Christopher M. Mott

[Spring 4 (1995): 71-75]

In 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois proclaimed that ‘the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line" (1). Du Bois spent the rest of his Souls of Black Folk and the rest of his career trying to break that line. While most of E. E. Cummings’ career was spent trying to break lines of a different sort, he too confronted the ‘problem" of race. However, the relationship between Du Bois and Cummings goes beyond a felicitous pun. The influence of Souls was large; it was widely read and debated, but whether one agreed or disagreed with his arguments, Du Bois set the terms of debate. Those terms were, by and large, the terms Cummings used in his investigation of race. Du Bois asserted the titular souls as the defining feature of black folk. Moreover, he defined soul and spirituality against the rationality and ingenuity of white folks. Cummings also represented soul, feeling, and spirituality as the defining features of black folk. At the same time, he foregrounded the exuberant spirits of black folk against a background of machinating whites (especially in Tom). Both Cummings and Du Bois believed that somewhere along the line of its industrial ‘development" America had lost its soul. In an economy dominated by a material standard of value, Anglo-European Americans could no longer reckon the worth of spirituality. In Du Bois’ account, whites foolishly undervalued both blacks and soul; most of Du Bois’ career is an attempt to invest value in the souls of black folk by engaging whites in a process of intercultural exchange. While Cummings seems to have adopted the same understanding of America’s spiritual poverty, he was more eager to establish a separate, spirited world rather than attempting to balance a double economy.

The paradox of a marginalized race or culture finding strength precisely in those traits devalued by a dominant group is a political paradox. In this case, the attempt to cross those racial lines established in the United States by slavery and racism, and manifested in Jim Crow and "separate but equal," sought to turn a liability into an asset. Those characteristics that counted for nothing in the economic system of slavery and in the industrial exploitation that perpetuated racism, those qualities that were "allowed" to African Americans because no profit could be imagined from them, became the dross turned into gold by black intellectuals and artists, and later by some white intellectuals and artists. The sorrow songs, a spirituality deeply rooted in the soil (of Africa as well as America), and even, or especially, a skin color that was "like dusk on the eastern horizon" (Toomer 3): these qualities that were assayed as no account were drawn upon as rich endowments. The historical conditions that turned (white) America into [end page 71] a spiritless money machine in the eyes of (white and black) intellectuals and artists were the same conditions that led to a revision and reversal of the economy of value in the United States in the 1910s and ‘20s. Those "primitive" traits that were dismissed as of no value to the economy of a civilized nation came to be prized as the only things that held value in a spiritually bankrupt society.

Of course the line I’ve tried to draw linking Du Bois and Cummings is not quite as straight as I’ve suggested. For Du Bois, the souls of black folk were sustained by a spiritual resilience that allowed them to survive the Middle Passage and hundreds of years of enslavement. Cummings’ notion of spirit derived primarily from European and American romanticism. While this spirit sustained people, it was more buoyant, more playful than the abiding and often somber spirituality of Du Bois’ black folk. In an unfortunate historical coincidence, Cummings’ emphasis on a playful, childlike spirit paralleled racist reductions of African Americans to children, to entertainment. While we must assume that Cummings was fully aware of these racist overtones, we should be equally aware of his project to reinflect the conventional, proper, reductive meanings of words and concepts. That is, Cummings sought to erase the pejorative connotations of childhood in an adult society of serious getting and spending. In many of his poems and a lot of his prose, Cummings not only plays with the language of childhood as a respite from but also as an antidote to the busy monstrousness of manunkind. Again, Cummings’ project seems to parallel the African (American) tradition and the African American political agenda. An emphasis on the high-spirited fun to be had by using words against their conventional meanings plays into the African tradition of the trickster that continually plagues the powers that be in Europe and America.

The case in point from Cummings’ work must be Jean le Nègre in The Enormous Room (1922). Jean is both a primitive and a trickster. As a part of Cummings’ critique of the mechanistic, hyper-rational, unfeeling system of brains that destroyed so many bodies in World War I, Jean embodies those characteristics that confound the system. At the same time, Jean can be read as an example of the trickster figure, at least of the particular trickster figure explained by Henry L. Gates, Jr. in The Signifying Monkey. Gates uses the tale of the monkey and the lion to sketch the features of this figure. While the monkey is clearly less powerful than the lion, s/he is more clever with words. Thus, the monkey tricks the lion into challenging an elephant for dominion over the jungle. Of course, the elephant stomps the lion into a bag of broken bones. When the battered lion returns to the monkey’s tree, the trickster exults in her/his clever victory. Gates applies this tale to the conditions of blacks in Europe and America. They had to use cleverness and trickery to avoid being destroyed by the lion-like Euro-Americans (56-7). Cummings seems to share this valuation of playful trickery, the mocking games that punch holes in the pomposity of WESTERN CiVILIZATION. Jean is in La Ferté-Macé in the first place for "wearing an English [end page 72] officer’s uniform." In fact, Jean put the uniform to good use. He appropriates the affections of a lieutenant’s girlfriend (the fellow ranked beneath him, Jean contends). He receives salutes from soldiers of every rank—when he saluted the generals, they saluted back. And he gets the court to apologize to him after his arrest: he was forced to defend himself against the irate lieutenant. Jean punctuates with outbursts of laughter this story of his adventures (200-01). C, the narrator of The Enormous Room, admires Jean’s constant playing of practical jokes, and salutes his "irrepressibility" (202).

Jean seems to draw upon the same cultural traditions as Gates’ trickster, but we must proceed cautiously both in The Enormous Room and in The Signifying Monkey. Insofar as this irrepressible spirit of play exclusively characterizes one cultural or racial group, it can become a reductive, even racist way to delineate a culture or race. This is the point where Cummings’ portrait of Jean becomes ambiguous at best and racist (even if it is a romantic racism) at worst. Through play, Jean does disrupt efforts at regimentation and stability, but C finally stabilizes his play in another problematic connection: Jean is the child who never grows up. His defiance is a child’s refusal to stop playing. His sport is a child’s game. His playful effect on power is inconsequential. Jean is spontaneous, imaginative, and free from official coercions, but he cannot resist the narrator. The narrative is haunted by racist associations between black men and children. African-American men can be unfettered in their laughter and play, but they are not allowed to have the emotions and concerns of adults.

When Jean feels depressed about the departure of his girlfriend, Lulu, the inmates tease him mercilessly. He is not allowed to have such feelings. C admires Jean’s strategy to counter the pressure of the mob by joining in their laughter (at himself) until they lose interest. And he seems willing to grant Jean feelings the others will not stand for. When Jean headbutts the man who tries to take Lulu’s gift from him, he is shunned by the group. C does not shun him, but he misses the ‘old" Jean. Indeed, as the scene progresses, C becomes more and more removed from the group. The man whom Jean beats attacks Jean in turn in the enormous room, but only with the aid of a confederate. When the authorities break up the fight, the entire room falsely accuses Jean, insisting that he started it. C offers a futile counter statement and Jean is sentenced to solitary confinement. This is redundant. Jean has already been isolated from the other members of the enormous room by his refusal constantly to play the child, for his insistence on expressing his (negative) emotions. While C is not in league with the others here, he finds himself on their side of the color line.

But where the narrator cannot, the narrative crosses that line by (re)producing a line of Jean’s. Jean says, "‘Tout le monde me fout au cabinot parce que je suis noir’" (209). With that statement Jean does not cross the racial lines drawn in the enormous room, nor does he erase the segregationist attitude of the inmates. But by highlighting the color line, Jean’s statement does move through an invisible [end page 73] barrier in most of canonical modern literature. Jean indicts an entire tradition that has treated blacks as inferior without having the guts to say so. Furthermore, that tradition rarely allowed a black man or woman to say so. Indeed, if we are in a metafictional mood, we might go so far as to say that "tout le monde" includes the narrator—and, perhaps, the author. Indeed, Jean’s words not only outweigh those of the other inmates who spoke before him, they also problematize the words that follow. From this point on, Jean cannot be reckoned as simply a minstrel figure. In his declaration, Jean defies the behavior and attitude prescribed by both the authorities and his in-"mates."

Jean’s line extends back to the beginning of his portrait, to his deception in minstrel terms. Here, following his later observation, he is clamped not in "cabinot" but in cabaret. Immediately on Jean’s appearance in the text the inmates at La Ferté-Macé rush to the windows and queue up at the "peep-hole" to watch the arrival of "‘a lot of girls. . . [and] a NIGGER too.’" The narrative here dramatizes Jean as a specular object. What’s more, he is linked, in a move common to traditional racism, to women—as an object and as a source of entertainment. So great is their anticipation of finding amusement, that the inmates abandon their usual reception of newcomers in which they rush to their beds to guard their belongings; instead, they "rushed to the door, eager for the first glimpse of [Jean]." The narrator describes, with great joy, "the inimitable unmistakable divine laugh of a negro." When Jean enters the room, he appears as "a beautiful pillar of black strutting muscle topped with a tremendous display of the whitest teeth on earth." And Jean is decorous: ‘the muscle bowed politely in our direction, the grin remarked musically, ‘Bo’jour tou’l’monde’; then came a cascade of laughter" (197). The most disturbing aspect of the laughing pillar of muscle is the echo of the minstrel figure popular in theatres throughout the United States in the 1920s. That Cummings was a big fan of burlesque—itself often an accomplice to the minstrel shows—makes the case for racism here undeniable.

Yet, while we are looking at Jean through the peep-hole in the cabinet that confines him, we are recalled to his statement. The very fact that he asserts his voice disrupts their/our visual pleasure in a silent object. Furthermore, by calling attention to the barrier of skin in which the others have imprisoned him, Jean reverses the position of observer/observed. Now they/we are the ones being scrutinized, indicted for a racist reduction of Jean to a laughing body. The spirit that is most effective for Jean is not just the playful spirit of a child, but the rebellious spirit of a trickster—one who can make us see differently by rearranging our perspective.

Jean’s line also extends to the end of his portrait. The question remains for readers of the text whether the authorities thrown into disarray by Jean’s declaration include the author of the text. Jean remains an outsider to his inmates. He refuses to succumb to their demands that he become the child and entertain [end page 74] them again—at least for a while. Finally, though, Jean capitulates. He steals a towel. He’s searched three times while the other inmates are searched (perfunctorily) only once. The echoes of suspecting and searching the black man more than the white men are profound and disturbing. Yet, Jean laughs. He laughs, and others laugh in relief. They are now free to imprison him in their notions of "le noir" once again. Predictably, C finds in this moment not capitulation but triumph. Jean has ‘absolutely removed that inhibition which (from the day when jean le noir became Jean le géant) had held the child, which was Jean’s soul and destiny, prisoner." Jean le noir and Jean le géant. Jean, the child appealed to by C at the end of his chapter: ‘Boy,Kid,Nigger with the strutting muscles—take me up into your mind once or twice before I die" (214).Jean: the Jim figure who hoists freckle-faced C onto the raft heading away from civilization? Or Jean: the man who realizes his oppression and faces his captors with it?

This is not a Jean who will stand still. Neither should our reading. The text is at least racialist (to borrow a phrase from Toni Morrison, especially 6-7, and 11), yet it indicates possibilities of liberation. Its primitivist assumptions manifest themselves in a romantic racism that cannot be excused. Yet The Enormous Room does what any good social portrait / critique does: it draws our attention to rather than trying to erase the color line. The text also encourages our sense that Jean is a human being, that he is a man cognizant of his circumstances and struggling powerfully against them. The unresolvable tension that exists between Jean le noir and Jean le géant provokes us to repeated readings and passionate discussion. Two worthy recommendations for any book.

—University of California, Los Angeles

Works Cited Cummings, E. E. The Enormous Room. New York: Liveright, 1922 / 1978.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin, 1989 [1903].

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Random House, 1992.

Toomer, Jean. Cane. New York: Norton, 1988 [1923].

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