Circles of Confluence: Jean Toomer's CANE, 'Modernist' Aesthetics, & Neo-Platonism

John-Francis Kinsler

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Circles of Confluence: Jean Toomer’s CANE, ‘Modernist’ Aesthetics, & Neo-Platonism is a search for the aesthetic foundations of the modernist author’s literary influences and artistic innovations. This monograph seeks to provide a philosophical and aesthetic lens with which to view and interpret the prevalent ‘mystical’ aspects in Toomer’s writings, and will situate the modernist text within the overlapping region between Neo-Platonism, Neo-romanticism, & Neo-primitivism. This study traces Toomer’s literary influences from American poetic realists, through Whitman and French symbolist poetics, through Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches and Russian writers, back to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and Frühromantik theorists—to show that the common thread connecting each movement is an essentially Neo-Platonist conception of reality and art, refracted and focused through a distinctly German prism.
     As hinted in the title, much of what we properly designate ‘modernist’ and avant-garde in Jean Toomer’s aesthetics has been passed down through writers of previous movements, adopted and adapted at each stage into a unique literary style—but one that still bears the imprint of a consistent view of God, the world, nature, and art. The intricate pattern of ideas which underpin American nativist modernism—its Kunstanschauung and Weltanschauung—is consistently and overwhelmingly Herderian in origin. This is not to suggest merely points of overlap or certain parallels, but an assertion that without Johann Gottfried von Herder’s primal influence on German Romantic aesthetics and idealist philosophy—covering a wide spectrum of disciplines, spanning various countries, and impacting a vast number of conscious and unconscious ‘inheritors’ in later generations—CANE would not exist as the modernist text we know today.
     This monograph focuses on Toomer’s CANE-era compositions, with special attention given to two contemporary notebooks and loose-leaf notes (1919-1923), along with the letters and critical essays of the Seven Arts group. Identifying major points of intersection in Toomer’s writings and that of his predecessors will allow modern readers to view the seemingly disparate aesthetic and philosophical trends, not as isolated ideas, but rather, as interlocking fragments of a vast super-constellation.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Armstrong, Tim, Supervisor
Award date1 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - 18 Feb 2021


  • Kinsler, John-Francis
  • Toomer, Jean
  • Herder, Johann Gottfried
  • Plotinus
  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang
  • Turgenev, Ivan
  • Whitman, Walt
  • Neo-Platonism
  • Novalis
  • Schlegel, Friedrich
  • Dostoevsky, Fyodor
  • Anderson, Sherwood
  • Frank, Waldo
  • Benefield, Barry
  • Lawrence, D. H.
  • aesthetics
  • mysticism
  • modernism
  • Frühromantik
  • Sturm und Drang
  • CANE
  • A Sportsman's Sketches
  • Wilhelm Meister
  • Romantic Irony

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