Jean Toomer Essay - Toomer, Jean (Vol. 1)

Toomer, Jean (Vol. 1)

Toomer, Jean 1894–1967

Toomer, a Black American, is most widely recognized as the author of Cane. He also published short stories, poems, and sketches in magazines.

Jean Toomer's Cane … is an important American novel. By far the most impressive product of the Negro Renaissance, it ranks with Richard Wright's Native Son and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man as a measure of the Negro novelist's highest achievement. 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. Since stylistic innovation requires great technical dexterity, Toomer displays a concern for technique which is fully two decades in advance of the period. While his contemporaries of the Harlem School were still experimenting with a crude literary realism, Toomer had progressed beyond the naturalistic novel to "the higher realism of the emotions," to symbol, and to myth….

In spite of his wide and perhaps primary association with white intellectuals, as an artist Toomer never underestimated the importance of his Negro identity. He attained a universal vision not by ignoring race as a local truth, but by coming face to face with his particular tradition.

Robert A. Bone, in his The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, revised edition, 1965, pp. 81-2.

One of the foremost literary products of the Harlem Renaissance … did not take black American urban life as its theme; instead, it explored the mystery, emotion, and hysteria of the black man's experience in the rural South. In Cane …, a collection of short fiction, poetry, and drama, Jean Toomer explored the hidden depths of the black American experience and produced a mysterious brand of Southern psychological realism that has been matched only in the best work of William Faulkner. "Fern," one of the best short stories in Toomer's volume, is a fine illustration of the author's sense of psychological realism. The sensual, tempting heroine of the story is much more than an indolent Southern woman; she encompasses, indeed symbolizes, the life of that Georgia Pike by which she sits staring at the world with haunting eyes. The temptations and promises presented by Fern's body are symbolic of the temptations and promises held out by the road of life (the Georgia Pike) which stretches before the rural black American, and the frustration experienced by men in their affairs with Fern is symbolic of the frustration of the life journey. Men are willing to give their all, but the result is simply frustration, haunting memory, and hysteria. Toomer's unique handling of the symbolic heroine and significant detail can be seen in several other stories in Cane, notably in "Becky" and "Avey."

The author's fine portrayal of the trials of the psyche and his keen sense of rhythm were not confined to prose, however, for in Cane we find excellent poems which display the same distinctive craftsmanship. "Storm Ending" offers a case in point…. From this poem there emerges a strong sense of time and place which characterize the whole of Cane, for even when Toomer deals with the life of the urban black American in his volume, he still presents the rhythms and psychological factors that condition life in the land of sugar cane, a land populated by the "sons of Cane."

Houston A. Baker, Jr., in his Black Literature in America, McGraw, 1971, pp. 10-11.