research Center

Access Restrictions: This collection is open for research.

Use Restrictions: Copyright to these papers has not been assigned to the Amistad Research Center. It is the responsibility of an author to secure permission for publication from the holder of the copyright to any material contained in this collection.

Technical Access Note: Audio reel is not available for use at this time.

Acquisition Source: Gorham B. Munson

Acquisition Method: Gift

Appraisal Information: Oral history interview of Gorham B. Munson, which focuses chiefly on the literary career and life of Jean Toomer.

Related Materials: The papers of Countee Cullen provide a wealth of correspondence and other primary resources on Harlem Renaissance literature. The Mabel Mayle Dillard collection is comprised of research materials collected for her book on Jean Toomer.

Preferred Citation: Gorham B. Munson oral history interview on Jean Toomer, Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans, LA

Processing Information: Collection processed in May 2012.

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Item 1: Oral history interview transcript: Gorham B. Munson interviewee, 1969 JuneAdd to your cart.
Item 2: Letter to the editor of The New York Times Book Review / by Gorham Munson, undatedAdd to your cart.

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