Jean Toomer Essay - Critical Essays

Jean Toomer American Literature Analysis

Most of the fiction (at least four novels and more than a dozen short stories), drama (about a half-dozen plays), and poetry (more than eighty poems) that Toomer wrote during his lifetime remains in manuscript form, so his public reputation rests almost entirely on one work, Cane. Published in 1923, the slim volume includes work in all three genres and is widely recognized as a major product of the Harlem Renaissance, a 1920’s flowering of African American art and literature that created intense interest among black and white intellectuals.

Cane includes six brief prose cameos, seven stories, and a play, all of which concern African Americans of the time. The book is divided into three sections, the first and last of which are set in rural Georgia. The stories of the middle unit take place in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Between the first two sections, on a separate page, is a picture of an arc that is about one-fourth of a circle. On a page between the second and third parts are two such arcs, leaving an incomplete circle. In a letter to Waldo Frank accompanying the manuscript of Cane, Toomer explained the curves:From three angles, CANE’s design is a circle. Aesthetically, from simple forms to complex ones, and back to simple forms. Regionally, from the South up into the North, and back into the South again. Or from the North down into the South and then a return North. . . . Between each of the three sections, a curve. These, to vaguely indicate the design.

“Kabnis,” the third part of Cane, is about a northern black who goes to the rural South and is unable to adapt. Toomer’s explanation of the curves suggests that Kabnis will return to the North. That the circle is left incomplete also points to a continuing alienation between the black cultures of the North and the South, the inability of the old rural and the new urban to reconcile their differences.

In addition to its intrinsic merits, the book is memorable for three reasons. First, Toomer explores aspects of southern and northern black life that had not previously been examined in fiction, paying tribute to the past and concurrently showing a race and society in flux. Second, Cane as a whole is an exercise in self-discovery. Its sensitive, self-effacing narrator is really the author himself, who is exploring his ambivalence about his racial identity. Toomer’s use of his narrator is similar to Joseph Conrad’s use of the character Marlow in much of his fiction. Third, the form of the book is unusual and has been the object of much discussion. Some critics consider it a gathering of fugitives—stories, poems, and a dramatic piece previously published separately in various magazines—that are unified only by recurrent themes and settings. Most, however, label it either as a work that defies standard categorizing or call it an experimental novel, a psychological novel, a poetic novel, or a lyrical novel.

Despite such quibbles over its form, Cane is not at all unique. It is similar to James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), thematically related story collections that present unified visions of societies, and it also echoes Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915), a collection of poems that probe the secrets and psyches of a small town’s residents.

Toomer was familiar with all three works, and he knew and learned from Anderson (“Winesburg, Ohio opened my eyes to entirely new possibilities,” he wrote). Cane and Winesburg, Ohio both have narrators who mediate between author and reader, both are made up largely of prose cameos, and both have characters who become grotesques, in Toomer’s case because of the lingering social and psychological effects of slavery.

Distinguishing Cane from the other works is the inclusion of poems between and within the stories. Usually folk songs or ballads, the poems reinforce the action and themes of the narratives. Recalling traditional African American music, mainly pre-Civil War slave spirituals, the poems enhance the mood of wistful, even mournful, pastoralism that pervades the book. Toomer believed that spirituals helped slaves to endure their bondage, so their presence in Cane gives the book a historical dimension. The poems also provide thematic transition from one narrative to another and heighten the work’s impressionistic style, which incorporates myth and symbol.

Because Toomer’s focus in the novel is on social, racial, and economic problems in both the rural South and urban North at World War I’s end, he writes both realistically and naturalistically at different times. One critic has described Toomer’s style as “a mysterious brand of Southern psychological realism that has been matched only in the best work of William Faulkner.” An example of this amalgam of styles is the description of Tom Burwell’s lynching in the story “Blood-Burning Moon” (the title of which is taken from a folk song), which is presented both with realistic specificity and in a deliberately ritualistic manner.

“Blood-Burning Moon,” and Cane as a whole, have meaning and significance beyond the author’s concerns with racial identity and conflict in the South and North. Most of his characters, men and women, even those who love and are loved, are strangers to those with whom they live. For example, the narrator of “Fern” says, “Men saw her eyes and fooled themselves.” The eyes said one thing, but men read another. “They began to leave her, baffled and ashamed,” because “men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand.” In “Esther,” King Barlo is “slow at understanding.” In “Kabnis,” the old man who lives below the shop is “a mute John the Baptist of a new religion—or a tongue-tied shadow of an old.” In other words, Cane also is about people, whatever their race may be, who are unable to communicate even with their own kind.


First published: 1923

Type of work: Novel

Black people in the rural South and urban North of the early 1920’s confront the difficulties of life in a changing, but still white-dominated, society.

The first part of Cane consists of six prose units (only three are fully developed stories) and ten poems that separate them. All are about a segregated South of sugar cane and cotton fields, and women are the main characters in all the narratives. The first, a lyrical two-page sketch, tells of Karintha, who “ripened too soon,” and whose languid beauty lures both young and old men despite her passiveness. After giving birth to an illegitimate baby, she abandons it in a sawdust pile at the local mill, sets the mill ablaze, and turns to a life of prostitution. The sadness and futility of two generations of wasted lives are the dominant note here, as in the rest of the narratives.

In the next vignette, Becky is a white woman who violates the social codes by bearing two black sons. Maintained by secret gifts from both races—signs of communal guilt and responsibility—she is a recluse, so the community can publicly deny her existence. When her small cabin burns down one day, she (like Karintha’s baby and, in a later story, Tom Burwell) is consumed by fire.

The themes of sexuality, miscegenation, and universal guilt are again merged in “Fern,” the story of Fernie Mae Rosen, the illegitimate daughter of a black woman and white Jewish man. A beautiful woman of indifferent sexuality whose “body was tortured with something it could not let out,” she is abandoned by her lovers, who nevertheless remain forever under her spell, “vowing to themselves that some day they would do some fine thing for her.”

The religious alienation suggested in “Fern” is the thematic core of “Esther,” which also dramatizes isolation and frustrated sexuality. When she is nine, introverted Esther becomes infatuated with an itinerant preacher and charlatan, King Barlo. Fourteen years later, when he returns to town, she leaves her parents’ home at midnight to search for him. She finds him in a boardinghouse, drunk and with a woman who teases Esther for having a light complexion. “Jeers and hoots pelter bluntly upon her back” as she retreats, bereft of a dream that had sustained her for so long.

Following this story is the poem...

(The entire section is 3478 words.)