Toomer, Jean (Vol. 13)
Toomer, Jean 1894–1967
Toomer, a black American novelist, short story writer, poet, and dramatist, was one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance. His major work, Cane, is an extraordinary collection of prose and poetry combined in an experimental novel unlike anything that had appeared before in American letters. Cane, which blends rural folkways with urban avant-garde culture, is a lyrical celebration of the black experience. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4.)
While Mr. Toomer often tries for puzzling and profound effects, he accomplishes fairly well what he sets out to do, and Cane is not seething … with great inexpressible things bursting to be said, and only occasionally arriving, like little bubbles to the surface of a sea of molten tar….
Mr. Toomer shows a genuine gift for character portrayal and dialogue. In the sketches the poet is uppermost. Many of them begin with three or four lines of verse, and end with the same lines, slightly changed. The construction here is musical, too often a little artificially so. The body of the sketch tends to poetry, and to a pattern which begins to lose its effectiveness so soon as one guesses how it is coming out….
[Once] we begin to regard Mr. Toomer's shorter sketches as poetry, many objections to the obscure symbolism and obliqueness of them disappear. There remains, however, a strong objection to their staccato beat. The sentences fall like small shot from a high tower. They pass from poetry into prose, and from there into Western Union.
"Kabnis," the longest piece in the book, is far the most direct and most living, perhaps because it seems to have grown so much more than been consciously made. There is no pattern in it, and very little effort at poetry. And Mr. Toomer makes his Negroes talk like very real people, almost, in spots, as if he had taken down their words as they came. A strange contrast to the lyric expressionism of the shorter pieces. A real peek into the mind of the South, which, like nearly all such genuinely intimate glimpses, leaves one puzzled, and—fortunately—unable to generalize.
Cane is an interesting, occasionally beautiful and often queer book of exploration into old country and new ways of writing. (p. 126)
Robert Littell, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1923 The New Republic, Inc.), December 23, 1923.
Jean Toomer's career is still wrapped in foggy mystery: he wrote one esoteric work, difficult to grasp, define, and assess; he was associated with one of the more advanced white modernist cults, and adopted and taught Russian mysticism; and then he suddenly declared himself white, and disappeared.
His book, Cane (1923), is composed of fourteen prose pieces, ranging from two- and four-page sketches, to "Kabnis," an eighty-three-page nouvelle; and fifteen detached poems set in between. About half the "stories" have tiny lyric refrains tucked inside them as well.
The prose pieces in the first section of the book are detached vignettes of high female sexuality among the Negro peasants of the Dixie Pike. They are drawn with the new honest artfulness of the Stein-Anderson-Hemingway tradition, so crisp and icily succinct that the characters seem bloodless and ghostly, for all the fury of their indicated lives, all style and tone and suggestion. It is into this section that Toomer's finest poems are set—"Song of the Son," "Georgia Dusk," "Portrait in Georgia"—poems which reveal a great deal about his viewpoint and method. They are the most freely experimental Negro poems of the generation, far freer even than Langston Hughes' games with the rhythms of jazz and conversation. They view Southern Negro life with a chilling objectivity ("so objective he might not be a Negro," an early critic prophetically...
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[The publication of Cane had an important effect on] 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.
Cane's influence was by no means limited to the joyous band that included Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Eric Walrond, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Rudolph Fisher and their contemporaries of the 'Twenties. Subsequent writing by Negroes in the United States, as well as in the West Indies and Africa, has continued to reflect its mood and often its method and, one feels, it has also influenced the writing about Negroes by others. Certainly no earlier volume of poetry or fiction or both had come close to expressing the ethos of the Negro in the Southern setting as Cane did. Even in today's ghettos astute readers are finding that its insights have anticipated and often exceeded their own.
There are many odd and provocative things about Cane, and not the least is its form. Reviewers who read it in 1923 were generally stumped. Poetry and prose were whipped together in a kind of frappé. Realism was mixed with what they called mysticism, and the result seemed to many of them confusing. (p. x)
The book by which we remember this writer is as hard to classify as is its author. At first glance it appears to consist of...
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Donald B. Gibson
[Although Jean Toomer] considered aesthetics as the proper end of poetry, he created in his poetry and prose a mythical black past to which he explored his connection. As Toomer seems to have sought the roots of race in mysticism and aestheticism, so his relation to blackness seems more of the imagination than of the blood. He translated imagined black experience into forms so idealized as to be little related to reality as commonly conceived. (p. 8)
Donald B. Gibson, in his introduction to Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Donald B. Gibson (copyright © 1973 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 1-17.
At first sight, Cane seems to be a collection of poems, sketches, stories, and dramatic passages…. The loose structure of the book has induced many critics to discuss the pieces that fit into one of the accepted genres and forget about their function within the whole. In a few cases the tendency to separate Toomer's prose from his poetry led to evaluations of the comparative merits of each, which in turn encouraged discussions whether Toomer should better become a poet or a novelist. In this way, the impression of the work as a whole was ignored, and with it the particular effect that the blending of the different genres produced.
A close reading of Cane reveals that Toomer's contribution to Negro literature is the experiment. His concern for language, his interest in creating a new idiom, which would allow him to express the complexities and intricacies of the modern experience, linked him with the writers of the Lost Generation, but it also prevented him from merely imitating his contemporaries and allowed him to find his own original style. The same is true of the imagery of Cane. The influence of Sherwood Anderson and Waldo Frank is obvious. Yet, Toomer's inventiveness helped him to go beyond these in boldly creating new images which are powerful enough to support the structure of the book…. [His] imagery performs the function that the plot performs in a novel or a play: it connects the various incidents,… the poems, sketches, and episodes. In other words, the structural experiment of Cane consists in the organization of a series of emotions, situations, and actions by means of the 'inner form.' The blending of genres has the same result; in addition, it renders possible an experiment in point of view. This is obvious especially in the semi-dramatic passages of the second part. The characterization of Cane is dominated by a very sophisticated type of primitivism, which reveals the influence of Freud and makes Toomer one of the forerunners of the Harlem Renaissance. Finally, Cane is also an experiment in self-revelation, the expression of a quest for identity which does not shrink from facing the chaos at the bottom of the human soul. (pp. 38-9)
The book is divided into three parts of about equal length and equal importance. The first part, consisting of six prose pieces interspersed with ten poems, is an evocation of rural Georgia; the second part includes seven prose pieces and five poems, dealing mainly with Negro life in the cities; whereas the longer, semi-dramatic tale that constitutes the third part leads back to the rural Georgia town of Sempter.
In Part One the tales of six southern women, all victims of the caste system, are interwoven with short lyric poems to suggest the narrator's mystic unity with the Georgian soil and with his African heritage and to present a haunting vision of the 'parting soul of slavery.' (p. 39)
The second part of Cane exposes the Negro life in the city; the destructive influence of modern industrial society becomes evident in the spiritual emptiness and lack of vitality of near-white, bourgeois ('dickty') Negroes. (p. 42)
'Kabnis,' the third section of Cane, is a semi-dramatic story about a northern Negro in rural Georgia who is too weak to face his tradition. (p. 44)
[A wealth of grotesque material is revealed by a close reading of Cane. To discuss] the manifestations of the grotesque in Cane, we shall take the classification into figures, objects, and situations. We [define] the grotesque figure as a human figure which is dehumanized by distortion to the point where it appears at the same time real and fantastic, beautiful and ugly, tragic and comic, human and inhuman, living and dead, or demonic and ludicrous. In Cane it is possible to distinguish between a first group containing characters that appear slightly grotesque for a short moment, a second group of characters endowed with a number of grotesque traits, and a third one which includes the actual grotesque figures. Needless to say, the borderlines are not very distinct, the three groups shade off into one another. (pp. 46-7)
In the characterization of Fern the grotesque traits prevail…. [At] the beginning of the story, her beautiful face appears distorted because of the weird quality of her eyes…. Her name alludes to a vegetable quality in her existence; the way she sits on her porch reminds us of a plant evading an obstacle while growing…. Unable to express her grief in normal language, she bursts out in a wailing song, her broken voice resembling that of a child or an old man. (pp. 48-9)
The grotesque object [can be defined] as a part of the mineral, vegetable, animal, or mechanical domain, which, by means of transformation or independent motion, assumes (or has assumed) traits of one or more of the other domains, including human traits, so that it appears to have become animated, to possess an unusual amount of energy, or to be the instrument of an ominous force. There are fewer grotesque objects in Cane than there are grotesque figures; their descriptions are usually a little shorter than those of the grotesque figures and situations, and most of them appear in a subordinated position. (p. 50)
The grotesque situation … [is] a state of affairs in which the incongruence of various factors evokes the image of an estranged world: the violation of static laws, the disturbance of the perception of time and space, the presence or appearance of grotesque figures or objects may create a grotesque situation, but also the juxtaposition of incompatible actions, of incompatible elements of landscape, or of incompatible moods. (p. 52)
In 'Blood-Burning Moon' we might speak of a grotesque background, in 'Becky' of a grotesque atmosphere; in 'Esther,' however, there are two actual grotesque situations: the incident involving Barlo's vision and the second of Esther's two dreams. The first situation is a strange mixture of comic and tragic, real and unreal elements. King Barlo falls into a religious trance 'at a spot called the spittoon. White men, unaware of him, continue squirting tobacco juice in his direction. The saffron fluid splashes on his face.'… The townspeople, eager for entertainment, gather round him—'a coffin-case is pressed into use,'… while the sheriff hastily swears in three deputies. Motionless 'as an Indian fakir,' Barlo waits until the excitement has reached its climax, then he begins to describe his vision in the traditional manner of the Negro preacher, interrupted now and then by shouts from the congregation…. Christian and pagan, religious and political elements are condensed in a vision of the American Negroes' ancestor as a gigantic but helpless slave; the paradox suggests the hidden powers of the African soul. The sudden end of the sermon and the turbulent events following it remind us of the exaggerations of the tall tale…. (p. 54)
This description is followed by the account of Esther's two dreams seven years later. In the first one, she imagines the windows of McGregor's notion shop—the place close to where Barlo had his vision—aflame, alarms the fire police and has them rescue a 'dimpled infant' whom she claims as her immaculately conceived child. Guilt feelings ('It is a sin to think of it immaculately') bring her back to reality. The second dream is a grotesque version of the first…. Whereas the first dream keeps within the limits of the rationally possible and breaks off at the moment of doubt, the second one moves on the border between reality and fantasy. (p. 55)
Like other elements of fiction, grotesque figures, objects, and situations consist first and foremost of words, and consequently the grotesque effect depends on the choice of words and of the way in which they are arranged…. [In literature] the juxtaposition or fusion of contrasting, paradoxical, or incompatible elements is achieved by means of language. Particular attention will have to be paid to the devices used in poetic language to connect contrasting elements; furthermore it will be interesting to find out how far Toomer makes use of the discrepancy between illusion and reality that is inherent in fiction to express the mixture of reality and fantasy, which is one trait of the grotesque….
Toomer presents grotesque material in four different ways: by direct comments, by reactions of the narrator or of other characters, by 'realistic' description in plain language, and by distorting description. Most of the grotesque passages are combinations of several methods…. (p. 56)
In the description of grotesque figures in Cane, the elements consist of human beings, parts of the human body, especially facial parts or extremities, or even spiritual qualities of man, whereas the images are drawn from the inorganic, the vegetable, and from the animal sphere, or from the world of objects (the mechanical sphere). Those taken from the human sphere generally signify illness and death. In the description of grotesque objects, the qualified elements are buildings or parts of buildings, pieces of furniture; in fewer cases plants, parts of language, processes, or conditions. Here almost all the images are taken from the animal and the human sphere. Two details are especially noteworthy: First, among the rather conventional images are a few very striking ones, which belong to a border-region between organic and inorganic material ('a murky wriggling water,' 'shredded life pulp,' 'sap,' 'amoeba,' etc.); second, only the use of imagery enables Toomer to draw abstract concepts like 'awakening,' 'life,' 'mind,' or 'soul' into the range of the grotesque. However, the single image does not contribute much to the explanation of the grotesque, unless it is discussed in connexion with the element it is supposed to qualify. This, in turn, cannot be done satisfactorily without studying the ways in which the images are connected with these elements.
In the grotesque passages of Cane, the most frequent means of connexion are simile and metaphor. As a form of comparison, the simile is by nature less radical than the metaphor, which functions predominantly as an equation or a substitution; thus the simile is less suited to distort, animate, or alienate than the metaphor. It is interesting to observe how, if it is too weak to perform the connexion between the two incompatible terms, or if it fails to convey the necessary intensity, the simile either gives way to a metaphor, or metaphorical elements are inserted into it. In the description of Father John in 'Kabnis,' e.g., the simile is only effective as long as it is used to express the dead, static quality of the man: 'To the left, sitting in a high-backed chair which stands upon a low platform, the old man. He is like a bust in black walnut.'… In the course of Kabnis's invective against him, a shift from simile to metaphor can be observed step by step: 'Your eyes are dull and watery, like fish eyes. Fish eyes are dead eyes. Youre an old man, a dead fish man, an black at that.' (pp. 59-60)
In the description of Esther's hair, the precision of the image helps to turn it into a grotesque trait: 'It looks like the dull silk on puny corn ears.'… 'Silk' and 'ears' are dead metaphors designating parts of a corn-cob, but when applied to a rich girl's hair, they become functional again. The description continues: 'Her face pales until it is the color of the gray dust that dances with dead cotton leaves.' Having already become accustomed to the assumption of vegetable qualities by a part of the human body, we now have less difficulty in perceiving the implications of the death-metaphor: the face of the near-white child is distorted by the increase of her pallor; this in turn is achieved by the connexion with the dust that dances with dead plants. Again the comparison is intensified by means of a metaphor. (p. 60)
Among the metaphors occurring in the grotesque passages of Cane, we distinguish between those which link two concrete images and those which relate concrete images to (abstract) concepts…. [In the former group] the process consists in projecting a quality of the 'vehicle' (the second term, the image) onto the 'tenor' (the first term, the element to be qualified). Since this quality must be alien to the tenor, the intensity of the grotesque trait depends upon the emphasis laid on the incompatible features of the two terms. In the sentence: 'O Negro slaves, dark purple ripened plums / Squeezed and bursting in the pinewood air'…, the image suggests color and ripeness (the qualities the two terms have in common), whereas the projection of a certain vegetable quality unto...
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Charles R. Larson
Cane is not a typical novel. It is, in fact, sui generis—a unique piece of writing in American literature as well as in the entire scope of Third World writing. I suggest that Cane should be regarded as a lyrical novel—a narrative structured by images instead of the traditional unities. Its tripartite structure is developed from a series of thematic tensions: North/South; city/country (with the almost ubiquitous image of the land); past/present; black/white; male/female. Structured by these counterparts or tensions, Cane achieves a lyrical beauty and power which make it, for me, the most compelling novel ever written by a black American writer. (pp. 30-1)
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