Jean Toomer was the writer of one book; no matter how often the phrase is used to disparage him, it cannot be denied. Beyond Cane, his only other works of value are the long poem “Blue Meridian,” a small amount of short fiction, and his autobiographical writings. His plays, most of his other poetry, and his nonfiction are negligible, yet even if he had written only Cane, he would always be remembered as a major African American author—and primarily as a poet.
Cane is an eccentric book, experimental and unclassifiable in its combination of poems and what is technically prose—pieces which are generally developed as short stories (somewhat like those of Anderson or Joyce) but are occasionally “mere” sketches, sometimes prose poems without plot, encompassing no more than a few pages and conveying impressionistically the sense of a person’s spirit. Some of the pieces approach drama, with conversation printed like dialogue, setting described as meticulously as for a stage designer, and action presented in the present tense.
Whether prose, drama, or verse, all are imbued with a poet’s sensibility: precise depiction of details using all the senses vividly, a rhythmic quality without slavish adherence to metrics, a sensitivity to words, phrasing, variations of theme, a fine ear for sound, and a polished sense of organic structure. Few books, whether prose or verse, have less of the prosaic than this one, which can put readers in an almost unabated state of intensity and exaltation, drawing them in by language, sound, rhythm, and form.
Toomer’s purpose in this work is to embody what he sees as the dying folk spirit of the South by depicting the lives of its people and re-creating their feelings through language and rhythm. Cane achieves a vivid sense of the sensuality of its women, the alternating anguish and joy of life in the South, the toughness and beauty of the land of Georgia. These themes appear primarily in the first third of the book; the second third moves into the city in the North, where blacks from the South have difficulty fitting into the white-dominated social patterns while retaining roots in the South; in the final third, Ralph Kabnis, a northern black man, comes South and the focus is on his conflict with the South, looking ahead to William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Quentin Compson’s climatic cry “I don’t hate the South!” Throughout the book, Toomer shows both attraction to the South and a sense of holding back from it—on the part of a narrator in the first third, of Kabnis in the last third, and of assorted northern-based characters in the middle third, who are losing touch with their black roots. The book, however, is hardly a glorification of the way of life of southern blacks: Kabnis notes that things are not so bad as the North thinks; yet the South still hosts an occasional lynching, as Toomer several times reminds his readers. Still, Toomer appreciates a vitality in southern blacks that disappears when they are removed from the land, a process that Toomer views as unfortunately inevitable in the modern world.
To create this sense of vitality and closeness to the land and the natural world, Toomer uses a vast array of references to nature—the pines, the cane fields, the sky at dusk, the red soil—as images themselves, as similes or metaphors in connection with his characters, or as recurring leitmotifs in the operatic development of his sketches. He uses rhythm and repetition to engage the reader in the immediacy of these sensory experiences. A close analysis of one of his pieces—“Karintha,” the opening sketch in Cane—will illustrate Toomer’s typical methods.
Like other pieces in the book, “Karintha” opens with an epigraph, a songlike refrain of four lines that recurs throughout the sketch as a unifying device. The first of four paragraphs of varying lengths then introduces Karintha as a child, summing her up in the first sentence, which is poetically accretive rather than prosaically structured; the final adjective cluster echoes words from the epigraph’s refrain. Two sentences in parallel construction follow, dealing with the actions the old men and the young men take with her, followed by two sentences in response to these, describing their respective feelings about her. The final sentence sums up the paragraph and “this interest of the male,” with a metaphoric interpretation of it and a note of foreboding.
The second paragraph re-creates her girlhood in terms of concrete actions and images: visual (color, shape, light), auditory (sounds of feet, voice, silence), kinetic (running, wind), and tactile (stoning the cows, touching the earth). It sums up her sexual nature as well and ends with two sentences referring to the wishes of the old and young men from the first paragraph, regarding Karintha as she matures. Before Karintha is shown as a woman, the refrain of the epigraph is repeated, the first three lines each being cut by a few words. The new rhythm creates a pace appropriately faster than the wondering, more meditative earlier version.
The third paragraph makes assorted references to the subject matter and phrasing of earlier paragraphs. Repetitions of actual sentences and phrases and of sentence structure (in a series of short sentences showing what young men do for Karintha) evoke the sense of poetry, as does the second half of the paragraph, which, through indirection, reveals Karintha’s murder of her infant. The birth is presented as a kind of emotionless miracle unconnected with Karintha herself, while the scene is given sensory richness. Juxtaposed, after ellipses, is the description of a nearby sawmill, its smoldering sawdust pile, and the heaviness of the smoke after Karintha’s return. Ending this paragraph is a short song that someone makes up about smoke rising to “take my soul to Jesus,” an unconsciously appropriate elegy for the unwanted baby.
The final paragraph begins as the third did, “Karintha is a woman,” and then echoes the last sentence of the first paragraph: “Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon.” Toomer then suggests her unbreachable remoteness from men; the last sentence recalls the first in this sketch, describing her at twenty in the phrases used to describe her as a child. After a last repetition of her name, followed by ellipses, comes a repetition of the epigraph, followed by an ominous repetition of its last two words, “Goes down,” and then more ellipses, hinting at the inevitable descent and defeat of this beautiful, vital creature, brought to maturity too soon through misuse by men.
Though printed as prose, this piece is essentially poetic; the outer details of Karintha’s life are merely hinted, but Toomer’s poetic prose gives a...
(The entire section is 2825 words.)