For Further Study
Cane is a haunting, lyrical book, one of the most influential works ever written by an African-American artist. Critics wrote of the book, when it was published in 1923, that it would endure for generations, that it heralded the advent of a new class of artist, the black intellectual. The book is in fact considered to be a leading influence on the Harlem Renaissance, a period of time in the 1920s and 1930s when there was a flourishing of creativity in the black community and white society became interested in the artistry produced by writers, painters, and musicians associated with the Harlem area of New York. The book's experiments with form brought respect from people around the world for its characters, including rural Negroes who acted from habit and superstition; women who were treated as objects in a culture that itself was struggling with its history of having been slaves; and intellectuals who sought to reconcile their love of their own race with the degradation in which they were forced to live.
One of the most fascinating aspects about Cane is what it failed to accomplish. Despite the glowing praise and anticipation of reviewers, the book only ended up selling two thousand copies. Jean Toomer, who was of mixed blood, decided to stop writing about the black experience, and he had a difficult time publishing works on other subjects. By 1930 he was no longer the promising new literary star, but a literary has-been, only occasionally publishing poems and reviews. He lived for almost forty more years in obscurity. It was not until a new edition of Cane came out during the 1960s that the world realized what a stunning achievement the book represents, and it has been in print since then.
It is somewhat ironic that Jean Toomer is remembered as the writer of one of the greatest novels ever written by a black author, because during his lifetime he only published one significant book and he spent very little time among blacks. His mother's family was rich and powerful in Louisiana, where her father, Pickney B. S. Pinch-back, had been the only African American ever to have served as acting governor. Toomer's father, Nathan Toomer Sr., was the son of a slave. His father left soon before Nathan Eugene Toomer was born on December 26, 1894, in Washington, D.C. The author was called Eugene Pinchback during his childhood, and was raised in affluent areas of New Orleans and Washington, where he hardly felt the effects of society's racist institutions until he was in high school.
In 1914, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin to major in agriculture, but quit after he found himself unable to win the race for the class presidency. Following that, he attended the Massachusetts College of Agriculture, then the American College of Physical Training in Chicago. In 1917, he became a devotee of socialism and gave lectures on the subject in a room that he rented out. Turned down by the Army during World War I in he became a Ford salesman in Chicago, then a substitute physical education teacher in the Milwaukee School System. In 1918 went to work for a manufacturing company in New York, where he began to socialize in literary circles.
From 1920 to 1922 Toomer wrote passionately, filling a trunk with poems, essays, short stories, and letters. During this time he made the acquaintance of Waldo Frank, a famous novelist of the time who became his friend and mentor. During March of 1921 Toomer filled in as an administrator at the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute in Hancock County, Georgia, where he experienced the lives of rural blacks for the first time, an experience that strongly influenced Cane. That summer, feeling that he did not have enough material, he and Frank traveled the South together, with Frank posing as a black man: under the segregated laws of the early 1900s, they both could have been prosecuted or killed if people found out that a black man and a white man were travelling together.
After Cane, Toomer did not write about the African-American experience anymore. Being so light-skinned that he was often mistaken for being Indian, Oriental, or Mediterranean, he felt that the American black experience was not relevant to him: publishers, however, were only interested in his views regarding the black experience. His long friendship with Waldo Frank ended when he had an affair with Frank's wife. He became involved in different types of spiritualism, especially the teachings of Greek philosopher Georges Gurdjieff, whose Institute for Harmonious Development Toomer worked to popularize in America. His first wife died during childbirth a year after they married; his second marriage lasted more than thirty years, until his death on March 30, 1967, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Toomer published some poetry and essays, but never another novel.
Cane is not organized like most novels are. It is an impressionistic piece, with many character sketches, stories, and poems that are similar in theme, leaving readers with an overall impression rather than an experience of having followed a unified narrative. Though the smaller parts of Cane do not follow a continuing plot, and only a few minor characters are carried over from one chapter to the next, the book still falls into three distinct sections, which Toomer envisioned as leading readers in a circular progression.
The first section takes place in rural Georgia, and concerns itself with the lives of poor blacks, especially focusing on women who live in this environment. It starts with the brief, poetic story of Karintha, a black woman who is noticeably beautiful from childhood on. The men all work hard for money to give to her, implying that their ignorance of who she really is and her naïveté work together to repress them all.
"Karintha" is followed by a poem, "Reapers," about a reaping machine with sharp blades being drawn through a field by black horses and cutting a field rat in half. The following poem, "November Cotton Flower," is about one winter, a time of drought, when cotton unexpectedly bloomed, giving hope that led to love.
The book then picks up with the story of Becky, a white woman who has two black children. Nobody in this small town knows who the father or fathers of these boys might be, and both blacks and whites ostracize Becky, although some charitable people try to help her out, donating land, lumber, and food that no one else wants. The boys grow up to be town bullies, ferocious to both blacks and whites. One day Becky's house is found collapsed, with her under the wreckage, unable to survive social disapproval like the rat mowed down by the reaper.
Two more poems follow: "Face," which gives a portrait of a sturdy old woman, and "Cotton Song," which provides a Biblical-sounding chant that might be sung by workers in the field.
The next story, "Carma," concerns a woman whose husband hears that his wife has been unfaithful, and he goes to confront her about it. After the ensuing argument, Carma runs out of the house and into the cane field. Hearing a gunshot, he gathers a group of neighbors to look for her, and when she turns out to be fine, he feels fooled, and, frustrated, slashes the nearest man with a knife. He ends up in prison, in what the story describes twice as "the crudest melodrama."
"Song of the Son" is a poem that presents the sun and earth, with Negro slaves, who sang, identified with nature. "Georgia Dusk" contrasts the previous poem by focusing on the people and machinery that have taken over the land in the decades since slavery. These lead into the story of "Fern," a girl of black and Jewish roots who is presented as almost totally a product of her environment. The story is lushly told, with little action: the unnamed narrator becomes infatuated with Fern and goes to her, asking her to walk with him in the cane fields, but once she is out there she is overwhelmed with her powerful feelings about the place and she faints.
The poem "Nullo" follows, giving an impressionistic picture of pine needles falling in the Georgia forest. "Evening Song" is a poem about a narrator and a woman, Cloine, who lazily dozes off in his arms as the moon rises.
The story "Esther" follows the maturation of a young woman, from nine to sixteen to twenty-two to twenty-seven. Early in life, she witnesses a man, King Barlo, fall into a religious trance in the street, and as years pass Esther becomes more and more convinced that Barlo is destined to be her lover. The story ends when, years later, she goes to offer herself to him, and he and the people he is partying with laugh at her.
There are two more poems: "Conversion" contrasting an ancient African religion with Christianity, and "Portrait in Georgia," which offers a physical description of a weathered woman who lives in this land. The last part of this section is "Blood-Burning Moon," a story about Louisa, who is courted by two men, one white and one black. When the white man attacks the black man, the white man is killed. A white lynch mob comes, captures the black man, and burns him alive.
The second section, which was written at the request of Toomer's publisher in order to bring Cane to a decent book length, takes place in the North, in Chicago and Washington, D.C. It opens with the sketch "Seventh Street," a mix of poetry and prose that describes urban life in the section of Washington where black people live, emphasizing fast pace and the old-fashioned belief in God. "Rhobert," the following character sketch, shows a strong, suffering man, his legs bent by a childhood disease, who bears his hardships as if wearing his house around on his head.
The story "Avey" presents a girl whom the boys hanging around on the Washington street corner fantasized about, imagining what she does when she goes upstairs to visit her boyfriend. The narrator of the story finally manages to date her, and she seems only vaguely interested in returning his affection, leading him to the self-comforting conclusion that she is just too lazy for serious commitment. After years pass, he meets her again, and takes her out to a secluded spot in the park, but she falls into a deep, fatigued sleep.
Two poems follow: "Beehive," which compares the city to a beehive, with one bee wishing to fly away to "a far-off farmland flower," and "Storm Ending," which uses similar imagery of bees and flowers, but here they are victims of the violence of a beautiful thunderstorm. The story "Theater" is a brief piece of two upwardly-mobile urban blacks, John and Dorris: John is the brother of a theater owner, and Dorris dances in the chorus at the theater. She is attracted to him. Watching her dance, he dreams of being her boyfriend, but she thinks that the vacant look on his face while he is looking at her means that he does not care for her, so she leaves before he has the chance to talk to her.
The poem "Hot Lips Are Copper Wire" shows Toomer's amazement at the telephone, a relatively new invention then. "Call Jesus" presents a woman's soul as something separate from her, following her around like a dog. "Box Seat" is a relatively long story about a man, Dan Moore, who is dating a schoolteacher, Muriel. He is sure that she is repressing her true nature, and he tries to force himself on her: first physically, on the couch of her home, and then later by shouting to her in a crowded theater. It ends with Dan going out of the theater to fight with a man he has offended, but then wandering off, having forgotten his anger once he is out of doors.
The poem "Prayer," which follows, is a meditation on the nature of the human soul, followed by "Harvest Song," a poem that presents modern urban people as reapers of the harvest of the world's greatness. The last part of Section Two is the story of Bona, a white woman, and Paul, a mulatto: Bona is interested in dating Paul, and he likes her, but he is hesitant about a relationship because he cannot believe that Bona, raised in the South, would not look on him with some prejudice. In the end, he decides to cast his worries aside, but while he was deliberating she has left.
The final section of the book is comprised entirely of the novella "Kabnis," the story of a man of mixed ethnicity, like Toomer, who has gone to Georgia to teach and finds himself attracted to the beauty of the land and repulsed by the ugliness of the way blacks are treated. At first, he is just lonely, working for a school that has strict rules for its teachers, with his behavior closely monitored. He sees the irony in this, noting that "where they burn and hang men, you cant smoke." In the second part of this section, Ralph Kabnis interacts with some of the local people, important men in town. They tell him stories about the lynchings they have seen, which makes him paranoid, afraid that the local whites will find him too bold and come to get him. He runs home to hide, and when his friends find out what is bothering him, they laugh and give him a drink, which gets him fired.
Kabnis ends up working in the repair shop of his friend, Halsey. The local values have dragged him down, making him give up his intellectual interests and take on physical labor, which was considered the place of black men in the South. While working at the shop, he sinks even further, spending the night drinking with some friends and the prostitutes that they bring over, so that in the morning, when it is time to go to work, he is helpless and cannot even stand up on his own. This leads back to the beginning of the book, with downtrodden Georgia blacks trapped by society into a cycle of ignorance, drink and lust.
Avey is a popular girl in Washington, D.C. The young men on the street corner pay attention to the fact that she goes to visit a man, and they talk about her and the fact that they would all like to date her. She is a mystery to them, and to the narrator of the story. He tries to impress her with his athletic ability, showing off to her in basketball, swimming, and dancing, but she remains aloof. Eventually, he has an opportunity to kiss her on a ferry boat, but while he wants their relationship to progress, she treats him like a little boy, holding his head in her lap. Later, he becomes physically involved with her, but decides that her sluggish response to his passions is due to her being lazy. The last time that they are together she falls into a deep sleep, indicating that she feels comfortable with him in a way that she does not feel with other people, and that it has been a long time since she felt she could let her guard down.
King Barlo is a man who Esther witnesses falling to the ground and writhing in a religious trance. The people in the streets who witness his trance shout their encouragement, but the white people are suspicious: "Wall, y cant never tell what a nigger like King Barlo might be up t," the sheriff says. Soon after, Barlo leaves town, and for years Esther fantasizes about being with him. When she approaches him upon his return he is not spiritual; he is drinking in a tavern with his friends and mocks her.
There is also a "Barlo" mentioned in the story "Becky," who may or may not be the same man. When he sees that Becky's house has collapsed into a pile of rubble, with Becky probably under it, Barlo throws his Bible onto the pile and leaves.
Becky is a white woman who is ostracized by her neighbors in a small southern town because she has a child by a black man. Toomer offers no information about the identity of the father. Both blacks and whites in the town turn their backs on Becky: the white people say that she is a "God-forsaken, insane white shameless wench," and the blacks say that she is a "poor Catholic poor-white crazy woman." Even though both groups reject her, there are still people from both groups who help her build her house and who donate food and provisions to Becky.
When her son is five years old, Becky has another son, again by a black man. They grow up to be troubled men: "They answered black and white folks by shooting up two men and leaving town. 'Godam the white folks; godam the niggers,' they shouted as they left town." After they are gone, Becky's house collapses at some undetermined time, with her in it.
Tom Burwell is the black man who is in love with Louisa in the story "Blood-Burning Moon." Many of the black people in town know that Bur-well is headed for trouble: as they remind one another, he has already been sentenced to work on the chain gang for injuring people in knife fights. When the white man who also likes Louisa, Bob Stone, attacks Tom with a knife, he kills Stone and is subsequently hunted down by the whites in town and burned alive.
Carma is a strong woman, "strong as any man," who drives a mule wagon. The narration of her tale describes it as "the crudest melodrama." She has a husband, Bane, but he is a prisoner on a chain gang. He came home once from working out of town and heard rumors about her having affairs with other men; when he confronted her about it, Carma ran out of the house, into the cane field. When he heard a gun go off, he assumed that, in her hysteria, she had killed herself, so he gathered other men from the neighborhood to search the field, where they found her lying. They carried her home and put her on the couch, and it was then that he noticed that she was not injured, and had probably just fired the gun to get his attention. Angry at being tricked, he cut one of the men from the search party with a knife. Now Bane is on a chain gang, and Carma travels the country roads freely.
One of the few female characters in the first section of the book who is not admired for her beauty, Esther becomes enchanted with a suspicious man, King Barlo, and becomes convinced that he is an important part of her destiny. When she is nine, Esther sees Barlo fall into a religious trance in the street: he shouts phrases that have a Biblical sound as people in the crowd that gathers around him chant to encourage him. The whole town is captivated with his religious fervor, and when Barlo leaves town Esther remembers him for years afterward. The second part of Esther's story begins when she is sixteen, having a dream that is based on elements from the afternoon she saw Barlo: the store windows that were lit with sun are, in her dream, on fire; the people who had spit tobacco juice on the ground while he was rolling around spit their juice onto the fire; and the fire department rescues a baby, black as Barlo, which they give to Esther for safekeeping. When she is twenty-two, working at her father's grocery store, Esther remembers an affair that she had with a white boy and realizes that, even though her skin is pale enough to pass for white, she could never be accepted in white society. She decides that she is in love with Barlo.
Five years later, Barlo comes back to town, driving a big new car. Esther leaves her place at the store to go and see him. He is at a friend's house, where people are having a lively party. She tells Barlo that she has come for him, but he just laughs at her. A "coarse woman" who is with him thinks that Esther shows a lot of gall, coming into a place like that and claiming a man: the woman assumes that Esther is arrogant because her skin is so pale. Esther leaves, humiliated.
In the story "Theater," Dorris is a chorus girl who dances at the theater that is managed by John's brother. John works the dancers hard, making them rehearse and correcting them when they make mistakes. While she is dancing, Dorris fantasizes about being in love with John, but when she is finished he is so involved with his own fantasy about her that he does not speak to her. She takes this as a sign that he does not care, and cries in the arms of her friend, Mame.
David is one of the field workers who cut cane and boiled its syrup from it. First mentioned in the "Becky" section as a man who brought her sugar sap, he appears again in the section "Blood-Burning Moon."
Bona is a white girl who becomes infatuated with a mulatto boy, Paul. She is from the South, and he fears that she will not be able to get beyond the traditional racism of her society. Her story starts in a school gymnasium in Chicago, where she watches Paul and, in order to get closer to him, joins in a basketball game, even though she has already been excused from participating. Paul's roommate Art fixes them up for a date, and while Art and his girlfriend walk ahead and argue with each other, Bona confesses her love for Paul, although he is unable to return the sentiment. He is aloof to her throughout the date, and she leaves him just as he decides to open up to her.
Halsey is a friend of Kabnis. He owns a repair shop and is proud of his work, putting up with the degrading attitude shown toward him by whites when it is to his benefit. After Kabnis loses his teaching job, Hanby takes him on as an employee, hoping to show him a good life through working with his hands; Kabnis instead slides into drunkenness and subsequent ignorance.
Samuel Hanby is the principal of the school where Kabnis teaches. He affects an attitude of superiority with blacks, but is subservient among whites.
John is the brother of the theater manager in "Theater." He is in love with Dorris, and has an elaborate fantasy about them being together, but he is also careful to make sure that none of the chorus girls like Dorris takes advantage of his position to further their positions. John puts on a gruff exterior, certain that Dorris would not want a relationship with him, when in fact that is her main desire. While watching Dorris dance he daydreams about what it would be like to be with her, but she, seeing the blank look on his face as he is daydreaming, assumes that he is uninterested in her.
Kabnis is the focus of a novella at the end of the book that is named after him. Like Toomer, he is an educated man, a teacher from the North living in a Southern town, where the people look at him with kindness tempered by the suspicion that he may try to think too much of himself. He feels lonely and afraid as he tries to sleep in the room that is provided to him by the school where he teaches, conscious of the stillness around him. He is uncomfortable in the South, unused to things like the chicken that makes noise outside of his door. The school he teaches for has rules of conduct for teachers that prohibit smoking and drinking, but with his friends Halsey and Layman he does both, discussing the best way for black men to behave in the hostile social environment. Their stories about blacks being lynched terrify Kabnis almost to insanity, although they laugh and tell him he has nothing to worry about.
After he is fired from the school, Halsey takes Kabnis on as an employee in his repair shop. He sees that black laborers are at the mercy of white people, who order them around without concern, and he falls deeper and deeper into despair. One night, while having a party with some prostitutes in the basement of the shop, Kabnis becomes drunk and rages against a silent old man who sits in the corner, accusing the man of passing judgments of sin against the entire Negro race. The next morning, he is too drunk to even stand up and go to work, and he realizes that his heritage, the social situation in the South, has sapped him of the intelligence and kindness he once had.
Karintha, the focus of the book's first piece, sets the tone for the events that follow. Most of the first section is about men longing for women, and Karintha is a girl whom men find beautiful from her childhood onward. When she is very young, too young for them to have sex with, men already look upon with her in awe, and they excuse her faults because they are so enchanted with her beauty. For example, "Even the preacher, who caught her at mischief, told himself that she was as innocent as a lovely November cotton flower."
Because she has been raised in a small, two-room house, Karintha is exposed early in life to the sexuality of her parents, who slept in the same room as her. When she ends up being sexually active with men, they come to her with money, implying that she might have grown up using her beauty as a prostitute. She has a baby out in the woods, and the text implies that she buried it out there under a blanket of pine needles before returning home.
Louisa is the object of affection for two men. She works for the family of Bob Stone, a white man, who likes her, and she is attracted to him as well. But she is also attracted to Tom Burwell, a black man.
Separately, there was no unusual significance to either one. But for some reason, they jumbled when her eyes gazed vacantly at the rising moon, and from the jumble came the strange stir within her.
Although she likes them both, they each find it almost impossible to accept her attraction to the other. When Stone goes to Burwell, he is goaded into fighting, and he is killed. Burwell is killed by an angry crowd of whites. Louisa's story is told in the section titled "Blood-Burning Moon."
Dan is a prominent character in the story "Box Seat." He is from the South, born in a cane field, a man with a violent and suspicious nature. When he visits the girl that he likes, Muriel, he discusses life as if it has to be miserable and painful, and he is bewildered when she sees it differently. He tells her,
Your aim is wrong. There is no such thing as happiness. Life bends joy and pain, beauty and ugliness, in such a way that no one may isolate them.
He is so desperate for Muriel's love that he tries to force himself on her, but is stopped by her landlady. Later that night, at the theater, Dan shows up to keep an eye on Muriel. He thinks of her as a slave of society's pressures. He is fidgety, and disturbs the people around him. When one of the performers goes to the area of the stage below Muriel's box and sings to her, Dan becomes very agitated, and shouts out, "JESUS WAS A LEPER!" Leaving after the performance, he steps on a man's toes, and there ensues a shoving match. The man and Dan go out into the alley to fight, but when they get there, Dan, forgetting what he is there for, wanders away.
Muriel is a schoolteacher in the story "Box Seat." She lives in a boarding house, under the supervision of her landlady, Mrs. Pribby. Dan Moore, her suitor, sees the controlled life that she lives and assumes that Muriel is repressed, that society is holding her back from expressing her true self. When Dan becomes very physical with her in the living room of the boarding house, Mrs. Pribby, in the next room, makes noise to remind them of her presence:
Muriel fastens on her image. She smoothes her dress. She adjusts her skirt. She becomes prim and cool.
Later, Muriel goes to the theater with her friend Bernice. They sit in a cramped box seat. During the show, one of the performers, a boxing dwarf, sings a song to Muriel and offers her a rose, causing Dan to jump up and shout out in the theater, which leaves Muriel embarrassed by him.
Paul is a mulatto from Georgia, living in Chicago, uneasy about living among white people and passing for white. When Bona, a white girl, courts him by engaging him in a competitive basketball game and then arranging a date with him through friends, Paul must deal with the question of whether he is going to become fully integrated into white society. They go to dinner and a dance, but he remains cold, which angers her. As they are leaving the dance, Paul notices a knowing look on the face of a dark-skinned black doorman, and he stops to correct the man's mistaken impression. "I came back to tell you, to shake your hand, and tell you that you are wrong," he explains. "That something beautiful is going to happen…." When he finishes speaking to the doorman, however, he turns to find that Bona has gone.
The first character of the second section, Rhobert is described in symbolic terms as wearing a house. He has twisted legs from having rickets as a child, but he is also called strong because he bears the weight of the house on his shoulders.
Fernie Mae Rosen
Fern is the daughter of a black mother and a Jewish father. In the story bearing her name, she is described as being sexually attractive but cold:
Men saw her eyes and fooled themselves. Fern's eyes said to them that she was easy. When she was young, a few men took her, but got no joy from it.
Later, she becomes so uninvolved with sexuality that "she became a virgin."
The narrator of Fern's story, smitten with her beauty, boldly walks up to her while she is standing around with her family and asks her to go for a walk in the cane fields with him. While they are out there, he puts his arms around her, and she is touched by some sort of religious revelation that she finds overpowering:
Her body was tortured with something it could not let out. Like boiling sap it flooded arms and fingers till she shook them as if they burned her.
Overcome with powerful emotion, she faints in the field. After that, the people in town who had promised to protect Fern make some threats against the narrator, who leaves for the North soon after.
Bob Stone is the white man whose family employs Louisa in "Blood-Burning Moon." He is in love with her, but conflicted because she is black. He already has a self-esteem problem because his family has lost much of their former social status, and he feels that he would be looked down on even more if word got out that he was involved with a black woman. At the same time, though, he is jealous of Tom Burwell, whom she is also dating, and is insecure about the idea of losing her in a competition with Burwell. He attacks Burwell with a knife, but the other man is an expert knife fighter and cuts Bob's throat.
Race and Racism
This book deals with the issue of race on several different levels. Most obviously, there is the way that blacks are treated within American society, both in the South and in the North. In the South, the element of danger is always present. For instance, Becky is rejected by both blacks and whites for the crime of having crossed the color line, having sex with a black man and becoming impregnated by him. There is suspicion of blacks by whites, such as the sheriff in "Esther" who keeps a close eye on the man who is in the throes of religious ecstasy because "y cant never tell what a nigger like King Barlo might be up t." For the most part, this suspicion is enough to keep the blacks in their place. Kabnis sees Hanby, his employer, intellectualizing his own fear when he tells him that "the progress of the Negro race is jeopardized whenever the personal habits and examples set by its guides and mentors fall below the acknowledged and hard-won standard of its average member." He also sees his friend Halsey take commands from white men while believing that he is improving his life by limiting his personal growth to physical labor.
The tension between the races has some very real, dangerous ramifications in the South in the 1920s. There are, of course, the horror stories told Kabnis, about lynchings and beatings and about the pregnant woman whose fetus was stuck onto a post with a knife. There is the competition between Bob Stone and Tom Burwell for Louisa's hand: Burwell wins the fight between them, but that does not matter because he is immediately killed by whites who will not tolerate blacks putting on a fair fight.
Aside from hostilities between blacks and whites, the book also examines the problem of racism among blacks, who look down upon people of mixed heritage. This happens more within the Northern stories, where the uncertainty of the situation between the races is in some ways more frightening than the certainty of hostility in the South. The thing that separates Bona and Paul, who have a mutual attraction, is his fear of his black background being found out: in the end, when he decides that he can deal with this secret, he shows this by talking to a very dark-skinned doorman and shaking his hand. In "Theater," Dorris is all too willing to believe that John would have nothing to do with her when her friend tells her that he is "dictie," a word that Toomer uses over and again for light-skinned blacks who think that they are better than others because of their similarity to whites.
Toomer devotes the first section of the book to isolated portraits of single women, showing society's varied attitudes and the passions that men often project upon them. The first example, Karintha, is a sad, obscure figure who does not develop a personality on her own, but is only presented in terms of her physical attractiveness. As a child, she is considered a sexual object even by the men who refuse to acknowledge that they think of her that way. She is left to run wild, to abuse animals and fight with other children, all without be-ing scolded because of her beauty, and when she grows up she an object of lust, but not understood. After that, there is a succession of women who are misunderstood by men: Becky is left alone, so that no one even is sure when she died; Carma's husband jumps to conclusions about her fidelity and her suicide; Fern entrances the narrator of her story, although he can't say why and hardly cares to wonder; Esther is laughed at by the man she dreamed about for most of her life; and the two men fighting over Louisa use her as a status symbol against each other, with little said about who she really is.
In the second section, there is a little more interaction between the sexes, because the men in these stories long for the women without feeling that they have a right to them. This section is marked by missed connections, by love relations that do not work out because of assumptions made about the other sex. A prime example of this is in "Box Seat," which shows Dan Moore thinking that Muriel must be protected from society, which will otherwise take advantage of her passive nature, and becoming inappropriately aggressive because of it. The dominant symbol in this section is Mr. Barry, the dwarf who boxes himself bloody but then woos the woman with a beautiful song and a rose. Barry's diminutive size makes Dan's macho posturing ridiculous. At the end of this section, Bona and Paul provide the book's most well-balanced couple, as indicated by their equality on the basketball court. Even with their mutual respect, though, the relationship does not work out, mainly because of Paul's insecurity about his race.
The story of Kabnis hardly touches upon sex roles at all. Stella and Cora, the prostitutes, use the men in their lives just as much as they are used. Carrie K. ends up being one of the book's most levelheaded characters: surrounded by disappointment, she recognizes the dignity of the past that everyone else is trying to run away from. The book that started with a woman who was little more than a sex machine ends with a sensitive, enlightened woman.
Topics for Further Study
- Some critics have drawn a comparison between the views of Hanby in the "Kabnis" section of Cane and Booker T. Washington, an African-American educator prominent at the start of the twentieth century. Research Washington's views, and explain your feelings about his approach to the social positions of blacks.
- Many of Toomer's stories concern the distinctions made between dark-skinned and light-skinned blacks, while some people might tend to lump all African Americans together. Make a collage of pictures of black faces, showing as many hues as you can.
- The old man in the basement of Halsey's store only says a few words. Write a monologue for him, having him explain his history and what he thinks of his life.
- An underlying theme of the first section of this book is the violence that threatens blacks if they stand up for their rights. Report on modern hate groups and the methods that they use, such as the Internet, to spread their intimidating message today.
- In the Washington and Chicago sections of Cane, the characters would have listened to jazz music in the 1920s, but what kind of music would they have listened to in rural Georgia? Find some examples of the music they listened to and play it for your class.
- One of the reasons Jean Toomer never produced another novel is that he devoted much of his energy to working for the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, spreading the ideas of Georges Gurdjieff Report on Gurdjieff's teachings.
Alienation and Loneliness
The theme of alienation does not become apparent until the book's second two sections, although once it is revealed there it becomes visible in hindsight in the earlier parts. The short prose piece "Seventh Street," which begins the second section, introduces the idea of urban isolation, showing the city street as the product of social inconsistency, a lonely place that is busy with people. The characters presented in this section have less social pressure to stay segregated than exists in the segregated South, but even with that relative freedom, they find themselves unable to understand one another well enough to enter into satisfactory relationships.
Alienation is one of the major problems with Ralph Kabnis, a pale-skinned, educated black man who has gone to Georgia to find his roots, only to realize that his ancestral home wants nothing to do with the man that he has become. The first section of Kabnis' story is about his loneliness, as he sits in the still, quiet night in the room that has been provided him. He has insomnia because his mind has nothing to settle upon: the rules of life in Georgia prohibit the way of life he is used to. As he starts socializing more in the story, he becomes increasingly alienated from his former life. He mocks the idea of being a teacher and praises the local food, all in an attempt to fit in with the people around him, a strategy which is in fact a success. Halsey tells Professor Layman:
He ain't like most northern niggers that way. Ain't a stuck-up thing about him. He like us, you and me, maybe all—its that red mud over yonder—gets stuck in it and can't get out. (Laughs)
The more Kabnis stays in the South, the more he fits in with the men around him, but his comfort comes at a price. In becoming like the men around him, he becomes bitter. He curses the old man who represents black history, and he drinks so much that he can hardly stand. Conformity requires shaving off the best things about his personality, in order to stave off loneliness.
The narration of this book is uneven, changing from section to section, providing readers more with a feeling than with a direct story. Throughout the book, the language is very poetic, with words often chosen for their sounds and power. It even breaks directly into poetry, not only in the poems that hold their own pages but also sometimes within story segments, such as "Karintha," "Blood-Burning Moon," and "Box Seat." Because of this, critics have trouble with deciding what to call it. The critic Edward W. Waldron, for example, classified Cane as a "novel-poem." Others have called it an impressionistic piece or an imagistic novel.
The voices telling the stories vary greatly. There is often a third-person narrator, telling the story from an omniscient perspective, which means that the narrator has access to all of the characters' thoughts and can tell them to the reader. In "Blood-Burning Moon," for instance, the narration tells what Bob Stone is thinking, then switches to Tom Burwell's thoughts, then back to Stone's. There is also a third-person narrator that is limited to one character's perspective, as in the novella "Kabnis," or in the story "Esther," which relies upon readers thinking like Esther but not knowing what King Barlo really thinks until the end.
The book also makes use of different types of first-person narration. The stories "Fern" and "Avey" both have straightforward narrators, with the person telling the story appearing in it as the main character. A more obscure first-person narrator tells the story of "Becky." Throughout most of the story, it is not at all clear that this piece is being told in the first person, until the last full paragraph, when the narrator begins referring to "we." Having presented himself as a member of the community, he then gives himself specific details, telling about a particular ride that he took on a particular day. Much of the book's voice has a communal feel to it, as if the thoughts presented are those of everyone living nearby, but sometimes the narration edges very close to Toomer's particular experiences.
Because of the poetic nature of this work, much of what is significant is relayed through symbolism. One example is the cotton plant, which is directly mentioned in the poems "November Cotton Flower" and "Cotton Song," and is alluded to in other places, such as "Kabnis." Because many whites owned slaves specifically to harvest cotton on their plantations prior to the end of the Civil War in 1865, cotton has come to represent enslavement to many black people in America. Another symbol used throughout the book is fire, such as the sawdust fire that permeates the whole area like guilt after Karintha loses her baby out near the mill, or the fire that Esther sees in the windows of the McGregors' notions shop.
The house that is said to be on Rhobert's head, "like a monstrous diver's helmet," is an example of symbolic use of language. Of course, he could not have a real house atop his head. This use of the word serves to show that the things a house usually reminds people of—stability, permanence, a place where one belongs—weigh on Rhobert like a burden.
In the basement of Halsey's shop sits an old man, in the darkness. He does not move or speak. He does not seem like a real person—he has no real function in this story other than his symbolic significance. Lewis even points this out within the story when he says, "That old man as symbol, flesh, spirit of the past, what do you think he would say if he could see you?" For Kabnis, the old man acts as a conscience, reminding him of the history of African Americans. He is old enough to possibly have been a slave, as someone suggests, and after Kabnis has shouted at him long enough that he is focused on sin, the old man finally speaks, and says "sin," over and over. He takes on the significance that people ascribe to him, but he also has no independent significance within the story: there is never a non-symbolic reason to explain why he is sitting in the basement.
Critics have a wide range of opinions regarding the structure of this book, from calling it "perfect" to denying that it has any structure whatsoever. Overall, there is no clear pattern, other than the clear fact that it is divided into three parts, each concerned with its own particular theme. The action of the various sections does not overlap, and the characters do not continue from one segment to another. In the first section, there are two poems before each prose piece, but this rule diminishes by the beginning of Section Two.
The book's most ardent supporters point to the progression of thematic concerns. It starts with lonely, isolated women who have been rejected by society but are used sexually, and by the end of Section One the stories are about women who are not rejected, but are desired. In Section Two, the emphasis is on men who desire women but have trouble acting on their desires, mostly because of their uncertainty of their place in Northern society. Section Three is about Kabnis, a Northern black man who goes to Georgia to learn about his history. Throughout Kabnis' story, he becomes more and more like the Southern men who distanced themselves from the women in the very first segments. Readers who follow this structure closely can notice that, even in the absence of a plot, each "chapter" of this book (including poems and character sketches) actually does respond to what came immediately before it, moving the main idea forward.
During the 1920s, the artistic scene among blacks in the Harlem section of New York City prospered and gained national attention. It had been coming for a long time: black writers had been published in America for almost a century and a half, since Phillis Wheatley, a slave who had been born in Africa, published a book of poetry in 1773. In spite of the rich cultural heritage of African Americans and society's willingness to accept blacks as entertainers, there was a traditional reluctance to recognize the achievements of black intellectuals. In the later decades of the nineteenth century, the debate about social progress for African Americans split into two directions. Followers of Booker T. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, felt that blacks would gain more by working at whatever humble jobs they were offered and earning the trust of the majority. Followers of W. E. B. DuBois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), supported earning respect through intellectual growth and achievement. When the NAACP was founded in 1910, DuBois became editor of its magazine, The Crisis, which became an important forum for black writers.
World War I, which America fought in from 1917 to 1918, had a great influence in giving blacks confidence to find their own intellectual identity. Blacks participating in the war numbered 367, 000, with many leaving the rural settings that their families had been mired in for generations and gaining introduction to a wider world, where they found less hostility between the races than they were accustomed to in America. Returning veterans were much more aware of the injustices that they faced at home, especially in the South, where laws prohibited them from voting or owning land. Many moved north, and the greatest concentration of African Americans in the North was in Harlem.
It was in this context that the artistic community in Harlem blossomed, giving opportunity and encouragement to young writers, painters, and musicians. As always, America accepted the music of blacks first. The 1920s are known as the "Jazz Age," and black artists were the ones who invented this style of music. White Americans, disillusioned by the harsh suffering they had witnessed during the war, broke with convention by listening to Negro music in Negro nightclubs, giving Harlem a vibrant economy and increased visibility among the writers who influenced national tastes. Many of these whites who frequented jazz clubs were artists; still more followed an artistic lifestyle as a way of rebellion. As Harlem became the center of entertainment in the country's most prominent city, the people who lived in Harlem gained respect and attention.
Ironically, the earliest writers associated with the "New Negro Renaissance" only lived in Harlem for a short time, and neither identified with the plight of American blacks. Claude McKay, a poet from Jamaica, drew national attention when he published his ground-breaking book Harlem Shadows in 1922, but by the following year he left to live in Europe. Jean Toomer lived in a number of places, with New York being only one of them. Soon after the publication of Cane in 1923 he left to become involved with the Gurdjieff Institute in France, and he never lived in Harlem on a regular basis again.
There were, however, many artists prepared to go through the door opened by Toomer and McKay. Other black writers introduced to the world during this period include Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, and the historian Alaine Locke. Painters who made their name during the Harlem Renaissance include William H. Johnson, Lois Malliou Jones, Hale Woodruff, and John T. Biggers.
Compare & Contrast
- 1920s: The Ku Klux Klan, a post-Civil War ter rorist organization that works to suppress blacks with threats, property destruction, and murder, is reorganized after having been disbanded for fifty years, and begins a new campaign of lynch ing.
Today: The Ku Klux Klan still exists, but its violent activities are limited in favor of political activity.
- 1920s: Artists like Pablo Picasso and Jean Toomer create works with a distorted sense of reality, working with the new artistic principle of modernism, which rejects traditional forms.
Today: Postmodernism has rejected modernism by embracing traditional principles in an ironic way, mocking the humorless, serious "artistic" attitude of the moderns.
- 1920s: The radio is a new form of entertainment, allowing people to enjoy professional perfor mances without leaving their homes.
Today: The Internet is the newest form of entertainment, allowing people to shop, do research, and download an endless supply of pictures, videos, and recordings, all without leaving their homes.
- 1920s: African Americans are, by law, forbid den access to certain hospitals, schools, and neighborhoods in the South.
Today: Laws threaten stiff penalties for businesses that discriminate because of race; still, most Americans live in segregated neighborhoods.
- 1920s: Middle-class white Americans flirt with danger by listening to the exotic rhythms of jazz music, coming from a black culture that is mys terious to them.
Today: Many middle-class white Americans listen to rap music that comes from a black culture that is mysterious to them.
- 1920s: Blacks are regularly murdered in the South if there is even a suspicion of their being involved in an interracial affair.
Today: Social disapproval still exists in many places, but America has become much more accustomed to the idea of blacks and whites marrying.
From the end of the 1800s through the 1950s, many states in the South had laws on their books that left blacks at a severe social disadvantage, forcing them to rely on the mercy of whites almost as much as they had when they were slaves. These laws were collectively known as "Jim Crow laws," named so after a foolish black character in an 1832 minstrel show. Starting in the 1880s, states in the South began passing laws that required blacks to ride in separate railroad cars, stay in separate hotels, attend separate theaters, eat at separate restaurants, use separate rest rooms, drink at separate water fountains, and attend separate schools from whites. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rights of states to pass these laws in 1892, ruling in the famous case of Plessy v. Ferguson that it was acceptable for states to keep the races divided as long as the accommodations that were provided for blacks were, to use the famous phrase coined in that decision, "separate but equal."
The problem, of course, was that the facilities that were available for blacks to use were far from equal to those enjoyed by whites. Black schools were rare, and those that were run by teachers who were willing to work for practically nothing had almost nonexistent operating budgets. Public transportation in black neighborhoods was scarce, while laws prevented well-to-do blacks from moving to white neighborhoods. White landlords could neglect properties in black neighborhoods, knowing that their tenants had few options about where they could live. Medical facilities offered to blacks were primitive.
The situation caused by Jim Crow laws in the South did not change until the 1950s, when television made it possible for civil rights activists to draw the nation's attention to the injustice of segregation. In 1955 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a boycott of public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama, when Rosa Parks, a black woman who refused to ride in the back of the bus, was arrested. In 1963 state officials of Mississippi caused a riot when they refused to uphold a court order allowing a black man, James Meredith, to enroll; the National Guard had to be brought out to defend citizens against the state militia. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has set national standards for equal treatment of people of all races.
Cane was a phenomenal critical success from its first printing, but it was a commercial failure, with fewer than 5000 copies published during Jean Toomer's lifetime. Some biographers and critics refer to this fact to explain why the author never followed it up with another novel. It was published in 1923, a time when the literary world was alive with writers like Toomer who experimented with traditional narrative styles, and the critics were very receptive to the novel's uniqueness, in some cases even overenthusiastic. Darwin T. Turner, who has written much about Toomer's career, captured some of the enthusiasm of the early praise in his introduction to the 1975 edition of Cane:
Lola Ridge, editor of Broom, predicted that Toomer would be the most widely discussed author of his generation, which is remembered now for such individuals as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner. John McClure, editor of Double Dealer, had favorably compared Toomer's lyricism with Sherwood Anderson.
Anderson was an older writer, whose powerful artistic sensibilities and willingness to help other writers made him something of a mentor to many of the writers of the nineteen twenties, including some of those mentioned above. In a different book entitled In A Minor Chord, Turner quoted a letter from Anderson to Toomer praising his work: "You are the only negro … who seems really to have consciously the artist's impulse."
As Anderson's comment indicates, the critical reception of Cane was not just about Toomer's achievement as a writer, but as a Negro writer, which, in the 1920s was rare but increasingly important. He is often associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, but Toomer was, at best, on the outskirts of the intellectual scene in Harlem. Arna Bontemps, one of the most influential writers to have come out of that movement, captured the social significance of Cane in his introduction to the 1969 edition of the book, published by Perennial Classics. "Only two small printings were issued, and these vanished quickly," Bontemps wrote. "However, among the most affected was practically an entire generation of young Negro writers then just beginning to emerge; their reaction to Toomer's Cane marked an awakening that soon thereafter began to be called a Negro Renaissance." He went on to list such luminaries as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Wallace Thurman as having been influenced by this book. Bontemps captures this critical response with the words of one writer, Charles S. Johnson, a distinguished scholar and sociologist. "Here was the Negro artist," he quotes Johnson saying, "detached from propaganda, sensitive only to beauty. Where [Paul Laurence] gave to the unnamed Negro peasant a reassuring touch of humanity, Toomer gave to the peasant a passionate charm … more than any artist, he was an experimentalist, and this last quality has carried him away from what was, perhaps, the most astonishingly brilliant beginning of any Negro writer of this generation."
Brian Joseph Benson and Mabel Mayle Dillard, in a 1980 book about Toomer's career, explain the novel's perseverance as resulting from the absolute dedication of its early readers. They wrote that "it is apparent that Cane became one of those classics kept alive by word of mouth and sheer admiration on the part of readership. This is a verifiable statement since, when it came time for those successful figures of the 1920s to write their memoirs, Cane is mentioned time after time as one book which stuck in the mind as an inspirational work."
Although the book was remembered by its fervent admirers, the rest of the world forgot it, as Toomer slipped from the public's consciousness each year that he did not publish a book. He only published sporadically, and refused to allow excerpts from Cane to appear in anthologies of writings by blacks, claiming that he was not a Negro. The novels that he did write were rejected by editors. According to Nellie Y. McKay, in her 1984 study of his career, "The editors and publishers who rejected Toomer's manuscripts for fifteen years did not do so capriciously, or with malice aforethought. The stories that issued from his pen during this time were turned down because they were tedious and described uninteresting people around whom he was unable to develop dramatic plots." In the years before his death, he published poetry and book reviews, but not fiction.
The revival of Toomer's reputation came soon after he died, in the 1960s. It was marked by racial turmoil, when blacks were, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., being asked to raise their awareness of their identities. In this context, the richness of Cane was able to stand out. New studies of Toomer's life appeared in the 1970s, chronicling the tragedy of his early promise gone to seed. Cane has never been out of print since then.
Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature at several community colleges in Illinois. In the following essay, he examines the circular design of Cane, comparing the female characters who begin and end the book.
One of the most impressive things about Jean Toomer's Cane is the way it gave fresh characterizations of African Americans at a time when existent literature about them was scant. Another is the complete freedom that Toomer exercised in his use of language, binding himself to neither traditional English nor the (now dated) black dialect that he used from time to time. His most sublime achievement, though, is in the area of structure. A casual reader—one who finishes the book with only a quick, shallow impression—might not see any overall pattern. Its individual parts don't fit together in any conventional sense of narrative.
It was Toomer's contention, though, that the book is designed as a circle, coming around to itself in the end, with final ideas bringing readers to beginning ones. If one focuses on the dissimilarities between the starting and finishing segments, this seems entirely unlikely. There could hardly be more difference than that between the educated, angst-ridden Ralph Kabnis, who has grown into adulthood without knowing what he is really about, and the spoiled nature-child Karintha, whose soul has "ripened too soon." There could hardly be more stylistic difference than that between her brief sketch and his novella.
Cane is, however, a book that will not let readers rest assured with their feeling that they know the truth. In a linear sense, "Kabnis" is completely different than "Karintha," and so it is only fitting that the two should be at opposite ends of the book. But within "Kabnis" there is the story of Carrie K. She is the last female character in a book loaded with varieties of female characters, and she inverts the Southern values that the book begins with in Karintha's story. The story of Ralph Kabnis is interesting on its own, but it is Carrie K., mirror image to Karintha, who makes it part of a book.
The story of Karintha is a strange, disturbing place to begin, but it is appropriate for a book that is meant to circle back: it reads like an ending, not a beginning. By the end of this two-page segment, Karintha is old and worn out, even though she is only twenty. She "has been married many times," although this is most likely in a figurative, not literal, sense. She has had a child out in the forest and buried it there, under the pine needles, with the pine smoke from the mill following her back to town and, like a guilty conscience, infesting everything, even the water she drinks. She has men coming to her and giving her money, like a prostitute.
What makes this a strange place to start a book is that Karintha is irredeemable. She doesn't appear to have a shred of hope in her by the end, only misery and the memory of the promise she lost. Her childish misbehavior, which the men all indulged because they could not bear to handle such a beauty roughly, has forced her to find her own values, aging her soul—the end of "Karintha" marks an end, not a beginning. Sunrise is a likely place to start a book, because it represents a new start: by contrast, Karintha's story likens her to dusk in the beginning, the middle, and the end.
The book that follows keeps returning to the ideas that are touched on in this opening segment, as if to unravel the destruction of Karintha's life, to find some way to grant her amnesty for the crimes her circumstances have driven her to. In the subsequent stories, readers see men reacting to women's beauty; morality dictated by society; black characters wondering how their world has led them astray, how their childhoods steered them wrong. Carma's mannish appearance gives her a freedom from all the men (except the narrator) that Karintha will never have. Esther, too, has freedom from the men who are always around to pressure the characters with physical beauty, but her soul matures wrapped around the mistaken impression she has of one particular man, King Barlo. Avey, like Karintha, is the object of men's desires, and she ends up exhausted. Muriel might as well be from a different planet as Karintha, because it would be virtually impossible for them to understand one another—Muriel is concerned about her reputation, both with her landlady and out in the public theater, which Dan Moore feels is an unhealthy suppression of her true sexual nature (unaware, of course, of the tragic results that leaving sexuality unchained caused for Karintha).
What Do I Read Next?
- Toomer's miscellaneous writings, including plays, letters, and reviews, have been collected in The Wayward and the Seeking, edited by Darwin Turner.
- Toomer's contemporary in the Harlem Renaissance, Arna Bontemps, was responsible for many works of poetry, fiction and criticism. One of his most compelling works is God Sends Sunday, a novel based on the old blues tradition.
- James Weldon Johnson was an African-American writer who preceded Toomer. Like Toomer, he struggled against being labeled and dismissed as a "black writer." His 1912 novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, was more recently published with an introduction by Arna Bontemps.
- Among the many great works about African-American identity written since Toomer's time, one of the most influential and most stirring is Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel Invisible Man.
- Jean Toomer and Claude McKay are generally considered to be the first writers of the Harlem Renaissance. McKay gives today's readers a sense of what Harlem was like at that time in his 1928 novel Home to Harlem.
- Sherwood Anderson was considered one of Toomer's mentors, having encouraged him through the publication of Cane. Anderson's best-remembered work, Winesburg, Ohio, from 1919, bears similarities to the style Toomer used.
- The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer was published in 1988 by the University of North Carolina Press. It was edited by Robert B. Jones and Margery Toomer Latimer, the author's daughter.
- Toomer was known for refusing permission to reprint his works in anthologies of African-American writers, because he did not want to be categorized as black. One of the works from Cane that is anthologized is the story "Becky," which is included in Mentor Books' 1971 collection Prejudice, edited by Charles R. Larson.
Toomer himself said that the true end of this book's circle was the story of Bona and Paul. Here, readers see the theme of sexual predation work itself out in healthy, robust competition: Bona is certainly Paul's match, not because she uses her feminine beauty to control him but because she puts an effort into being his equal. The theme of racial inequity, though, is not solved. There are two ways to read the ending. The most direct reading is that Bona, watching Paul shake hands with a black doorman, realizes the full implications of his racial identity, and leaves, implying that racial merging could never happen even for two people attracted to one another as these. The less simple reading, more in keeping with the sad tone of the book, is that Paul loses his chance at love because he has hesitated, taking too long deciding what he wants his identity to be. If Karintha is all response, giving the young and old men what they want, Paul is the opposite—all thought and little action.
The story of Kabnis, then, makes an excellent beginning. Like Toomer himself, Kabnis is a light-skinned educator seeking self-identity in the South—the character's quest begins where the author's did. And the mud of Georgia pulls Kabnis down. He starts off as a sophisticate, to some extent even a little snobbish about the locals' primitive beliefs, and he ends up a bib-overalled laborer: like the others only less skilled, and so infantilized by liquor that he is unable to stand on his own two feet.
In this, the largest section of Cane, there is much confusion, made worse by the jumbled rambling of the stream-of-consciousness narration, which brings Ralph Kabnis' confused thoughts to life. There is Kabnis' self-hatred, which if anything is fueled by the violence and callousness of the white community that surrounds him. There is religious mystery, in the form of Father John, who sits day and night at the table in the Hole; defiance in Louis; resignation in Halsey; and surrender in Hanby. The only character who is content and secure in this section is Carrie K.
Sister of Fred Halsey, she is considered an "adolescent." When Kabnis thinks about her, he does consider her body, shying away from thinking of her sexually the way that the old and young men tried to avoid thinking of Karintha when she was too young. "There is a slight stoop to her shoulders," Kabnis observes. "The curves of her body blend with this to a soft, rounded charm." His thought about the curves of her body indicates that he could easily sexualize her in the way that Karintha is sexualized in her youth.
Toomer shifts to Louis' point of view for the thought that Kabnis comes near to, the idea that young Carrie K. is wasting her virginity. Like Dan Moore, he worries that society is depriving her of life. "He sees the nascent woman, her flesh already stiffening to cartilage, drying to bone. Her spirit-bloom, even now touched sullen, bitter. Her rich beauty fading…." The cause, Louis assumes, is the society around her. "The sin-bogies of respectable southern colored folk clamor at her: 'Look out! Be a good girl. Look out!'" In another context, readers might be tempted to go along with his fear, but not within a book that starts with the story of Karintha, who is ruined at an early age precisely because no one told her to look out.
Carrie is rooted to her society, not anchored by it or (as Louis assumes) oppressed by it. He mistakenly sees her caring for her brother and the silent old man as servitude, not realizing that her involvement with them gives her the sort of human interaction that most characters in Cane lack and sorely need. The old man, who they call Father John, might be a Christ figure, but this Christ is blind and deaf, and cannot communicate with people directly. What Carrie says of him—"He's deaf and blind, but I reckon he hears, and sees too, from the things I've heard"—does not make sense, except on a complex spiritual level. Few characters in this book have the spiritual complexity to see beyond the misery of their own lives.
Karintha has a baby and abandons it out among the pines. Stella, one of the prostitutes that Halsey and Kabnis bring down into the Hole where Father John lives, is described thinking: "She'd like to take Kabnis to some distant pine grove and nurse and mother him." It is hardly likely she could, with the bitter way her family has been destroyed according to the story she tells about a white man stealing her mother away. "Boars an kids an fools—that's all I've ever known," she explains. Instead of taking Kabnis and mothering him, she is claimed by Halsey as his sexual prize, and she goes off with him.
Carrie K. does mother him. Like a child, he finds it impossible to walk, and she helps him. She dresses him, or at least shows him when it is time to change out of his bathrobe and to dress to face the world. When he trips on the coal bucket and curses, she answers calmly with the last spoken words of the book: "Jesus, come." Her firm cool hands draw from him the fever of anger and confusion.
Carrie K. is the opposite of Karintha: the antidote to her sickness, the correction to what went wrong at the beginning of the book. The "Kabnis" story is about an educated man sinking to Karintha's level of instinctiveness, but it brings with it another black woman, one who is Karintha's social equal, her moral superior. Carrie K. is Karintha inverted. More than a circle, this book operates like a Mobius strip, a piece of paper that is twisted over before the two ends are attached, so that one can follow it continuously for infinity.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Charles Scruggs and Lee VanDemarr
In the following introduction to Jean Toomer and the Terrors of American History, Scruggs and VanDemarr provide political background on Cane and its public rediscovery forty-five years after initial publication.
Jean Toomer and the Terrors of American History is about a literary life and its complicated relationships to the social, political, and economic worlds in which the writer lived and worked. In particular it is about the African-American writer Jean Toomer and his major book, the hybrid short story cycle Cane, first published in 1923. For more than three decades a kind of subterranean text, not forgotten but unavailable, Cane had been a critical success rather than a popular one in 1923, and though its publisher reprinted it in 1927 (no doubt to capitalize on the rise of the Harlem Renaissance), it would not be reprinted again until 1969, two years after Toomer's death. In 1969, in the midst of a revival of interest in black writing, Robert Bone's review of the first paperback edition appeared in the New York Times Book Review with the headline "The Black Classic That Discovered 'Soul' Is Rediscovered after 45 Years," and Cane's revival was securely launched. The New York literary world's approval was something Toomer the author would have appreciated.
Cane became a canonic text rather late, but it was never quite a lost text; despite the Times's headline, Cane was "rediscovered" only in the sense that the mass-market edition made it available, as Bone remarked, "to the general reader." The importance of reprinting for a book's long-term survival should not be underestimated, but in this case the critical effort to remember Cane, which can be traced in Therman B. O'Daniel's excellent bibliography of Toomer, was equally important. Though excluded from "mainstream" anthologies of American literature, selections from Cane, a few poems and stories, were more or less continuously in print between 1927 and 1969—this despite the fact that Toomer himself sometimes declined to appear in "Negro" anthologies. Some critics of African-American writing also made sure Toomer's work was not forgotten: Alain Locke, Sterling Brown, J. Saunders Redding, Hugh M. Gloster, and particularly Bone and Arna Bontemps.
Since 1970 Cane has become an important text, and Jean Toomer has become the subject of biographies and book-length literary studies. After 1923 Toomer continued writing almost until the year of his death, accumulating a huge archive of unpublished work, most of it now collected at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Understandably, much of the recent interest in Toomer has focused on this unpublished writing, particularly parts of his multiple autobiographies and the record of his "spiritualist" work after 1923; there has also been a tendency to read backward and interpret Cane in light of selected bits of this material. However, in part because of this concentration on the later writing, the now considerable body of scholarship about Toomer leaves important areas of his life and work untouched, especially the historical contexts within which Toomer began to write: the social and political milieus of the post-World War I period. Neglected in most previous commentaries, these matters are central to understanding Cane and cast light as well on Toomer's other works.
Two words in our title, "terrors" and "history," describe what we have found to be lacking from studies of Toomer and what we have tried to begin recovering. A significant project for recent critics of American literature has been the rediscovery of books and authors excluded from the New Critical canon, and a part of this work has also been to investigate the dimensions of literature which the New Critics were little interested in studying. Not coincidentally, the literary circles of Jean Toomer worked on a similar project; as Waldo Frank observed in Our America, criticizing the canon established by the "Genteel Tradition" and the "New Humanists": "Whatever consciousness we have had so far has been the result of vast and deliberate exclusions." Cary Nelson's critique of literary history as it has been written since the 1950s summarizes one kind of exclusion:
The New Critics were at pains to point out that "literary history" generally omitted and obscured what was specifically literary about poetry and fiction, the textual qualities that distinguish literary language from other discourses. It may now, however, be more crucial to argue that literary history is typically (and improperly) detached from history as it may be more broadly construed—not only the familiar history of nations but also the still less familiar history of everyday life.
The background to Cane and the story of how Toomer came to write the book involve both "everyday" and national histories that had been "detached" from the text even as the complete text itself virtually disappeared for thirty years. Contexts have been there to be uncovered, but for various reasons they have remained hidden.
There is one obvious reason for the loss of historical—especially political—contexts for Cane Toomer's life after 1923 turned away from the social circumstances and urgencies that led him to begin writing, and this move toward religious and personal concerns undoubtedly encouraged critics and biographers to regard him as a mystic and spiritualist rather than as a political writer. After 1923 Toomer formed a series of attachments to spiritualists like George Gurdjieff and religious groups like the Quakers which continued virtually until the end of his life. It seems clear that Toomer's commitment to a "spiritual quest" was serious and deeply felt, but our study is not concerned with that part of his career, except to point out that the political Toomer who wrote Cane resurfaced in later years. We have tried to outline the historical context from which Cane emerged, examining ignored or neglected evidence about the specific background within which Toomer wrote his book, and to show how that background helps explain the political meanings of Cane.
The politics of Jean Toomer the writer and of Cane have been obscured by intentional disregard (even by Toomer himself) and by scholarly neglect. Although we did not begin our work with the idea of revising Toomer's biography, in the process of writing we came up against serious errors and omissions in the scholarship dealing with Toomer's life through 1923; correcting this record has made us, in effect, involuntary biographers. The most complete biography of Toomer is Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge's The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness—the subtitle of which indicates its concern with the "spiritual" Toomer. In fact, Kerman and Eldridge devote only two short chapters to Cane, whereas almost three-quarters of their book is given over to the religious quests of Toomer's later life. More important in our view, Lives contains factual errors and questionable interpretations and overlooks crucial biographical materials, particularly in its discussion of the writing of Cane and the social, political, and intellectual milieus that influenced it. We address specific errors in the notes to our main text, but the major problem is what has been omitted from the discussion of Toomer's life.
These omissions include a lack of attention to Toomer's earliest published writings, which are specifically political and which illuminate the crucial literary relationship between Toomer and his mentor, Waldo Frank. In Lives as, indeed, in all the published biographical writings on Toomer, there is no mention of the three articles he published between 1919 and 1920 in the New York Call, a prominent socialist newspaper. Although Toomer avoided any mention of the Call essays in his autobiographies, references to these articles appear three times in Toomer's unpublished writings, twice in the correspondence between Waldo Frank and Toomer and again in the biographical sketch that Toomer wrote for Horace Liveright on the eve of Cane's publication.
Most of the writing about Toomer has understated, or even ignored, the essential contribution Waldo Frank made to Cane, and this problem becomes more troublesome when combined with critical misunderstandings about the meaning of Frank's own books, particularly his key work, Our America. Kerman and Eldridge, for instance, largely reduce Frank's significance for Toomer to the "spiritual" and the "religious," viewing Our America as a work focused on the idea of the nation's "organic mystical Whole." This phrase, however, offers little help in coming to terms with a book whose real foundation is political and social, as Toomer's defense of Frank in his final Call article, "Americans and Mary Austin," shows he well understood. Austin had attacked Frank as a Jew, condemning Our America because it presumptuously challenged the cultural hierarchy that Austin, as an Anglo-American, was determined to uphold, and Toomer defended Frank on precisely those issues of "race," culture, and politics that were at the heart of Our America.
In 1919, when Our America was published, Frank and others of his generation faced a repressive government. Bolshevik paranoia and war hysteria defined the national temper; anti-Semitism was at its zenith; civil liberties remained under "wartime" suspension; members of the liberal and radical Left were being harassed, jailed, or de-ported; major race riots (attacks by whites on black communities) erupted throughout the year. Randolph Bourne, Frank's friend and fellow contributor to the brilliant little magazine The Seven Arts (1916–17), wrote a brutal but unfinished satire on the tenor of the times called "The State." Published posthumously in the same year as Our America, it conceived of America's future as a totalitarian nightmare. Some of Bourne's politics found their way into Our America as part of an extended socialist critique of American history, but Frank's book placed hope for resistance more in the cultural arena than in the political one. This choice was not a retreat in his view: he believed the artist rather than the revolutionary could radically remake American society, just as marginalized groups (Jews, Hispanics, Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants from southern Italy and eastern Europe) might redefine an America as "ours" and not "theirs." Frank thought "culture" was a political force that might change society rather than simply reflect it, and his use of religion was tied to the social: art is "religious" (from religare: "to bind") because it serves in the creation of the Beloved Community.
Although by the end of 1923 Toomer was on his way to embracing Gurdjieffism, this future choice is largely irrelevant to Cane's meaning. The "spiritual" always appears in Cane within a political context, that is, within a context concerned with issues involving the American polis. Toomer's politics in the period from 1918 to 1923—roughly the time during which he was learning the craft of writing and then completing Cane—were centered on socialism and on the "New Negro"; his first published essays drew ideas from both movements, which were contemporary currents in postwar New York City and which coincided in radical African-American magazines like Cyril Briggs's Crusader and the Messenger of A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen.
Toomer criticism has largely dismissed socialism as a significant influence on his thought at the time he was writing Cane. Critics paraphrase Toomer's remarks in the 1931–32 version of his autobiography, that ten days of working in the shipyards of New Jersey in 1919 "finished socialism for me." But the shipyard experience did not finish socialism for Toomer. He continued to move in the world of the New York Left after 1919, and in 1936 he wrote another version of his autobiography which completely revised his understanding of those days in the shipyard. Where the 1931–32 autobiography is satirical, even cynical—the shipyard workers "had only two main interests: playing craps and sleeping with women"—in the 1936 autobiography this satiric perspective shifts to the Gothic: Toomer admits his own fear of working-class life, that he did not want "to be confined in the death-house with doomed men."
The lot of these workers represented a brutal actuality that underlay society; working as a common laborer had shown Toomer "that the underlying conditions of human existence were ruthless and terrible beyond anything written in books or glimpsed in those forms of society wherein men, their behavior and manners, are veneered by the amenities of civilization. This is what the shipyard experience had done to me—and done for me." He was also convinced that socialism was a necessary solution to the soul-deadening, exhausting work of the shipyards: "I realized as never before the need of socialism, the need of a radical change of the conditions of human society." Like George Or-well—and indeed this part of the 1936 autobiography reads like Down and Out in Paris and London—Toomer would escape back to "normal" middle-class life, but the world of the shipyards would be present in Cane, in its keen social analysis of class and caste and in its Gothic portrayal of the terrors of American history.
Also missing from the biographical record are essential facts about Toomer's engagement with African-American politics and civil rights. The second Call essay Toomer wrote, "Reflections on the Race Riots," published in August 1919, raises important questions: Where was Toomer during the Washington, D.C., race riots of July 1919, and what was his reaction to them? Some of the worst fighting of July 21-22 took place in the streets virtually fronting the apartment Toomer occupied with his elderly grandparents, yet there is no mention of this in Darwin T. Turner's The Wayward and the Seeking or in Toomer's other autobiographical writings. Toomer's contemporary reaction, a militant leftist one, is evident from his Call essay, but his later decision to "forget" that public history points up how difficult it is to determine exactly what can be trusted in the autobiographies.
One of the problems in Toomer criticism has been the use of Turner's autobiographical collage in The Wayward and the Seeking as an accurate record of Toomer's life. Turner's book has been valuable as a source for long-unavailable portions of Toomer's published and unpublished work, and Turner himself was clear in his introduction about the selective nature of the autobiographical frag-ments he joined together to produce a narrative of Toomer's life through 1923. But inevitably the largest portion of the autobiographical writings were excluded from this anthology, and some of those excluded pages are of crucial significance for understanding Toomer's political life. It is absurd that the half-dozen lines about working in the shipyards from the 1931–32 "Outline of an Autobiography" should be quoted repeatedly even as Toomer's many pages of reflection on the same experience written in 1936 remain unmentioned.
To a considerable degree the difficulty in establishing the basic facts of Toomer's life has been due to his own evasiveness. The problem with Toomer's discussions of Cane and its composition presented in The Wayward and the Seeking is a matter not primarily of which documents were selected, but of Toomer's own deliberate misrepresentation of those circumstances. After comparing Toomer's extensive 1922–23 correspondence with Waldo Frank, Gorham Munson, and others against the record of the same period in "On Being an American," one becomes very cautious of Toomer's selective memory, especially in any matter involving his racial identity. Similarly, the exclusion of the Call articles from Toomer's autobiography was his own choice, a choice that successfully "buried" them for a surprisingly long time. Such was also the case with the events of his life during the summer of 1919, though it is now possible—with the Call article and various hints in Toomer's unpublished autobiographies—to piece together a probable narrative for those months.
Beyond mistaking specific facts of Toomer's life, scholarship about Cane has never adequately treated the intellectual and historical settings of that work, though there are important exceptions in the criticism of Vera M. Kutzinski, George B. Hutchin-son, Michael North, and Barbara Foley, who have made valuable contributions to the recovery of Cane's background. That background, the political circumstances behind Cane, was varied, and included Toomer's activist engagement in polemics ("Reflections on the Race Riots" and "Americans and Mary Austin"), the traumatic circumstances of his stay in Sparta, his attempt to understand the mulatto-elite milieu of his hometown, Washington, D.C., and its ideology of racial uplift, and his ongoing effort to define himself as an "American." Although he wrote about these experiences before he renewed his acquaintance with Waldo Frank in 1922, it was Frank's influence that led him to think of developing this diverse material into a book. The euphoria Toomer felt over being associated with Waldo Frank and the group of intellectuals known during the Great War as "Young America" cannot be overestimated. The members of that group were to move in different directions after the war, but the ideas emanating from their vortex would give Toomer an intellectual context for Cane.
The brief mention of "Young America" in The Lives of Jean Toomer is the best available discussion of Toomer's relationship to this group, but it is sketchy and incomplete. Nor is it useful to characterize these people as part of the "Lost Generation." Whatever that phrase meant when Gertrude Stein dropped it to Ernest Hemingway in Paris, it has a very limited relevance to Toomer's circle of New York intellectuals. Lewis Mumford, a member of "Young America," put the difference directly:
In contrast to the disillusioned expatriates of the "lost generation" who were travelling in the opposite direction, we [Mumford and Van Wyck Brooks] felt—as did Randolph Bourne, Waldo Frank, and Paul Rosenfeld—that this [task of reclaiming our American literary heritage] was an essential preparation for America's cultural "Coming of Age." For Brooks this remained a lifelong mission; and between 1921 and 1931, partly under his influence, I made it my concern too.
Mumford would say elsewhere that "what united me in comradeship" to this group was the idea of "re-discovery." Although he probably took that word from the title of Waldo Frank's The Rediscovery of America (1929), the sequel to Our America, he may have been thinking of Van Wyck Brooks's seminal article in the Dial (1918), "On Creating a Usable Past," in which Brooks saw American history, and especially American literary history, an "inexhaustable storehouse" of multiple pasts. Mumford, Frank, Hart Crane, and eventually Kenneth Burke came to see that America's usable pasts might be reclaimed in order to express a utopian future. The renewal of American life was also Toomer's concern, but Toomer's racial perspective on American society, past and present, complicated this theme in Cane. As much as he wanted to embrace the optimism of Frank and others, he came face to face in Cane not with a usable past but with the terrors of American history.
As Kerman and Eldridge's plural Lives suggests, and as most readers looking at Cane and the post-Cane work are likely to feel, Jean Toomer's life changed dramatically after 1923. Since we have read Toomer primarily because of Cane, we will look at only a few of his later writings, and those in light of the vexed question of what became of the author whom Waldo Frank at one time regarded as the most promising writer in America. Our sense of Cane's importance has led us to try to uncover the background for the book and to clarify its political meanings; we find little point in the current anachronistic tendency that attempts to link Cane with Toomer's New Age thinking after he came under the influence of George Gurdjieff and to read the book via Gurdjieffism or some other "spiritual" system. Fixing on the illusory search for "spiritual wholeness" in the text reduces, intentionally or not, its social and political dimensions, and ignores the historical background of the times and Toomer's intricate and evolving connection to them. To insist that Cane be a "spiritual autobiography" is to disregard his text's most important enactment: the transformation of the isolated spectator into the witness of history.
Source: Charles Scruggs and Lee VanDemarr, "Introduction: The Witness of History," in Jean Toomer and the Terrors of American History, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998, pp. 1-7.
Houston A. Baker, Jr.
In the following essay excerpt, Baker asserts that with Cane, Toomer transcended black Ameri-can literature of the 1920s to present a "thorough delineation of the black ituation."
William Stanley Braithwaite's "The Negro in American Literature," concludes with the rhapsodic assertion that "Cane is a book of gold and bronze, of dusk and flame, of ecstasy and pain, and Jean Toomer is a bright morning star of a new day of the race in literature." Written in 1924, Braith-waite's statement reflects the energy and excess, the vibrancy and hope of a generation of young black authors who set out in the 1920s to express their "individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame." They were wooed by white patrons; they had their work modified beyond recognition by theatrical producers, and they were told time and again precisely what type of black American writing the public would accept. Some, like Wallace Thurman, could not endure the strain. Claude McKay absented himself from Harlem throughout most of the twenties, and Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen gained a degree of notoriety. Ironically, it was Cane (1923), a book written by a very light-complexioned mulatto, that portrayed—with-out fear of shame—a dark-skinned self that transcended the concerns of a single period and her-alded much of value that has followed its publication. Arna Bontemps writes:
Only two small printings were issued, and these vanished quickly. However, among the most affected was practically an entire generation of young Negro writers then just beginning to emerge; their reaction to Toomer's Cane marked an awakening that soon thereafter began to be called a Negro Renaissance.
The 1920s presented a problem for the writer who wished to give a full and honest representation of black American life; for him the traditional images, drawn from the authors of the Plantation Tradition and the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, were passé. The contemporary images, captured in Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven (1926) and Claude McKay's Home to Harlem (1928), were not designed to elucidate a complex human existence, for they were reflections of that search for the bizarre and the exotic that was destined to flourish in an age of raccoon coats, bathtub gin, and "wine-flushed, bold-eyed" whites who caught the A-train to Harlem and spent an evening slumming, or seeking some élan vital for a decadent but prosperous age. That only two small printings of Cane appeared during the 1920s is not striking: the miracle is that it was published at all. Toomer did not choose the approbation that a scintillating (if untrue) portrayal of the black man could bring in the twenties, nor did he speak sotto voce about the amazing progress the black man had made in American society and his imminent acceptance by a fond white world. Cane is a symbolically complex work that employs lyrical intensity and stream-of-consciousness narration to portray the journey of an artistic soul toward creative fulfillment; it is unsparing in its criticism of the inimical aspects of the black American heritage and resonant in its praise of the spiritual beauty to be discovered there. An examination of the journey toward genuine, liberating black art presented in Cane reveals Toomer as a writer of genius and the book itself as a protest novel, a portrait of the artist, and a thorough delineation of the black situation. These aspects of the work explain its signal place among the achievements of the Harlem Renaissance, and they help to clarify the reaction of a white reading public—a public nurtured on the minstrel tradition, the tracts of the New Negro, and the sensational antics of Carl Van Vechten's blacks—which allowed it to go out of print without a fair hearing.
The first section of Cane opens with evocative description and a lyrical question. The subject is Karintha, whose:
… skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,
O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon
… When the sun goes down.
The repetition and the simile bringing together the human and the nonhuman leave a memorable impression. The reader is directly asked to respond, as were the hearers of such spirituals as "I've Got a Home in Dat Rock": "Rich man Dives he lived so well / Don't you see?" From the outset, the atmosphere is one of participation, as the reader is invited to contemplate a woman who carries "beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down."
"Karintha," however, offers more than rhapsodic description and contemplation. It is a concise, suggestive sketch of the maturation of a southern woman: from sensuous childhood through promiscuous adolescence to wanton adulthood. The quatrain that serves as the epigraph is repeated twice and acts as a sharp counterpoint to Karintha's life, which is anything but beautiful: "She stoned the cows, and beat her dog, and fought the other children …" In a sense, "Karintha" is a prose "The Four Stages of Cruelty," and its exquisite style forces some of its more telling revelations into a type of Hogarthian background, where they are lost to the casual observer.
There are elements of the humorous black preacher tale in the narrator's comment that "even the preacher, who caught her at mischief, told himself that she was as innocently lovely as a November cotton flower," and grim paradox appears after Karintha has given birth to her illegitimate child near the smoldering sawdust pile of the mill:
Weeks after Karintha returned home the smoke was
you tasted it in water. Someone made a song:
Smoke is on the hills. Rise up.
Smoke is on the hills, O rise
And take my soul to Jesus.
The holy song that accompanies an unholy event is no less incongruous than the pilgrimages and the fierce, materialistic rituals in which men engage to gain access to Karintha. For the heroine is not an enshrined beauty but a victim of the South, where "homes … are most often built on the two room plan. In one, you cook and eat, in the other you sleep, and there love goes on." Karintha has been exposed to an adult world too soon, and the narrator drives home the irony that results when biblical dictates are juxtaposed with a bleak reality: "Karintha had seen or heard, perhaps she had felt her parents loving. One could but imitate one's parents, for to follow them was the way of God." While some men "do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon," the narrator is aware that Karintha has been subjected to conditions that Christianity is powerless to meliorate. Her life has been corrupted, and the mystery is that her beauty remains.
The type of duality instanced by Karintha's sordid life and striking appearance recurs in Part One and lends psychological point to the section. The essential theme of "Karintha" is the debasement of innocence. Men are attracted to the heroine but fail to appreciate what is of value—the spirituality inherent in her dusky beauty. They are awed by the pure yet wish to destroy it; evil becomes their good, and they think only in terms of progressive time and capitalistic abundance—"The young fellows counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them" and ran stills to make her money. These conditions result, in part, from a southern Manichaeanism; for the land whose heritage appears in "Karintha" stated its superiority and condoned an inhumane slavery, spoke of its aristocracy and traded in human flesh, lauded its natural resources and wantonly destroyed them to acquire wealth. Good and evil waged an equal contest in a South that contained its own natural harmonies but considered blacks as chattels personal, bound by no rights that a white man need respect. In such an instance, love could only be an anomaly, and the narrator of Part One seems fully aware of this. When black women are considered property (the materialism surrounding Karintha and Fern) and white women goddesses (the recrimination that accompanies Becky's sacrilegious acts), deep relationships are impossible; the evil of the encompassing universe and the natural compulsion of man to corrupt the beautiful inform the frustrating encounters of Part One.
The two poems—"Reapers" and "November Cotton Flower"—that follow "Karintha" offer a further treatment of the significant themes found in the story. The expectations raised by the title of the first poem are almost totally defeated by its text. There are sharpened blades, black men, black horses, and an inexorable energy; but wearying customs, indifference, and death are also present. "I see them place the hones/In their hip-pockets as a thing that's done," the speaker says, and goes on to depict the macabre death of a field rat that, "startled, squealing bleeds." This event does not halt the movement of the cutters, however: "I see the blade, / Blood-stained, continue cutting…." An abundant harvest is not the result of the poem's action, and the black reapers, with scythes in hand, take on the appearance of medieval icons of death—an appropriate image for those who help to corrupt the life of Karintha. "November Cotton Flower" with its images of scarcity, drought, dead birds, and boll weevils continues the portrayal of a grim environment. Against this background, however, stands a beauty like Karintha's. The heroine of the first sketch was compared to a November cotton flower, and here the appearance of the "innocently lovely" flower brings about the speculation of the superstitious. "Beauty so sudden for that time of year," one suspects, is destined to attract its exploiters.
While exploring the nature of Karintha's existence, the author has been constructing the setting that is to appear throughout Part One. The first story's effect is heightened by the presence of the religious, the suggestive, and the feminine, and certain aspects of the landscape linger in the reader's mind: a sawmill, pine trees, red dust, a pyramidal sawdust pile, and rusty cotton stalks. The folk songs convey a feeling of cultural homogeneity; they are all of a religious character, rising spontaneously and pervading the landscape. The finishing details of this setting—the Dixie Pike and the railroad—are added in "Becky," which deals with a mode of interaction characteristic of primitive, homogeneous societies.
"Becky" is the story of a white woman who gives birth to two mulatto sons, thus violating one of the most rigid taboos of southern society. As a consequence, she is ostracized by the community. William Goede (following the lead of Robert Bone) describes her plight as follows:
Becky is, like Hester Prynne, made to pay for the collective sense of guilt of the community: after whites and Negroes exile her, they secretly build her a house which both sustains and finally buries her. The house, on the other hand, built between the road and the railroad, confines the girl until the day when the roof falls through and kills her.
Unlike Karintha, Becky is seldom portrayed in physical terms. The narrator has never seen her, and the community as a whole merely speculates on her actions and her changing appearance. She is primarily a psychological presence to whom the community pays an ironical homage: a spectral representation of the southern miscegenatory impulse that was so alive during the days of American slavery and was responsible for countless lynchings even in Toomer's own day. As early as the seventeenth century, southern legislatures were enacting laws to prevent sexual alliances between blacks and whites; hence, the community in "Becky" reacts in a manner sanctioned by law and custom.
"Becky" presents a further exploration of the duality theme encountered in "Karintha," and here the psychological element seems to predominate. The heroine's exile first calls to mind repression; she is set apart and finally buried. A more accurate description of Becky, however, is that she is a shaman. Among certain Asian groups and American Indian tribes, a person who engages in un-sanctioned behavior (homosexuality, for example) is thought to have received a divine summons; he becomes a public figure and devises and leads ritualistic ceremonies that project his abnormal behavior. The function of the shaman is twofold; he enables the community to act out, by proxy, its latent abnormalities, and he reinforces its capacity to resist such tendencies. He is tolerated and revered because of his supernatural power, yet hated as a symbol of moral culpability and as a demanding priest who exacts a penitential toll. The most significant trait of the shaman, however, is that—de-spite his ascribed powers—he is unable to effect a genuine cure. Georges Devereux explains this paradox:
Aussie ne peut-on considérer que le chaman accomplit une "cure psychiatrique" au sens strict du terme; il procure seulement au malade ce que L'École de psychonalyse de Chicago appelle une "expérience affective corrective" qui l'aide à réorganiser son sys-tème de défense mais ne lui permet pas d'attendre à cette réelle prise de conscience de soimême (insight) sans laquelle il n'y a pas de véritable guérison.
It is not surprising that analysts consider the shaman a disturbed individual; he is often characterized by hysteria and suicidal tendencies, and he remains in his role because he finds relief from his own disorders by granting a series of culturally sanctioned defenses to his followers.
Becky has engaged in a pattern of behavior that the surrounding community considers taboo, and she is relegated to a physical position outside the group but essentially public. Her house is built (by the townspeople) in a highly visible location, an "eye-shaped piece of sandy ground…. Islandized between the road and railroad track." The citizens scorn her and consider her deranged ("poor-white crazy woman, said the black folks' mouths"), but at the same time they pray for her, bring her food, and keep her alive. Becky, in turn, continues her activities; she has another mulatto son and remains in the tottering house until it eventually crumbles beneath the weight of its chimney. In essence, we witness the same dichotomy presented in "Karintha"; the South professes racial purity and abhorrence of miscegenation, but the fundamental conditions of the region nourish a subconscious desire for interracial relationships and make a penitential ritual necessary. It seems significant, moreover, that Becky—who is a Catholic and in that respect also one of the South's traditional aversions—assumes a divine role for the community. Attraction toward and repulsion by the spiritually ordained are as much a part of the landscape in "Becky" as in "Karintha."
The narrator is swayed by the attitudes of the townspeople, but he is by no means a devout shamanist. He duly records the fact that Becky's house was built on "sandy ground" (reflecting the destructive and aggressive feelings that are part of the shamanic experience), and he points out that Becky is a Catholic. Moreover, he sets up a contrapuntal rhythm between the natural pines that "whisper to Jesus" and the ambivalent charity of the community. The most devastating note in this orchestration is that Sunday is the day of Becky's destruction, and the vagrant preacher Barlo is unwilling to do more than toss a Bible on the debris that entraps her. In short, the narrator captures the irony inherent in the miscegenatory under-consciousness of the South. The town's experience with Becky provides a "corrective, affective experience" but not a substantive cure; as the story closes (on notes that remind one of the eerie conjure stories of black folklore), one suspects that the townspeople are no more insightful.
At this point, Toomer has set forth the dominant tone, setting, characters, and point of view of the first section. Women are in the forefront, and in both "Karintha" and "Becky'" they assume symbolic roles that help to illustrate the dualities of a southern heritage. The beauty of Karintha and the beneficent aspects of Becky's existence are positive counterpoints to the aggressiveness, materialism, and moral obtuseness of the community as a whole. The omnipresent folk songs and the refrain in the second story bespeak a commitment to spirituality and beauty, while the animosity of the townspeople in "Becky" and the ineffectiveness of Christianity in "Karintha" display the grimmer side of a lyrically described landscape whose details pervade the whole of Cane. The point of view is largely that of a sensitive narrator, whom Arna Bontemps describes:
Drugged by beauty "perfect as dusk when the sun goes down," lifted and swayed by folk song, arrested by eyes that "desired nothing that you could give," silenced by "corn leaves swaying, rusty with talk," he recognized that "the Dixie Pike has grown from a goal path in Africa." A native richness is here, he concluded, and the poet embraced it with the passion of love.
The narrator speaks in a tone that combines awe and reverence with effective irony and subtle criticism. There are always deeper levels of meaning beneath his highly descriptive surface, and this is not surprising when one considers Toomer's statement that in the South "one finds soil in the sense that the Russians know it—the soil every art and literature that is to live must be embedded in."
The emblematic nature of the soil is reflected in the tone and technique of the narrator and particularly in the book's title. Throughout Part One there is an evocation of a land of sugar cane whose ecstasy and pain are rooted in a communal soil. But the title conveys more than this. Justifications of slavery on scriptural grounds frequently traced the black man's ancestry to the race of Cain, the slayer of Abel, in the book of Genesis. Toomer is concerned not only with the Southern soil but also with the sons of Cain who populate it. In a colloquial sense, "to raise Cain" is to create disorder and cacophony, and in a strictly denotative sense, a cane is an instrument of support. Toomer's narrator is attempting to create an ordered framework that will contain the black American's complex existence, offer supportive values, and act as a guide for the perceptive soul's journey from amorphous experience to a finished work of art.
The third story of Part One. "Carma," is called by the narrator "the crudest melodrama," and so it is—on one level. When Carma's husband, Bane (surely an ironical name to set against karma), discovers that she has been unfaithful, he slashes the man who has told him, and is sentenced to the chain gang. This is melodramatic to be sure, but only (to quote the narrator) "as I have told it." Beneath the sensational surface is a tragedy of black American life. Bane, like Jimboy in Langston Hughes's Not Without Laughter, is forced by economic pressures to seek work away from home; thus, his wife is left alone in an environment where (again, according to the narrator) promiscuity is a norm. But Carma is also a woman who flaunts her sensuality, and can hardly be said to possess a strong sense of responsibility.
As in the previous stories, there are positive and redeeming elements in "Carma." The heroine herself is "strong as any man," and, given her name, this at least implies that her spirituality—that which is best and most ineffable in her—is capable of enduring the inimical aspects of her surroundings. This is particularly important when one considers that "Carma" introduces a legendary African background to the first section: "Torches flare … juju men, greegree, witch-doctors … torches go out … The Dixie Pike has grown from a goat path in Africa". The passage that introduces this reflection reads: "From far away, a sad strong song. Pungent and composite, the smell of farmyards is the fragrance of the woman. She does not sing; her body is a song. She is in the forest, dancing". The folk song is linked to the African past, and a feeling of cultural continuity is established. The atavistic remains of a ceremonial past have the fragrance of earth and the spirituality of song and dance to recommend them, and at the center of this drama is Carma. She is strong (as Karintha is beautiful) despite southern conditions, and she endures in the face of an insensitive Bane, who is enraged because he cannot master his destiny.
"Carma" is also the first story in which the narrator clearly identifies himself as a conscious re-counter ("whose tale as I have told it"), and the poems that follow read like invocations to the heritage that he is exploring. "Song of the Son" states his desire to sing the "souls of slavery," and "Georgia Dusk," which makes further use of the legendary background encountered in "Carma," evokes the spirits of the "unknown bards" of the past. It is not surprising, then, that the story of Fern should follow.
Fern is a woman whom men used until they realized there was nothing they could do for her that would modify her nature or bring them peace. She is an abandoned Karintha, and in a sense a more beautiful and alluring Esther, staring at the world with haunting eyes. The narrator seeks out this beautiful exile who is free in her sexuality and unmoved by the all-pervasive cash nexus of her environment. However, when he asks himself the question posed by former suitors—"What could I do for her?"—his answer is that of the artist: "Talk, of course. Push back the fringe of pines upon new horizons". The others answered in solely materialistic terms, coming away from their relationships with Fern oblivious to her fundamental character and vowing to do greater penitence: "candy every week … a magnificent something with no name on it … a house … rescue her from some unworthy fellow who had tricked her into marrying him". The narrator, on the other hand, aspires to project a vision that will release Fern from her stifling existence; she thus becomes for him an inspiration, an artistic ideal. She is a merger of black American physical attractiveness and the unifying myth so important in black American history and in the creation of the spirituals.
"If you have heard a Jewish cantor sing, if he has touched you and made your own sorrow seem trivial when compared with his, you will know my [the narrator's] feeling when I follow the curves of her profile, like mobile rivers, to their common delta," and Fern's full name is Fernie May Rosen. The narrator is thus making use of the seminal comparison between the history of the Israelites and that of black America, which frequently appears in the religious lore of black American culture. In effect, the slaves appropriated the myth of the Egyptian captivity and considered themselves favored by God and destined in time to be liberated by His powers; this provided unity for a people who found themselves uprooted and defined by whites—historians and others—as descendants of wild savages on the "dark continent" of Africa. Despite the fact that she dislikes the petty people of the South and apparently needs to express an underlying spirituality, Fern seems to act as a symbolic representation of the black man's adoption of this myth. When the narrator has brought about a hysterical release from her, however, he fails to comprehend what he has evoked. The story ends with an injunction to the reader to seek out Fern when he travels South. The narrator feels that his ideal holds significance, but that his aspirations toward it are unfulfilled. There is some naivety in this assumption; for the teller of Fern's story has explored the ironies inherent in the merger of white religion and black servitude. The religion of the Israelites is out of place in the life of Fern. While she captures—in her mysterious song like that of a Jewish cantor—the beauty of its spirit (and, in this sense, stands outside the narrow-minded community), she is imprisoned by the mores it occasions. Like Becky and Karintha, Fern is a victim, and the narrator skillfully captures her essence. The apparent naivety at the story's conclusion is in reality an act of modesty; for the art the narrator implies is humble actually holds great significance (in its subtle didactic elements) for the culture he is attempting to delineate.
"Esther" is a story of alienation and brings an inquietude that grows into the concluding terror of the book's first section. Apocalyptic images abound as the heroine dreams of King Barlo (a figure who first appeared in "Becky") overcoming her pale frigidity with a flaming passion that will result in a "black, singed, woolly, tobacco-juice baby—ugly as sin". Edward Waldron points out that "beneath this superficial level … lie at least two more intense and, for Toomer, more personal interpretations. One deals with the relationship of a light-skinned American Negro to the black community in which he (she) must try to function, and the other has to do with a common theme of the Harlem Renaissance, the relationship between the American Negro and Africa." But one can make excessive claims for King Barlo. While it is true that he falls into a religious trance and sketches, in symbolic oratory, the fate of Africans at the bands of slave traders, it is also true that he is a vagrant preacher, a figure whom Toomer sketches fully (and with less than enthusiasm) in Layman of "Kabnis." And though Barlo is the prophet of a new dawn for the black American, he is also a businessman who makes money during the war, and a lecherous frequenter of the demimonde. It thus seems an overstatement to make a one-to-one correlation between Barlo and Africa, or Afro-America. It is necessary to bear in mind that Esther Crane is not only a "tragic mulatto" repressed by Protestant religion and her father's business ethic ("Esther sells lard and snuff and flour to vague black faces that drift in her store to ask for them"), she is a fantasizer as well. Esther's view of Barlo is the true presented to the reader through most of the story; hence, when she retreats fully from reality at the conclusion, the reader's judgments should be qualified accordingly.
Esther's final state is described as follows: "She draws away, frozen. Like a somnambulist she wheels around and walks stiffly to the stairs. Down them…. She steps out. There is no air, no street, and the town has completely disappeared". The heroine is enclosed in her own mind; the sentient objects of the world mean nothing to this repressed sleepwalker. Given the complexity of Barlo's character, it is impossible to feel that such an observer could capture it accurately. Just as we refuse to accept the middle-aged and sentimental reflections of Marlowe as the final analysis of Kurtz in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and exercise a qualifying restraint before the words of Camus' narrator in The Fall, so we must recognize the full nature of Esther's character if we are to grasp her story and the role of King Barlo in it. Barlo does contain within himself the unifying myth of black American culture, and he delivers it to the community, in the manner of the most accomplished black folk preachers. In this character, however, he paradoxically contributes to Esther's stifled sensibility, which continually projects visions of sin. As a feat hero (the best cotton picker) and a skillful craftsman of words (his moving performance on the public street), he contains positive aspects, but the impression that remains—when one has noted his terrified and hypocritical response in "Becky" and his conspicuous materialism and insensitive treatment of Esther—is not as favorable as some critics would tempt us to believe.
The feelings of alienation and foreshadowing generated by "Esther" are heightened by the poems that follow. "Conversion" tells of a degraded "African Guardian of Souls" who has drunkenly yielded place to white religiosity, and seems intended to further enlighten the character of Barlo. "Portrait in Georgia" is a subtle, lyrical protest poem in which a woman is described in terms of the instruments and actions of a lynching. The second poem's vision prefigures the horror of the last story in Part One, "Blood-Burning Moon."
"Blood-Burning Moon" stands well in the company of such Harlem Renaissance works as Claude McKay's "If We Must Die" and Walter White's The Fire in the Flint. It is a work that protests, in unequivocal terms, the senseless, brutal, and sadistic violence perpetrated against the black man by white America. The narrator realized in "Carma" that violence was a part of southern existence, and the shattering demise of Becky, Barlo's religious trance, and Fern's frantic outpouring speak volumes about the terror of such a life. But in "Blood-Burning Moon" the narrator traces southern violence to its source. Tom Burwell—strong, dangerous, black lover of Louisa and second to Barlo in physical prowess—is only one of the black Americans whom the Stone family "practically owns." Louisa—black and alluring—works for the family, and Bob Stone (who during the days of slavery would have been called "the young massa") is having an affair with her. Tom reacts to hints and rumors of this affair in the manner of Bane; he turns violently on the gossipers and refuses to acknowledge what he feels to be true. Wage slavery, illicit alliances across the color line, intraracial violence—the narrator indeed captures the soul of America's "peculiar institution," and the results are inevitable. In a confrontation between Stone and Burwell, the black man's strength triumphs, and the white mob arrives (in "highpow-ered cars with glaring search-lights" that remind one of the "ghost train" in "Becky") to begin its gruesome work. The lynching of Tom, which drives Louisa insane, more than justifies the story's title. The moon, controller of tides and destinies, and a female symbol, brings blood and fire to the black American.
Part One is a combination of awe-inspiring physical beauty, human hypocrisy, restrictive religious codes, and psychological trauma. In "Fern" the narrator says: "That the sexes were made to mate is the practice of the South". But sexual consummation in the first section often results in dissatisfaction or in a type of perverse motherhood. Men come away from Fern frustrated; Karintha covertly gives birth to her illegitimate child in a pine forest; Esther dreams of the immaculate conception of a tobacco-stained baby, and Becky's sons are illegitimate mulattoes, who first bring violence to the community then depart from it with curses. The women of Part One are symbolic figures, but the lyrical terms in which they are described can be misleading. With the exception of their misdirected sexuality, they are little different from the entrapped and stifled women of the city seen in Part Two. In short, something greater than the pressure of urban life accounts for the black man's frustrated ambitions, violent outbursts, and tragic deaths at the hands of white America. The black American's failure to fully comprehend the beautiful in his own heritage—the Georgia landscape, folk songs, and women of deep loveliness—is part of it. But the narrator places even greater emphasis on the black man's ironical acceptance of the "strange cassava" and "weak palabra" of a white religion. Throughout Part One, he directs pointed thrusts—in the best tradition of David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and William Wells Brown—at Christianity. Although he appreciates the rich beauty of black folk songs that employ Protestant religious imagery ("Georgia Dusk"), he also sees that the religion as it is practiced in the South is often hypocritical and stifling. The narrator, as instanced by "Nullo," the refrain in "Becky" ("The pines whisper to Jesus"), and a number of fine descriptive passages throughout the first section, seems to feel a deeper spirituality in the landscape. Moreover, there seems more significance in the beauty of Karintha or in the eyes of Fern (into which flow "the countryside and something that I call God") than in all the cramped philanthropy, shouted hosannas, vagrant preachers, and religious taboos of Georgia. The narrator, in other words, clearly realizes that the psychological mimicry that led to the adoption of a white religion often directed black Americans away from their own spiritual beauties and resulted in destruction.
But the importance of white America's role cannot be minimized. King Barlo views the prime movers behind the black situation as "little white-ant biddies" who tied the feet of the African, uprooted him from his traditional culture, and made him prey to alien gods. The essential Manichaeanism of a South that thrived on slavery, segregation, the chattel principle, and violence is consummately displayed in the first section of Cane, and Barlo realizes that a new day must come before the black man will be free. The brutality directed against the black American has slowed the approach of such a dawn, but the narrator of Part One has discovered positive elements in the black Southern heritage that may lead to a new day: a sense of song and soil, and the spirit of a people who have their severe limitations but cannot be denied.
Source: Houston A. Baker, Jr., "Journey toward Black Art: Jean Toomer's Cane," in Singers of Daybreak: Studies in Black American Literature, Howard University Press, 1983, pp. 53-67
Benson, Brian Joseph, and Mabel Nayle Dillard, "Lifting the Veil," in Jean Toomer, Twayne Publishers, 1980, p. 50.
Bontemps, Arna, "Introduction," in Cane, Perennial Classics, 1969.
McKay, Nellie Y., Jean Toomer, Artist, University of North Carolina Press, 1984, p. 9.
Turner, Darwin T., "Introduction," in Cane, Liveright Publishing Corp., 1975.
――――――, in In a Minor Chord: Three African-American Writers and Their Search for Identity, Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
Waldron, Edward W., "The Search for Identity in Jean Toomer's 'Esther,'" in CLA Journal, Vol. 14, March 1971, p. 227.
Byrd, Rudolph P., Jean Toomer's Years with Gurdjieff: Portrait, University of Georgia Press, 1990.
A biographical study of Toomer, following his life from the time he first heard Georges Gurdjieff lecture in New York City in 1924.
Kerman, Cynthia Earl, and Richard Eldridge, The Lives of Jean Toomer, Louisiana State University Press, 1987.
This biography is useful in offering documented corrections to earlier misconceptions about Toomer's mysterious life.
Lewis, David Levering, When Harlem Was in Vogue, Oxford University Press, 1979.
This book is very readable, and tells the full story of the Harlem Renaissance, including literary and social perspectives.
Woodson, John, To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance, University of Mississippi Press, 1999.
Woodson does a thorough, credible job of showing the connections between the ideologies of Gurdjieff, the religious leader, and his follower, Toomer. This book is required reading for understanding Toomer's career after Cane.
Jean Toomer's eclectic Cane (1923) is a landmark work of African American literature and a classic book of the Harlem Renaissance. Toomer's interwoven collection of sketches, poems, and short stories was embraced by critics and fellow writers, but it did not find a wider audience for many years. While some readers who initially praised the book believed he would be a leading author of his generation, Cane was the only book by Toomer to be published commercially in his lifetime. After his death in the late 1960s, he came to be considered a pioneering African American writer, and Cane was regarded an important contribution to literature. The book also proved to be inspirational to many African American authors, including Langston Hughes and Alice Walker.
One reason for Toomer's lack of success after Cane was that Toomer did not embrace such racial labels. He was of a mixed background, which included white, black, and Jewish ancestors, and he did not want to be labeled by any race whatsoever. He considered such labels limiting and thought of himself as a representative of a new kind of race, a blending, which he emphasized as American. His rejection of the label of "Negro writer" was believed to have hurt his literary career after Cane was published.
Inspired in part by his own experiences as the temporary head of a school for African Americans in Georgia, Toomer was fascinated with racial attitudes and came to some sense of understanding his own and those of others in early 1920s. On his way home to Washington, D.C., from Georgia, Toomer began writing sketches, poems, and stories inspired by his experience in the South. Some of these pieces were initially published in magazines and newspapers such as the Liberator, the Crisis, the Little Review, the Double Dealer, and Broom, and later became part of Cane.
In Cane, Toomer explores the folk traditions and culture of the South as well as the physical and psychological oppression of northern society and economic culture. The book is divided into three sections. The first section focuses primarily on the rural South through poems and prose sketches with women at their center. While these women are depicted as strong and independent, they also suffer because of their choices, which defy societal expectations. The second section, which begins with the prose poem "Seventh Street," explores the lives of African Americans in the North—Washington, D.C., and Chicago—who are estranged from nature and their racial community in the South. Their relationships with each other have become unclear and are often interrupted by their own shortcomings or bigger issues in society. Racial identity is also an issue. Toomer added this section at the request of his publisher who thought his book was too brief with just the first section and "Kabnis," the short story, which comprises the third section of the book. In this story, a northern African American comes to the South to teach at a school for blacks but lacks a coherent self-identity. He does not fully comprehend the society and life of the South, loses his job, and spirals downward with sex, drink, and a futile job at a wagon repair shop at which he essentially fails. As in "Kabnis," Cane as a whole "was primarily a song for an era that was ending," as Darwin T. Turner writes in his introduction to the 1975 edition of the book.
As was common with literature in the time period in which it was written, both sexuality and primitivism were central themes in Cane. While the book was embraced by critics and scholars for its celebration of folk traditions and peasant life, some were offended by Toomer's depiction of women's sexuality. Others embraced its frank and honest take on life in the South, appreciating that Toomer wanted to capture a southern black culture he saw was dying out.
Born Nathan Eugene Pinchback Toomer on december 26, 1894, the author was the product of the brief marriage between Nathan and Nina Toomer. His planter father was probably the poor son of a slave. His mother was the daughter of a prominent biracial politician, Pinckey Pinchback. Toomer was initially raised in Pinchback's household in a wealthy section of Washington, D.C., where his race was not an issue. From his uncle Bismarck Pinchback, Toomer gained a love of learning and literature. After living in his uncle's household in a black section of Washington, D.C., as a teenager, Toomer spent four years at various universities unable to stick with any of his studies. He then sold cars, was a physical education director, and worked in business.
By 1920, Toomer decided to become a writer. He focused on studying literature and produced a number of unpublished works. During this period, he also briefly took a job in Georgia as the head of a school for African Americans, an experience that inspired Cane (1923). His published literary career essentially ended after Cane as he refused to be labeled by his black heritage. Toomer then became a disciple of the spiritual leader Georges Gurdjieff and experimented with communal living. He became a Quaker in 1940, a belief system for which he wrote and lectured in the coming years. Though Toomer continued to write, all his future works were rejected by publishers in his lifetime. He died on March 30, 1967, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Cane is also noteworthy as a modernist text with complex, sometimes confusing, form and imagery, and touches of the avant-garde. Its experimentalism was the mark of another trend of the era in which it was written; Toomer was particularly influenced by Imagist poets. Some early critics were unsure of its form as well as content.
No matter what critics thought of the work, Cane helped shape African American literature in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. As Tracie Church Guzzio writes in American Writers,
Whatever the degree of its impact, it is clear that Cane helped liberate the African American artist by paving the way for exploring new forms and new voices, by revisiting past traditions, and by describing through poetry, rather than propaganda, the richness and humanity of African American life.
Chapter 1: Karintha
Cane opens with a sketch entitled "Karintha," which focuses on an attractive woman. Toomer writes that men were attracted to her "even as a child." By the age of twelve, she could get away with wild behavior unacceptable in others, but also was rumored to be sexually active, perhaps imitating her parents. This change came when she played house with a young boy. As she grew older, she would sleep with men when she felt like it, and they brought her money. She eventually had a baby: "A child fell out of her womb onto a bed of pine-needles in the forest." Though Karintha continues to live this way and be a beauty at twenty, "Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon."
Chapter 2: Reapers
This descriptive poem describes African American harvesters as they prepare their instruments and do their cutting work. A worker's scythe catches a field rat and cuts it, but though there is blood on the blade, they continue to labor.
Chapter 3: November Cotton Flower
This poem is set in the winter when the cotton disappeared, there was drought and desolation, and "dead birds were found / In wells a hundred feet below the ground." Yet when a cotton flower bloomed, people responded not with superstitious fear but by embracing its unexpected beauty.
Chapter 4: Becky
This is another sketch about a woman in the South. Becky is a white woman who had two black sons. After she had the first one, she was condemned by other whites in her community, who did not know who fathered the child. Becky faced similar criticism from African Americans, who also did not know the father's name. Still, Toomer writes, "White folks and black folks built her cabin, fed her and her growing baby, prayed secretly to God who'd put His cross upon her and cast her out." Though she was outcast from the community, the railroad boss said she could live on a small piece of land located next to the railroad, while another man donated materials for a cabin, and yet another built the cabin at night—all so their actions could not be known.
When Becky lived in the cabin, she was not seen by the community. However, some citizens secretly left food for her. When her first son was five years old, he began being seen with a little brother in town. Her sons grew up to be bullies who could not hold jobs as adults. They left town after killing two men, and Becky still seemed to be living in her cabin. After awhile, the community was unsure if she was alive or dead and stopped leaving food. One Sunday, the story's unnamed narrator reports passing by the cabin on the road and seeing its chimney fall inside. The narrator is unsure if Becky was under the bricks, despite possibly hearing a groan, but did nothing to see if she was alive or dead. The narrator and his companion, Barlo, quickly left the scene, leaving only Barlo's Bible on the rubble.
Chapter 5: Face
"Face" is a descriptive poem about a strong old woman's face, touching on her hair, brows, eyes, and "her channeled muscles."
Chapter 6: Cotton Song
"Cotton Song" is a poetic song, a spiritual linking of the baling of cotton with God and the judgment day.
Chapter 7: Carma
"Carma" is about a strong black woman. Told from the perspective of a first-person narrator from the North, the story describes seeing her direct a mule-driven wagon down the road. The narrator then tells Carma's story. Her husband is now working on a chain gang because, the narrator believes, of Carma. When he was away from home working, she took on a series of lovers. Her husband found out about her infidelity and beat her. She ran away, taking a gun with her. He heard the gun go off later as she faked her own death. People searched for her, found her, and carried her home. She had no wounds on her body. Because of the deception, her husband slashed the man who found her, landing him in prison.
Chapter 8: Song of the Son
This poem focuses on nature, night, and the sun, emphasizing slaves and their soul's relationship to the soil they work.
Chapter 9: Georgia Dusk
Like "Song of the Son," the poem "Georgia Dusk" emphasizes the land, but one post-slavery where industry and mechanization have taken over.
Chapter 10: Fern
This sketch describes Fern and her story from the point of view of a first-person narrator from the North. He implies that she is half Jewish and half African American. The narrator emphasizes her eyes: "They were strange eyes. In this, that they sought nothing—that is, nothing that was obvious and tangible and that one could see, and they gave the impression that nothing was to be denied." While she slept with some black men when young, they received little from the experience but became obsessed with her. Though they gave themselves to her, Fern began to send them away, seeing herself as above them, and starts abstaining from sex.
Fern then spent her days sitting on her porch, with her eyes gazing at what is around her. It was when Fern was sitting on her porch that the narrator first saw her and was attracted to her. One evening, he walked along her road, stopped by her house, and suggested taking a walk. She is bothered by the peering eyes of her neighbors. Without thinking, he holds her in his arms; she eventually reacts physically, seems to have a spiritual vision, and faints in his arms in the canefield. Though her protectors in the southern community kept their eye on the narrator, he soon returned home but saw her from the train window as he left.
Chapter 11: Nullo
This impressionistic poem describes pine needles falling to the forest floor.
Chapter 12: Evening Song
This first-person poem uses nature imagery intermingled with the narrator's intimate physical description of a woman named Cloine.
Chapter 13: Esther
This sketch begins by describing Esther, another mixed-race female, as a young child. When she is nine, she sees King Barlo, a black man, go into a religious trance on the street. No one is afraid, but instead many in the community watch and listen to his words. After what he says seems to come true, he rides out of town on a black bull. His words and actions impressed Esther. As a teenager, she has related dreams, and by the time she is a young adult, she is working in her grocery store and thinks romantically only of Barlo. When she is twenty-seven years old, he returns to town and she decides she must have him. She goes to the house where he is staying and tells him she has come for him. He rejects her, and Esther understands that Barlo is not what she thought he was. "She steps out. There is no air, no street, and the town has completely disappeared."
Chapter 14: Conversion
This brief poem describes an African religion losing ground and contrasts it with Christianity.
Chapter 15: Portrait in Georgia
Another brief poem, "Portrait in Georgia" discusses the physical appearance of a worn-down woman of the titular land.
Chapter 16: Blood-Burning Moon
This short story focuses on Louisa, a young black woman who works for a white family. Bob Stone, the youngest son of her employers, believed he had "won her." A black field worker named Tom Burwell also loved Louisa. She was stringing both of them along. In the forest, men are processing sugar cane. Tom becomes upset when the men talk about Louisa being with Bob. Tom gets into a physical confrontation with some of the men, then goes to Louisa's house. He tells her he loves her and he would cut Bob if he was involved with her. Louisa denies any involvement with Bob, and they sing together.
Later, Bob thinks about his relationship with Louisa, which he hides from his family despite his certain kind of sexual love for her. He becomes upset at the thought that she was also involved with Tom, and this furor grows when he comes upon the men in the woods and Louisa's duplicity is confirmed. Finding Louisa and Tom together, Bob confronts them. The men get into a physical confrontation. Tom slashes Bob's throat. When they learn what happened, the white men in the town hunt Tom down and beat him. He is burned at the stake. Louisa only sees the full moon, and she believes people, if not Tom, would join her if she sang.
Chapter 17: Seventh Street
The focus of Cane shifts from the rural South to the industrialized North. In this first piece in the second section of the novel, Toomer uses poetry and prose to describe city life, jazz, the effects of World War I, and clubs and theaters in the part of town where African Americans live and where metaphorical blood flows. God and religion are also mentioned.
Chapter 18: Rhobert
This brief, obtuse, image-filled character sketch is about a man named Rhobert who is weighed down by the house he metaphorically wears on his head. Such a life physically affects him, but, despite bent legs caused by rickets, he bears his hardships.
Chapter 19: Avey
Another sketch with a first-person male narrator, the story focuses on his attraction since childhood to a young woman named Avey. City boys both black and white admired her, and the narrator went out of his way to get her attention. While they swam and danced together, he believed she would marry a college student who lived on the top floor of her apartment building when he saved enough money. Because the student was gone, she used all the boys in turn until their money gave out. Though the narrator becomes similarly involved and Avey kisses him on the deck of a ship, he does get close to her again for a year later when they are more intimately involved. His opinion of her changes because she seems to have no ambition in life, while he prepares to go to college. His opinion of her as lazy does not change while he is in college. When he meets her again in New York five years later, he tries to reconnect and improve her but then loses his passion for her all over again.
Chapter 20: Beehive
This poem describes a beehive and bees, comparing them to a city and its inhabitants. The narrator sees himself as one of the bees and wants to reconnect with the land.
Chapter 21: Storm Ending
This brief poem describes a thunder storm, which affects the flowers "And the sweet earth flying from the thunder."
Chapter 22: Theater
"Theater" is set at a theater with an African American audience, where the manager's brother, John, is attracted to one of the dancers, Dorris. He watches her as she rehearses, and she notices his gaze. Though they do not speak directly, they make assumptions about each other. Dorris dances for him, and John dreams about her. At the end of the dance, his attraction is dead. Dorris cries in her dressing room.
Chapter 23: Her Lips Are Copper Wire
This impressionistic poem celebrates the telephone and the physical contact of a kiss.
Chapter 24: Calling Jesus
This is a prosaic poem, which explores the concept of a woman's soul as "a little thrust-tailed dog that follows her, whimpering." The dog/soul is left in the vestibule when she comes home at night, but it is free to trail after her. At the poem's end, the narrator reports that "Some one … will steal in and cover it that it need not shiver, and carry it to her where she sleeps."
Chapter 25: Box Seat
Dan Moore, a black man, calls on Muriel, a teacher, at the boarding house where she lives. He is in love with her, as his thoughts reveal, but she does not share the same feelings. She admires some of his character qualities but is ultimately not fond of him. Though Muriel is getting ready to go out with her friend Bernice, she spends some time talking to him. He tries to tell her to improve herself and declares his love, then Muriel refuses his advances.
At the theater with Bernice, Muriel watches crude entertainments and thinks about what happened with Dan. He shows up at the theater as well, which upsets Muriel. He watches her more than the entertainment. After two dwarves box, Mr. Barry, one of the dwarves, sings a song and gives a rose to Muriel. She is repulsed, ending Dan's feelings for her. He leaves.
Chapter 26: Prayer
This poem explores divisions within the body, the mind, and the body separated from the soul. The narrator acknowledges that his division and confusion have weakened him.
Chapter 27: Harvest Song
A longer poem, "Harvest Song" is a first-person poem about a reaper harvesting oats in the field all day long. He is tired at night, too tired to bind his cradled oats, and hungry. Toomer writes, "My pain is sweet. Sweeter than the oats or wheat or corn. It will not bring me knowledge of my hunger."
Chapter 28: Bona and Paul
At a school for aspiring teachers in Chicago, a white female student, Bona, is attracted to Paul, a biracial student. Paul struggles with his racial identity, hiding it from the others who question the truth about his heritage.
Paul's white friend and roommate Art has arranged dates for them. Paul's date is Bona. The couple has problems communicating throughout the evening. She tells him that she loves him, and while he is ready to kiss her, she will not because he cannot say he loves her as well.
At Crimson Gardens, Paul feels more disconnected and different. He dances with Bona, but their communication problems continue and she becomes angry with him. Paul keeps her physically near, and their passion is restored by continuing to dance. They leave together before Art and Helen do. However, Bona leaves Paul after he goes back inside to explain his attraction to Bona to the black doorman.
Chapter 29: Kabnis
The last section of Cane is the story "Kabnis." Ralph Kabnis is a mixed-race teacher who has come south from Washington, D.C., to teach at a school in Georgia. He is unhappy teaching at the school, which educates African Americans. The South in general also does not agree with him.
As the story opens, he is finding it hard to get to sleep, a situation made worse by a noisy chicken in the room next to his. Kabnis kills the chicken, a pet hen on the campus, and does not care about the consequences. While he sees beauty in the night, he can only see ugliness in the South, its culture, and its inhabitants. Kabnis finally falls asleep, looking forward to tomorrow, Sunday.
On Sunday, Kabnis visits Fred Halsey, a prominent local mixed-race man, with Professor Layman, a black teacher and preacher. Layman and Halsey like Kabnis because he is not conceited like other African Americans from the North. The pair tells Kabnis that even though they may be "gentlemen," white people only see skin color.
Kabnis tells them he is contemptuous of the religious practices: "the preacher's hands are in the white man's pockets." He especially does not like the religious services for blacks in the South, finding the shouting uncomfortable.
The conversation turns to Kabnis's boss, Hanby, whom the men do not like, and then to a lynching a year back. Mame Lankins was lynched though she was pregnant. The baby survived her death and was cut out by a white man. He killed the baby and stuck it in a tree with a knife. Kabnis's already edgy state is further agitated when a rock is thrown through Halsey's window with a note. The note seems meant for Kabnis and tells him to return to the North.
Kabnis grows paranoid with every sound when he returns home. He is sure someone is out to get him when Halsey and Layman stop by. Halsey tries to reassure him that no one is after him and that he would have gotten killed already if that was their goal.
Layman and Halsey start a fire to make food, and Halsey passes around some liquor. Hanby, the head of the school, enters just as Kabnis passes the bottle to Halsey. Hanby tells Kabnis he must turn in his resignation tomorrow for drinking in his room. Kabnis is indignant, and Hanby tries to get them all to leave now. Halsey reminds Hanby that he has not paid a bill to Halsey and must do so tomorrow under the same threats that Hanby made to Kabnis. Halsey also says that Kabnis will now work for him doing physical labor.
Kabnis tries to take hold of the situation in his room with Halsey and Hanby, but cannot. Lewis, another black man, comes in. Kabnis learns that the rock and note were meant for him, thrown by other African Americans uncomfortable with his presence. After Lewis and Hanby leave, Kabnis wearily gives in. He will live at Halsey's and work in his shop.
A month later, Kabnis is working at the shop, where wagons are built and repaired. Waiting for lunch, Halsey, Kabnis, and Layman are joined by Lewis, who is planning on leaving town now. It is revealed that Lewis is disliked for his "queer opinions." Their discussion is interrupted by a white customer, Mr. Ramsay, who asks for his hatchet to be repaired. Kabnis is given the task but cannot complete it. His humiliation is furthered by the appearance of Hanby who demands an axle be shaped into a crow-bar.
Halsey's sister, Carrie K., shows up with lunch for Kabnis, Halsey, and Father John, Halsey's father who lives in the shop's cellar. Lewis is attracted to her, and while she initially shows interest, she retreats into propriety. She goes down to the Hole, the shop's cellar, to feed her blind and deaf elderly father. After Lewis asks about her future, Kabnis and Halsey invite him to join them for fun with female companions that night.
Later, Lewis, Kabnis, and Halsey are in the Hole with two women named Stella and Cora. Father John is also present. There is tension in the room as all but Father John, drink and talk about town gossip. Kabnis defensively talks to Lewis about who he is, before Halsey sends him to be distracted with Cora. Lying with Cora, his attention is diverted when Halsey begins to talk to Lewis about him. Kabnis spews information about his family, his past, and his opinion of the South. Lewis leaves when the pressure of the situation becomes too much.
The next morning, Halsey has to awaken Kabnis, Cora, and Stella, who are still asleep in the Hole. The women do not want to leave but get up and do so. Kabnis lingers down there, believing that Father John spoke to him in the night. Kabnis talks to him, sharing his opinions of life in the South. Carrie comes down to get Kabnis to go to work. Father John speaks of sin and says that white people make the Bible lie. Kabnis is contemptuous of the old man, while Carrie is reverent. After stumbling around, Kabnis finally goes upstairs to work as the sun rises.
Throughout Cane, Toomer implicitly contrasts the rural South with the urban North, considering the effects of pursuing the American dream of a better life on African Americans. For some, the differences between regions offer a chance to escape, while for others, the differences turn the dream to disappointment. Through many sketches and poems in the book, he shows what they lost by moving north, including the past and a sense of self as well as ties to a specific southern community. This theme is primarily explored in the second section of the book, with the sketches and poems therein, and the third section, which consists only of "Kabnis."
Unlike poems in section 1 such as "Nullo," "November Cotton Flower," "Reapers," and "Cotton Song," which use nature imagery related to the South to establish the rural connection to the land, the poems in section 2 emphasize the fast pace of life in the North as well as its disconnectedness. In "Seventh Street," for example, Toomer describes this differing pace and focus in Washington, D.C.: "Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts / Bootleggers in silken shirts / Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs, / Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks."
More personal disconnectedness can be found in the sketch "Theater," in which a dancer named Dorris catches the attention of the theater manager's brother, John. They never speak but spend much of the sketch judging and imagining what it would be like to communicate and be close with the other. They never connect despite Dorris's dance for him, and Dorris ends up in tears in her dressing room. "Calling Jesus" emphasizes this fact further as a woman is described as literally disconnected from her soul, which follows her around in the form of a small dog.
Toomer talks about the weight of modern living in the sketch "Rhobert." The title character is described as wearing "a house like a monstrous diver's helmet, on his head." While Rhobert is praised for being able to hold up despite having legs weakened from rickets, he is also described as drowning from the pressures of city life and the materialism of modern society. This lifestyle kills his dreams and damages his relationship with his family. The sketch ends by emphasizing the losing battle Rhobert is fighting: "Brother, Rhobert is sinking. / Lets open our throats, brother, / Lets sing Deep River when he goes down."
The theme of contrast finds its ultimate fruition in the final section and story of the book, "Kabnis." The title character, Ralph Kabnis, is an African American teacher from the North living in the South. At the beginning of the story, he is a teacher at a school for African Americans, but he finds life in the South difficult. Kabnis is unhappy with his living quarters, the rules imposed on him at the school, and southern culture in general. Early in the story he prays,
Dear Jesus, do not chain me to myself and set these hills and valley, heaving with folk-songs, so close to me that I cannot reach them. There is a radiant beauty in the night that touches and … tortures me.
As the story progresses, Kabnis shows how disconnected he is, though he has ancestors from Georgia. He states that he does not like how people act in church in the South, offended by their loud proclamations of worship. Though some in the community like and help Kabnis, such as Halsey and Layman, he believes others are out to get him. When a threatening note is thrown with a rock through Halsey's window, Kabnis mistakenly believes it is targeting him. While the others try to set him straight, he cannot accept their explanation of southern behavior. Eventually, Kabnis gives up. He does not fight being fired as a teacher, and while Halsey employs him in his wagon repair shop, Kabnis cannot do the work and is only good for giving into baser instincts. He cannot reclaim what he and his people have lost by living in the North.
In several sketches in sections 1 and 2, Toomer explores the idea of racial identity, especially as an isolating factor. Several characters in the book are of mixed race and this leads to questions about who they are, what they stand for, and decisions contrary to the norms of their immediate society. While being of mixed race has undoubtedly furthered some American dreams, making it easier to reject part of a heritage that the dreamer finds to be a burden, the abandonment of part of one's self is rarely shown as bringing peace or happiness.
In the first section's "Fern," for example, the title character is implied to be part Jewish and part African American. Initially, Fern gives herself to men and has many admirers. Toomer writes, "As she grew up, new men who came to town felt as almost everyone did who ever saw her: that they would not be denied. Men were everlastingly bringing her their bodies." Eventually, she withdraws herself from sexual activity—a choice at odds with the rest of her community—and comes to be seen as regarding herself as above everyone else; she "became a virgin." She isolates herself at home and stares at the landscape from her porch. The sketch's white male narrator dares challenge this isolation and learns of her anger at the world. While the narrator becomes connected to God and land through holding Fern, she is still isolated and alone at the story's end.
In section 2, Paul in "Bona and Paul" is in some ways more isolated than Fern. A mixed-race student at a school for teachers in the North, Paul hides his racial identity and passes for white among his fellow students. However, many have guessed at his true racial makeup; Helen thinks, "Not one girl had really loved Paul; he fascinated them." Art, his roommate, thinks that he always has to answer questions about Paul's race and wonders, "What in the hell's getting into Paul of late, anyway? Christ, but he's getting moony. Its his blood. Dark blood: moony." Bona, a fellow student who is white, is interested in Paul, and Art arranges for them to go on a double date with him and his love interest, Helen. At Crimson Gardens, Paul, and even Art, feels the stares of those who wonder what Paul is. This situation makes Paul feel isolated even from his own small group. Paul is left alone in the end after he tries to explain himself to the African American doorman; Bona does not wait after she hears who he is. Paul's troubles with racial identity leave him isolated from everyone else.
Power of Womanhood
Many of Toomer's sketches feature prominent women characters. In the first section of Cane especially, the sketches explore life in the South through pieces about women who often act in defiance of society's expectations in some way. They often pay a price for their sexual independence, though this pursuit of self is a prominent part of the American dream.
Cane opens with "Karintha," about a woman who men desire and bring their money to, but they "do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing that ripened too soon … they will die not having found it out." "Becky," the next sketch, focuses on a white woman who has two African American sons. While she is publicly rejected by the community, both black and white, for her choices, she spends all her time in her cabin, which some local citizens secretively built for her, while she is regularly fed by others.
"Carma" has even more power. Like Karintha, Carma makes her own sexual choices. She chooses to have numerous affairs while married to her husband, who beats her. However, he ends up on the chain gang for slashing the man who found her when she faked her own death. In "Blood-Burning Moon," Louisa also engenders violence by stringing along two men, one white and one black, each of whom believes that he solely possesses her. Tom and Bob eventually find out about each other, and the white man, Bob, has his rival killed by a mob.
While the title character in "Esther" technically fails to control her sexual destiny—King Barlo is nothing like what she built him up to be her whole life—she also chooses to live her life her way and take risks by even approaching Barlo when he returns to town. In all such sketches in Cane women assert their sexual authority without a hint of self-doubt.
Beginning in 1914 as World War I broke out, African Americans moved from the South primarily to large urban centers in the Northeast (New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore), Midwest (Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis), and West (Los Angeles). The Great Migration, as this movement came to be called, reached an early peak in the 1920s. There are several reasons for this population shift. While the Great Migration was part of a greater trend of urbanization, which was happening throughout the United States in the 1920s, African Americans had more specific motivations for leaving the South.
In many facets of southern life, African Americans faced racial segregation at nearly every turn. Jim Crow laws were southern state laws, which enforced this segregation. For example, in many southern states, African Americans were forced to attend separate schools from white students. They also had separate accommodations in most public places such as trains, buses, libraries, restaurants, and even drinking fountains. In some states, housing restrictions were placed on African Americans who were not allowed to live in certain parts of some communities. In addition, African Americans' right to vote was often limited by such laws, which required a poll tax or literacy test as a prerequisite for casting a ballot.
By the 1920s, the South was still dominated by agricultural and rural communities. Many blacks worked as sharecroppers through the late 1910s, but a boll weevil (a type of beetle) infestation of cotton fields in this time period left the already poor farmers even more economically devastated. The potential for starvation was a compelling factor to seek jobs elsewhere.
The North was believed to be less segregated than the South and held the promise of better employment. World War I temporarily cut down on the number of immigrants from Europe at a time when the number of factory and service jobs increased because of the needs of the war. Many men also left their jobs to serve in the armed forces. Thus more jobs were available in industrial cities in the North for African Americans. Work shortages meant opportunities for many blacks looking for a better life. Labor agents abounded, working to convince blacks to move north and take jobs. Some companies, such as railroad companies, needed workers so badly that they funded some African Americans' travel from the South to the North.
Approximately one million African Americans left the South for the North during the Great Migration, increasing the black population in those cities an average of 20 percent between 1910 and 1930. The Great Migration completely transformed the black population of certain cities. For example, in Detroit the population of African Americans was only 6,000 in 1910. By 1929, the number had increased to 120,000. The Great Migration continued until about 1930 when the Great Depression caused the need for workers in the North to abate.
The effects of the Great Migration on the African Americans who made the journey was profound. While they faced some difficulties adjusting to life in the northern urban centers, workers earned higher wages than they did in the South. Their children received better educations. It also affected blacks left behind in the South. While some white planters and employers tried to prevent blacks from leaving en masse through intimidation and other means, other business owners and farmers promised better pay and treatment to their workers who stayed. There was some change in many whites' attitudes and behavior toward blacks in the South, though racist attitudes continued to dominate.
One result of the Great Migration was the Harlem Renaissance, a term used to describe a blossoming of African American culture, literature, music, and arts in New York City in the 1920s. Many of the blacks who moved from the South to New York City during the Great Migration settled in Harlem. They developed a change in attitude, becoming what was termed the "New Negro." Discarding the docile slave mentality, the New Negro was smart, eloquent, urban, and confident. Blacks found an expression for this new attitude in cultural forms.
The artists, musicians, and writers who were part of the Harlem Renaissance used their works as social and political critiques and as an expression of what they experienced as African Americans. They wanted to challenge racism and racial stereotypes promulgated by the white community to create a new cultural identity, which would encourage the black race. Many who participated in the Harlem Renaissance, such as painter Aaron Douglas and poet Langston Hughes, were also influenced by a quest to understand their African ancestors.
When Cane was published in 1923, only about 1,000 copies were initially printed. However, a few critics as well as literary editors and authors embraced the book as a powerful work from the beginning. Such readers responded positively to Toomer's experimental form, artistic structure and style, and his unique take on the subject matter—African American life.
In the introduction to the original printing of Cane, Waldo Frank writes, "A poet has arisen among our American youth who has known how to turn the essences and materials of his Southland into the essences and materials of literature." However, not all critics of the time responded as enthusiastically, as some were befuddled by the book's mix of forms. Writing in the New Republic, Robert Littell comments, "Cane is an interesting, occasionally beautiful and often queer book of exploration into old country and new ways of thinking."
Cane was only reprinted once while Toomer was alive, in 1927. After his death, the book eventually came to be widely read and a significant example of the literature of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Cane found widespread audience in the 1960s with the coming of the Black Arts movement when both students and scholars rediscovered the book and Toomer, and claimed him as an important black author. In 1965, Robert Bone acknowledged that it was one of the leading works of the Harlem Renaissance. In his article "The Harlem School," Bone claims, "Jean Toomer belongs to that first rank of writers who use words almost as a plastic medium, shaping new meanings from an original and highly personal style."
Over the years, such critics and scholars have praised Cane for its realistic depiction of life in the South and of African Americans. Toomer received critical kudos because he resisted the stereotypical depictions of African Americans that were common at the time. Yet some of the book's content was controversial, including Toomer's depiction of women, especially in the book's first section, and his exploration of their sexuality. Others noted the prideful way he depicted women.
Cane's form was an issue as well. There has been some critical debate over exactly what kind of book Cane is. Some critics call it a novel, though Toomer himself rejected this label. It has been described variously as one prose poem or even a cycle of short stories. Dismissing this controversy in the New York Times, prominent African American author Alice Walker writes,
Some critics called the book a novel, some called it a prose poem, some did not know what to call it; but all agreed that "Cane" was original, and a welcome change from earlier fiction that took a didactic or hortatory position on black and interracial American life.
Toomer's book continues to be regarded as a significant work into the early twenty-first century. As Karen Jackson Ford asserts in Split-Gut Song, "Through lyricism and impressionism, Toomer achieves an accuracy of representation that exceeds realism. Either way the argument is made, realism or 'higher' realism, Cane is valued for its authentic depiction of African America."
In the following excerpt, Dow explains how, by speaking from and to different points of view in the different sections of Cane, Toomer emphasizes the individuality among people often assumed to share a common perspective.
"I want great art. This means I want great design." Jean Toomer, "Open Letter to Gorham Munson"
Part of Toomer's "great design" in Cane is that his text, like any written text and paralleling any oral performance, is by someone and to someone. It is, then, a social transaction that does not present what is said to the exclusion of who says it to whom and for what purpose. Although Cane's characters receive relatively brief treatment, the identity of the novel's narrator is presented in more fully developed terms, both as a process of consciousness and unconsciousness and as a subject impinged on and affected by interactions with his characters and narratee. The narrator renders his "individuality" through a socialized interdependence based on forms of direct address and a creative negotiation of narrative authority. Toomer's radically new formal transgressions, which follow his radical positions on race and culture, speak to the need to understand Cane in terms of both stylistic function and thematic expression.
A theatrical presentation of Cane was released in 2006 by Chezia Thompson Cager. It is called Teaching Jean Toomer's 1923 Cane, and it is available on compact disc from the Spectrum of Poetic Fire.
My purpose here is to trace Toomer's self-reflective narrators in the three sections of Cane in order to show how Toomer raises the issue of "social transaction" implied by the choice of narrative method and by the identification of narrator, narratee, and reader. In effect, Toomer does not assert cognitive authority but concentrates instead on articulating modes of narrative authority and patterns of feeling that directly modify not how we understand the world so much as how we engage it. He suggests that there are modes other than "race" that afford significant ways of resisting the dominant cultural emphases on difference. I want to show how these concepts and modes are inflected by the geographical movements of the book, what shifts in the identification of narrator and narratee are implied by shifts in the nature of the communal experience in Cane's three sections, and how the subjectivities of characters, narrators, and real and implied readers have been shaped by different communal experiences. Cane is a productive rewriting of "race," allowing for the recognition of multiple authentic African American voices, identifications complicated by class, gender, and geography, and greatly enriched by the significant modulations in narrative address that Toomer undertakes.
An emblem of the last geographical movement in Cane, "Kabnis" signals the narrator's return to rural Georgia from the urban environments of Washington, D.C. and Chicago, and thus the novel comes full circle. Unlike the narratees in the preceding parts, the narrattee in Part Three is not represented by a character, nor is he mentioned explicitly by the narrator. Instead, the emphasis shifts: the intervening narrator and the character Kabnis point to the autobiographical Toomer: "Toomer places himself at the center of 'Kabnis'"; the narrator tells his "story." But for both the narrator and Kabnis, their desires, their subjectivities, cannot be satisfactorily articulated until they find a means with which to mediate them. Paralleling Kabnis's struggles to do so, the narrator commingles the private with public in "Kabnis," using a self-addressed and autobiographical "you" and a tone of voice that runs the gamut from the stridency of the orator to the tenderness of the poet: "Shadows of pines are dreams the sun shakes from its eyes." He can be nurturing: "Dead blind father of a muted folk who feel their way upward to a life that crushes or absorbs them. (speak, Father!)." He can be sardonic: "[Hanby] is well dressed, smooth, rich, black-skinned Negro who thinks there is no one quite so suave and polished as himself," and he can be merely a neutral describer of actions: "He stands by the hearth, rocking backward and forward. He stretches his hands out to the fire." On the one hand, "Kabnis" renders a kind of individual and communal tragic subjectivity in which the narrator dramatizes the forces destroying the folk culture and causing racial oppression. On the other, "Kabnis" is as much about the narrator's self-exploration (and Toomer's own) as it is a portrayal of communal subjectivities and experience.
"Kabnis" brings a new shaping of subjectivities, most notably those of the narrator and Kabnis. The narrator integrates into Kabnis strong undercurrents of irony, parody, and the burlesque, and casts the story into a kind of mock-epic form. Unlike Carma, Fern, and Karintha whose minds the narrator cannot penetrate, the narrator does know the mind of Kabnis. Yet the subjectivity the narrator produces (his own and Kabnis's) creates a mysterious and elusive atmosphere, particularly in the context of Kabnis's many roles: as a protagonist in the drama, as an educated outsider, as a poet who wants to become the "lips of the south," as "a ridiculous pathetic figure in his showy robe." The first section in the drama portrays Kabnis's isolated subjectivity, which is countered in the following sections when Kabnis comes into contact with the community. With communal contact, mostly among Sempter's black men, Kabnis searches for the security of self, and the identity of a racial self, in others.
But Kabnis fails to find this self and to integrate into the community of "peace." Instead, he feels "suspended a few feet above the soil whose touch would resurrect him." Although he dreams of giving words to the South, he can neither reconcile the cultures of North and South nor, even in moments of heightened self-consciousness, face his racial past. Indeed, Lewis confronts Kabnis with the memory of the past he can either deny and let "die an impotent and meaningless death, or use … to become a sustaining, spiritual force behind a reawakened sense of race consciousness":
Lewis: The old man as symbol, flesh, and spirit of the past, what do you think he would say if he could see you? You look at him, Kabnis.
Kabnis: Just like any done-up preacher is what he looks like to me. Jam some false teeth in his mouth and crank him, an youd have God Almighty spit in torrents all around th floor. Oh, hell, an he reminds me of that black cockroach over yonder. An besides, he aint my past. My ancestors were Southern blue-bloods—
Lewis: And black.
Kabnis: Aint much difference between blue and black.
Lewis: Enough to draw a denial from you. Can't hold them, can you? Master; slave. Soil; and the overarching heavens. Dusk; dawn. They fight and bastardize you. The sun tint of your cheeks, flame of the great season's multi-colored leaves, tarnished, burned, Split, shredded; easily burned. No use.
Despite such denials. Kabnis, from a certain perspective, represents the narrator of the first two sections who tries to become integrated into the community and must humble himself and suffer humility in his attempt to do so. Kabnis's intense loneliness, his consuming self-centeredness, and his various "denials," elations, and disintegrations are parts that the narrator later tries to bring together into a "soft circle," a spirit of individual and communal consciousness.
In addressing the community and the narratee the participant-narrator resorts to an invocatory, imperative form: "Night winds fare the breathing of the unborn child whose calm throbbing in the belly of a Negress sets them somnolently singing. Hear their song." "The night winds in Georgia," the narrator urges, "are vagrant poets whispering," and the "weird chill of their song," a song which serves as a refrain for "Kabnis," must be listened to:
burn, bear black children
till poor rivers glory
In Camp Ground.
Moreover, as in Parts One and Two, lyricism, "White paint on the wealthier houses has the chill blue glitter of distant stars," interfuses with speculation and uncertainty to dominate the descriptions: "it seems huge, limitless in the candle light"; "Someone is coming down the stairs." The narrator, as part of his self-examination, struggles to discover and interrogate reality, and at times casts doubt not only on his own declarations and predispositions but on the literal reality of his characters' perceptions. This doubt spreads to the narrator's reliance on the narratee's assent and approval. The narrator's earlier confidential attitudes toward the "you," which "encourage actual readers to see themselves reflected in that pronoun" are in this section conspicuously absent.
What replaces this particular narrator-you relationship is Toomer's use of a self-addressed you. Kabnis directs his inner thoughts to "God Almighty, Dear God, Dear Jesus," then to a self-reflective self. "Get up you damn fool. Look around. What's beautiful there?", before addressing his own feelings. "Oh no, I won't let that emotion come up in me. Stay down. I tell you." He later returns to a remonstrative self. "Come, Ralph, old man, pull yourself together." In this section the comments of an omniscient narrator, "Kabnis' mind clears," alternate with Kabnis's various addresses to Jesus, "Jesus how still everything is," and to himself, "Come, Ralph, pull yourself together … You know, Ralph, old man, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see a ghost." Hence the text accommodates a variety of "you's" as it earlier accommodated a variety of "I's." But Kabnis's "you" is self-directed, revealing, insofar as a character-speaker emerges in the text. Kabnis's solipsism and his failure to resolve his differences with the community.
Toomer wished to create "a new idiom which could introduce a greater diversity of perspective and voices, and elements that his lyrical narrative, his poetical or realistic descriptions could not include." But stylistic diversity is, to say the least, everywhere, in Cane. The narrator, wishing to engage the "you" and to establish a relation between the narratee and actual reader in Part One, can use the "you's" to substitute or disguise a self-referential "I" in Part Two. The narrator in this section, though less reflective than in the first section, continues to foster sympathy for real-world sufferers and continues to assume that his narratees are in perfect sympathy with him. The narrator in Part Three works against the grain of the protagonist's discourse, providing it with a meaning that, though not explicitly articulated, is (silently) conveyed to the reader behind the protagonist's back. Through such narrative interventions and a posturing of the "you," the narrator emphasizes the fact that the author exists, in all his ambiguities, complexities, and failures, and is very much in the text.
What is the purpose of Cane's diverse narrative stances and strategies? As Toomer said of Cane, "There is nothing about these pieces of the buoyant expression of a new race" and the stories emphasize that socially one's "position here is transient." But paralleling Toomer's "spiritualization of experience," there is a social configuration, evoked by the narrator, which includes a consciousness that the stories, poems, and dramatic form of the text involve the reader in acts of judgment, call for social transactions, and create spaces in which racial meanings are renegotiated. Cane's poems can be seen in this light, in which direct address and invocatory voices take the form of a spiritual, "Cotton song": "Shackles fall upon the Judgement Day / But lets not wait for it", an imagistic lyric, "Her Lips Are Copper Wire": "and press your lips to mine / till they fare incandescent," or a communal hymn, as in "Harvest Song":
O my brothers, I beat my palms, still soft, against the stubble of my
harvesting. (You beat your soft palms, too.) My pain is
sweet. Sweeter than the oats or wheat or corn. It will not
bring me knowledge of my hunger.
Hence there is a constant tension between conflicting strategies: between the narrator's self-reflectiveness, whereby the story draws attention to its status as art, and forms of narrative, whereby the story is concerned with its informational, thematic contents. Self-reflectiveness as a mode of exercising narrative authority has the signal advantage that it cannot be deceptive: the artistic "folk song" being laid claim to cannot be mistaken for anything but what it is. So, it is significant that the mode adopted by the narrator of Cane, for which he takes responsibility, is self-reflectiveness. It remains for the narrator to incorporate into his own art of narration the advantages of artistic indirection with the certainty of effects. Finally, unlike the storytelling in many modernist texts, Cane does not drive the teller out of the tale. Rather, as part of Toomer's "intimate connection of things," the narrator is an essential clement in mediating between his self-designation, his own spiritual life and survival, and that of his fictional communities, narratee, and readers. To this end, social interdependence and its racial implications in Cane, even if non-transcendent and derived from "a knowledge of [Toomer's] futility to check solution," become the heart of a "great design."
Source: William Dow, "'Always your heart': the 'Great Design' of Toomer's Cane," in MELUS, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 2002, pp.59-89.
Bone, Robert, "The Harlem School," in The Negro Novel in America, rev. ed., Yale University Press, 1965, pp. 65-94.
Ford, Karen Jackson, "The Scratching Choruses of Modernity," in Split-Gut Song: Jean Toomer and the Poetics of Modernity, The University of Alabama Press, 2005, pp. 2-29.
Frank, Waldo, "Foreword," in Cane, University Place Press, 1967, pp. vii-xi.
Guzzio, Tracie Church, "Jean Toomer," in American Writers, Supplement 9, edited by Jay Parini, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002.
Littell, Robert, Review of Cane, in the New Republic, December 23, 1923, p. 126.
Toomer, Jean, Cane, Boni & Liveright, 1923; reprint, Liveright, 1975, reissued 1993.
Turner, Darwin T., "Introduction," in Cane, Liveright, 1975, reissued 1993, pp. ix-xxv.
Walker, Alice, "The Divided Life of Jean Toomer," in the New York Times, July 13, 1980, sec. 7, p. 11.
cane / kān/ • n. 1. the hollow, jointed stem of a tall grass, esp. bamboo or sugar cane, or the stem of a slender palm such as rattan. ∎ any plant that produces such stems. ∎ stems of bamboo, rattan, or wicker used as a material for making furniture or baskets: [as adj.] a cane coffee table. ∎ short for sugar cane. ∎ a flexible, woody stem of the raspberry plant or any of its relatives. 2. a length of cane or a slender stick, esp. one used as a support for plants, as a walking stick, or as an instrument of punishment. ∎ (the cane) chiefly Brit. a form of corporal punishment used in certain schools, involving beating with a cane. • v. [tr.] 1. (often be caned) beat with a cane as a punishment. 2. [usu. as adj.] (caned) make or repair (furniture) with cane: armchairs with caned seats. DERIVATIVES: can·er n.