Jean Toomer

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Jean Toomer American Literature Analysis

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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...

(This entire section contains 3478 words.)

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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 “Conversion,” in which an African deity merges with a “white-faced sardonic god.” King Barlo represents this corrupting mix of faiths from two worlds, just as Esther and Fern suffer from their biracial fusion. Dusk, a recurring descriptive motif in this first section, is a related thematic metaphor for the book as a whole.

“Blood-Burning Moon” is the last and most fully developed story in this section. Tom Burwell, a black laborer in the cane fields, becomes the lover of Louisa, who also is the lover of young Bob Stone, for whose family she works. “Strong as he was with hands upon the ax or plow,” Burwell is a gentle introvert and cannot express his feelings for Louisa. Stone, ironically, is a white reflection of Burwell in actions and personality.

Their rivalry reaches a climax when Stone goes to the canebrake, where he normally meets Louisa, to confront her with Burwell. A struggle ensues, and Burwell cuts Stone’s throat. In retaliation, a white lynch mob, “like ants upon a forage,” traps Burwell, takes him to an abandoned cotton factory, and ties him to a stake. While the frightened black people sneak home and blow out their kerosene lamps, the mob sets Burwell afire. Louisa, in her house, senses his fate; when she looks at the full moon, she sees it as “an evil thing . . . an omen which she must sing to.” Thus the first section of the novel ends as it begins, with the immolation of an African American.

Whereas the first unit of Cane portrays rural black people in a South still tied to antebellum mores, the second section shows them trying to cope in the North. It includes seven prose pieces (four of which are developed stories) and five poems. Two impressionistic and symbolic vignettes, “Seventh Street” and “Rhobert,” introduce the theme of a white society confining and stifling black people. In a letter, Toomer described the former story as “The song of a crude new life . . . a new people.” The latter presents urban houses as a destructive metaphor, literally burying “banty-bowed, shaky, ricket-legged” Rhobert, whose northern odyssey in search of opportunity for the family he left behind ends in a lonely death.

“Avey” is the first fully developed narrative in this section. Set in Washington, D.C., it echoes tales of the first part, for it, too, is about a black woman as a remote and indifferent sex object. Avey graduates from school and becomes a teacher; however, like Karintha and Fern, she turns to prostitution. Though he does not understand her, the immaturely self-centered narrator tries without success to rekindle a boyhood passion for her.

“Theater” also is about unrequited love. Set in a Washington theater during a rehearsal, its main characters are Dorris, a dancer, and John, the manager’s brother. Partly because of class differences symbolized by John’s fairer skin, nothing comes of their dreams of having an affair. John also is deterred by his fear that a commitment will compromise his independence. Here, as elsewhere in Cane, race and social class inhibit action.

In “Box Seat,” too, Dan and Muriel eventually go their separate ways because, by social standards, she is too good for him. Born in a canefield, light-skinned Dan Moore has migrated to Washington, where he is unemployed but hopefully courting Muriel, a teacher. Rejected, he follows her to a theater, where a grotesque exhibition of sparring dwarves is the feature. The winner sings a song he dedicates to Muriel, a visible presence in her box seat. When the dwarf offers her a rose, Muriel at first will not accept it, but she yields to audience pressure, a hypocritical act that ends Dan’s passion for her. Serenely tweaking the dwarf’s nose, he leaves the theater, “as cool as a green stem that has just shed its flower.” Unfulfilled, Dan nevertheless is a kind of victor; atypical of Toomer’s men, he no longer is a slave to a woman’s “animalism.”

In “Harvest Song,” the second of two lyrics that follow “Box Seat,” a reaper sings not only of his suffering but also of his determined self-control over hunger, thirst, blindness, deafness, and fatigue. “My pain is sweet,” he chants, “Sweeter than the oats or wheat or corn.” Set as it is between stories that take place in Washington and Chicago, the poem is a wistful glance backward to a pastoral South, where grim deprivation and hardship at least were ameliorated by a successful harvest. Life in the North does not offer any such bounty.

“Bona and Paul” closes the second section. A white woman and a black man, both southerners, meet in a Chicago physical education school. Paul Johnson, light enough to pass for white, denies that he is black; his complexion is what attracts Bona Hale to him. The climax of the story takes place at the Crimson Gardens, a nightclub featuring black music which is patronized by white customers. Paul is charmed by this blending of the two races; at the same time, he realizes “that people saw, not attractiveness in his dark skin, but difference.” For the first time, he sees himself as he is and is strengthened.

Bona also seems invigorated by the experience; as they leave, however, the black doorman leers at them knowingly. Paul pauses and tells him, “Brother, you’re wrong.” Addressing a fellow black as “brother,” Paul has come to terms with his racial identity. Bona disappears, and the story ends. Perhaps she cannot accept Paul’s embrace of his blackness; perhaps the knowing, leering look of the doorman makes her realize that she cannot bridge the social gulf of race. As a southerner, she can cope with ambiguity but not with certainty. Both characters thus come to a life-altering awareness.

“Kabnis,” which makes up the third part of Cane, is a closet drama that presents the consequences of a collision between past and present. Ralph Kabnis, a black man of mixed racial heritage, has returned from New York to his native South with an artist’s zeal to improve the lot of his people. A self-styled poet, he aims to become their voice. Having accommodated to the conditions under which they live and having come to terms with who they are, however, the black Georgians are indifferent to this savior. They look upon him as a potential troublemaker who could upset a delicate social balance with which they are satisfied.

Kabnis has come to rural Sempter, Georgia, to teach at a black school, but the headmaster soon dismisses him for unspecified reasons. Fred Halsey, a blacksmith, then takes Kabnis on as an apprentice, but he is as inept at this job as he apparently was at teaching. Whereas Halsey, a master artisan, is comfortably secure with his status, Kabnis is “awkward and ludicrous, like a schoolboy in his brother’s new overalls.”

Halsey cannot help Kabnis. Nor can Lewis, a teacher at the school of whom Halsey says, “He strikes me as knowin a bucketful bout most things.” Like Kabnis (and Paul Johnson of “Bona and Paul,” and perhaps Toomer himself), Lewis must come to terms with his own ancestry. Unlike Kabnis, he embraces it, a fact demonstrated by his attraction to old Father John, “symbol, flesh, and spirit of the past.”

When Kabnis rejects the connection by proclaiming, “My ancestors were Southern blue-bloods,” Lewis adds, “And black.” To Kabnis’s response, “Aint much difference between blue an black,” Lewis retorts, “Enough to draw a denial from you.” The next morning, Halsey’s sister Carrie K., “lovely in her fresh energy,” with a “calm untested confidence and nascent maternity,” tries to help Kabnis climb from a cellar after a night of drinking. When she assures him that she is up to the task, he says, “twont do t lift me bodily. . . . its th soul of me that needs th risin.”

By the end of the work, Kabnis has become little more than a childlike scarecrow, assailing Father John and thus rejecting his heritage and sinking to his knees before Carrie K., ashamed and exhausted. In Essentials: Definitions and Aphorisms, his 1931 book of maxims, Toomer wrote that “shame of a weakness implies the presence of a strength,” so there may be hope for Kabnis after all. At the conclusion of “Kabnis,” which also is the end of Cane, Toomer writes:Outside, the sun arises from its cradle in the tree-tops of the forest. Shadows of pines are dreams the sun shakes from its eyes. The sun arises. Gold-glowing child, it steps into the sky and sends a birth-song slanting down gray dust streets and sleepy windows of the southern town.

Given the optimistic tone of these final words, and the focus upon Father John and Carrie K., Toomer surely is not as despairing as is Kabnis. Indeed, the young woman and old man likely represent between them the past, present, and future of their race, and Ralph Kabnis may yet find his proper place.

“Blue Meridian”

First published: 1936 (collected in The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer, 1988)

Type of work: Poem

An optimistic vision of America flourishing from a blending of its many races is the theme of this poem, which Toomer develops in a style recalling Walt Whitman.

While still working on Cane in 1920 and 1921, Toomer wrote a 126-line poem he called “The First American,” which was published as “Brown River, Smile” in 1932. By that time, he had expanded it considerably, and the 835-line “Blue Meridian” was included in the 1936 anthology New American Caravan. Toomer has written of the poem’s long gestation period: “Years were to pass . . . before the germ of ’The First American’ could grow and ripen and be embodied in ’The Blue Meridian.’” That germ, according to Toomer, was “that here in America we are in the process of forming a new race, that I was one of the first conscious members of this race. . . .”

Written in free verse, “Blue Meridian” is in the expansive Walt Whitman tradition, with echoes of such poems as “Song of Myself” (1855). More directly, it shows the influence of Hart Crane’s longer, loosely connected sequence of poems The Bridge (1930), which examines America’s past and present and looks ahead to the future. Crane and Toomer, who knew each other, both treat the unifying nature of human experience and Americans’ relationship to country and God; in each poem, moreover, the Mississippi River is a central, almost mythic, symbol.

The three parts of Toomer’s work open with references to a meridian. First is the Black Meridian, “sleeping on an inland lake.” The second section begins with a stanza that tells of the White Meridian “waking on an inland lake.” The third unit, consisting of the final twenty-seven lines, serves as a coda, opening with an exuberant stanza about a “Dynamic atom-aggregate” Blue Meridian awake and dancing. This progression from slumber to wakefulness parallels what Toomer sees as the American people’s increasing awareness of their country’s special quality. Tracing the historical development of the United States, he notes that whereas the “great red race was here,” “wave after wave” of immigrants came from Europe, islands (Asian and Caribbean), and Africa. The use of the wave image ties in with repeated references to the Mississippi River, which Toomer calls “sister of the Ganges,” India’s sacred river.

Relevant, too, are the meridians’ colors. Disposing of the extremes of black and white, Toomer offers “the high way of the third,/ The man of blue or purple.” These are his “new people . . . called Americans.” While not denying their “unbroken chain of ancestors,” they “outgrow each wider limitation” and grow “towards the universal Human Being.” Racial differences no longer will matter; people will be able to aspire without society’s hindrance to achieve their desired goals.

Optimistic though his vision of the future is, Toomer has no illusions about the journey to the promised land. It will involve, he says, a “struggle through purgatories of many names” and will require help from the “Radiant Incorporeal” or “soul of our universe.”

“Blue Meridian” and Cane have obvious thematic links, but although the novel concludes on a positive note, the characters are a long way from achieving the “spiritual fusion . . . of racial intermingling” that Toomer claimed to have reached for himself. The sketch of an incomplete circle between the second and third sections of the novel is emblematic of an unattained goal. By contrast, the celebratory optimism of “Blue Meridian” is signaled by its title, for the word “meridian” refers to a complete circle and also can mean the highest point of development, authority, or magnificence.


Jean Toomer Short Fiction Analysis