Toomer, Jean Entries



Welcome to the Harlem Renaissance Classics Circuit! If you're not familiar with the Circuit, hop on over to that link and check it out - I think it's a fantastic idea, sort of a cross between a readalong and regular book blogging. Major props to Rebecca and all of the great folks who help to organize it.


Jean Toomer's Cane is a work of in-betweens, of liminal spaces that resist categorization. And based on its author's biography, it's easy to see why. Toomer, the light-skinned grandson of the first person of African descent to become Governor of a US State, grew up in an upper-crust Washington DC society; he went on to attend first all-black, then all-white, then all-black area schools. In a city halfway between historical North and South, Toomer had the experience of being of mixed racial descent in a segregated country. In later life, he refused to identify with any race other than the new "American" one he saw forming out of the intermingled ethnicities across the United States:

In my body were many bloods, some dark blood, all blended in the fire of six or more generations. I was, then, either a new type of man or the very oldest. In any case I was inescapably myself...If I achieved greatness of human stature, then just to the degree that I did I would justify all the blood in me. If I proved worthless, then I would betray all. In my own mind I could not see the dark blood as something quite different and apart. But if people wanted to say this dark blood was Negro blood and if they then wanted to call me a Negro - this was up to them. Fourteen years of my life I had lived in the white group, four years I had lived in the colored group. In my experience there had been no main difference between the two.

This attitude, in turn, meant that although Cane is regarded as one of the masterpieces of the Harlem Renaissance, Toomer was a bit of an outsider even within that bohemian group; his attempt at a post-racial philosophy didn't jive with the goals of writers and artists who were celebrating Pan-Africanism and making more visible the "New Negro" way of life.

All of these influences are visible in Cane, which is neither a novel, nor a poem, nor a book of short stories, but something more unique altogether. It's divided into three sections: the first two, set in rural Georgia and DC/Chicago respectively, are collections of lyrical character sketches interspersed with poems in a wide variety of forms (sonnet, traditional and modified "In Memoriam" stanzas, rhyming couplets, etc.). The third section is, as Toomer said, a "long, semi-dramatic closing-piece." If this description makes Cane sound like a motley assortment of ingredients thrown together to make up something long enough for a book, that is basically what happened; Toomer wrote the entire middle (Northern) section in order to pad his Southern material. And yet, the whole of the book has an undeniable unity and great beauty. Anyone who has watched and appreciated such Jim Jarmusch films as Mystery Train and Coffee and Cigarettes will understand what Toomer is up to: as we weave in and out of characters' lives, in and out of verse and prose, we recognize repeating motifs that tie it all together: smouldering sawdust piles wreathing Georgia valleys in blue smoke; carriages jolting down the Dixie Pike; sexuality smothered under religion or society; tableaux glimpsed from the windows of speeding trains. In the first section, especially, I felt as though every bit of prose and verse is necessary to, and couldn't belong anywhere other than, Cane as a whole. Toomer creates a blistering love-song to a fading way of life.

November Cotton Flower

Boll-weevil's coming, and the winter's cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take
All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground--
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
Significance. Superstition saw
Something it had never seen before:
Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
Beauty so sudden for that time of year.

Toomer's style strikes me as more "High Modernist" than that of other Harlem Renaissance luminaries like Zora Neale Hurston or Langston Hughes: edgy, experimental, sometimes obscure, with more emphasis on atmosphere and character than action. (I wouldn't recommend Cane to those Woolf in Winter readers who felt Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse lacked plot.) Although he is obviously deeply moved by visiting and observing rural Georgia life, Toomer remains an outsider; he never takes on, as Hurston does, the country or city dialect as his own. Instead he writes in a skittish in-between voice: lightly inflected with the cadences of Georgia spirituals and back-fence gossip sessions, but never escaping an erudite, Northern (even British-sounding) tone. When he does depict characters speaking in Southern dialect, he inserts a Northern outsider character, a stand-in for himself. One gets the sense he wishes to approach closer, but he can never quite manage it: his awkwardness, what he would probably term his Northern over-civilization, gets in the way. I think, though, that it's this yearning of an outsider to find belonging, that gives Cane its energy and beauty, as well as its melancholy tone. It's audible even from the opening lines:

                               Her 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.

Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down. Old men rode her hobby-horse upon their knees. Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with their grown-up girls. God grant us youth, secretly prayed the old men. The young fellows counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them. This interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her.

I love Toomer's skill at shading poetry into prose and prose back out into poetry; it might be my favorite manifestation of the way Cane balances on border-lines and leaps across spectrums. So too, he blurs racial lines: the people of Cane are every color imaginable, from Karintha's eastern-horizon blue-black, to Fern's "cream-colored" and Dorris's "lemon-colored" complexions, to Muriel's "flushed ginger," Esther's "chalk-white," and young Louisa, "the color of oak leaves on young trees in fall." Are all these women "black"? Such an idea, we can hear Toomer argue, is ridiculous: and yet, as the lynching, estrangement, and heartbreak of this book attest, it still has a terrible power.

(I understand the irony of adding Jean Toomer to the list of "Black Authors in North America" over at Diversify Your Reading, but I'm doing it anyway. Mostly because I think more people should read this gorgeous book.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography