Jean Toomer

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Patricia Chase (essay date 1971)

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SOURCE: “The Women in Cane,” in College Language Association Journal, Vol. 14, No. 3, March, 1971, pp. 259-73.

[In the following essay, Chase explores Toomer's complex portrayal of women in Cane, maintaining of his female characters that: “Perhaps they are all the same woman, archetypal woman, all wearing different faces, but each possessing an identifiable aspect of womanhood.”]

If the fabric of Cane is the life essence and its meaning behind absurdity, then Toomer's women characters are the threads which weave Cane together. Like the form in which Toomer chose to express himself, his women characters are no less rare and sensual. Perhaps they are all the same woman, archetypal woman, all wearing different faces, but each possessing an identifiable aspect of womanhood. Each is strange, yet real; each wears a protective mask of indifference; each is as capable of love as well as lust; and each is guilty of or victimized by betrayal—of herself or of a man. There is no aspect of woman that Toomer does not weave inextricably into his archetypal woman, and in the end, through Carrie K., he has fashioned out of flesh and also failure, his vision of womankind.

Toomer moves his women characters, as he changes the locus of Cane, from South to North and back to the South again. All of the women reflect their environment, are mirrored in it and react to it. Some belong to themselves (Carma, Karintha, Avey); others belong to the rich earth of Georgia (Fern, Becky, Esther, Louisa); and the rest belong to the whitewashed conformity and death-in-life of the North (Dorris, Muriel, Bona). If Toomer poses a question through one woman, he often answers that same question, or makes his statement through another. If Carma, in her ferocity and natural drive, does not understand her responsibility for her actions and their consequences, then Louisa most clearly does. If Karintha and Fern are the existential questions, of being or non-being, of identity vs. nonentity, then Avey is the statement of survival through acceptance and indifference. If Becky is reality in the face of absurdity, then Esther is absurdity in the face of reality. If Dorris mirrors the question of finding life sustenance in the North, then Muriel is the answer.

Toomer's thread of meaning begins weaving itself in Karintha, who is “perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.” If Toomer is fashioning an archetypal woman, he begins with the first feminine quality, beauty:

Her skin is like the dusk on the eastern horizon,
O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon
… When the sun goes down.

(p. 1)1

Karintha is passionate and fierce, bursting with vitality and life, but she grows ripe too soon. She is suffused, even as a child, with an almost tangible sexuality and sensuality, but she suspends herself just out of reach of those who want her. Like many of Toomer's women, she is not to be possessed. Toomer paints Karintha in gentle brushstroke words: “Her sudden darting past you was a bit of vivid color, like a blackbird that flashes in light” (p. 2). Karintha seems to be holding the promise of life's secret, but just out of reach. Like the baby that “fell out of her womb,” she exists in a haze of sweet smoke. In the rural South, poor, with nothing to do, she is very much free to be. She belongs simply to herself and to “the Georgia dusk when the sun goes down.” Karintha is a question, a provocative overture in...

(This entire section contains 5648 words.)

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a rehearsal of human experience.

If Karintha is Toomer's existential question, then Fern and finally, Avey are the statement to that question. In Fern Toomer expands on the quality of beauty in a woman. Her face “flowed into her eyes. Flowed in soft cream foam and plaintive ripples, in such a way that wherever your glance may momentarily have rested, it immediately thereafter wavered in the direction of her eyes” (p. 24). Fern is alluring, yet elusive. Through Fern, Toomer deals with the concept of beauty for its own sake in a woman. Men see in her eyes what they want to see, mystery and a yet unfulfilled desire. In his desire and fascination, the young man says of her: “They were strange eyes. In this, that they sought nothing—that is, nothing that was obvious and tangible and that one could see, and they gave the impression that nothing was to be denied. … Fern's eyes desired nothing that you could give her; there was no reason why they should withhold. … When she was young, a few men took her, but got no joy from it” (pp. 24-25). Perhaps behind her beauty there was nothing else. Her promise, it appeared, was just out of reach, and: “As you know, men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman” (p. 26). In Fern, Toomer is building a myth of woman, endowing her with mysticism and an ineluctability that make men want to do some “fine, unnamed thing” for her. But Fern lacks external identity. She is her beauty. It is her only gift from life. Yet Fern is the only one who accepts this. Others weave myths about her to sustain themselves, and then with vague guilt, having used her to escape oppressive passion or ennui, or perhaps to escape—for a moment—themselves, they weave myths and dreams protectively about her in payment for their use of her. “A sort of superstition crept into their consciousness of her being somehow above them” (p. 26). In her dissertation, “Jean Toomer: Herald of the Negro Renaissance,” Mabel Mayle Dillard makes the point that men are “struck by an attachment to Fern that transcends all reality.” But no one really touches Fern, if there is anything to touch. She is waiting, it seems, for something that will never come, and she knows it. She belongs to the soil of Georgia and the scent of the cane. There is no choice involved. So in waiting, Fern has become all that life has given her—her beauty—and her being is dreamy and drugged by the day to day life that is her reality and her prison. Said Toomer in a letter to his friend, Waldo Frank, “In Karintha and Fern the dominant emotion is a sadness derived from a sense of fading, of a knowledge of one's futility to check solution …” In the same letter he says, “The supreme fact of mechanical civilization is that you become part of it or get sloughed off or under.” Fern's song is one of loneliness; in the canefield she goes into a trance and “her body was tortured by something it could not let out. … And then she sang brokenly. A Jewish cantor, singing with a broken voice. A child's voice, uncertain, or an old man's” (p. 32). In the canefield, Fern is alone with the pattern of her existence, her loneliness, and sameness of her life, over which she has no control, but nevertheless accepts.

Anyone, of course, could see her, could see her eyes. If you walked up the Dixie Pike most any time of day you'd be most like to see her resting listless-like on the railing of her porch, back propped against a post, head tilted a little forward because there was a nail in the porch post just where her head came which for some reason or another she never took the trouble to pull out. Her eyes, if it were sunset, rested idly where the sun, molten and glorious, was pouring down between the fringe of pines. Or maybe they gazed at the grey cabin on the knoll from which an evening folksong was coming. … Wherever they looked, you'd follow them and then waver back. Like her face, the whole countryside seemed to flow into her eyes. Flowed into them with the soft, listless cadence of Georgia's South.

(pp. 26-27)

What he hints at in Karintha and Fern, Toomer states outright through Avey, the existential woman. Unconcerned, indifferent, living in the here and now, “lazy and easy as anything,” she is an earthy but enigmatic woman. Like Karintha and Fern, Toomer describes Avey in terms of her allure, and her elusiveness. She is a mystique to the adolescent boys who see her as floating among, but somehow above them. Avey is a woman already, but they are not yet men and cannot have her. The young man in love with Avey says, “I'd meet her on the street, and there'd be no difference in the way she said hello. She never took the trouble to call me by my name. … She'd smile appreciation, but it was an impersonal smile, never for me” (pp. 78-79). Later, when they are older, he says wistfully, “But though I held her tightly in my arms, she was way away” (p. 79). Like Karintha and Fern she came and went as she pleased, leaving always a scent of unfulfilled promise behind her. She is silent and knowing, surprised by none of life's traps and betrayals. Like Fern and Karintha men are tempted to weave myths about her and to “idolize and fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman.” Avey, like Fern and Karintha, seems to hold the key to some secret, that if men only knew what, would make them free. However, if Avey is heavy with sensual promise, it is not through her own design. It is simply what men choose to see in her, not being able to understand her for what she is. Not being able to really know Avey or possess her, the persona (perhaps speaking for the author) wishes to protect her from the sordid side of life; to explain her to herself. But she has already experienced life and has come to grips with it on her own terms. Life has been real enough and brutal enough for Avey that she has seen it for its absurdity and hypocrisy, come to workable terms with it, and thus can no longer be wounded by it. She has been so blown about willy-nilly by life that she knows her powerlessness against circumstance. But to her would-be lover she is “lazy and indolent …”

As time went on her indifference to things began to pique me; I was ambitious. … The more I thought of it, the more I resented, yes, hell, thats what it was, her downright laziness. Sloppy indolence. There was no excuse for a healthy girl taking life so easy. Hell! She was no better than a cow.

(pp. 82-83)

If Avey is unconcerned and indifferent it is because she must be in order to survive. It is this quality, this refusal to compete in a competitive world that men misunderstand and resent in Avey. But Avey's life is valid and real; she is living it and she has no illusions. It is they who choose to weave myths about her. It is their vision that is sharply limited. Men seem only able to view women as a self-created alter ego. In other words, “If there is nothing to take and nothing to protect, then how else can one react to woman?” Thus, their perplexity and anger at Avey's indifference and refusal to “play the game” is merely the shadow of their own limited vision.

In moving from the black world (the South) to the white world (the North) in Cane, Toomer passes consciously through the grey world of Esther and Becky, a purgatory of miscegenation. Through both Becky and Esther, Toomer limns women who bear the burden of society's vision of race-mixing. In Becky he is dealing with the creator; with Esther, the creation. If Becky is reality in the face of absurdity, then Esther is absurdity in the face of reality. Becky, who is white, is rejected because she bears two illegitimate black sons; Esther is rejected because she is neither black nor white, and her mind becomes equally grey. Becky is relegated to her world through her actions; Esther fashions a world of fantasy for lack of a real one. Becky is reality. Esther is illusion.

Becky has borne two blacks sons. As a result she is ostracized by both the black and white communities. In their guilt for rejecting her, they scurry desperately but furtively to provide her with food, shelter, and a cloak of anonymity. Those who weave a myth of mysticism about Fern and Avey also endow Becky with a supernatural myth, laying their burden of guilt upon her. She is feared by them since she is the mirror within which they must see their own narrowness and cruelty. Becky is said to exude “vitality,” but it is nothing so qualitative as that; hers is simply bone-hard determination to survive. Her survival for so long in the face of rejection and scorn proves her strength and the validity of her existence. The author's description of Becky is merely a sketchy framework for his purpose, for “Becky” reveals the bleak reality of the human experience, more than the woman. In Toomer's style, she is the experience. Of course, the crumbling of Becky's house is most symbolic; perhaps it caves in from the oppressive weight of a whole town's guilt. And it is interesting that in the face of rejection and ostracism, Becky chooses to stay in this rural Southern town while it is the people of the community who really flee from Becky, who holds the mirror of their weaknesses.

Toomer's other ‘grey world’ woman, Esther, is a woman without racial or sexual identity. She lacks the color, both literally and figuratively, of Fern, Karintha, Louisa, Karma and Avey. Having been bleached of the color to which she has birthright, black, she has also been robbed of its quality. She is of neither world in color, and neither world in mind. Belonging nowhere, Esther builds her own world through fantasy. All of her plans are sketchy and unsure. Even her dreams are bits and pieces of fantasy, never whole or complete. In her loneliness and emptiness, both as a person and as a woman, she reaches out for depth and the reality of living, personified for her by King Barlo, but she has little save fantasy to offer him. She sees Barlo as her deliverer—from loneliness to love, from barrenness to fulfillment, from greyness to blackness, from nonentity to identity. In her solitude, and out of her need, she creates an impossible myth about Barlo, and in the end, it is the myth she desires, not the man. Face to face with King Barlo (fantasy faced with reality) she sees that he is a man, not a myth, and since her life is built on myths and fantasy, she cannot relate to him. Becky leaves with numb acceptance of her life stretching out before her empty and meaningless. She “steps out” then of whatever shreds of realness she may have had into a world where “There is no air, no street, and the town has completely disappeared” (p. 48). With no alternative left, Esther steps finally into the world of madness, where no identity is required. Her mind is indeed a “pink meshbag filled with babytoes.” Perhaps Esther symbolizes that part of woman that needs myth to survive in an alien and frightening world; sexual myth as well as male myth. For many women these myths are reality. Society makes them reality and many cannot choose but believe. And like Esther, for them, the myth becomes the man. And the life. Everlasting.

It was stated earlier that if Carma does not grasp the meaning of taking responsibility for her actions, then Louisa does. In practicing her right to be a free human being, Carma becomes involved in the “crudest melodrama” wherein someone else pays the price of her infidelity. Through Carma, Toomer is juggling the effects of pride, in man and woman, and the price that is exacted when men and women play at power and pride in their relationships. Carma, like the other women in Part I of Cane is earthy and sensual, more apt to follow the natural impulses of her being than the unnatural, dictates of society. She is bone-tough, “strong as any man,” arrogant and sensual. With her husband away much of the time, “She had others. No one blames her for that” (p. 18). She feels free to give herself to whomever she chooses, for is her body not hers to give? But Carma's vision is somewhat limited. She thinks only in terms of what she wants without considering the effects of her actions on others. In his hurt pride and wrath at discovering Carma's infidelity, her husband, Bane, confronts her. Suddenly she is faced with the consequence to her actions. In her simplicity, it had not occurred to her that she should be questioned. She defends. He advances. In fear and confusion, and in a sudden impluse of female wile, she flees into the canefield with a gun, hoping to put Bane on the defensive by making him feel responsible for a faked suicide. It is a crude melodrama within a crude melodrama, and its effects are catastrophic. Bane and his friends follow her into the canefield after they hear a shot ring out, and find her lying near the gun. They carry her home, fearful that she has killed or wounded herself.

They placed her on the sofa. A curious, nosey somebody looked for the wound. This fussing with her clothes aroused her. Her eyes were weak and pitiable for so strong a woman. Slowly, then like a flash, Bane came to know that the shot she fired, with averted head, was aimed to whistle like a dying hornet through the cane. Twice deceived, and one deception proved the other. His head went off. Slashed one of the men who'd helped, the man who stumbled over her. Now he's in the gang. Who was her husband.

(pp. 19-20)

Carma is responsible for her husband's acts and his imprisonment, but others than Carma have taken the consequences. Carma is still herself, belonging to no one; living free in the here and now. “Should she not take others, this Carma, strong as any man, whose tale as I have told it is the crudest melodrama?” (p. 20)

If Toomer leaves us with this question in Carma, his statement is clear in Louisa, who pays as well as Tom Burwell and Bob Stone, the price of pride. In describing Louisa, Toomer begins again with beauty—soft, sensual, warm. His description of Louisa is lyrical and sweet with the scent of the cane:

Her skin was the color of oak leaves on young trees in fall. Her breasts firm and up-pointed like ripe acorns. And her singing had the low murmur of winds in the fig trees.

(p. 51)

Enjoying woman's rare advantage, Louisa has two men in love with her—and does not care to choose between them. But as the “blood burning” moon symbolizes, all is not calm. One man is black, like Louisa, and the other is white. There is a price to pay that Louisa hasn't considered. Louisa becomes caught in a web of events over which she no longer has control. Lulled by the heat, the heavy, sweet scent of the sugar cane, which carries the aura of death and violence, as well as love, and drugged by the “blood-burning” moon, Louisa has not considered the effects of her actions in the light of her environment and the ways of men. She lives, like many of Toomer's women, in the here and now. In factory town, only here and now. She is young and reckless, which is youth's gift. Thus how can she comprehend when the past crashes together with the present before her? Not wishing to choose between Tom and Bob, and in her glory, she has forgotten the pride of men.

Separately, there was no unusual significance to either one. But for some reason they jumbled when her eyes gazed vacantly at the rising moon,

(p. 52)

Quickly, over before it is begun, violence and death snap Louisa from her dreamy indecision to stark reality.

Blue flash, a steel blade slashed across Bob Stone's throat. Blood began to flow. … Negroes who had seen the fight slunk into their homes and blew the lamps out. Louisa, dazed, hysterical, refused to go indoors. She slipped, crumbled, her body loosely propped against the woodwork of the well.

(p. 64)

With gruesome finality, Tom Burwell is murdered by a white mob for killing a white man, refusing in their fear and hate to investigate the circumstances. They are driven, “blood-burning” with mindless hate, to evil and insane acts of violence. They are the hint of violence that fills the air, always waiting behind the sweet smell of the cane, for the scent of blood and the chance to destroy what they cannot understand.

Stench of buring flesh soaked the air. Tom's eyes popped. His head settled downward. The mob yelled. Its yell echoed against the skeleton stone walls and sounded like a hundred yells. Like a hundred mobs yelling. … It fluttered like a dying thing, down the single street of factory town. Louisa, upon the step before her home, did not hear it, but her eyes opened slowly. They saw the full moon glowing in the great door. The full moon, an evil thing, an omen, soft showering the homes of folks she knew. Where were they, these people? She'd sing and perhaps they'd come out and join her. Perhaps Tom Burwell would come.

(p. 67)

The horror is more than Louisa can bear. The fear, the injustice, the evil and the finality are more than she can comprehend, and she loses her mind. Her powerlessness and the consequences of her naiveté become for a moment clear to her and exact a price—her sanity. Like Esther, Louisa withdraws to a world beyond the real, where she can no longer be wounded. She has cost a man his life.

In her dissertation, Mabel Dillard has referred to Louisa, Avey, Carma, Karintha, Fern, Esther, and Becky as Toomer's “primitive” women, due to their earthiness, and particularly because they are a reflection of rural America, forgotten in the industrial crush of a growing nation. They are closer to the earth, the life, and themselves because they are not tied up in the artificiality and desperation of the industrial North.

If it is difficult for us to understand these women, and the way they react, it is because we live in a society and a century in which there is little left which is spontaneous and natural; where plastic reigns supreme god, and the price of freedom is death. In turning our backs to the soil and building concrete jungles for homes, we have raped the land, misused its resources, and destroyed its wildlife. We have eliminated the real and replaced it with the unreal. We have sold our souls for colored television sets, and IBM computers find our lovers for us. In place of love, joy, and human feeling we have accepted a bag of cement on credit and a lust for things instead of life.

From the depth and natural life force of the South, Toomer moves his women characters, and their lives to the fast-moving world of the urban North—industrial, cold, anonymous. If Toomer characterizes through primitive woman a reaction to life in the South; then Dorris, Muriel, and to an extent, Bona, typify the life of the white-washed North.

Dorris, with her beauty and vitality exemplifies all that the North. As Lieber2 points out, John does not accept or rejoice theater she takes up arms in her dancing and passionately presents herself to the world, asking for love in return. She gives herself over to the rhythms of life, through her dancing, hoping to draw John into the dance of life and into her:

I've heard em say that men who look like him (what does he look like?) will marry if they love. O will you love me? And give me kids and a home and everything? … Dorris dances. She forgets her tricks. She dances. Glorious songs are muscles of her limbs. And her singing is of canebrake loves and mangrove feastings.

(pp. 97-98)

Dorris tries with all her being to clutch the feelings of the man, John, whose black body is separated from his consciousness, which is white-washed and melancholy like the North. As Lieber2 points out, John does not accept or rejoice in his black heritage, is estranged from it, and cannot love Dorris on her terms. His mind is a prison of the shaft of white light; he has been white-washed by the white people, standards, and racism of the North, where because of his blackness, his manhood is denied. Thus he cannot love, and without love, Dorris is in turn robbed of her womanhood. The dank whiteness of the North; its cold, its people, and its “dry smell of dry paste and paint and soiled clothing” will make Dorris dry and brittle herself. She will become, without love, a dancing doll, groping for feeling and empathy, laboring to survive as a woman where there is no survival possible.

Muriel is John's counterpart in a woman. Starched, retreating, disguising her selfness behind the walls of a prim, white house, Muriel worries constantly about “what people think” and becomes the prisoner of that cliche. At the first hint of something real and of value, Dan and his desire, she backs away in fear. Dan, trying desperately to retain his identity in the disgusting conformity of urban life, tries to free Muriel from her prison of fear. “For once in your life you're going to face whats real, by God—” (p. 115). But Muriel pushes him away.

Muriel fastens on her image. She smoothes her dress. She adjusts her skirt. She becomes prim and cool. Rising, she skirts Dan as if to keep the glass between them …

(p. 115)

Muriel has sold herself to play a minor part in a sham, whitewashed world. She wants Dan, but not in a real or honest way. She wants him sexually, but is not free enough to enjoy her own sexuality. Since she is not free enough to give herself to him, she fantacizes rape and violence, anything but real loving. Like an adolescent, she wants to call what she wants by another name. Dan recognizes her for what she is, a slave to convention.

Muriel—bored. Must be. But she'll smile and she'll clap. Do what youre bid, you she-slave. Look at her. Sweet, tame woman in a brass box seat. Clap, smile, fawn, clap. Do what you're bid …

(pp. 120-121)

For the real sexual love that she wants, Muriel accepts the symbolic grappling of midgets on a stage. “They charge. … They pound each other furiously. Muriel pounds” (p. 124). And for her orgasm she sees “cut lips and bloody noses.” For love, she accepts hate. For sex, blood. In a grotesque parody of afterlove, a battered midget comes out holding flowers and a mirror, within which Muriel is refused her reflection, since she has none. Instead, the midget presents her with bloody roses as a mocking memento.

Like Muriel and Dorris, Bona, a white girl from the South transplanted to the North, is colorless and washed by conformity. In her search for meaning in life and in the “white experience,” she is in love with Paul's blackness, but not Paul himself. Like John, a victim of white-washing, Paul has not embraced his racial identity and all that it involves. As Robert Bone asserts in The Negro Novel in America, it is Paul's inability to assert his Negro self that makes the “potential love affair an abortive one.” As the white woman face to face with, and attracted to the black man, Bona is confused and unsure. She symbolically dances about Paul on the basketball court, testing her feelings and measuring his.

She whirls, he catches her. Her body stiffens. Then becomes strangely vibrant, and bursts to swift life within her anger. … He looks at Bona. Whir. Whir. They seem to be human distortions spinning tensely in a fog. Spinning … dizzy … spinning … Bona jerks herself free, flushes a startling crimson, breaks through the bewildered teams, and rushes from the hall.

(pp. 136-137)

An extrovert herself, Bona is irresistably drawn to Paul, who is quiet, pensive, and deep. She wants to know him, but with her preconditioned vision of him, she does not see him at all. Their experiences and their lives have been kept so rigidly apart for so long by society that they are strangers and do not know how to reach out to each other as man and woman. The gulf between them is far too wide, from black to white, from man to woman, and from real to real. In “Bona and Paul” Toomer is no longer dealing with absurdity in the face of reality, or reality in the face of absurdity, but one reality in the face of another.

“And you know it too, don't you Bona?”

“What Paul?”

“The truth of what I was thinking.”

“I'd like to know I know—something of you.”

(pp. 148-149)

In the only way they know, they grapple mentally with their estrangement, both trying to understand, and both unable. Finally, through desire, they let their bodies carry the passion of their feelings. “Passionate blood leaps back into their eyes” (p. 151). They leave to go make love; to find each other. But the contempt and the knowing glances of those who watch brings Paul back to himself and he embraces at last his own unique being and his blackness. He goes back to explain to the black doorman, who looked “knowingly” at them.

“I came back to tell you brother, that white faces are petals of roses. And dark faces are petals of dusk. That I am going out and gather petals.”

(p. 153)

But Bona, who in reality wants Paul's essence, and not Paul, is gone. The shell of her conformity and fear which she had left on the dance floor in a moment of discovery, has caught up with her outside. She is not yet enough woman or comfortable enough with her womanhood to take what life offers. Bona wishes to embrace the color, not the man, or the man, not the color. Life offers her for a moment, both, but she flees in fear. The novelty, depth, and uniqueness of Paul's experience frighten her. Like Muriel, she too is a prisoner of convention.

With his statement in “Bona and Paul” and with Paul's realization (perhaps a reflection of Toomer's own agonizing battle with identity), Toomer is ready to move back again to the source—the deep South. Here, through Kabnis, he extends his question of identity to a statement through woman. Quietly and surely, through Carrie K., Toomer makes his final statement of woman and her role. Carrie K. unlike some of the other women characters in Cane, is able to accept herself and her cultural experience totally, with action as well as reaction. She is young and shy, yet knowing. She is able to understand equally the young man, Kabnis, denying yet searching for his identity, as well as she understands the old man, Father John, who is the container and the reflector of the black experience for which Kabnis searches.

She is lovely in her fresh energy of the morning, in the calm, untested confidence and nascent maternity …

(p. 233)

Carrie K. believes not only in herself, but in the validity of all human experience. She is the bridge between the old and the new, and between fantasy and reality. Toomer seems to present, through Carrie K., his total vision of woman—not withdrawing, but advancing toward the future carring the relevant past, i. e., Father John, with her. Through her Toomer makes his final statement of woman as a bridge not only between man and man, but as a bridge between a man and himself. This is most evident when Father John, the “mute John the Baptist of a new religion—or tongue-tied shadow of an old” vouchsafes “… th sin th white folks ‘mitted when they made th Bible lie” (pp. 211, 237). Infuriated, Kabnis retorts,

So thats your sin. All these years t tell us that th white folks made th Bible lie. Well, I'll be damned. Lewis ought t have been here. You old black fakir—

(p. 238)

Carrie K. then responds to Kabnis:

Brother Ralph, is that your best amen? She turns him to her and takes his hot cheeks in her firm cool hands. Her palms draw the fever out. With its passing, Kabnis crumples. He sinks to his knees before her, ashamed, exhausted. His eyes squeeze tight. Carrie presses his face tenderly against her …

(p. 238)

Without fear and with intuitive perception, Carrie K. accepts the validity of all human experience without judgment or contempt. She is, in her compassion and acceptance, the link between the man and his soul.

Toomer begins with Karintha and her beauty, and ends with Carrie K. and her profundity, as Cane culminates in the vision and meaning of human experience. Through his reflections of a woman's reaction to living, through many women and the faces they wear, Toomer has woven a vision of woman that is real and valid, because they are. This vision culminates in Carrie K. She is all of his women in one self-actualizing woman. She is Cane.

Her skin is like the dusk on the eastern horizon,
O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon
… When the sun goes down.


  1. These lines and all subsequent quotations are taken from Jean Toomer's Cane (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923).

  2. Todd Lieber, “Design and Movement in Cane,CLA Journal, XIII, (September, 1969), 42-43.


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Jean Toomer 1894–-1967

(Born Nathan Eugene Toomer) American short story writer, poet, and essayist. See also Jean Toomer Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 4, 13, 22.

Toomer's Cane (1923) is one of the most admired and frequently studied literary creations of the Harlem Renaissance, a period in the 1920s that saw a flowering of American culture. Described as an amalgamation of stories, sketches, poetry, and drama, Cane is an intimate portrait of African-American life, depicting such themes as slavery, sexuality, and most importantly, self-identity. It is this latter theme, so often highlighted by critics, that forms the quest in Cane. Toomer's work is highly praised both for its rich use of symbol and myth and for its experiments with language and form, and is often cited as an extremely influential work in the canon of Black-American literature. Despite the encouragement of Sherwood Anderson, Hart Crane, and Waldo Frank, Toomer never again equaled the success of his initial work. Although he published several essays, poems, and stories in small-press periodicals during the more than thirty years of his subsequent writing, he never sold another book to a commercial publisher.

Biographical Information

Born in Washington, D. C. in 1894, Toomer was of mixed race: his grandfather was black, his mother of mixed blood, and his father a white Georgia farmer. Toomer spent much of his childhood in an affluent white section of Washington, relatively free of racial prejudice, in the home of his maternal grandfather, a prominent Louisiana politician of the Reconstruction era. It was after the death of Toomer's mother in 1909 that his family experienced extreme financial losses, requiring the family to move to a modest black neighborhood. Toomer's position in both black and white society offered him an unusual perspective on racial identity. Early in his life he concluded that he was a member of the American race, neither black nor white, a conviction that deeply affected both his literary career and the course of his life. As a young man, Toomer lived a transient existence, studying various subjects at several universities and working a number of jobs. He enjoyed a literary apprenticeship for several months in 1919 and 1920 in Greenwich Village, where he met some prominent New York intellectuals. In 1921 Toomer accepted a temporary teaching position in Sparta, Georgia, a poor, rural southern town which gave Toomer the opportunity to discover his black roots. This exposure to the South inspired much of Toomer's writing in Cane. His encounter in 1924 with the teachings of George Gurdjieff, a Greek and Armenian spiritual leader who taught a complex program of philosophy, psychology, and dance movements designed to achieve spiritual wholeness, led Toomer to eschew the literary world he cultivated during the early 1920s. He joined Gurdjieff's movement, attended the Gurdjieff Institute at Fontainebleau, France, and taught Gurdjieff philosophy from 1926 until 1933. As a result, many of Toomer's subsequent writings reflect his dedication to Gurdjieffian philosophy and methods, and display little of Cane's poignant lyricism, beauty, or sorrow. Toomer married in 1931, but lost his wife in childbirth. After he remarried in 1934, Toomer moved to Pennsylvania and became a Quaker. Toomer died in 1967.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Cane includes many pieces that originally appeared in the avant-garde literary magazines Broom,The Crisis, and S 4 N. The work is divided into three sections and reflects Toomer's impressions of African-American life in both the rural South and the urban neighborhoods of Washington, D. C. and Chicago. Employing a structure often compared to musical composition, particularly elements of gospel and blues, Toomer unifies Cane's various pieces with recurring themes and motifs and with parallel and contrapuntal relationships between the urban and rural black experience. In the first section of Cane, Toomer interweaves six stories with twelve poems, using imagery drawn from nature to create the lyrical, impressionistic, and often mystical portraits of six Southern women. By turns strong and vulnerable, exotic and ordinary, innocent and misunderstood, Toomer's women, commentators note, convey the essence of this Southern life, which was soon to be altered by encroaching cultural change. Critics conclude that in section one Toomer successfully captures the beauty and dignity as well as the pain and suffering of these people and their lives. Cane's second section, which is comprised of seven prose sketches and five poems, shifts in setting from the rural South to the urban environments of Washington, D. C. and Chicago. Commentators assert that the second section is a skillful portrayal of characters spiritually bankrupt and devoid of vitality because they have abandoned their natural heritage and adopted society's stifling values. The third and final section of Cane consists of “Kabnis,” Toomer's longest, most sustained piece, which incorporates the themes of both sections one and two. Variously described by critics as a play, novella, and short story, “Kabnis” is a thinly-veiled autobiographical portrait of an educated but spiritually confused northern black man who travels to the South to teach school in a small, rural town in the hope of discovering his ancestry.

Critical Reception

Cane drew early critical interest because of its engaging approach to its subject and its experimental form. Critics contended that Cane was not a diatribe on racial relations, nor a strident reformist doctrine, as were many works by other Harlem Renaissance writers, but was instead a lyrical, passionate, and artistic creation. The influence of Sherwood Anderson and Waldo Frank, acknowledged by Toomer, is evidenced in the centrality of folk life; Toomer also attributed his work to the influence of the Imagist poets, whose economy of line and image he praised and emulated. Yet critical reaction to Cane as a masterpiece of African-American literature angered Toomer, who declared his work to be a depiction of American experience written by an American author, not a black one. Although he wrote voluminously after the publication of Cane, Toomer felt that Cane had voiced his essential message about the dying black folk spirit. In recent decades, critics have reexamined some of Toomer's more obscure short fiction, concluding that it lacks the passion and insight of his major work, Cane.

Udo O. H. Jung (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: “Jean Toomer: Fern,” in The Black American Short Story in the 20th Century, edited by Peter Bruck, B.R. Grüner Publishing Co., 1977, pp. 53-69.

[In the following essay, Jung examines the circumstances surrounding the publication of and the critical reaction to “Fern,” and surveys the major themes of the story.]

“Fern” is from Jean Toomer's book Cane, which he published in 1923 and which to his chagrin sold no more than 500 copies.1 However, if we are to believe the late Dr. Bontemps “a few sensitive and perceptive people went quietly mad”2 about the book. The judgement of those readers who were more articulate was not unanimous. Some of the reviews that Cane drew and which have been collected by John M. Reilly in his bibliographical checklist3 and partly reprinted in Frank Durham's Studies in Cane4 were frankly hostile (although these constituted only a minority). Many people were frustrated because of the intricate pattern of the stories, poems, and sketches: When they praised the book they cloaked their confusion in highflying but meaningless rhetoric, like the well-known and respected critic Stanley Braithwaite who wrote: “Cane is a book of gold and bronze, of dusk and flame, of ecstasy and pain, and Jean Toomer is a bright morning star of a new day of the race in literature.”5 The majority of reviews hailed Cane as “a harbinger of the South's literary maturity”6 or as the beginning of what “soon thereafter began to be called a Negro Renaissance.”7 From yet another point of view the book has caused the critics headaches. There has been some dispute as to which category Cane should be placed into. Is it a mere collection of poems, stories, and sketches or is it an, albeit, very experimental, form of the novel? In 1958 Robert Bone argued the latter case, in order to be able to include Cane in his study of The Negro Novel in America, but the majority of scholars have refused to go along with him. There exists, however, an almost universal consensus that Cane is not wholly without design. We have Toomer's own testimony according to which the book's design is a circle: “Aesthetically, from simple forms to complex ones, and back to simple forms.”8 Regionally it also takes three steps to complete the circle, from South up to North, and back to the South again. “Fern” with its Southern setting clearly belongs in the first station of this pilgrimage.

There has also been some dispute whether Jean Toomer should have a legitimate place in a Negro Renaissance, since he himself gave rise to the question of whether he was an Afro-American or not, when he refused James Weldon Johnson permission to include some poems of his in the second edition of The Book of American Negro Poetry, or when he declared, “Though I am interested in and deeply value the Negro, I am not a Negro,”9 which led some people to declare that Toomer had—as the saying goes—“passed.”10 An authoritative biography of Toomer is a great desideratum. Fortunately several scholars are at work to provide just this.11 The biographical material about Toomer that has been published to date is sufficient, though, to draw a rough and ready sketch of his person and personality.

The product of racial intermingling, Jean Toomer was tall, handsome, and what is more, fair-skinned. Chameleon-like he could take on “the color of whatever group”12 he chose to belong to. In 1922 the editors of the Doubledealer and the Liberator, John McClure and Claude McKay, were uniformly advised by him that he had seven blood mixtures: French, Dutch, Welsh, Negro, German, Jewish, and Italian. However, Toomer believed, paradoxically and significantly, that he would be classed as a Negro by the American public. To the average American of Toomer's time, used to pigeon-holing people according to a handful of racial and other categories, this seemed only too natural, for Nathan Eugene Pinchback Toomer was born in 1894 to Creole-Negro parents. The boy spent most of his childhood and adolescence in the Washington D.C. home of his grandfather, the legendary P.B.S. Pinchback, who in his heyday had been acting governor of Louisiana and had accumulated considerable wealth. But in line with the political and economic post-bellum situation of the race as a whole13 the fortune of Toomer's grandparents had slowly dwindled away.

At the outbreak of World War I Jean Toomer graduated from Dunbar High School and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin to study agriculture. Neither the University of Wisconsin nor agricultural studies were to his liking, so he quit. In rapid succession he tried the Massachusetts College of Agriculture, the American College of Physical Training in Chicago, New York University and the City College of New York, all to no avail. In the course of this odyssey, however, he became acquainted with the works of one of America's leading sociologists, Lester F. Ward, whose Dynamic Society Toomer is said to have devoured, and with Socialist lawyer Clarence Darrow, who later acted as counsel for the defense of the famous Scottsboro boys. Finally giving up all thought of an academic career, Toomer worked at an amazing array of jobs: “selling papers, delivery boy, soda clerk, salesman, shipyard worker, librarian-assistant, physical director, school teacher, grocery clerk, and God knows what all,”14 to use his own words. In the spring of 1920 Toomer came into the possession of some six hundred dollars.15 The leisure time which this sum of money bought him, he spent in the company of a New York crowd of people, such as Waldo Frank, Lola Ridge and Edwin Arlington Robinson. The next year saw Toomer working at the Howard Theatre in Washington, and in the fall he made a trip to Georgia. For 4 months he taught school at the Georgia Normal and Industrial Institute in Sparta.

Toomer himself considered his experience in the South as “the starting point of almost everything of worth that I have done.”16 The eight months that followed upon his stint as a school-teacher he spent in Washington writing feverishly and mailing out manuscripts to the editors of literary magazines. John McClure of the New Orleans Doubledealer was the recipient of a batch of manuscripts that contained among others a short story: “Fern.” McClure wrote back an apologetic letter, in which he explained: “‘Fern’ and ‘Karintha’ are excellent, more excellent than the other manuscripts. We would have been glad to print them, but we were frankly afraid. The bigotry and prejudice do permeate our subscription list to a great extent.”17 He went on to suggest that the editor of The Dial might be willing to publish the story or if Gilbert Seldes would not have it that Broom might accept “Fern.” At long last Margaret C. Anderson's The Little Review, which had been founded with the intention of “making no compromise with the public taste,”18 printed the story in the fall of 1922. What deterred the editors of several magazines from publishing the story and stunned some of the critics who gave it a more or less close reading in 1923 when it reappeared as part of Cane must have been the seemingly frank way of dealing with sex.

As first sentences are naturally of the greatest importance, let us turn our attention to how and by which means Toomer chose to initiate his readers into the world of his black heroine. “Face flowed into her eyes,” the narrator informs us. Syntactically the sentence is well-formed, it is part of the system of the English language; semantically it is not or hardly so: people's faces do not normally flow into their eyes. In any event this is the kind of first comment you would get from a generative-transformational grammarian of the Chomskyan School in response to a sentence like the one above.19 He might go on to tell you that modern linguistics is mostly a matter of retrieving the hypothetical deep structure of sentences from material in the surface structure. Asked for an example he could cite the following passage from James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and where the universe ended,” and he could point out to you that Joyce had deleted for stylistic reasons what was still present in the deep structure version of the sentence: “It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and it pained him that he did not know where the universe ended.”20 According to this theory the reader's contribution to understanding a sentence often consists in adding information not immediately observable. There seems thus to be a natural tendency for readers to supplement the input signal.

What has been proven to be a very useful discovery procedure for the analysis of speech utterances in the case of the generative-transformational approach might easily turn out to be a fatal mistake if indulged in indiscriminately by the literary critic. For in a literary work of art surface can be of prime importance: alliteration is such a surface phenomenon, and Toomer certainly knew how to avail himself of the phonological properties of the English language: “Face flowed into her eyes.” But the relevance of the argument does not stop here. The sentence could be expanded to something like “… wherever your glance may momentarily have rested, it immediately thereafter wavered in the direction of her eyes.” As a matter of fact, this is the larger half of the second sentence. What has been purposely omitted from the first, viz. the observer, is explicitly reintroduced. In the first, however, any trace of a second individual as a necessary prerequisite of perception and narration has been deleted. Properly understood we are faced with the description of an autonomous process, autonomous in the sense that it does not obey the laws of physical nature. The language expressly denies the existence of an observer. He must not—unconsciously or otherwise—be superimposed by the reader. Observer and object observed seem to be one, as if the former had been drawn in, so to speak, and was reporting from within this totality.

This short discussion of the first sentence has almost imperceptibly involved us in the intricacies of narrative technique. What is the narrator's position vis à vis the characters in the story? What rôle, if any, is the reader supposed to play in the matter of constituting the characters? And the characters themselves—what is their contribution of the total picture?

The woman Fern is the product of Jean Toomer's poetic mind, and what the reader should lawfully know about her is delimited by the information Toomer passes on through the mouth of his narrator and the amount of imagination the reader is able to command in interacting with the narrator. If this sounds trivial or like a contradiction let me explain that by interaction I do not mean the simple fact that a sensitive reader is always a necessary prerequisite if literary personae are to come alive. Interaction here means that the reader must draw on information from outside the story, as it were, and use it to build up the character of this woman by systematically collaborating with Toomer's narrator.21 Looked at from this angle Fern has a simultaneous existence on at least two levels.

1. There is the Fern who emerges from the relation of an unnamed male person from the North on a visit to a small village in Georgia, and there is

2. the Fern whose characteristics change as the reactions of the reader changes in response to requests from the narrator to contribute his share: “Your thoughts can help me, and I would like to know.”22

It is important to realize that the narrator himself—on whose testimony alone our own rendition of the plot itself will have to be based—is full of prejudices and stereotypes. He will dish up such platitudes as “A man in fever is no trifling thing to send away” (p. 25) or maintain that “when a woman seeks … her eyes deny” (p. 24) and that “men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be woman,” (p. 26). On occassion, too, he seems to be unable or unwilling to pass on information. He can pretend to be ignorant: “Why, after noticing it, you sought her eyes, I cannot tell you.” (p. 24) Sometimes he is reduced to guessing and immediately afterwards he can disclose an extraordinary and intimate knowledge of a person's inner life. Or he will unashamedly interpose himself between the reader and Fern as if to indicate that only by solving the riddle of the narrator's personality first can the reader get closer to an understanding of the woman: “If you have heard a Jewish cantor sing,” he says, “if he has touched you and made your own sorrow seem trivial when compared with his, you will know my feeling when I follow the curves of her profile, like mobile rivers, to their common delta.” (p. 24) What, if the reader has not? In short, the partner that you, the reader, must make shift with, is certainly not thoroughly omniscient; on the contrary he is a prejudiced, partly ignorant, sometimes undisciplined everyday-type of a storyteller, and only after having detected these weaknesses can his report be put to good use. Perhaps it should be added that the narrator's account is full of interjections and other linguistic tokens of attempted dialogue; he really behaves like a story-teller most of the time, not like a (short) story writer.

To set the record straight then, Fern, short for Fernie May (Rosen), has a Jewish surname and she has an aquiline, Semitic nose; to state, however, that she “is the product of miscegenation, of a Jewish father and a Negro mother,”23 on the basis of such scanty information would have to be called an unwarranted conclusion.

No longer young, with just a suggestion of down on her upper lip, Fern lives in a small Southern town sometime between the advent of the railroad and the nineteen twenties. Townspeople who walk up the Dixie Pike are accustomed to find her resting on the railing of her porch most any time of day. The Dixie Pike, it should be mentioned, as Toomer readers already know (from another story earlier in the book) has grown “from a goat path in Africa.” (p. 18) From this quotation it is obvious that here physical appearance as well as the laws of matter and of time must cede precedence to the creative imagination of a people shaping their world. And it is equally obvious that this unorthodox bit of historical research is an attempt at re-evaluating the Afro-American's contribution to the development of the country, “Dixie” being the shibboleth of the old South. However, the railroad crosses the Pike near Fern's house and cuts the road in two. Fern lives at the intersection, both spatially and temporally, of the old and the new. And she does not seem to be actively engaged in changing her surroundings or earning a livelihood. She does not care to pull out a nail that sticks out of a porch post just where her head comes and which must have been a source of constant annoyance for one who sits on the porch most of the day. Instead, she tilts her head a little forward and endures.

The most remarkable feature about Fern is her eyes; they are strange eyes, we are told; and we've already seen in part what is meant by this; how a person who looks at Fern invariably fails to realize his own existence, how he forgets about himself, and how his personality seems to dissolve in the process. There is a report about a young Negro, who, “once was looking at her, spell-bound, from the road. A white man passing in a buggy had to flick him with his whip if he was to get by without running him over.” (p. 27).

Men always have been and still are fascinated by Fern. They have approached her and taken her, because “Fern's eyes said to them that she was easy.” (p. 25) It may be useful to point out that it makes no difference whether we stress the word “eyes,” the word “them,” or both in the preceding quotation. In any case, since it is not Fern, but Fern's eyes, which talk visually to the men, and since the message they receive is not necessarily identical with what Fern may have intended, misunderstandings are inevitable. Still, the men about town “were everlastingly bringing her their bodies,” (p. 25) although they got no joy from it. Strangely enough, those same men who become attached to Fern, feel “as though it would take them a lifetime to fulfill an obligation which they could find no name for.” (p. 25) As a kind of Ersatz these simple-minded folk dream of sending Fern candy every week, of performing feats of valour to rescue her, or picture themselves as the owners of houses which they can deed over to her.

Of course, Fern is utterly, but innocently amoral. She—or rather her eyes—knows of no reason why she should withhold her body. In 1924, W.E.B. DuBois, the (at that time) bourgeois and respectable black editor of The Crisis wrote of Fern in a review that she was a wanton. He must have sensed the inappropriateness of such a label, for he prefixed it by the word “unconscious.”24

What could have induced the critic to partly alter his stern judgement is the fact that according to our informant something inside of Fern got tired of being sexually exploited by the men and that he was certain that for the life of her she could not tell why or how she began to turn them off. A force—unidentified—is at work in Fern, makes decisions for her, tortures her, as we shall see, and influences the people around her, too.

So, in time, Fern becomes [sic] a virgin, virgins according to the author being by no means the usual thing in a small Southern town. This metamorphosis has been brought about by the something in Fern that turns her would-be-lovers away and by the men who afterwards, out of superstition, set themselves up as her guardians and see to it that Fern, whom they believe to be somehow above them, is not approached by anyone. Fern will thus never be a mother of children. She is barren in a rather unusual way. Fern is the last in the line with no one to hand the torch to. One day everything she represents will be buried with her.25

It has been rightly observed that Toomer associates Fern three times with the song of a Jewish cantor.26 In the second instance, just as in the first, the impression the narrator reports to have had at the sight of Fern is also a synaesthetic one. He informs us that at first sight of her he felt as if he heard a Jewish cantor sing, as if his singing rose above the unheard chorus of a folk-song. The emotional sensibility of the spectator thus detects points in common between Judaism and Negritude (in the sense Ralph Ellison uses the term),27 the sorrow and the wisdom of many centuries in exile and the specific cultural output of a people in chains. The connection, of course, is not utterly new; it had been adumbrated by Negro Spirituals like “Go down, Moses,” “Didn't Old Pharaoh get los'?,” “Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel?” or “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,” to name only a few, which for their textual basis had expressly turned to the holy books of the Jews (the only ones the peculiar institution would allow the ‘unknown bards’ to study). Again Fern serves as a medium, as a person, whose limbs or colour are of lesser importance. People “see” through her and detect universal qualities behind and beside her.

Fern is unusual in yet another way. She serves as a receptacle for all kinds of things. For “like her face, the whole countryside seemed to flow into her eyes. Flowed into them with the soft listless cadence of Georgia's South.” (p. 27) The visitor who wants to learn something about Georgia, about the atmosphere of the country and the people who live there, might equally well question Fern, who is Georgia's medium and embodiment.

So far, by relating the past history of Fern and hinting at some of the possible meanings we have relied mostly on the first of the three parts plus epilogue that the story is divided into.28 By far the greatest portion of the second part has been reserved for a confession by the narrator of his feelings and sensations vis à vis Fern and an attempt at dialogue with the reader in order to channel the streams of consciousness of both.

Like the other black man—Fern does not seem to exert the same kind of attraction on the white men in town; they leave her alone, which is not the normal practice of the South in the judgement of the narrator, who sometimes speaks with the authority of a social scientist in order to enhance the credibility of his report—the narrator feels an obligation toward Fern. He, too, would do something for her.

All of a sudden, however, his reportage ends. The speaker abruptly changes the tense, switches to the present and heaves Fern out of time, so to speak. He does so by stepping out of the story himself. The narrator tries to strike up a conversation with us, his readers, who, it must be said, he asumes to be very knowledgeable in matters of race relations: “You and I know, who have had experience in such things, that love is not a thing like prejudice which can be bettered by changes of town. Could men in Washington, Chicago, or New York more than the men of Georgia, bring her something left vacant by the bestowal of their bodies? You and I who know men in these cities will have to say, they could not.” (p. 29) In the course of this one-way communication (the ‘dialogue,’ of course, completely depends on the assumption that narrator and reader agree on each and every detail; that they are unanimous, that they are at one or get along with each other on rhetorical questions), Fern changes constantly; in the imagination of the two associates she assumes the roles of doctor's or lawyer's wife in a Northern town, prostitute in Chicago's State Street, white man's concubine, and solitary girl at a Harlem tenement window.

All the alternatives being unacceptable when compared with Fern's present status the exchange of ideas ends in a roll call for help with not even the whites excluded this time: “I ask you, friend (it makes no difference if you sit in the Pullmann or the Jim Crow as the train crosses her road), what thoughts would come to you—… Your thoughts can help me, and I would like to know.” (p. 29-30) It is worth noticing that the author has taken special care to advertise and expose Fern's timelessness. Not only has he arranged for the frequent changes in her costume, which we have already mentioned; he also tries another device, though not unusual for a writer. He manipulates the reader's thoughts via the language in such a way that the reader is forced to desist from seeing Fern as a real person. Could anyone possibly think of a character instead of a type in response to the sentence: “Men in her case seem to lose their selfishness,” (p. 29) especially if he remembers the very first sentence of our story (and what has been said about it in the way of interpretation); if he remembers how on another occasion it was said that the young Negro looking at Fern had completely forgotten about himself, had given up his identity, his “selfishness” vis à vis Fern? Fern, then, is someone every Black American, male or female, can identify with. But Fern has become a virgin: Fern will not procreate. Fern stands for and symbolizes the race at a certain moment in its history29 in the South of the United States. Fern is a symbolic vision of the Afro-American's Alter Ego. “She is still living,” we are told, and, ironically, the author gives her full name, Fernie May Rosen, in case some foolish or nosy person “might happen down that way” (p. 33) to try and see for himself in the spirit, at best of the singer in the poem that immediately precedes “Fern”:

Now just before an epoch's sun declines
Thy son, in time, I have returned to thee,
Thy son, I have in time returned to thee.

(p. 21)

C.S. Lewis had pointed out that other than allegory, which is a mode of expression, symbolism is a mode of thought. Fern is symbolic in the sense that you “read … something else through its sensible imitation(s) to see the archtype in the copy.”30 Other scholars have noticed this quality about Fern, but attributed other causes to it or criticized the author for it. David Littlejohn, for example, believes that the people in Cane “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, …”31 Apart from the fact that the Stein-Anderson-Hemingway tradition can hardly be said to have been in existence when Jean Toomer wrote his stories, it has to be remembered that in the case of Fern the literary persona comes to life for long stretches of time only to the degree that the reader is willing to go along with the author and infuse Fern with the blood of his imagination.32

Part three of the story, one would suspect, is not subject to Littlejohn's criticism. For in it we learn of a dramatic encounter between the narrator and Fern. One evening he walks up to Fern's house on purpose and finds her on the porch. He tries all kinds of gambits to engage her in a conversation. The sequence of topics again sheds more light on the amount of delicacy the narrator is able to muster than it says about Fern. As an opener he clumsily tries a piquant bit of gossip, the rumour about the supposedly secret relations between “Mr. and Miss [sic] So-and-So,” “people” ostentatiously being placed second, so as to exclude the lovers from this category. Fern gives a mere yassur or nassur to all of his attempts. At last, and at the end of his tether, he suggests a walk. To counteract the surpise that his proposal generates (men before him had suggested just that before offering their bodies to Fern), he tries to communicate with his eyes, presumably because verbal communication is often so full of semantic snares and pitfalls. This visual communication seems to be successful, for “the thing from her that made my throat catch, vanished. Its passing left her visible in a way I'd thought, but never seen.” (p. 31) Once Fern has devested herself of this breath-taking quality of hers that formerly rendered her more or less invisible, she suddenly becomes visible in a new way. And immediately afterwards the chronicler records her first and only utterance: “Doesnt it make you mad?” (p. 31) We are told that “it” refers to the row of petty gossiping people, who represent the world. No wonder, Fern behaved so reticently when the town gossip was tried on her only minutes before this outbreak. They leave this “world” and through a canebreak enter another, the shadowy world of a Georgia landscape undergoing change at dusk. Dusk transforms the canebreak, sets it in motion, suggesting the almost imperceptible procession of giant trees. While they sit together under a sweet-gum tree the narrator's mind wanders, strays from Fern and turns on his own feelings. These suggest the idea that “things unseen to men were tangibly immediate.” (p. 31)

When his mind returns to Fern he holds her in his arms. “Her eyes, unusually weird and open, held me. Held God. He flowed in as I've seen the countryside flow in. Seen men.” (p. 32) This crucial scene is not well understood by the narrator, although he is a party to it. The report is studded with ‘I-dont-knows’ and the like. His excessive talkativeness (about how people in Georgia often have visions and that he would not have been surprised he had one), obstrusively urged upon the reader, may be taken as an index of his confusion. But he makes important discoveries without knowing it. Luckily, his language knows better than he.

Fern, we discover, is his alter ego. As a carrier of all things Negro she is also part of his personality.33 We are told that things unseen to men are tangibly immediate, and then, when he comes to, he holds Fern in his arms, their union, the union of body and soul, having unconsciously been perpetrated. Mirrorwise Fern's eyes hold him and something else: God. Because our witness is unwilling to say more, except that there is something that he calls God, it is largely a matter of speculation as to what exactly this new element of the Trinity means. If some of Toomer's other stories and poems in Cane may legitimately be taken as a starting point it would seem that God is a term applied to the state of reunification a person achieves with his soul, his racial and/or cultural identity.34 It ends a period of estrangement or anomy, as the sociologist would call it. Human beings seem to possess this faculty of bridging a gap that may have lasted for centuries. In “Fern” Toomer has only hinted at the innate psychic possibilities, on other occasions the people in his stories bring to bear on their problems this very faculty and conjure up their African heritage: jujumen, greegree, and witchdoctors.

As the sweet moment of union ends, with the narrator again ignorant of how he brought the end about, Fern runs away from him and into the darkness, her body painfully shaken by something it can not let out. The embodiment of all things Negro and at the same time someone who has become a virgin, Fern is unable to give birth in clear speech to the qualities she encompasses. She seeks release in song, in “plaintive, convulsive sounds, mingled with calls to Christ Jesus,” (p. 32) not unlike the vocal pieces we are used to call Negro Spirituals. When he finds her she faints in his arms.

The epilogue is an attempt at ironically de-emphazing and intellectually counteracting the narrator's strong emotional involvement in an overpowering encounter with a Negro girl from a small town somewhere in the South. Nothing ever came to Fern, he tells us. At that high-pitched moment with Fern in the canefield he had used these same words and maintained that when one is on the soil of one's ancestors, most anything can come to one. However, for both him and her, the soil of the ancestors is in Africa. Cleverly he disclaims his spiritual engagement and steps in the line of men who would do some fine unnamed thing for Fern.

After the commercial failure of Cane Toomer did not simply stop writing. And he did publish some stories in magazines and anthologies.35 But his full-length works were all rejected by the publishers. The years 1924 and 1925 are reported to have been sterile for Jean Toomer as an artist. Spiritually, however, these same years must have been richly stimulating. In 1924 he met George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, who had founded his “Institut pour le développement Harmonieux de l'Homme” in Fontainebleau near Paris and attracted quite a number of the elite of Western Europe.36 Katherine Mansfield, another disciple of Gurdjieff's had died at the institute a year before Toomer came there to be initiated. On his return to New York Toomer began proselytizing among those of his former associates who were willing to listen. Out of the pen of the champion of the lower classes, Langston Hughes, we have a rather unfriendly account of Toomer's missionary profession.37

When in 1929 the stock market collapsed the Negro Renaissance came to an abrupt end almost overnight. Its authors dispersed, went on a longish holiday, like Langston Hughes, stayed in their European exile, like Claude McKay, or returned, like Countée Cullen, to teach young Afro-Americans French in a New York High School. Incidentally, James Baldwin was a pupil at Frederick Douglas High School at that same time and on one occasion wrote about an interview with Countée Cullen in the school paper.

Jean Toomer, who in 1927 had gone to live in Chicago, on the 30th of October 1931 married the white novelist Margery Latimer. Margery Latimer died in childbirth a year later. When Toomer hit the headline again, it was a rather unfriendly report from TIME on his marriage to another white woman, Marjorie Content Toomer, in 1932.38 Two years later the couple moved to Doylestown, Pa., where Toomer continued to write and receive rejection slips from the publishers. He did not live to witness the Toomer renaissance of the late sixties and early seventies. Toomer died on the 30th of March 1967, two years before Cane was reissued as a paperback.


  1. Robert Bone gives this figure in his study The Negro Novel in America (New Haven, 1958), p. 81.

    “Fern” is an often-anthologized story. Cf. e.g., Langston Hughes, ed., The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers: An Anthology from 1899 to the Present (Boston & Toronto, 1967). Francis E. Kearns, ed., The Black Experience: An Anthology of American Literature for the 1970s (New York, 1973). The best buy probably is the paperback edition of Cane (New York, 1969).

  2. Foreword to the paperback edition of Cane (New York, 1969), p. x.

  3. John M. Reilly, “Jean Toomer: An Annotated Checklist of Criticism,” Resources for American Literary Study, 4 (1974), 27-56.

  4. Charles E. Merrill Studies (Columbus, Ohio, 1971).

  5. Cf. Arna Bontemps, “The Negro Renaissance: Jean Toomer and the Harlem Writers of the 1920's,” Anger, and Beyond: The Negro Writers in the United States, ed. by Herbert Hill (New York, 1966), p. 23.

  6. Waldo Frank, e.g., in his foreword to the 1923 edition of Cane. The Quotation is from Arna Bontemps' “The Negro Renaissance: Jean Toomer and the Harlem Writers of the 1920's,” p. 26.

  7. Ibid., p. 24. On the Harlem or Negro Renaissance the following books might be consulted: Alain Leroy Locke, ed., The New Negro: An Interpretation (New York, 1925), repr. with a new introduction by Allan H. Spear (New York, 1968). Jean Wagner, Les Poètes Nègres des Etats-Unis: Le sentiment racial et religieux dans la poésie de P.L. Dunbar à L. Hughes 1890-1940 (Paris, 1963); engl. transl. by Kenneth Douglas, Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes (Urbana, 1973). Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto (New York, 1966). Nathan I. Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (New York, 1971).

  8. Cf. Mabel M. Dillard, Jean Toomer: Herald of the Negro Renaissance (Ohio University, 1967), p. 76.

  9. Letter to Nacy Cunard, February 8, 1932, cf. Darwin T. Turner, In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity (Carbondale & Edwardsville, 1971), p. 32.

  10. Cf. Richard Bardolph, The Negro Vanguard (New York, 1961), p. 204.

  11. Personal communication from Mrs. Marjorie Content Toomer, to whom special thanks are due for untiring and continued cooperation.

  12. Jean Toomer in a letter to John McClure, June 30, 1922, cf. Turner, p. 30.

  13. Cf. Rayford W. Logan, The Betrayal of the Negro: From Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson (London, 1969).

  14. In a letter to Claude McKay, Summer 1922, cf. the introduction to the paperback edition of Cane (New York, 1969), p. ix.

  15. I am giving these figures and most of the other details on the authority of Darwin T. Turner's In a Minor Chord. Prof. Turner's biographical sketch is the one with the greatest amount of detailed information. Another dependable source is Mabel M. Dillard's unpublished doctoral dissertation.

  16. Cf. the foreword to the paperback edition of Cane, p. ix.

  17. In a letter dated June 30, 1922, cf. Dillard, p. 11. On the question of the prostitution of the integrity of aspiring young Afro-American authors by the American reading public, cf. Bontemps, “Jean Toomer and the Harlem Writers of the 1920's.”

  18. Cf. The Oxford Companion to American Literature, ed. by James D. Hart (New York, 1965), p. 485.

  19. For a readable account of the approach to the study of languages connected with the name of Noam Chomsky cf. John Lyons, Chomsky (London, 1970).

  20. The example is from Roderick A. Jacobs & Peter S. Rosenbaum, Transformationen: Stil und Bedeutung (Frankfurt a.M., 1973).

  21. Again, what I have in mind is not the ‘implied reader’ of Wolfgang Iser. Cf. his Der implizite Leser: Kommunikationsformen des Romans von Bunyan bis Beckett (München, 1972). Although the ‘implied reader’ is often called upon to collaborate, he is at the same time being carefully guided in his responses by the author and he always remains within the confines of the fictitious world which the narrator has set up. This boundary must never be overstepped and the reader has no right to interfere with the author's plans, whereas Toomer readers are, as we shall see, expressly invited to do so.

  22. Cane, p. 30. All references in the text are to the paperback edition.

  23. Cf. Dillard, p. 48. It is not my intention to detract from Miss Dillard's merit by selecting her for reference. Others, too, have reproduced this error from an earlier source. And besides, Miss Dillard's account of “Fern” is among the best that has been written about this story to date.

  24. Cf. his review of Cane in The Crisis, February 1924, p. 161.

  25. It is important to realize that Fern does not remain a virgin. On the contrary, she becomes a virgin. There are undoubtedly references to the Black Madonna in Cane, but that seems hardly enough reason to establish a strong tie between Fern and the Virgin Mary. Since, as I have pointed out earlier, it is not warranted to say that Fern is of mixed parentage either, I cannot see how a specific Jewish genius for suffering (whatever that is; a very frivolous term it seems to me) could be said to be displayed by the heroine. In his latest book on the history of Afro-American short fiction Robert Bone has a fine interpretation of “Fern” in the chapter on Toomer, and I agree with almost everything he says about the story. However, Prof. Bone states that “no one who has not made his pilgrimage to Nashville” (Fisk University i.e., where the Toomer manuscripts were deposited in 1967) “can expect to be taken seriously as a Toomer critic.” Cf. Robert Bone, Down Home: A History of Afro-American Short Fiction from Its Beginnings to the End of the Harlem Renaissance (New York, 1975), p. 204. For obvious reasons and out of theoretical considerations the present author has seen fit to adopt an approach that looks upon the work of art as a more or less self-contained unity.

  26. Cf. Hargis Westerfield, “Jean Toomer's ‘Fern’. A Mythical Dimension,” CLA Journal 14 (1971), pp. 274-276.

  27. Cf. his “Remarks at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Conference on the Negro American,” New Black Voices: An Anthology of Contemporary Afro-American Literature, ed. by Abraham Chapman (New York, 1972), pp. 401-408.

  28. Parts one and three are of exactly equal length if the printed line is the unit to be counted. Part two surpasses them by something like a third.

  29. To my knowledge Mable Dillard was the first to have noticed this. Cf. her doctoral dissertation, p. 50. In addition we have Jean Toomer's own testimony in a letter to Waldo Frank ca. 1922: “In my own stuff, in those pieces that come nearest to the old Negro, to the spirit saturate with folksong: ‘Karintha’ and ‘Fern,’ the dominant emotion is a sadness derived from a sense of fading, from a knowledge of my futility to check colution.” Cf. Dillard, p. 19. Mrs. Marjorie Content Toomer feels certain that her husband was not aware of the meaning of fern as an adjective in German (personal communication). An interlingual play on words is thus out of the question. If the girl's name must have an interpretation at all, two ways are open: The name might be taken as an indicator of the seeming preponderance of the vegetative in Fern's existence. Such an interpretation would probably go into the niceties of reproduction in the life of a fern, which properly belongs in a botany handbook, despite certain parallels in the plot of our story. Or it might be understood, on the basis of the Jewish component, as a hint at how “the Negro is in solution, in the process of solution. As an entity, the race is loosing its body, and its soul is approaching a common soul.” Jean Toomer in an undated letter to Waldo Frank, ca. 1922. Cf. Dillard, p. 19.

  30. C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (New York, 1958), p. 45.

  31. David Littlejohn, “Before Native Son: The Renaissance and After,” Studies in Cane, compiled by Frank Durham (Columbus, Ohio, 1971), p. 101.

  32. Robert Bone has drawn attention to the fact that Toomer was admittedly and heavily influenced by Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. This is undeniably so. At the same time it should be noticed that Toomer was, from a very early date, rather critical of Anderson's artistic capabilities. In a letter to Waldo Frank (ca. 1922) he remarks: “Sherwood Anderson has doubtless a very deep and beautiful emotion by way of the Negro. Here and there he has succeeded in expressing this. … I expect artists to recognize the circle of expression. … Sherwood's notes are very deep and sincere. Hence I attribute his attitude to a natural limitation. This limitation, extended, is noticeable in the bulk of his work. The range of his sensitivity, curiosity, and intelligence is not very wide. One's admiration suffers, but one's personal liking need not be affected by this.” Cf. M. Dillard, p. 18-19.

  33. The concept of the alter ego as used here was introduced into modern psychological thought by C.G. Jung. Toomer had read extensively in the literature of psychoanalysis, especially Freud. Cf. the excerpt from Toomer's Outline of Autobiography as quoted in Dillard, p. 19.

  34. Cf. e.g., my “‘Spirit Torsos of Exquisite Strength’: The Theme of Individual Weakness vs. Collective Strength in Two of Toomer's Poems,” CLA Journal, 19 (December 1975), 261-267.

  35. The question of why Toomer, in the words of Arna Bontemps, turned his back on greatness, is one of some notoriety. It has been discussed by a variety of people, like Fullenwider and Bontemps, some crediting the publishers with an almost unfailing literary or commercial instinct, others falling victim to a biographical fallacy, which examines the private life of the author to find there the causes of failure and success. Cf. A. Bontemps, “The Negro Renaissance: Jean Toomer and the Harlem Writers of the 1920's,” and S.P. Fullenwider, “Jean Toomer: Lost Generation, or Negro Renaissance,” Phylon, 27 (1966), 396-403. As far as I can see from a distance and with the librarian of Fisk University closely guarding her treasure of Toomer manuscripts Darwin T. Turner has a fairly correct and nearly complete list of the published and unpublished works of Toomer. Cf. his In a Minor Chord, pp. 140-143.

  36. On the teachings of Gurdjieff cf. his Recontres avec des Hommes Remarquables (Paris, 1966) and Louis Pauwels, Monsieur Gurdjieff: Documents, Témoignages, Textes et Commentaires sur une société initiatique contemporaine (Paris, 1954).

  37. Cf. Langston Hughes, The Big Sea: An Autobiography (New York, 1940).

  38. The article has been reprinted in Studies in Cane, pp. 15-16.

Principal Works

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Cane (stories and verse) 1923

The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer (stories, sketches, and verse) 1980

Essentials (aphorisms) 1931

The Flavor of Man (lecture) 1949

Collected Poems (poetry) 1988

Selected Essays and Literary Criticism (essays and criticism) 1996

Richard Eldridge (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: “The Unifying Images in Part One of Jean Toomer's Cane,College Language Association Journal, Vol. XXII, No. 3, March, 1979, pp. 187-214.

[In the following essay, Eldridge discusses the recurring imagery in the first part of Cane, asserting that it functions to unify the overall themes of the work.]

Although many of the poems and stories in Jean Toomer's Cane1 were published separately in little magazines like Broom, S4N, and Double Dealer, the final complication of Toomer's book was no random collection of writings. In July of 1922 Toomer wrote of his desire to put under one cover some of his writing because “… I feel a precipitant is urgently needed just at this time. The concentrated volume will do a great deal more than isolated pieces possibly would.”2 By December of that year Toomer had compiled his writings into what he called a “circle design,” the symbol of which he included into the book's format. The arcs on the frontpieces of each of the three sections theoretically blend into one circle.3 The aesthetic relationship among the three parts, Toomer claimed, is from the simple design to the complex and back to the simple again. Regionally, the book moves from the South to the North and back to the South again. Spiritually, Toomer envisioned an entity which begins with “‘Bona and Paul’ (awakening), plunges into ‘Kabnis,’ emerges into ‘Karintha’ etc., swings upward into ‘Theatre’ and ‘Box Seat,’ and ends (pauses) in ‘Harvest Song.’”4 In other words, the spiritual unity begins at the end of Part Two, sweeps downward to the end of the book and returns to the beginning of the book, then climbs to an end at the penultimate piece of the second part. According to Toomer's description of the book's structure, then, Part Two is the fulcrum of the first and third sections. The book does not conform to a linear structure associated with most novels or romances; rather, it is like a painting unified by a center of tension or like a piece of music embellished by a middle movement. Toomer's organization of his material is one of his most striking innovations.

After the publication of the book, Toomer continued to insist on the integrity of the whole, rather than considering it in parts. He was upset when anthologists wanted to select portions of Cane to be printed and refused at first to give permission to use a portion of the book separated from the whole. Nevertheless, Cane was known primarily by its fragments for many years in an occasional anthology; and it was not until recently that critics, beginning with Bone, began to view Cane with a totality that the book deserves. Bone was the first to call the book a novel, which gave Cane some stature as more than a collection of writings. Bell5 and Lieber6 both synthesize the tripartite structure by showing how Parts One and Two act as antitheses to each other, while Part Three, “Kabnis,” acts as a synthesis of both extremes. Reilly and Larson demonstrate how all three sections of the book, as well as the individual stories and poems, are linked together by ways that depart from the traditional. “In their place,” says Reilly,

he has adopted the compressed statement of images linked by their intrinsic associations, and he has represented those imagistic statements becoming synthesized either in the mind of a narrator, in the consciousness and unconsciousness of a character, or in the ambience of locale. Toomer, thus, links his various sketches and lyrics into a poetically structural record of a search for the route to self-expression and consequent redemption for the artist and his race.7

Similarly, Larson states that the unity of Cane is derived from a “narrative structured by images instead of the traditional unities” and containing a central character, a “narrator-observer who wanders throughout the book.”8

Larson is correct on both accounts. The images of land, such as the cane, dusk, smoke from the sawmills, pines, the moon, intermingle throughout the stories and poems with images of people, such as their singing, praying, tilling, and reaping. The interlocking of man and nature creates a verbal tone-poem which reveals the mystery and spirituality that Toomer was so fond of describing. Toomer, in fact, establishes the ascendancy of the repeated image in his prefatory poem:

Redolent of fermenting syrup,
Purple of the dusk,
Deep-rooted cane.

Herein lie the central images of the book: dusk, the moment of mystery, equipoise, and deep (purple) feeling; cane, the profound grip into the earth that nurtures life; fermentation, the creative power that gives life purpose. These images are “oracular” through the medium of the prophet-poet, who reveals the mystery of the spiritual life to those who are in danger of losing it forever.

The setting in Part One of Cane is dominated by the pervasive atmosphere of the Georgia countryside. It is a setting where the land may still dominate the people, so that when land and person interact, each mirrors the other. To an outsider like Toomer, the land is invested with romantic beauty that belies the actual drudgery of the work-a-day life. The pastoral mode, as John Lynen notes,9 has usually been the purview of the urban poet, and Toomer is no exception. In order to give the land its appropriate domination of mood, Toomer joins together a repeating flow of images that shape the feeling of the land and the people.

The poem “Reapers” (p. 6) is a fine example of Toomer's careful use of nature and man woven together to form a matrix of life and death, beauty and horror. Involved with the charm of the scene, yet detached enough to record with objectivity, the poem is the first in the book and establishes, along with the sketch “Karintha,” the point of view of disengaged sympathy which is characteristic of the first section of the book. There is a Frost-like simplicity of diction contained in this highly structured poem. Toomer presents an informal picture of reapers sharpening scythes:

Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones
Are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones
In their hip-pockets as a thing that's done,
And start their silent swinging, one by one.
Black horses drive a mower through the weeds,
And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds,
His belly close to ground. I see the blade,
Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.

The spectator-narrator is in the scene as a first-person witness and describes the action in easy iambic rhythm with a vernacular of simple words and casual connections: “as a thing that's done.” And yet, because he is not a participant in the scene, he can also note occurrences on which he would not otherwise concentrate were he a reaper himself: “And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds, / His belly close to ground.” A partial result of the casual tone is the understatement for ironic effect. The blade, blood-stained, continues cutting indifferently; the momentary horror is covered over once more by the instruments of harvest and death.

The juxtaposition of man and nature is carefully balanced. First, Toomer presents a creature in the landscape, “the black reapers,” then the sound made by the creature, “of steel on stone,” then the explanation of the sound, “sharpening scythes.” Toomer juxtaposes this presentation with that of the rat. There is a dramatic pause between the rat and its bleeding, just as there is a dramatic pause between the reapers and their sharpening. First we know that it is startled, then we hear it squealing, not unlike the whine of steel on stones. Finally the connection is made between the rat and blade, which, almost as an afterthought, is described as “bloodstained.” The commentary continues in its easy-going manner, once more focusing on the reaping. The joining of “weeds and shade” is the final ironic view of the scene, for neither is truly the function of a harvest. The value of weeds and shade is to hide the rat; all three have been cut down.

The picture of the folk who work the land is little less startling in “November Cotton Flower” (p. 7). The poem uses Frost's device of connecting a subject in nature with a related general observation about mankind. In this case the premature flowering of a cotton plant in a barren landscape is related to the innocent boldness of premature love in a fallow society. The land is described as a wasteland. The boll-weevil is taking over; the soil has “robbed” the streams of water; dead birds are found “In wells a hundred feet below the ground.” Then in the last lines the description of the flower moves into the realm of social commentary:

                              Superstition saw
Something it had never seen before:
Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
Beauty so sudden for that time of year.

This sudden beauty may be astonishing, but beauty too suddenly flowered in a clime accustomed to waste has its tragic undertones.

For an explanation of that tragedy we must turn to the opening sketch of the book, “Karintha.” The woman-child is as “innocently lovely as a November cotton flower,” but “the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon.” Whatever fresh beauty she might have had is destroyed by the eagerness of men to take her beauty to themselves. A girl so unexpectedly blooming in the bleak landscape of the human spirit would have the same effect as a flower that blooms so unexpectedly in a parched land. Karintha's soul, like the flower, is unnatural in its setting and thus is overprized. Expecting too much of her boldness, which is interpreted as innocence, men unwittingly kill the beauty that is in her and plunge her into a death experience: her baby is “dropped” on pine-needles for a grave. As a youth, she taught people “how to live” because of her vitality; now when she is a woman men still expect her to teach them how to live, even while death presides, like the sun going down after the moment of dusk.

Dusk is an integral part of Karintha and is used throughout the rural scenes of Georgia to describe the mystery and depth of experience with which Toomer infuses Cane. The opening passage of the book relates Karintha with dusk: “Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as the dusk when the sun goes down.” The reference to dusk most obviously describes the color of her skin, but duskiness also relates to the entire dark beauty that instills the experience of the “dusky cane-lipped throngs” (“Georgia Dusk,” p. 23). Dusk contains a blend of secret meanings which a Zen Buddhist would call shibui, encompassing a hidden beauty which must be felt intuitively rather than perceived tangibly. In “Karintha” Toomer describes the sunset as a time when “there was no wind, and the pine-smoke from over by the sawmill hugged the earth, and you couldn't see more than a few feet in front.” Dusk is also the hiatus in people's lives between the activities of day and night, the moment of reflective pause “during the hush just after the sawmill had closed down, and before any of the women had started their supper-getting-ready songs. …” Out of the concealment of darkness darts Karintha, “a bit of vivid color, like a black bird that flashes in light.” Karintha's voice is at this moment the corollary to the image of the black bird: “her voice, high pitched, shrill, would put one's ears to itching.”10 The contrast between the quiet of the day-night and the sheer force of her liveliness establishes her appeal, for Karintha is part of that dusk only as it reveals her fleeting appearance. Toomer states that she carries her beauty, as though beauty is an action—and Karintha is indeed more active than the rest of the scene. When one is active, one is elusive, and therefore appealing. Without the stasis of dusk, Karintha cannot be known.

If dusk is the medium through which the subtle flux of nature is projected, then song is the human counterpart. The lyrical sketch “Karintha” illustrates the extent to which song shapes the style of much of Cane, for the opening piece was originally in the play “Natalie Mann,” to be recited with the accompaniment of drums and guitar. The description of Karintha is a melange of repeated images, chants, songs, and prayers, the effect of which is a shadowy mood-piece. As in his later writings, Toomer in Cane seldom explores the inner reaches of character. Often those whom he describes are used as emblems for the greater meaning that Toomer has in mind. Karintha is such a person. We know little or nothing of her personality. Her motives and emotions remain as indistinct as the dusk which surrounds her. She becomes the embodiment of the tone-poem, the lyric which despairs over misused beauty. Making a song of Karintha does strange things to her, for the narrator, no less than the men who are described by the narrator, distances himself from the beauty he urgently wishes to have shared. The mystery of Karintha is indecipherable even to Toomer, who as the outsider in most interpersonal relationships was best at describing tenuous rather than intimate relationships. Seen at dusk and interpreted through the dusk, Karintha, like Fern and Avey in other stories, remains self-contained and unfathomable to the most ardent of the illusionists, Toomer himself.

With this sense of mystery Toomer uses dusk as the image through which to express his song and the songs of others. Karintha is lyricized for her skin like dusk; the “Face” contains muscles which are “cluster grapes of sorrow purple in the evening sun” (p. 14); Carma feigns shooting herself in the early night while someone sings a song about the wind in the cane. The poem “Georgia Dusk” praises a black and unknown bard “Surprised in making folk-sounds from soul sounds” (p. 22). Fern and Louisa bewail their condition by singing at dusk.

The song element designs the sound of the prose with as much effectiveness as the poems, if not more so. “Karintha” illustrates the poetic cadences of Toomer's prose-writing in such passages as the contrast between the quietude of dusk and the energy of Karintha:

At dusk, during the hush just after the sawmill had closed down, and before any of the women had started their supper-getting-ready songs, her voice, high-pitched, shrill, would put one's ears to itching.

The opening is slow and peaceful, dominated by the low-pitched u sound in “dusk,” “during,” “hush,” “just,” and the voiced d sounds. These are combined with the relatively slow pace of the word combinations, such as “dusk, during,” “hush just,” and “closed down.” The second part of the sentence, anticipating Karintha's entry, increases in speed and evenness of tempo, the women stirring themselves into action with “supper-getting-ready songs.” Then, midst this even and ordered music, is interposed Karintha's voice described as “high-pitched,” “shrill,” and “itching.” The short i becomes a higher-pitched imposition on the middle-range e sound of “supper-getting-ready songs” and the deeper u sounds of the opening, and the itch sound drowns out the softer “sh” of “hush.”

While the poetic quality of Toomer's prose is in many respects bolder and more successful than much of his poetry, the poems nevertheless are an essential part of his “song.” As in his prose, many of his poems are dusk songs, reflecting not only the mood of the land but also the sense of the people. …


At his best though, Toomer links recurrent images together so that both are mutually reinforced, as he does with dusk and song. Another image closely connected with dusk which recurs throughout his Georgia sketches is the color of purple, which combines the dominant color of the evening half-light with the deepness of skin pigment and the profundity of the peasant's experience. The slave heritage is reflected in the “purple ripened plums,” as we have seen, and the ongoing suffering of that heritage carves in a woman's face an image of “cluster grapes of sorrow / purple in the evening sun …” (“Face,” p. 14). When Tom meets Louisa in “Blood-Burning Moon,” the suffering which both are about to endure is hidden from view, even though there are premonitions in the air. While the moon moves “upward into the deep purple of the cloud-bank,” an old woman starts singing the death-song in the dusk: “Blood-burning moon. Sinner!” (p. 58)

In still another story, “Fern,” the narrator is courting Fern, one of Toomer's poetic untouchables. The time for yet one more relationship filled with frustration and unexplained agony is, as expected, dusk:

Through a canebrake that was ripe for cutting, the branch was reached. Under a sweet-gum tree, and where reddish leaves had dammed the creek a little, we sat down. Dusk, suggesting the almost imperceptible procession of giant trees, settled with a purple haze about the cane. I felt strange, as I always do in Georgia, particularly at dusk. I felt that things unseen to men were tangibly immediate. It would not have surprised me had I had vision. People have them in Georgia more often than you would suppose. A black woman once saw the mother of Christ and drew her in charcoal on the courthouse wall. … When one is on the soil of one's ancestors, most anything can come to one. …

(p. 31)

The sensuous intensity of imagery in a passage such as this shows Toomer at his most effective. The smell and taste of cane, which fill many scenes, the muted colors of red and purple, and the shadowy encroachment of dusk create an emotional pitch beyond conscious control. The sensate experience telescopes the past into the present and spins perception beyond ordinary limits, and in so doing becomes the catalyst for the spiritual emanation of songs, prayers, and visions. Fern, much to the distress of the narrator, has a religious vision of sorts a while later; one is tempted to believe that only under the conditions of dusk, purple, cane, and mist can the Georgia “soul” express itself.14

Another important element of the soul's response to the land is the religious expression, whether in song, sermon, prayer, or vision. The image of the Christ in a characteristically folk interpretation is part of the design of Cane. Toomer uses both “Christ” and “Jesus” in ways that depart from traditional church use. He does not, however, take the extremes in his treatment of the Christian religion which Fullinwilder suggests in arguing that the poems and stories are anti-Christian, turning away from the “slave religion” to a more African-based religious experience.15 Toomer makes clear in his autobiography that he is against organized religion, which includes the formal Christian churches, but he expresses the validity of the spontaneous religious experience that is identifiable with the soil. The worship of growth, harvest, continuity, and the hope of personal salvation are the extensions of the intuitive trust in the seasons' repetition. For those working the land, Jesus is an expression of that hope, for in Jesus lies the mythic embodiment of toil, suffering, death, deliverance, and forgiveness. Some critics, while tending to over-interpret certain religious connections, are not altogether wrong in making close analogies between the rural experience and the religious experience. Bernard Bell, for instance, interprets the poem “Face” as a “traditional typology of the suffering and sacrifice of Christ,”16 while Mabel Dillard claims that “Face” reveals the suffering of the Virgin Mary.17 “Face” is indeed a description of one who has suffered a life of pain and privation, and in that respect it is a face reflective of the archetypal Christian suffering. Relating the face too closely to that of a specific religious figure deprives it, however, of associations with the rural peasant and his personal struggle with the land and social forces, both of which try to dominate him. “Face” is, above all else, a description of an aged peasant whose life has been worn away:

like streams of stars,
recurved canoes
quivered by the ripples blown by pain,
Her eyes—
mist of tears
condensing on the flesh below
And her channeled muscles
are cluster grapes of sorrow
purple in the evening sun
nearly ripe for worms.

(p. 14)

As in traditional descriptions of women derived from the courtly love poems, Toomer itemizes various physical attributes and attaches an image to each one, usually with religious under-tones. Toomer plays with the tradition in ironic ways, though with a beauty perhaps far more profound than that usually found in poems of the courtly tradition. The beauty of the woman is not derived from her static association with ideal and therefore spiritually “superior” attributes. Instead, her beauty is an inward growth of one who has loved and suffered for it, a beauty not of innocence but of the deepest experience like that expressed in the Pietà or the Caritas Romana. Toomer also limits his description to a face rather than to the whole body, since a face expresses the inner life, while the rest of the body, especially in courtly poetry, complements the externalized ideal vision.

Toomer designs the impression of the woman by starting with her hair and continuing downward, a movement which expresses the burden of life which the woman has endured. The images therefore become heavier, beginning with the stars and ending with cluster grapes. The sense of flow, as in “Fern,” from one part to the next is sustained by the water imagery. Her hair is like streams of stars, the downward flow already beginning and continuing with her eyebrows, which are likened to canoes “recurved,” that is, the tips pointing downward rather than upward, the “ripples” of her forehead “blown by pain” ironically pushing the boat the wrong way like an upside-down picture. The eyes perpetuate the downward water-flow by “condensing” their “mist” onto the “flesh below.” The “channels” in her sunken muscles, which in old people gather toward the jowls and under the chin, guide the tears and nourish the fruits of a lifetime, “grapes of sorrow.” Her impending death is emblematic of the death of the entire peasant culture, which, as we have seen, is also “purple in the evening sun” and “nearly ripe for worms.” In her death, as in the death of the entire culture, lies the embodiment of a folk religion, a calling upon the God of the Earth, so to speak, to deliver the peasant from his hardships of pain and sorrow.

This spontaneous, joyful-sorrowful supplication drives King Barlo to form visions of an African Jesus, inspires a woman to draw a black Madonna on a wall, and sends Esther through a sexual-religious ordeal. But of all the characters in Toomer's book perhaps Becky comes closest to the religious experience by virtue of her role in society. Becky is a white woman whom the town rejects yet cares for, since she rests on their consciences for having mated with a black man. An isolate, spurned by the organized church to which she claims she belongs (“Poor Catholic poor-white crazy woman” [p. 8]), she lives in a kind of concentration camp where society has placed her in order to put her out of their lives and therefore out of their minds. Yet guilt has created a concentration camp of their collective conscience, and all think about her willy-nilly. They “prayed secretly to God who'd put His cross upon her and cast her out” and threw out of the train windows onto her property little pellets of paper inscribed with prayers. Thus Becky's quite natural sexual experience has grown into a religious experience because she has been rejected. True to the rationalizations by which people justify their guilt-producing acts, those who have cast her out transfer the blame of rejection to God and pay homage to Becky as penance.

The natural act and the religious act coincide in other characters. Karintha, in a different way from Becky, engages in spontaneous sexuality which by its creative implications is religious. Her parents' loving she had perhaps “felt”; thus, ironically for Karintha, “one could but imitate one's parents, for to follow them was the way of God” (pp. 2-3). But the way of God is filled with pain and sorrow, as Karintha discovers, even though people still sing of her beauty. The songs nevertheless sustain a religious feeling that is a holy, albeit transient, transformation. That is why, in “Georgia Dusk,” the singers not only can bring the miracle of “virgin lips to cornfield concubines,” but also can “bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs” (p. 23). The laborer of the earth can be sanctified with a religious purity by the holiness of soul-song.

King Barlo, the preacher in “Esther” (pp. 36-48), links the African pagan with the white Christian heritage. As in many mythical tales, Barlo's religious enlightenment is akin to sexual awakening. His vision is powerful because his physical attributes are powerful: he is the best cottonpicker, knifer, fighter, gambler, and lover in the area. To be invested with such physical strength gives one the spiritual command needed to be effective. His deep blackness, too, projects a power that a whiter complexion would not fulfill, for as he preaches he changes into the “outlines of his visioned African,” the “big an black an powerful” man who, filled with the Lord, was captured by “white-ant biddies” (p. 38). Barlo's incantation is pure folk preaching, capturing the rhythm and phrase rhyming of spontaneous oratory:

They led him t th coast, they led him t th sea, they led him across th ocean an they didn't set him free. The old coast didn't miss him, an th coast wasn't free, he left the old-coast brothers t give birth t you an me. O Lord, great God, Almighty, t give birth to you and me.

(pp. 38-9)

The chant is a powerfully designed rhythmic statement, which, when broken into lines after each word that rhymes with “sea,” creates four lines of iambic heptameters (including the spondaic first line) with a one-line refrain. The incremental repetition, slowly building the development of the black man's abduction to America and the eventual release from bondage by God, resembles the most typical of oral tales.

Barlo's preaching produces in his audience tears, “fragments of melodies,” a hushed expectation. In the now-familiar Toomerian dusk Barlo implores his listeners to open themselves to the “dawnin of the mornin light,” and Barlo effects his own salvation by inducing miraculous happenings. “Years after”—the required time for myth-making—“Esther was told that at that very moment a great, heavy rumbling voice actually was heard. That hosts of angels and of demons paraded up and down the streets all night. That King Barlo rode out of town astride a pitch-black bull that had a glowing gold ring in its nose” (pp. 39-40). Small wonder that Esther fantasizes Barlo to be her God-like deliverer! Barlo is the soil, the earth, the sexual urgency of physical procreation which is the mythic basis of religion. That Barlo is crass and lustful is not a matter of concern. As the “primitive” progenitor of faith, Barlo, like God, is King.

Esther, however, is too detached from the soil, which provides physical and spiritual growth. Like Kabnis, Esther finds union with the earth too repugnant; the reality of making love to Barlo other than in her mind makes her sick. This reaction is not Barlo's fault. Barlo's appeal has been the very blackness of his skin representing the sexuality which she, bland in spirit as well as in skin, can only daydream about. A god has sexual attributes; Esther dreams of having a child by him, glorifying it in defiance of the townspeople's mockeries. As she is accused at the end, Esther is indeed “dictie,” attempting in artificial ways to attain refinement and higher sensibilities even while engaged in sexual dreams. She “decides” that she loves Barlo, as though love is a rational decision weighed by the intellect. Her resolution is kept as a prim secret, a “wedding cake for her to tuck beneath her pillow and go to sleep upon” (p. 43). Hope is a pale sort of consummation, but it assuredly is all that Esther can handle.

Esther's physical passion has as its image the flame of desire, related to the setting sun, which “swings low” like the death-chariot. The fire is but a reflection in McGregor's store windows, but the mirror image is enough for her. When Esther is sixteen the flame sets in her dream an imaginary fire from which she saves her and Barlo's baby. Fearing that she is sinning, she “puts away” the dream, only to have it break out into new sexual fantasies in which the baby, “ugly as sin,” latches itself to her willing breast. Eleven years later Barlo in the flesh appears before her, at the time of day when again the setting sun leaves a “pale flame” of reflection in McGregor's windows. Esther is reborn momentarily—“suddenly is animate”—and against her rational wish, desires to be “sharp” and “sporty” so that she can “possess” Barlo. The thought of sin disengaged from actuality appeals to Esther, but when she tests her desires on reality the dream on which she wasted her youth dissolves. The “dull flame” of McGregor's windows follows her a third time, to the whorehouse where Barlo is spending the evening. There reality is palpable: crude voices, heavy smoke, smell of liquor. Unable to reconcile the intensity of sensate experience with her delicate sensitivity of the mind, Esther becomes “violently dizzy,” and “blackness rushes to her eyes.” The blackness is Barlo, the physical and spiritual force that his own color represents. Her sensibilities are shocked; the exotic at close range becomes repugnant. The black savior turns into the devil himself, for Esther cannot accept the blackness that at first made him so appealing. Her one dream shattered, she stumbles into the street as one dead: “There is no air, no street and the town has completely disappeared” (p. 48). Esther, having always been spiritually deadened, requires a confrontation with the living god of fecundity to realize her emptiness. There is not even a pale flame any more, for there is no air or town to feed it.

King Barlo is not just the apotheosis of an African god, nor does he necessarily represent a contrast between pagan and Christian religious thought. In a sense, Barlo is a pagan Christian, fusing his spontaneous folk outbursts with a Christian view of God as deliverer. He is godly in a classical Greek sense: less holy than grandiosely human, and therefore worthy of admiration if not reverence. In a similar way, the poem “Conversion” casts an image of the fusion of African zest with Christian ideology. Like King Barlo, the “African Guardian of Souls” has moved into a new culture which, though debasing him, has not deprived him of his liveliness and joy. Each line increases the African's assimilation into the white culture:

Drunk with rum,
Feasting on a strange cassava,
Yielding to new words and a weak palabra
Of a white-faced sardonic God—

(p. 49)

It is not a complimentary picture of the noble guardian, having changed his drinking, eating, and—most fundamental of all—speaking habits18 in the face of a new religion that derides him. Though the African “yields,” he has adjusted to a seemingly weaker cultural force. “Strange cassava” is not cassava at all, and thus by implication a poor substitute, while the voices of God are weak in comparison to those of his African heritage. Yet the African converts not with slavish passivity but with a zeal that enlivens an old religion with new vitality. He is “drunk” and he “feasts,” neither act connoting a dull communion. The unpremeditated thrill of religious celebration is still part of the African past. The new religion is powerful because it belongs to those in power, but paradoxically the conquered Guardian has increased the power of the Christian religion because his conversion has forced Christianity to be converted, in style at least, to the African Guardian.

The mixture of the two cultures into an African-American blend brings us once again to the metaphor of dusk, for that time not only is expressive of the Southern landscape and of the imminent absorption of African culture into American culture but also is, as Philip Royster notes, the symbol of the mulatto trapped between two worlds, like dusk between day and night.19 Toomer never forgets the white element in his characters. In a letter written in 1923 to Sherwood Anderson, Toomer states that his seed was planted both in the cane and cotton fields and “in the souls of the black and white people in the small Southern town” (italics mine). Toomer's portrayals in Part One range in hue from the deep-black Barlo to the purely white Becky. Most are somewhere in the dusk between, the mulatto acting out Toomer's struggle to accommodate both worlds.

Aside from Bob Stone in “Blood-Burning Moon,” Becky in the sketch “Becky” is the only white person developed in Part One. Nevertheless, Becky has intertwined her fate with the black man and suffers persecution from both races. Having had a son with Negro blood, Becky, a white woman, has breached the strongest of Southern taboos. Males of both races participate in the mystique of the inviolable white “lady,” even when the “lady” is of questionable rank or beauty. Becky, in fact, is not a particularly beautiful woman: “Her eyes were sunken, her neck stringy, her breasts fallen …” (p. 8). Nevertheless, any white woman who breaks the taboo of miscegenation inspires an occult fascination containing part hate, part jealousy, and part admiration. The “damn buck nigger” who was the father might have been lynched had Becky told who he was. Becky's defiance of the pressures of the town, however, makes her rise above the normal scorn heaped upon such a woman. She carries the secret of the union of the races which for some reason renders blacks and whites incapable of doing anything but helping her, much as they are horrified by her violation of Southern mores. Becky ironically unifies the races because she dared break the taboo. Instead of turning on her, the “white folks and black folks built her a cabin, fed her and her growing baby …” (p. 8). The house, built between a road and railroad tracks, is the stationary reminder to those who are life's travelers of their innermost urges and deepest levels of conscience. Banned from society, she nevertheless remains true to herself while the rest of the town participate in a troubled exile which they had intended for Becky.

From the same twist of human behavior, the object of scorn is more like an object of praise. By their prayers, which are actually a mark of their guilt, the townspeople revere her, in recognition of the awesomeness of the secret sin which they all share. The pines constantly whispering to Jesus make the house and ground on which it stands seem hallowed. Passersby throw pellets of paper inscribed with prayers at the cabin, like pilgrims who attach written prayers to trees surrounding Buddhist temples. Becky's emanation of sacredness is derived at least in part from her never having been seen outside the cabin for several years. One knows that the goddess of racial union is still fertile only when another baby appears in the arms of the older brother.

The two children are the archetypal mulattoes: rootless, defensive, sullen loners, born of both races yet accepted by neither.

White or colored? No one knows, and least of all themselves. … We, who had cast out their mother because of them, could we take them in? They answered black and white folks by shooting up two men and leaving town. “Godam the white folks; Godam the niggers,” they shouted as they left town.

(p. 11)

The children are the new Americans in the old value system of black and white, destined to suffer and to be hostile toward two societies that made them outcasts.

So Becky continues to be the town's “untouchable” even after the day when the shack crumbles on top of her. The collapse of the chimney onto Becky carries with it the weight of an entire town's guilt. Becky is heard to groan beneath the rubble, but so awesome is the fear which she engenders, that Barlo (one assumes, perhaps wrongly, that it is King Barlo) can only throw his Bible onto her grave and flee. Further, “no one has ever touched” the Bible, as though the site were too sacred to approach. In effect, Becky has functioned in the capacity of scapegoat for the town. The townspeople have driven her away as the receptacle of their sins—actually the receptacle of the Southern sin—and, true to mankind's irrational behavior, they worship what they abhor.

Just as Becky's whiteness flows into the black world, so also in the short story “Fern” do Fern's contrasting qualities blend into each other. Toomer felt that racial mingling is a “flowing” of one part into another making “white” or “black” characteristics an impossibility.20 Fern represents that type of fluidity, for it is hard to categorize her. Her languid beauty arises from the “creamy brown” of her skin, an ambiguous racial color. Her whiteness combines with her blackness so that she has equal appeal to both races; the narrator wonders if the viewer who passes her on a train—either in the Pullman or the Jim Crow—will stop at the next town and return. Fern is a blend of other things as well. Though she makes an appeal to Christ and the Virgin Mary, she sings like a Jewish cantor, her nose is Semitic, and her last name is Rosen. As if to complicate her even more, she “became a virgin,” a reversal of the natural sequence of experience. Finally, there is Fern's marvelous passivity, which lures men looking for the mystery they assume lies embedded in indifference.

The key to Fern's appeal is the blend, for the dominant metaphor is that of flowing. The description of Fern begins with, “Face flowed into her eyes” (p. 24), revealing little beyond the soft, hidden lines of her features. The “creamy foam” of her skin is liquid like the “plaintive ripples” of her face. The “soft suggestion of down” reinforces her indefinite features, which form the basis of her attraction. One's eyes, the narrator states, must inevitably flow back into her eyes, the “common delta” toward which the curves of her body run “like mobile rivers.”

The eyes are so appealing because of a paradox: while they search for nothing, they deny nothing. Such exotic indifference drives men wild. To deny nothing implies a need for something, yet Fern appears to have no needs; she is self-contained, and therefore impenetrable. If the male urge is to violate sexually, self-containment is the essence of virginity, since the male cannot penetrate to the spiritual core of the woman. Man relies on woman's need; hence men's awe of Fern, who takes the gift of their bodies without desire.

The contrasts that grip Fern hardest are sexuality and religiousness. These qualities, as we know from King Barlo, are forces springing from the same source, opposite though they may seem. The narrator, a Northerner trying to fathom the tremendous attraction which Fern has for him, has taken her to a remote part of the stream beyond the canebrake. It is dusk, the time for visions. A vision is the flux between things seen and unseen, and it is through the medium of the eyes that a vision occurs. Toomer has already verified the power of Fern's eyes, like a succubus drawing the whole countryside into her with “the soft listless cadence of Georgia's South” (p. 27). There, by the stream, the narrator's expectation of a vision is transmitted into Fern. Her eyes hold the seen vision of the narrator, who is at that moment a sexual attraction, and they also hold the unseen vision of God. Suddenly repulsed by the narrator, she rushes away and falls to her knees in a trance. The “torture” she undergoes is the tension between the sexual rage of “boiling sap” in her body seeking an outlet and the desire for salvation through Jesus Christ. The union of sexuality and chastity is like the miracle of immaculate conception, and indeed “God flowed into her” at the moment of orgasmic joy and pain. Innocence and experience coupling in her body force her voice to express both: “A child's voice, uncertain, or an old man's” (p. 32).

Ultimately the problem with Fern, as it is with many of Toomer's women, is that everything flows into her but nothing flows back out. Toomer's women who have most appeal have little urge to reciprocate, and Toomer's men become victims of the unreturned gift. Fern's body “was tortured with something it would not let out” (p. 32); therefore, even though God, the landscape, and seemingly every man who passed her way flowed into her, “nothing ever really happened. Nothing ever came to Fern, not even I.” The one who inspires so much worship is the goddess of impotence. Men will constantly worship what they fail to understand, and they will bear the sacred symbol of fertility to whoever offers the challenge of barrenness.

While individuals like Carma, who drives her husband momentarily insane, Karintha, and Fern can be grouped together as exotic and somewhat pitiable femmes fatales, the most terrifying goddess of all is the Southern white woman who attracts the black man, for in her inviolability lies the seed of horrendous destructiveness: In “Georgia Portrait” Toomer describes the white woman with bitter irony:

Hair—braided chestnut, coiled like a lyncher's
Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath—the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash of black flesh
                                        after flame.

(p. 50)

In each line, the opening refers to the object of physical desire: hair, eyes, lips, breath, slim body. Yet each portion of the body generates an image of a lynching scene. The effect is one of uniting passionate desire with ugly violence. Each physical attraction brings the black man closer to the consummation of death instead of love. The braid of hair is really the lyncher's rope; the eyes kindle not only his passion but the fagots to set him on fire. Her lips turn into his lesions, the “old scars” of fears and the “red blisters” of his burning flesh. The agitated breath of passion is his last breath, for to touch her flesh is to burn his. The connection of white and black, implied throughout the poem, is finally yoked in the last line, for the whiteness of her appealing flesh is the same color as his black flesh once it has been burned. The message is clear in all its grim aspects: white woman, symbol of life and beauty, is equally the symbol of violence and death. “Georgia Portrait” presents a picture of sexual and racial frustration, like Toomer's other portraits of women who ultimately impose destruction upon those who love them.

“Blood-Burning Moon,” the final piece in Part One, is the story that typifies most dramatically the conflict and the union of black and white. A black and a white male, inseparable enemies, destroy each other over a woman who wants them both. Louisa, the focus of both men's love, stands as yet one more woman in Toomer's tales whose passivity, indecision, and self-directed concerns wreak destruction. The fulcrum of a see-saw courtship, she equally desires and is equally desired by her black and her white lover. The white Bob Stone and the black Tom Burwell are but reflections of each other; their significance is their togetherness. Louisa feels their complementary pull as she is returning home from work: “Tom's black balanced, and pulled against the white of Stone, when she thought of them” (p. 52). Her “strange stir,” the foreboding of evil to come, is caused by both: “she tried to fix upon Bob or Tom as the cause of it.” Trying to separate Bob's courting her in the cane-brake from Tom's marriage proposal makes each lover that much more important: “together they shrouded her confidence like the clouds about to cover the moon, and sent her to sing and the dogs to howl.”

The dogs and chickens, like other beasts of intuition, anticipate imminent danger and form a constant link among the fates of Bob, Tom, and Louisa. The animals hoot and cackle as they pick up the significance of Louisa's worrying “tremor.” When Tom Burwell becomes filled with rage because his friends laugh about Bob and Louisa's liaison, the dogs again start barking and the roosters crow. Bob, himself burning with jealousy, stumbles over a dog, sending yelps, cackles, and crows reverberating across the countryside. When the threesome are about to converge, however, all noise has stopped, as though the animals are waiting for the final battle.

The link between Bob and Tom is not only through Louisa's thoughts and the animals' alarm. Tom and Bob are mirrors of each other even in their actions. Much as their background and social expectations differ, they are bound together because they love the same woman. Bob Stone claims racial superiority, yet he is an emotional mixture which reflects the white and the black of the Southern society: “The clear white of his skin paled, and the flush of his cheeks turned purple” (p. 55). Toomer's color-image of the black peasant's experience, I have noted, is dusk- and fruit-purple. Bob Stone pales and purples simultaneously; the whiter he gets the darker he gets. Having arrived at his meeting place but not finding Louisa, Bob is enraged that Tom “had her.” Bob bites his lips so hard that he tastes blood: “not his own blood; Tom Burwell's blood” (p. 62). Bob is too overwhelmed with jealousy to think about the incongruity of tasting his enemy's blood in his own veins. Rage has formed a union closer than brotherhood; Bob is Tom through the bond of hate.

Though both love Louisa, neither accepts the truth that she has an alternate lover. Both Tom and Bob hear the news from the same source, the men boiling cane at the canebrake. Both flee from the men uncontrollably angry, refusing to believe the truth about her disloyalty and immediately attempting to seek her out. Tom tells Louisa, “I don't believe what some folks been whispering. … Bob Stone likely. Course he does. But not the way folks is awhispering” (p 57). Tacitly he knows differently, for Louisa must get her frilly gifts from some lover's source. Bob, too, has been plagued with hints of her unfaithfulness, for “Cartwell had told him that Tom went with Louisa after she reached home.” Protesting too much, he immediately thinks, “No Sir. No nigger had never been with his girl. He'd like to see one try” (p. 60). In a similar way Tom has overreacted to Louisa's innocent claim that she has no connection with Bob: “Course y dont. Ise already cut two niggers. Had t hon, t tell them so” (p. 57). Jealousy, then, has reduced both men to the same human condition, irrespective of race or caste. Bob is ready to defend his woman in the same way that the antebellum white gentry would defend the purity of a belle. Likewise, Tom Burwell is ready to kill his “master's” son “jes like I cut a nigger” (p. 57). Charged to action by irrational forces, they can no longer delay the inevitable clash, hard as Louisa may try to put it off. Tom's shyness and Bob's secretiveness vanish in preparation for aggressive claims of ownership. The fight is unavoidable, for both have as their “game” the ability to fight with their knives. And, just as inevitably, the killing of one equates the killing of the other. It is not surprising that Bob Stone's last words are “Tom Burwell,” or that the last view of Tom is one with “stony” eyes and a head like a “blackened stone.”

Except for the stilted, utterly unbelievable speech that Tom Burwell delivers to Louisa, and for the implausible fragment of folk song which is chanted twice to foreshadow the final scene, “Blood-Burning Moon” is among the more effectively constructed short stories in the collection. In Louisa he fuses with dramatic intensity the love and hate, beauty and ugliness that live side by side in the twilight zone of the interracial South. “Blood-Burning Moon” embodies the very elements that so attracted, and so repelled, Jean Toomer in his sojourn to find lasting roots in the soil of the South.

There is no doubt that Toomer saw his work, if not in terms of a novel, at least in terms of a unified entity which in many ways is undefinable according to traditional book-length works. However, the recurrent imagery, such as that found in the first section of the book, helps to unify the tale wherein Jean Toomer seeks a reprieve from the seemingly soulless human state by retreating to nature for an identity that she often cannot provide.


  1. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923. All page numbers cited in the text refer to the 1923 edition.

  2. Letter to John McClure, July 22, 1922. Toomer sent a similar letter to Waldo Frank on June 19, 1922. All letters cited in this paper are from the Jean Toomer Collection, Fisk University Library, Nashville, Tennessee.

  3. With the printing of the book, the arcs did not in fact meet to make an entire circle as Toomer had intended. Larson erroneously attributes the incompleteness of the circle to an intentional lack of closure symbolizing the instability of lives which cannot become whole due to their inability to understand the past. “Reconsideration: Cane by Jean Toomer,” The New Republic, 174 (June 19, 1976), 32.

  4. Letter to Waldo Frank, December, 1922.

  5. “A Key to the Poems in Cane,CLA Journal, 14 (March, 1971), 215-8.

  6. “Design and Movement in Cane,” pp. 35-50.

  7. “The Search for Black Redemption: Jean Toomer's Cane,Studies in the Novel, 2 (Fall, 1970), 313.

  8. “Reconsideration: Cane by Jean Toomer,” pp. 31, 32.

  9. The Pastoral Art of Robert Frost (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), pp. 8-12. Lynen's commentary on how Frost uses the pastoral mode could equally apply to Toomer.

  10. It is well-known that the Imagists studied at great length the literature of the Far East. In that light it is interesting to compare Toomer's technique of blending visual-aural images with one of Bassho's haiku:

                                                      The lightning flashes!
    And slashing through the darkness,
    A night-heron's screech.

    (Trans. Earl Miner)

    Toomer experimented with the haiku form and content in his early poetry.

  11. Todd Lieber, “Design and Movement in Cane,” pp. 35-9.

  12. Undated, but probably written in 1923.

  13. Lieber, “Design and Movement in Cane,” p. 39.

  14. Evidence in Toomer's unpublished works shows that he was not altogether restrictive in the use of his Cane imagery to reflect exclusively the rural peasant's experience in Georgia. For instance, except for the fact that the following poem is written about Harper's Ferry, the imagery and the attitude could be from a Georgia poem:

    Tell me, dear beauty of the dusk,
                                            When purple ribbons bind the hill,
                                            Do dreams your secret wish fulfill,
    Do prayers, like kernels from the husk
    Come from your lips? Tell me if when
                                            The mountains loom at night, giant shades
                                            Of softer shadow, swift like blades
    Of grass seeds come to flower. Then
    Tell me if the night winds bend
                                            Then towards me, if the Shenandoah
                                            As it ripples past your shore
    Catches the soul of what you send.

    Jean Toomer Collection, box 50, folder 57.

  15. “Jean Toomer: Lost Generation, or Negro Renaissance?” Phylon, 27 (Winter, 1966), p. 400.

  16. “A Key to the Poems in Cane,” p. 254.

  17. “Jean Toomer: Herald of the Negro Renaissance,” unpublished Ph. D. dissertation (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University, 1967), p. 45.

  18. The word “palabra” seems to be a typographical error for palavra, the Portuguese word from which “palaver” is derived. Toomer suggests that the gift for oratory, parleys, and verbal parries is undeveloped in a literate culture, fettered by sermons and hymns which must be followed according to script.

  19. “Book Review of Cane,Banc!, 2 (Nashville, Fisk University Library, May, 1972), 14.

  20. “Earth-Being,” unpublished autobiography, written c. 1930, Jean Toomer Collection, box 19, folder 3.

Elizabeth Schultz (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: “Jean Toomer's ‘Box Seat’: The Possibility for ‘Constructive Crisises,’” in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 7-12.

[In the following essay, Schultz contends that not only is “Box Seat” integral to the thematic, imagistic, and philosophical unity of Cane, but the story has integrity and significance on its own.]

Jean Toomer's Cane has once again come into its own. Recognized by a handful of critics shortly after its publication in 1923 as a masterpiece, it fell into neglect until the late Sixties when a flurry of articles began to appear on Toomer in general and Cane in particular. Many of these discussions, noting the disparate structure of the work, focus on its thematic, imagistic, or philosophical unity.1 Several of them also identify “Box Seat,” the short story at the center of the work, as a pivotal piece in terms of Cane's unity. Although the story's importance to the work as a whole has thus been acknowledged, “Box Seat” has scarcely been recognized as a piece with an integrity of its own, which in addition reinforces Cane's basic intentions.2 Whereas Cane as a whole exposes Toomer's concern for the artificial divisions of race and class and of body and soul which have so brutally rent twentieth-century human life, “Box Seat” seems the work's most concise and dramatic expression of Toomer's yearning for these antagonisms to be healed.

In the autobiography, Earth-Being, which Toomer composed between 1927 and 1934, he establishes the resemblance between his own character and the modern city of Chicago; both embrace “a juxtaposition of extremes.” Of himself in Chicago, he writes: “In it I am an ascetic and a lover. I am an alien; yet to no place do I so belong. I am rejected. I am accepted. I live with people in a common existence. I stand alone. I want to leave it. I want to go back. I die in it. I live in it. I suffer. I enjoy. I degenerate and am reborn. I do nothing at all and seem about to fall to pieces. I do the greatest things of my life so far.”3 Spelling out the full nature of the extremes in himself, he continues: “I am both pessimistic and optimistic, a realist and an idealist. I am an egotist; I can be genuinely humble. I am promiscuous; I am single. I have regard for nothing; I am devoted and sincerely deeply care.”4 Although written earlier than Earth-Being, “Box Seat” is the lyrical and dramatic expression of this “juxtaposition of extremes” in the human character, not only as it is particularly exacerbated by a modern urban setting but also as it describes humankind in general. Toomer's story insists that life can be fully realized only when we are conscious of the contrasting elements in our characters and our circumstances; such realization is the only means of salvation for the urban characters in Cane and in “Box Seat.”

To some, “a juxtaposition of extremes” might imply a static condition, but Toomer does not endorse that position in either Cane or Earth-Being. Assuming an almost Hegelian stance, he explains in his autobiography his belief that, from the tension which occurs between extremes, resolution may evolve:

Life, and any living organism such as human society, is a field of force, a situation of tensions of forces. In society these tensions must exist. … The tensions should arise from natural oppositions—force against inertia, value against the valueless, the essential against the non-essential, the new against the old, reason against the irrational and stupid, will against body, feelings against the feelingless, one type of man against another type, the individual against the mass. They should eventuate in constructive crisises [sic], namely, in periods of especially active creation during which the culture of man is greatly advanced.5

In “Box Seat,” Toomer seems to have anticipated his theory of tensions arising from “natural oppositions” and eventuating in “constructive crisises,” for the dynamic of this story repeatedly sets up the conditions for a constructive crisis, with a thesis evoking an antithesis which in turn seeks to precipitate a synthesis of these very oppositions. Narrative method and theme consequently seem to reinforce each other, giving “Box Seat” full organic unity.6

The basic conflict in “Box Seat” and in Cane as a whole is made apparent in the opening pages of this story. Toomer sets in jarring opposition to a dream of the creative potentialities of nature a nightmare of the restrictive probabilities of a materialistic and mechanistic social life. In his idealized view of reality, it is spring; the chestnut trees are budding and blossoming; it is obviously a time for human as well as natural rebirth. Animating the artificial urban environment, Toomer assigns masculine qualities to the streets and feminine qualities to the houses; he imagines that the houses will awaken the streets, and that the streets will then woo the houses: “Houses are shy girls whose eyes shine reticently upon the dusk body of the street. Upon the gleaming limbs and asphalt torso of a dreaming nigger.”7 In this springtime vision, Toomer imagines a communion between sexual opposites, psychological opposites, and class opposites.

The antithesis to this vision is immediately established in the story. Houses are no longer animated, but become weight as dead as that of Rhobert's house in the second vignette in Part II of Cane, crushing the life out of its occupants. With iron gates and thick glass doors, these houses enforce the separation of people from each other and of their minds from their emotions; communication can't begin without the ringing of a doorbell. In this environment, Toomer's characters are so concerned with propriety, with “fitting in,” that they become bolted into their seats, each individual having a specific slot, each person locked into the mass. Movements are mechanized; like machines, people click or gyrate or ratchet. Stagnation is set against fecundity, isolation against communion, mechanization against sensuality, enclosure against space. Although the mass of humankind comes to react with violence against its own restrictions, it does so unconsciously; it produces crises, consequently, which are life-denying rather than life-giving, destructive rather than constructive. Without consciousness, “a juxtaposition of extremes” is merely static.

Epitomizing the natural opposition to this mechanized social world is the story's central character, Dan Moore. Critics of Cane who acknowledge the importance of “Box Seat” usually identify Dan with the powerful prophets of apocalypse in other parts of the work, such as Barlo in “Esther” and Lewis in “Kabnis,” or with its ineffectual, alienated heroes, such as the unnamed narrator of “Avey” and Kabnis himself.8 They do so justifiably, but Dan is not simply a prophet or an outcast. He is both. Does Dan contradict himself? Very well, then, he contradicts himself. If he represents the idealized natural world in antithesis to the mechanized social world, he also harbors oppositions in himself, for he recognizes that synthesis may emerge from the confrontation of thesis with antithesis. A foreshadowing of Toomer's description of himself in Earth-Being, Dan both embodies and gives voice to his creator's sense of “a juxtaposition of extremes” and, because he is conscious of these extremes, of his belief in creative conflict.

We learn at the story's outset that Dan's personal history contains contradictions. He was “‘born in a canebrake,’” and therefore, like the characters in Part I of Cane, he is associated with the sweet, full life of the rural Afro-American community. As the story begins, however, he is alone: “‘a poor man out of work’” (p. 105) in the city. Uprooted, he nevertheless remembers his roots. And because he remembers, he does not suffer the disease of disassociated sensibilities as do other urbanites in Cane; his mind, his body, and his soul always react in relation to each other. In the vignette immediately preceding “Box Seat,” Toomer describes a young woman whose soul—her spiritual and her sensual life—has atrophied as a result of her lonely, frigid life in a city house with iron-hinged storm doors; she has rejected the blossoming chestnut trees and the “niggers [who] sat on low door-steps before tumbled shanties and sang and loved” (p. 103), and only at night do dreams of cane return; although she has no name, Toomer gives us here an early sketch of Muriel, the woman whom Dan, out of love, attempts to save. In “Prayer,” the poem which follows “Box Seat” and can be considered its epilogue, Toomer expresses his own longing to be attuned to the mysterious harmony of mind, body, and soul.9

In addition to his memory, Dan's principal assets are his eyes and ears; both help him to translate a material reality into a spiritual reality. With his eyes, he is able to read souls in the eyes of others; he claims he “never miss[es] eyes” (p. 125). Thus he sees that even houses may have shining eyes. He sees that Mrs. Pribby's eyes are weakened from reading the banalities in newspapers; yet their very weakness has power to control; like her house her eyes are steel, and they “gimlet” Dan. In his beloved Muriel's eyes, Dan sees a lost self, a self once brimming with confidence and exuberance. In the eyes of a former slave, he remembers seeing the Afro-American past—the anguish of slavery and the arrival of the industrial age, the hope of Whitman's prophetic vision for America and the promise implicit in natural changes. He looks finally into the eyes of a dwarf and sees himself and all humanity: deformed with hatred and ennobled with tenderness. If only others would look into Dan's eyes as he demands at the beginning of the story—“‘Take your hands off me, you bull-necked bears. Look into my eyes’” (p. 105)—, they would see not only Dan Moore, but their own contradictory human nature.

With his ears, Dan is able to hear the rhythms of a different drummer. As he strolls down the street at the beginning of the story on his way to Muriel, he feels and hears the vibrations of spring. He hears “a forgotten song” which stirs his old passion. He also hears the call to begin a mission: “Stir the root-life of a withered people. Call them from their houses, and teach them to dream. … Come on, Dan Moore, come on” (p. 104). In Mrs. Pribby's house, he interprets the sound of a streetcar as a “rumble [that] comes from the earth's deep core. It is the mutter of powerful underground races” (p. 108). In the theater to which he goes following Muriel's rejection, although the crowd only roars, he continues to hear this rumble and to imagine that others might hear it, too. He has caught the hidden beat of Langston Hughes's 1951 “Dream Boogie”:

Good morning, daddy!
Ain't you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?
.....Listen to it closely:
Ain't you heard
something underneath
like a—(10)

While the crowd at the theater is captivated by the cacophony of jazz and sentimental songs, of boxing match gongs and its own uproar, Dan remembers the spirituals and listens for Gabriel's trumpet. He who can articulate the signs he reads with his senses may become either prophet or artist; Dan appoints himself to the former role; Toomer chooses the latter, at least for the time being.11 Both Toomer and his character, however, share a similar vision: Black American life once had an integrity in which natural contradictions, such as those which exist between mind, body, and soul, are harmonized; salvation—a restoration of that integrity—now lies only through crises which activate the imagination to synthesize these contradictions anew.

In the first section of “Box Seat,” Toomer shows Dan going through the paces of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis in terms of his personal relationship with Muriel inside the enclosed arena of the house of Mrs. Pribby, her landlady. In this section, Dan shifts from an expression of love and beauty to an expression of fear and brutality, making intermittent attempts to resolve these contradictory feelings. He initially perceives a life in which people have not been boxed up, separated from each other into racial and class hierarchies, with their souls separated from their bodies. Yet because his perception of life's creative possibilities seems denied by the reality of Muriel's behavior and circumstances, it is repeatedly transformed into an expression of violence and a desire for personal power. Thus, as the story opens, Dan, responding to the vision of spring's loveliness, feels “Girl-eyes within him widen upward to promised faces” (p. 104) and tries eagerly to sing. But his song of love, like the spirituals, whose loss Toomer mourns in the lives of black people throughout Cane, can't be sustained. His song becomes a shrill whistle as he confronts the oppressive nature of materialistic, hierarchical twentieth-century urban life.

Dan realizes in the opening scene in the first section of the story that the residential area in which he is walking does not welcome him. The houses are fortresses, not shy girls, and he, a poor, black man, is regarded as an intruder, not a poetic dreamer. As he approaches Mrs. Pribby's thick glass door, he becomes like the narrator of Claude McKay's 1922 poem, “The White House”:

A chafing savage, down the decent street;
And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass,
Oh, I must search for wisdom every hour,
Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw.(12)

From dreaming and singing he catapults to envisioning himself as smashing and stealing. He fancies himself stereotypically as the “bad nigger”—“Jack the Ripper. Baboon from the zoo”—the Bigger Thomas that middle-class society fears he is. Immediately, however, he turns to denying these exaggerated self-images to describe himself as he is: “‘I'm a poor man out of work. … I am Dan Moore’” (p. 105). From this straightforward assertion of self, he goes on to claim an association with Christ, “‘come to a sick world to heal it’” (p. 106), a claim which he then attempts to validate self-righteously and self-consciously by pointing out that “‘a dope fiend’” had recently brushed against him. Such antithetical self-images may be understood in terms of Toomer's theory of the “juxtaposition of extremes”; yet at this point in the story, Dan's vacillations seem to be confused reactions. Self-conscious rather than conscious, he fantasizes rather than exercising his imagination. Involved in his own ego, slightly paranoid, he doesn't yet see a vision of humanity.

In the second scene in the first section of the story, Dan's feelings fluctuate more dramatically from one extreme to another, for he realizes that the girl he loves does not welcome him. Muriel has become bound by the propriety of the woman in whose house she lives, and Dan has become a stranger to her. She fits into her slot, but he can fit no slot. He is growing, and growing takes a different kind of room from that in which he has to meet Muriel in Mrs. Pribby's house. He shifts from murderous thoughts about Mrs. Pribby to a premonition of the apocalypse with a “‘new-world Christ’” walking the treacherous waters. When Muriel makes her appearance, he feels first “the pressure of the house, of the rear room, of the rows of houses”; then “he is light. He loves her”; then “he is doubly heavy” (p. 109). In the presence of Muriel's beauty and in the repressed atmosphere of Mrs. Pribby's sitting room, Dan's rhetoric becomes saturated with urgent sexual imagery. When Muriel rejects him, he again is charged with feelings of violence. His fingers and arms “are fire to melt and bars to wrench and force and pry” (p. 113) her away; he wants to kill “‘whats [sic] weak in both of us and a whole litter of Pribbys’” (p. 115); aware of the absurdity of his strong man tactics, he nevertheless persists, thrusting, grabbing, demanding, until the clock strikes and Mrs. Pribby raps, until propriety and machinery reassert themselves.

In the midst of these emotional vacillations, Dan again has a moment of clarity. As earlier he had not lost sight of his simple identity, here he does not lose sight of the necessarily contradictory nature of life; he sets forth his thoughts to Muriel, as Toomer himself might have, by way of elucidating his belief in “a juxtaposition of extremes”:

There is no such thing as happiness. Life bends joy and pain, beauty and ugliness, in such a way that no one should isolate them. No one should want to. Perfect joy, or perfect pain, with no contrasting element to define them, would mean a monotony of consciousness, would mean death. Not happy, Muriel. Say that you have tried to make … [people] create. Say that you have used your own capacity for life to cradle them. To start them upward-flowing.

(p. 112)

Dan's understanding of the synthesis of opposites here, however, seems to have been reached intellectually. His statements might even be considered platitudinous in reaction to the platitudes he has had from Muriel; important as they are to both Dan's and Toomer's philosophy, the statements seem abstract rationalizations of Dan's feelings, his mind having overpowered his emotions. In the second section of the story, Dan's imagination extends the basis of his understanding; it goes beyond ego and race and draws him into alliance with other misfits, giving his theoretical explanation of the synthesis of opposites a human face and character.

The second section of “Box Seat” is set in the Lincoln Theater; Toomer repeatedly identifies the theater audience as “the house,” with its functions being the same as those of Mrs. Pribby's house in the first section of the story: to confine and to separate humanity into artificial categories. Having described the paralyzing effects of social pressure upon individuals, Toomer now describes these effects upon a people as a whole. In this house, ironically named for the “Great Emancipator,” individual black people now become a “mass”; freed, they have become slaves again, this time to a system of false values. The conversation at the theater is completely dominated by a concern for appearances. Although one large woman may evoke the dream of spring and new life, Dan finally discovers only hostility in her eyes:

A soil-soaked fragrance comes from her. Through the cement floor her strong roots sink down. They spread under the asphalt streets. Dreaming, the streets roll over on their bellies, and suck their glossy health from them. Her strong roots sink down and spread under the river and disappear in bloodlines that waver south. Her roots shoot down. Dan's hands follow them. Roots throb. … He is startled. The eyes of the woman dont [sic] belong to her. They look at him unpleasantly.

(p. 119)

Muriel is the most obvious victim of the new slavery. Made so conscious of her appearance, she keeps her coat on in order to prevent a clash of colors between her lovely dress and the draperies in her box seat; she keeps her hat on so that her thick, bobbed hair will not compromise her status as a school teacher. Toomer suggests, however, that she has not become altogether bolted into her brass box seat; her mind is still in flux between extremes as she thinks of Dan and of the theater: “He makes me feel queer. … Upsets me. I am not upset. … I am going to enjoy the show. Good show. … This damn tame thing. O Dan. Wont [sic] see Dan again. Not alone. Have Mrs. Pribby come in. She was in. Keep Dan out. If I love him, can I keep him out? Well then, I dont [sic] love him. Now he's out. Who is that coming in? … Looks like Dan” (pp. 117-18). As soon as she turns around in her seat and faces the theater audience, however, the full weight of convention falls upon her, and she resolves the anguish of contradiction and the fear of sexuality which Dan's presence arouses in her by wishing him dragged into the back alley and beaten with a whip butt—a wish nearly granted at the story's conclusion.

The program for the evening's entertainment is mixed: a jazz overture, a boxing match between dwarfs, an encore of sentimental songs. This juxtaposition of staged events suggests a parody of the “juxtaposition of extremes” which Toomer and Dan believe underscores life. In the opening of the story's second section Toomer expresses his doubt that the house could respond to the rich culture of the Afro-American past; he doubts that this audience would hear the Lord's questions or Gabriel's trumpet. This audience can only roar out its enthusiasm for a cheap thrill, substituting gratuitous emotional pleasure for the direct and total involvement which is demanded by the spirituals and gospel preaching.

The source of the gratuitous pleasure which the audience derives from the boxing match is its violence, with the brutality of the fight evoking the crowd's own latent brutality, ordinarily kept in confinement by the restrictions of society. As the dwarfs pound each other, the audience—including Muriel—pounds its box seats, and the house which had held the potential for being a shy girl is now animated as a roaring beast. Roger Rosenblatt makes clear the ironic resemblance of the dwarfs to the crowd: The fight is “akin to the battle royal in Invisible Man; the savagery of the dwarfs is meant to amuse an audience which already had to have reached a savage condition and level of apprehension in order to regard the dwarfs as amusing. The fact that the black audience cheers on the dwarfs perpetuates a cycle of brutality in which each group of the down-trodden seeks only to find solace or satisfaction in the humiliation of another.”13 In addition, the actions of the audience, which stand in terrifying antithesis to their concern for propriety and appearance, fully demonstrate the separation of mind from emotion. Expressions of violence which emanate from fear, such as Muriel's in thinking of Dan, or from amusement, such as the crowd's, are blind emotional reactions. Dan, too, swings from calm to violence; yet he comes to understand the extremes in himself consciously and to synthesize them imaginatively. One extreme never swings completely out of sight of the other.

Dan is as much a misfit at the theater as he was at Mrs. Pribby's. He stumbles to get into his seat, and he squirms once he is there. He is emphatically differentiated from the mass, however, largely because he is conscious. During the dwarfs' fight, he does not become part of the crowd's blind emotionalism; instead the dwarfs “pound and bruise and bleed each other, on his eyeballs” (p. 123), and he is moved to think of alternatives to the brutality of their fight and the crowd's response. Although his thoughts run a course parallel to the fight's, in the arena of his mind he seems to be struggling toward a victory for himself and his people.

At one level during the fight, Dan's thoughts reflect the pure desire of the powerless for power. Rejected by the woman he loves and the people he loves, he wants control over them. Thus he imagines in explicitly sexual terms men horizontally poised over women, dominating “until women learn their stuff” (p. 124). And he imagines himself tearing down the theater and appearing with a dynamo, symbol of the machine age, in one hand and a flashing black god's face, symbol of a primitive age, in the other. His image of himself as a baboon smashing into Mrs. Pribby's has become expanded to that of a colossus. His visions here may be seen as defensive, as violently destructive. But they may also be seen as creative, for Dan imagines a unity of man and woman, of technological present with spiritual past. His visions are saved from being paranoiac hallucinations by the fact that on another level Dan's thoughts reflect his recognition of the marvel of his people's capacity for style, vitality, and survival and his refusal to despair in the face of the fact that his people seem to have lost this capacity. He remembers Muriel's glorious talent for dancing and the eagerness of a former slave, paralyzed in a wheel chair, to keep on dreaming of greater changes coming. Seeing into Muriel's and the old man's eyes in his mind's eye, seeing what was, Dan is able to envision what can be. His thoughts therefore become apocalyptic; if he has grandiose notions of his own prowess, he also longs for Muriel to “burn clean … burn clean … BURN CLEAN!” (p. 123; ellipses Toomer's) and for the old man to become a Moses who will shout “LET MY PEOPLE GO!” (p. 125).

The pattern of vacillation in Dan's thoughts in the theater repeats the pattern of thesis versus antithesis which his thoughts took as he stood both outside and inside Mrs. Pribby's house. But here the dimension of contradictory impulses is enlarged as he alternates between destructive and creative desires, between despair and hope, between memory of the past and dreams of the future. During the program's final event, however, Dan at last is able to synthesize these contradictions, to extend them beyond his own ego and to make them pulsate in the present moment. He comes finally to be able to transcend the intellectualization of his former synthesis and the fantasizing of his ego to exercise his imagination. For Dan the tension caused by oppositions within himself and his individual opposition to the mass becomes constructive.

In his narrative, Toomer had reflected the dwarfs' fight on Dan's inner eye by setting up contrasting paragraphs describing first the public contest, then the private one in Dan's mind. At the fight's conclusion, however, one of the bloody dwarfs is brought forward to sing a sentimental song, and Dan's eyes are suddenly opened to his full kinship with the dwarf. The dwarf bears a bloodied rose in one hand and a mirror which he flashes at members of the audience in the other; Dan at this moment appears on the stage of his mind bearing the dynamo and the god's face. As he imagines himself catching the world's attention with the flashing mask, his attention is caught by the dwarf's flashing mirror. He is uncomfortable, for he must realize the dwarf's devices are his own. He must realize, too, that the philosophy of “joy and pain, beauty and ugliness,” which he had tried to present to Muriel is identical to the blood-stained rose which the dwarf is now attempting to give to her in the theater. He seems no longer self-conscious about contact with dope fiends, for like the dwarf, he knows that he, too, has been brutalized. Like the dwarf, he, too, can bristle with hate and melt with serenity. He notes the dwarf's deformed brow: From being hideous, it grows in Dan's vision to seem “profound … a thing of wisdom and tenderness, of suffering and beauty” (p. 128).

The concept of synthesis which Dan expresses in the first part of “Box Seat” seems the intellectual hypothesis for the complex human reality which he finally perceives in the dwarf's face. Gazing at this face, he imagines a dialogue with the dwarf; and in italic phrases, his imagination begins translating the unspoken personal yearning in the dwarf's eyes into a general truth about human nature:

Do not shrink. Do not be afraid of me.
See how my eyes look at you.
the son of God
I too was made in His image.
was once—
I give you the rose.

(P. 128)

Finally he shouts out his completed thought to the theater audience: “‘JESUS WAS ONCE A LEPER!’” (p. 129). His final vision seems to be one of personal epiphany rather than universal apocalypse. Through the power of his imagination to suspend his ego and to synthesize opposites, Dan has seen the crowd's similarity and his own similarity to the dwarf; he has seen that, if the deformed and brutalized dwarf may share divinity with Christ, so may a deformed and brutalized humanity. He has seen that the dope fiend, the dwarf, the leper, the misfits, as well as the son of God coexist in himself and in others. He is not, therefore, as he had earlier fantasized, “‘the next world-savior … the new-world Christ’” (p. 108); if he has saved anyone, it has been himself.14 Thus the conflict with the house has stretched his imagination; he sees now with Keats's “negative capability,” not simply in terms of himself or even of his own race, but in terms of our common humanity. Salvation, Toomer implies through his description of Dan's experience, can only come as a result of a prophetic revelation in the consciousness of the individual.

At the conclusion of “Box Seat,” Dan is once again on the street, out of the house, in contact with nature. The story has come full cycle. As Charles Scruggs has observed, Toomer, reacting to the industrialism of his age, is committed to organic form, and Cane itself, having been composed in organic terms, has a continuous cyclical movement.15 The dynamic of thesis versus antithesis without synthesis does not lead to change in the story. Repeated synthesis, however, becomes the basis for a process of growth. Thus in “Box Seat,” the spring which opened the story flows into summer, and Dan leaves the theater continuing to grow.

At the beginning of the story, chestnut buds and blossoms surrounded Dan; at the conclusion of the story, Toomer's continued use of flower imagery suggests the perpetuation of the natural process. Dan, on his way out of the theater, is described as being “as cool as a green stem that has just shed its flower” (p. 129). Rather than implying that he has become sterile and impotent, as Robert Bone has suggested,16 the image indicates that Dan has attained a maturity of vision: “Ripeness is all.” Just as spring passes and flowers fade, so do the fantasies of youth; the alley to which Dan goes is filled with the smells of garbage and trash, and “in the morning, singing niggers will drive by and ring their gongs … Heavy with the scent of rancid flowers and with the scent of fight” (p. 130; ellipsis Toomer's). In contrast to the hopeful image at the beginning of the story of the “dreaming nigger” who could “stir the root-life of a withered people,” and whom Toomer clearly intended to be associated with Dan, this concluding image of “singing niggers,” which must also be associated with Dan, sounds an elegiac note. Like the dwarf, Dan may now sing as he was initially unable to do, but in a desolate world, he reeks of inevitable decay and struggle. Thus Toomer's final natural image in “Box Seat” blends together “joy and pain, beauty and ugliness” and fulfills the movement toward synthesis in the story.

Toomer may, as he later noted, have written Cane as a swan song for the Negro “folk-spirit” and consciously saturated the book with sadness.17 Yet the character of Dan Moore suggests that Toomer did not “go gently into that good night.” At the conclusion of “Box Seat,” Dan, having seen the dwarf in himself and having sought to share his vision of humanity with the house, realizes that the house can only judge him as the antithesis of their restricted lives—as a lunatic. His vision has neither qualified him to be Christ nor has it made him a new man, but he is not crazy. He continues to react, and in outrage against the unseeing house, he steps on a man's toes, tweaks his nose, and punches him. The man insists on slugging it out with Dan in the back alley, and the house roars its approval. But in the story's last line, “Dan … keeps going on” (p. 130). Man keeps going on. The process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis keeps going on.

By exercising his imagination to synthesize opposites, Dan may have saved himself; with difficulty he has found “wisdom … deep in [his] bosom sore and raw.” He does not simply react to the crowd's desire to perpetuate brutality. But walking away from the theater, he is alone, his only companionship the unknown tribe with whom Toomer associates himself on the first leaf of Earth-Being:

It is our task to suffer
a conscious apprenticeship
in the stupidities
and abnormalities of mankind.(18)

Yet with the mass of humankind oblivious to either their “stupidities and abnormalities” or to their wonderous creative potentialities, “Box Seat,” like Cane itself, is finally a poignant expression of Toomer's yearning for an advanced human culture to evolve from “constructive crisises.”


  1. See, for example, Todd Lieber, “Design and Movement in Cane,CLA Journal, 13 (1969), 35-50; Catharine L. Innes, “The Unity of Jean Toomer's Cane,CLA Journal, 15 (1972), 306-22; Bernard W. Bell, “Portrait of the Artist as the High Priest of Soul: Jean Toomer's Cane,Black World, Sept. 1974, pp. 4-19, 92-97; Charles W. Scruggs, “The Mark of Cain and the Redemption of Art: A Study of Theme and Structure in Jean Toomer's Cane,American Literature, 44 (1972), 276-91.

  2. The only full critical treatment of “Box Seat” appears in Roger Rosenblatt's Black Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 55-59.

  3. Jean Toomer, “Chapters from Earth-Being: An Unpublished Autobiography,” The Black Scholar, 2, No. 5 (1971), 12.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Scruggs discusses Toomer's interest in organic form at length (pp. 279-80).

  7. Jean Toomer, Cane (1923; rpt. New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 104; subsequent references to Cane are noted parenthetically in the text.

  8. Innes sees Dan as “a precursor of the new redeemer” (p. 314), and Houston Baker, in Singers of Daybreak (Washington, DC: Howard Univ. Press, 1974), calls him “the bringer of dreams” (p. 73). Contrarily Lieber notes that Dan's passion “results in nothing but his own frustration” (p. 45), and Robert Bone, in the revised edition of The Negro Novel in America (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1965), describes Dan as “free—but at the same time, sterile” (p. 86).

  9. Innes demonstrates the importance of P. D. Ouspensky's philosophy to an understanding of Cane, noting that “one of Ouspensky's main concerns was to stress that both the emotions and the intellect are organs of knowledge, and that the highest form of consciousness must include the fusion of both” (p. 318). S. P. Fullinwider, in “Jean Toomer: Lost Generation, or Negro Renaissance?” Phylon, 27 (1966), quotes Toomer as writing in 1937 that “‘Themo-sense (thought and emotion and sensing) is the inner synthesis of functions, which represents the entire individual and gives rise to complete action’” (p. 398).

  10. Langston Hughes, “Dream Boogie,” in Selected Poems (1959; rpt. New York: Vintage Books, 1974), p. 221.

  11. Robert Bone, in Down Home (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1975), notes that under the later influence of George Gurdjieff, Toomer became more of a philosopher than a poet: “Toomer's style becomes increasingly abstract. The vivid images that were its crowning glory give way to windy generalities. The pungency of Cane is nowhere to be found. … [In] Toomer's later fiction … dramatization is thin, and incessant sermonizing takes the place of narrative. As imagination falters, the dry rot of abstraction sets in. The rich concreteness of experience is sacrificed to the pursuit of philosophical Absolutes” (p. 237).

  12. Selected Poems (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1953), p. 78.

  13. Black Fiction, p. 57.

  14. Scruggs indicates that “What Dan learns at the Lincoln Theater is that he must first heal himself” (p. 288).

  15. In discussing Toomer's interests in organic form, Scruggs quotes from a 1922 letter Toomer wrote to Waldo Frank, in which he identifies the position of “Box Seat” in the cyclical scheme of Cane: “‘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. From the point of view of the spiritual entity behind the work, the curve really starts with Bona and Paul (awakening), plunges into Kabnis, emerges in Karintha etc. swings upward into Theatre and Box Seat, and ends (pauses) in Harvest Song’” (p. 279).

  16. Bone, The Negro Novel, p. 86. All other critics, however, seem to ignore the troubling simile at the conclusion of “Box Seat.”

  17. Bone, in Down Home, quoting from Toomer's Outline of an Autobiography, points to Toomer's sense that “‘the folk-spirit was walking in to die on the modern desert. That spirit was so beautiful. Its death was so tragic. Just this seemed to sum up life for me. And this was the feeling I put into ‘Cane.’ ‘Cane’ was a swan song. It was a song of an end’” (p. 207). In a letter to Frank, written in 1923, from which Bone also quotes, Toomer had also expressed his feeling that, “‘if anything comes up now, pure Negro, it will be a swan-song’” (p. 218).

  18. Earth-Being, p. 2.

Further Reading

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Kerman, Cynthia Earl and Richard Eldridge. The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987, 411 p.

Detailed biography emphasizing Toomer's quest for spiritual fulfillment.


Bell, Bernard W. “Jean Toomer's Cane.Black World 23, No. 11 (September 1974): 4-19, 92-7.

Commentary on the pastoral and religious elements in Cane.

Benson, Brian Joseph and Mabel Mayle Dillard. Jean Toomer. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980, 150 p.

Biographical and critical study of Toomer.

Brannan, Tim. “Up from the Dusk: Interpretations of Jean Toomer's ‘Blood Burning Moon.’” Pembroke Magazine No. 8 (1977): 167-72.

Investigates various interpretations of “Blood Burning Moon.”

Christ, Jack M. “Jean Toomer's ‘Bona and Paul’: The Innocence and Artifice of Words.” Negro American Literature Forum 9, No. 2 (Summer 1975): 44-6.

Explores the function and significance of language in “Bona and Paul.”

Duncan, Bowie. “Jean Toomer's Cane: A Modern Black Oracle.” College Language Association Journal 15, No. 2 (March 1972): 323-33.

A study of the “unity or organic quality” of Cane which associates Toomer's use of language with Cubist art.

Durham, Frank, ed. Studies in “Cane.” Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1971, 113 p.

Reprints, in whole or in part, significant reviews of Cane by such critics as Robert Bone, Arna Bontemps, Alain Locke, and Gorham Munson.

Fischer, William C. “The Aggregate Man in Jean Toomer's Cane.Studies in the Novel 3, No. 2 (Summer 1971): 190-215.

Explores Cane as a “representative Afro-American work” whose central theme is the black man's loss of identity through assimilation into American culture.

Gibson, Donald B. “Jean Toomer.” In The Politics of Literary Expression: A Study of Major Black Writers, pp. 155-81. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Addresses the significance of “Kabnis” in Cane.

Goede, William J. “Jean Toomer's Ralph Kabnis: Portrait of the Negro Artist as a Young Man.” Phylon 31, No. 1 (Spring 1969): 73-85.

A brief examination of the themes and techniques in Cane, focusing on the story “Kabnis.”

Grant, Mary Kathryn. “Images of Celebration in Cane.Negro American Literature Forum 5, No. 1 (Spring 1971): 32-4, 36.

Discusses the theme of celebration in Cane.

Jackson, Blyden. “Jean Toomer's Cane: An Issue of Genre.” In The Waiting Years, pp. 189-202. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

Investigates the genre of Cane.

Jones, Robert B. Jean Toomer and the Prison-House of Thought: A Phenomenology of the Spirit. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1993, 191 p.

Traces Toomer's literary and ideological development.

Kopf, George. “The Tensions in Jean Toomer's ‘Theater.’” College Language Association Journal 17, No. 4 (June 1974): 498-503.

Describes “Theater” as the “product of its author's perception of tensions and countertensions in the reality of black experience in the United States.”

Lively, Adam. “The Talented Tenth: The Ambiguous Lives and Works of Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen in a Jim Crow Society.” TLS (30 December 1994): 5-6.

Overview of Toomer's life and works.

McKay, Nellie Y. Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984, 262 p.

An analysis centered around Cane of the “growth, development, and decline of Jean Toomer as a literary artist.”

Rankin, William. “Ineffability in the Fiction of Jean Toomer and Katherine Mansfield.” In Renaissance and Modern: Essays in Honor of Edwin M. Moseley, edited by Murray J. Levith, pp. 160-71. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1976.

Finds parallels in the work of Katherine Mansfield and Jean Toomer.

Reilly, John M. “The Search for Black Redemption: Jean Toomer's Cane.Studies in the Novel 2, No. 2 (Fall 1970): 312-24.

Places Cane in the line of African American literary tradition derived from W. E. B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk, and explores Toomer's thematic emphasis on the search for identity as a liberating force in an oppressive environment.

Rusch, Frederik L. “Form, Function, and Creative Tension in Cane: Jean Toomer and the Need for the Avant-garde.” MELUS 17, No. 4 (Winter 1991-92): 15-28.

Praises the experimental literary form of Cane and deems the work a masterpiece of the literary avant-garde.

Waldron, Edward E. “The Search for Identity in Jean Toomer's ‘Esther.’” College Language Association Journal 14, No. 3 (March 1971): 277-80.

Examines the thematic layers of “Esther.”

Watkins, Patricia. “Is There a Unifying Theme in Cane?” CLA Journal XV, No. 3 (March 1972): 303-05.

Interprets Cane as a study in alienation.

Westerfield, Hargis. “Jean Toomer's ‘Fern’: A Mythical Dimension.” College Language Association Journal 14, No. 3 (March 1971): 274-76.

Study of the Judeo-Christian allusions in “Fern.”

Additional coverage of Toomer's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 3; Black Writers, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1917–1929; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85–88; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 4, 13, 22; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 45, 51; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 7; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 5; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.

Brian Joseph Benson and Mabel Mayle Dillard (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: “Lifting the Veil: Cane,” in Jean Toomer, Twayne, 1980, pp. 49-98.

[In the following essay, Benson and Dillard offer a thematic and stylistic analysis of Cane.]

Cane, published by Boni and Liveright in 1923, was Toomer's first book-length work. His early poetry, short stories, and sketches had been well received by the literary world and Toomer was considered a promising young author. These early pieces had, as Toomer said, sought to extract the beauty from black life and to direct the people's sensitivity and perception to that beauty. Cane is a further attempt to show the beauty in black life in its various stages: the primitive black, the black who had been semiurbanized, and the intellectual black. Structurally, Cane assumes a contrapuntal series of short often enigmatic turns. The text itself is divided into three distinct sections: Section One is set in Georgia and includes six stories concerning women and ten short lyric poems related to the substance of the stories. Section Two is set in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. It includes four stories, three vignettes, and five poems. This miscellany counterpoints the rural, more sensual and earthy elements described in Section One. The Third Section is once again set in the South and contains one long story entitled “Kabnis.” It is at once the most enigmatic and, with close reading, the most edifying section in the entire volume. “Kabnis” brings the reader full circle since the protagonist has experienced both rural and urban influences prior to his return to the South.

Before proceeding to discussions of these sections and their individual interpretation, it is necessary to note some general problems concerning the discussion of Cane. Three such problems come to mind: the literary classification of Cane, the compositional order of Section Two, and projections concerning the influence of Cane.Cane is classified as a novel in libraries, bibliographic studies, and in most reference works. Nevertheless Cane fails to meet the standard criteria of the novel form. Critics also disagree widely over the proper classification of Cane. Addison Gayle calls it a “collage of fiction, songs, and poetry.”1 It is also portrayed as “a mosaic of poems, short stories, and intense sketches.”2 Bernard Bell indicates that Cane is “an intricately structured, incantational book. Divided into three major parts, it progresses from a highly poetic to a heavily dramatic form.”3 In yet another twist, Edward G. Waldron contends that Cane is a “novel-poem.”4 It is evident that Cane has been classified as a novel for purposes of convenience and uniformity. That it is not a conventional novel is self-evident. Rather it is a work unique in the canon of Afro-American fiction. Not only was Toomer an experimentalist, he was virtually inimitable. The word “novel” used in this study with reference to Cane alludes to a generality at best and no word has yet been coined which would properly classify Cane as a work of American literature.

It should be noted that Section Two was composed after Sections One and Three. Therefore, the continuity of Cane may rest more readily in interpretation than in the large design Toomer felt for the material. Darwin Turner correctly notes that Toomer lengthened Cane at the request of his publisher and not without some concern.5

With regard to the final problem, if Cane were limited to two early editions numbering approximately 1,000 copies, what impact could it have made on the literary figures of the era and the Harlem Renaissance writers in particular? A solution to the puzzle will be presented at length during the course of sections of this study, but it is apparent that Cane became one of those classics kept alive by word of mouth and sheer admiration on the part of readership. This is a verifiable statement since, when it came time for those successful figures of the 1920s to write their memoirs, Cane is mentioned time after time as one book which stuck in the mind as an inspirational work. One way of ascertaining the inspirational quality of Cane is to undertake a close analysis of the text itself. Cane's unique format, structure, language, and personae led to its becoming so influential a work. The first section of Cane, which concerns for the most part primitive women, is a series of portraits as observed by the son of a slave who has returned to the soil of his ancestors for a final vision of his slave heritage. In this section Toomer records the lives of six primitives, all of whom have led unusual lives, unusual in that they have not conformed to the mores of the Southern social system for blacks. These tales of “crudest melodrama” are told from the point of view of a narrator who regrets the dying out of the spirit of the song-lit race and who sees the vanishing aspects of black life with nostalgic memories. The poem “Song of the Son” reveals the attitude of the narrator of this section of Cane:

Pour O pour that parting soul in song,
O pour it in the sawdust glow of night,
Into the velvet pine-smoke air to-night
And let the valley carry it along,
And let the valley carry it along.
O land and soil, red soil and sweet-gum tree,
So scant of grass, so profligate of pines,
Now just before an epoch's sun declines
Thy son, in time, I have returned to thee,
Thy son, I have in time returned to thee.
In time, for though the sun is setting on
A song-lit race of slaves, it has not set;
Though late, O soil, it is not too late yet
To catch thy plaintive soul, leaving, soon gone,
Leaving, to catch thy plaintive soul, soon gone.
O Negro slaves, dark purple ripened plums
Squeezed, and bursting in the pine-wood air,
Passing, before they stripped the old tree bare
One plum was saved for me, one seed becomes
An everlasting song, a singing tree,
Caroling softly souls of slavery,
What they were, and what they are to me,
Caroling softly souls of slavery.(6)

Toomer poured his soul into this poem. Here the land of the slave is seen as surrounded by a pungent “sawdust glow of night” and enveloped in “velvet pine” smoke. The beauty of the red soil (a symbol of barren land) and of the sweet-gum tree in the midst of a country that is practically devoid of vegetation is implied in stanza two. Though he is in a land that is far from the noises of civilization, the son who has returned barely “in time” to catch the beauty of the land does not despair.

The land of the slave is here seen as a wasted section with “red” soil, unproductive to the point that the grass is “scant” and the lands abound in nothing but pine trees—a characteristic of poor soil. The setting of the sun, like the soil that has been impoverished, is symbolic of a dying race of slaves.

The power of song of the black race is brought out in the poet's comparison of the black slaves to “purple ripened plums,” which are bursting to be expressed. Like the plum that has reached its peak of perfection with purple ripeness, so has the “song-lit” race of slaves achieved its ripeness, or its fullest expression, with songs. In the songs of slaves, he sees a tragic beauty—tragic because the slave race, along with its customs, is slowly dying.

Like a child who has returned to pay its last respects to a dying mother, so the poet returns to the land that has nourished and given him an appreciation for the beauty of the songs of the race. “One seed,” he says, “becomes an everlasting song” before the tree has been stripped bare—before modern (and ugly) civilization has stripped the slave race of all its simple joys. Stanza three implies that the soul is leaving the “song-lit” race just as the race is also leaving its soul in the rush to more civilized areas, where the simplicity and beauty of the race will be lost. Toomer sees great beauty in the people who eke out their lives on the red soil of the land and who assuage the pains encountered in their lives by their “souls of slavery” softly caroled. The son of the soil who has returned finds the beauty of the destitute South preserved in its primitive women, all of who live close to the soil and who perpetuate the tradition of the lives of women in “niggertown.”


The first sketch of the primitives in Section One is “Karintha.” It is basically a description of the physical development of a prematurely sensual young woman—a development which will lead to tragedy. Karintha carries her beauty “perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.” Even as a child, Karintha elicits sexuality to an unusual degree and as she matures effects an aura nearly irresistible to the men in the community. Even the minister is cast under her spell. He forgives her indiscretions by calling her “… innocently lovely as a November cotton flower.” Karintha is of noble savage vintage, one who darts past a bit of “vivid color, like a blackbird that flashes in the light,” whose “running is a whir,” and who has the “sound of red dust” in the road. Karintha is unfettered and a true daughter of the soil of the South.

Toomer projects a major theme of Cane in this initial story. Karintha, as a free spirit and uncommon beauty, is misunderstood and misused. Her true beauty lies in the spirit not the flesh. Houston Baker correctly states that “men are attracted to the heroine but fail to appreciate what's of value—the spirituality inherent in her dusky beauty.”7 Men indulge themselves in her flesh, gradually fragmenting her spirit in the process. Karintha mates with many men, granting them their wishes and finally gives birth to a child, animal-like, in the forest. She then buries it there. The narrator summarizes her plight, calling her a woman whose soul (and body) is like “a growing thing ripened too soon.” The narrator does not consider Karintha a prostitute, as Robert Bone has suggested,8 nor does he condemn her for her primitivisitic ways. He sees her only as an uncivilized woman who has carried the African mating customs with her, uninhibited by the structures of her new, adopted country. In “Karintha” we feel the implication that the narrator is expressing his nostalgia for a race that is dying away. He ends the story with an ode to Karintha's wanton beauty.

Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon.
O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon
… When the sun goes down
Goes down …(9)

The analogy to Stephen Crane's Maggie is apparent. Karintha develops in a squalid environment. Her parents are dirt poor living in a two room shack. She learns the laws of the survival of the fittest and stones cows, kicks her own dog, fights the other children in the community. It is a stark bare existence and she is separated from anonymity only by her extraordinary beauty. But beauty is not enough to lift her to the level of heroine. Instead she is victimized.


The second of Toomer's gallery of primitive women is Becky, a white woman who has two sons, both mulatto, thus becoming an outcast of the community where she lives. Although Becky is ostracized she is literally cared for by neighbors. They offer prayers, food, and speculation about her future well being. After the second mulatto is born, indicative of the fact that she has not altered her life style, she remains an isolato. Becky dies when her house falls in upon itself, primarily due to neglect and symbolically because it has been built upon the sand. As Karintha is an overwhelming physical presence, Becky is a psychological presence.10 This method of characterization develops a loose continuity from the initial story to the second.

The story of Becky is related from two perspectives: the first from the point of view of one of her peers, and next by a narrator who has been drawn to her cabin “Ages” after the hollow report which signalled the chimney disintegrating and falling in, crushing her body. Even before her physical death, Becky is considered dead as a productive, desirable person in the community. Thus, her isolation represents a spiritual as well as physical punishment. Both the white and black communities reject Becky. With the first son, sired by a black man, the whites reject Becky and tend to disregard her very existence. They renege on that commitment since she is given staples of life. But, having committed the unpardonable sin of miscegenation, she is condemned to living in an isolated cabin. The whites call the string-necked, fallen-breasted woman a “God-forsaken insane white shameless wench.” The blacks call her a “God-forsaken poor white crazy woman.” It should be noted that both white and black call Becky God-forsaken and crazy or insane. Since they believe God condemns those who violate the unwritten laws of miscegenation, she must therefore be without faith. If this be the case, why are they drawn to help Becky? Is it out of a sense of Christian charity or fear that some other spiritual power may be present. Toomer sets up a subtle duality here. Becky is not just a crazy, faithless wench. Rather, she symbolizes the unnatural conflict between the laws of God and the laws of man, similar to the chronological laws so pronounced in Herman Melville's novel of miscegenation, Pierre. Nevertheless, both whites and blacks contribute to build her a cabin home and to sustain her. There are both white men and black men who help to build her cabin but who do not openly discuss her existence. The South ignores the existence of Becky, but the pine trees, in whispering to Jesus, recognize the mating of men and women—with no regard for color or for man-made marriage bonds—as a natural function.

Though Becky is condemned by men and women alike in the community, there is a spiritual bond that causes all of them, black as well as white, to honor her and to help provide her with the necessities of life. She lives in the community as a ghost, probably the ghost of a spiritual community of love. As the narrator tells his story of Becky, he occasionally interrupts the legend with a poetic phrase, “The pines whisper to Jesus.” When he dares to brave the censure of the public and to enter her cabin, Becky's body seems to be buried under the rubble of the cabin which has fallen in “ages” since.

In this sketch, Toomer has caught the beauty of the life of a Southern woman who, like Karintha, mated with many men. Unlike Karintha, however, whose favors were openly sought by men, Becky becomes isolated by the community. We know no more about Becky than what the narrator relates that he has heard from the “white folks' mouths” and “black folks' mouths.” We never see her; her life is an undiscussed subject. Mention of her is made only secretively. The final impression we have of her comes when Barlo, the friend of the unnamed narrator, out of fear, drops his Bible on the pile of rubble that has buried Becky. The only sound that breaks the silence is the rustle of the leaves of the Bible which murmur as if in defiance of the scorn that the community has heaped on her.

The short symbolic death of Becky's life is concluded by a tribute to her: “Becky was the white woman who had two Negro sons. She's dead; they've gone away. The pines whisper to Jesus. The Bible flaps its leaves with an aimless rustle on her mound.”11


The poem “Face” which follows the sketch “Becky” is a poetic portrait of a woman somewhat like Becky of the preceding sketch—a woman whose life has been characterized by emotional suffering. This is a relatively simple, impressionistic poem, showing strongly the influence of the Imagists, but one which is loaded with deep feeling. Toomer had studied the Imagists diligently to improve his literary style and the work of these poets is evident in his poetry as well as in his prose. The subject of this poem is a woman who has known intense suffering and who is approaching death. Just as in the prose sketch “Becky,” in which we are given no actual description of the woman, so in “Face” we are given only the barest outlines of the features of the subject. That the subject of the poem has suffered deep sorrow may be evidenced by the imagery associated with the hair, the brows, and the eyes. For Toomer, the eyes are frequently the carriers of intense emotions. In the sketch “Fern,” for instance, the eyes are the all-important features of the protagonist's physiognomy. So, in “Face,” Toomer suggests the deeper pathos that is involved by giving only a partial description of these features. The poem reads:

like streams of stars,
recurved canoes
quivered by the ripples blown by pain
Her eyes—
mist of tears
condensing on the flesh below
And her channeled muscles
are cluster grapes of sorrow
purple in the evening sun
nearly ripe for worms.(12)

The suffering of the woman is symbolized first of all by her hair, which, likened to “streams of stars,” reveals the beauty thereof. Toomer integrates the imagery of water in line 3, “like streams of stars,” with the continuing image of “canoes” in the following lines—canoes which are “quivered” by the “ripples blown by pain.” In the next three lines, the image of water blends into her eyes:

Her eyes
mist of tears
condensing on the flesh below.

Here the water imagery continues with the eyes being likened to mist condensing on the flesh, then flowing down to her breasts (“cluster grapes of sorrow”). Death and disintegration are suggested in the final lines:

And her channeled muscles
are cluster grapes of sorrow
purple in the evening sun
nearly ripe for worms.

The final impression created by the poem suggests an image of a suffering virgin. Toomer relies on the presentation of a series of impressionistic images which are related so as to create a final impression, in this case, of pathos.


Carma, the third of Toomer's primitive protagonists of the Georgia scene, is a crude and Amazonic black woman whose unusual strength and size belie her childlike mind and actions. Like Karintha, Carma is uninhibited, yet she lives with the knowledge that her sexual relations with “others” have broken the moral code of the community along Dixie Pike. Carma feels free and uninhibited as she removes herself from the confines of civilization and races up the highway, “riding it easy,” and singing her “sad, strong song.”

In “Carma,” the romantic and the realistic are poetically blended. Toomer opens with a song:

Wind is in the cane. Come along.
Cane leaves swaying, rusty with talk.
Scratching choruses above the guinea's squawk,
Wind is in the cane. Come along.(13)

Another of his impressionistic poems, these opening lines set the tone for the sketch. Toomer records here the Georgia landscape as he sees it with the attendant memories that it evokes. Into the silence of the “wind … in the cane,” comes the scratching and squawking of the guinea's cry, creating a harsh dissonance with the calm of the canefield. Likewise Carma, whose fragrance is the “smell of farmyards,” clad in overalls, crude and boisterous, bursts onto this Georgia landscape:

The sun is hammered to a band of gold. Pine needles, like mazda, are brilliantly aglow. No rain has come to take the rustle from the falling sweet-gum leaves. Over in the forest, across the swamp, a sawmill blows its closing whistle. Smoke curls up. Marvelous web spun by the spider sawdust pile. Curls up and spreads itself pine-high above the branch, a single silver band along the eastern valley.14

This poetic descriptive passage paints a romantic Georgia landscape and into it Toomer thrusts Carma—the “nigger woman”—driving a Georgia chariot. Carma has the physical carriage of a man. She is as “strong as any man,” and she drives the mule-drawn wagon, bumping, groaning, and shaking, over the railroad tracks, down the road and into the rumble of cloudy red dust, and up the Dixie Pike that “has grown from a goat path in Africa.” Toomer's intertwining of realistic description of an over-sexed, masculine woman with a background of romantic description of a sleepy Georgia landscape lends an unusual tension to the short sketch.

“Carma's tale is the crudest melodrama,” says the narrator. The tale is a light one, hardly credible. Carma, who expresses her emotions as a strong and virile man might, rides wildly up the pike, voicing her feelings loudly and fully. But when confronted with demands that she curb her natural desires so that her actions might conform to the standards of civilized society, Carma, otherwise uninhibited, waxes emotionally timid and becomes as a little child. Then, throwing off her civilized cloak, she reverts to primitive and animalistic actions. While her husband is away, Carma has had others and is accused by her husband. “No one can blame her for that,” interposes the narrator. Rather than deny or openly face these accusations, she cowers, whimpers, and rushes headlong into the canebrake and pretends to shoot herself. Her husband, after discovering her deception, slashes one of her pursuers and is sent to the road gang.

The character study of Carma is fragmented in details. Carma is unrestrained physically, sexually, and emotionally. She is child-like and impulsive as well as animalistic. “Words wormed her strength, and it fizzled out,” says the narrator. Carma follows her natural instincts in her singing, in her loving, and in her work, but she waxes emotionally timid when faced with the necessity of curbing her desires to conform to the standards of a society which does not enjoy the freedoms felt among the more primitive folk. The strength of this sketch lies in Toomer's ability to embody the “crudest melodrama” against a background of romantic description intertwined with poetic prose, and from this to create the impression of a realistic drama.


Fern, or Fernie Mae Rosen, another of Toomer's primitive women, is the product of miscegenation. She has a Jewish father and a black mother. Her features and complexion seem to convey the sorrow of the Jewish race as well as that of the black race. As the narrator describes her to us, the whole Georgia countryside, her whole body, and her face flow into her eyes. Fern's eyes leave the impression that she is easy because men are quickly fooled by the expression of the sorrow within them. Her eyes, too, seem to bind men to her and to force them to want to make and to fulfill promises to her. So attractive is she to men that anyone who comes to town wants to bring his body to her. When she was young, the narrator adds, a few men took her but “got no joy from her.” Even though Fern has experienced sexual embraces when young, in her later years men come to regard her as a virgin. When Fern finds that there is no fulfillment in sexual union, she begins to turn men away, even those “in fever.” The narrator, too, regards Fern as a virgin, but observes that in small Southern towns virgins are rare, for in the South men and women, and especially black men and women, are made for mating. The narrator approaches Fern and offers his body as she faints in his arms. He, like his predecessors, is forced to leave Fern. Fern becomes a picture on the Georgia horizon as she continues to loll, listless and seemingly lifeless, on her porch, and the face of the whole Georgia countryside and something which the narrator calls God continues to flow into her eyes.

This prose selection, which is approximately a short story, is composed of a series of imagistic portraits. Fern, the protagonist, becomes realistic through the narrator's impressions of her, but she dissolves into a misty impression as she reclines against the landscape along the Dixie Pike. In this sketch, Toomer builds the final image of Fern upon a portrait of her as a passive creature whose face “flows into her eyes,” and the whole of her body blends into the Georgia countryside. Toomer writes:

Face flowed into her eyes. Flowed in soft cream foam and plaintive ripplies, in such a way that wherever your glance may momentarily have rested, it immediately thereafter wavered in the direction of her eyes. The soft suggestion of down slightly darkened, like the shadow of a bird's wing might, the creamy brown color of her upper lip. Why, after noticing it, you sought her eyes, I cannot tell you. Her nose was aquiline, Semitic. If you have heard a Jewish cantor sing, if he has touched you and made your sorrow seem trivial compared with his, you will know my feeling when I follow the curves of her profile, like mobile rivers, to their common delta. They were strange eyes. In this, that they sought nothing—that is, nothing that was obvious and tangible and that one could see, and they gave the impression that nothing was to be denied. When a woman seeks, you will have observed, her eyes deny. Fern's eyes desired nothing that you could give her; there was no reason why they should withhold.15

Fern, whose life is symbolic of the dying beauty of the black race as it blends with other races, represents for the narrator the nostalgic memories of an epoch that has passed. The reasons that she is attractive to men cannot be fathomed, for she has a mysterious beauty about her that sanctifies her and mystifies her admirers. Her position in the community becomes somewhat sacred and, the narrator says, “She became a virgin.” Men bring their bodies to her, says the narrator, but get no joy from her. They are then struck by an attachment to her that transcends all reality. Around her there develops an indefinable mystery. Toomer has mingled the romantic and the realistic, blended these into mysticism and fantasy, and has reproduced an unforgettable portrait—one that might be called a word-painting.

Toomer develops the portrait of Fern until it resembles a blur of landscape and then the narrator enters and destroys the painting with a touch of realistic narration. He says, for instance:

Her body was tortured with something that it could not let out. Like boiling sap it flooded arms and fingers till she shook them as if they burned her. It found her throat, and spattered inarticulately in plaintive, convulsive sounds, mingled with calls to Christ Jesus. And then she sang, brokenly. A Jewish cantor singing with a broken voice. A child's voice, uncertain, or an old man's. Dusk hid her; I could hear only her song. It seemed to me as though she were pounding her head in anguish upon the ground. I rushed to her. She fainted in my arms.16

The narrator mediates between the reader and the dramatic action. “I ask you, friend, … what thoughts would come to you … had you seen her in a quick flash, keen and intuitively, as she sat there on her porch when your train thundered by?”17 Unable to dispel Fern's suffering, he consequently becomes as helpless as the previous men have. Like other men in Toomer's work, he frequently finds himself incapable of emotional expression and resorts to rhetoric. “Fern” is undoubtedly one of the best examples of Toomer's poetic prose, in which he intermingles imagistic portraits with romantic short dramas.


Structurally, “Esther” may be considered a short story, whereas the portraits of some of Toomer's other Georgia protagonists may be called, in traditional terminology, sketches. Therefore, it is the first traditional short story in Cane. The theme of “Esther” centers around Toomer's larger idea of man's instincts having been crushed by modern society. Esther, one of Toomer's “dictie” blacks, suffers sexual repression because she vacillates between being “dictie,” as black society would expect her to be, and being sexually expressive by her tendency to conform to the impulses of her heritage.18 Like Muriel of “Box Seat,” Esther is constrained by the dictates of bourgeois society.

In this short story, Toomer has intertwined the realistic and the fantastic. In the background, we see the lower-class white Southerners who stand agape at, and fearful of, the black religious orgies. King Barlo, who is a vagrant peacher as well as an itinerant cotton worker, engages in verse sermons reminiscent of those in James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones. In these sermons, Toomer has incorporated refrains from spiritual slave songs: “They led him to the coast, they led him to the sea, they led him across the ocean an they didnt set him free.”19

Esther is a girl who could pass but whose identification is with blacks, though she is in appearance almost white. As Robert Bone notes, Toomer's “dictie” blacks, or the near-white blacks, suffer the most because they have been almost assimilated into white civilization.20 Esther and Fern are both black women who have suffered such repression. Esther is denied by whites and repressed by blacks; her suffering is the result of her not having been assimilated by either the racial group which she resembles physically nor that which she resembles spirtitually and emotionally. Both Esther's looks and the wealth of her father have caused her to be set apart from the black community. Though she is nearer white, she is forced to live in the black world because of her black heritage. She has no interest in either the whites or the blacks. Her repressed emotions find no outlet until she sees King Barlo, a vagrant preacher who periodically goes into trances during his religious warblings. Attracted to Barlo's black shining face, Esther is entranced by his religious antics and she finds that his image has left an indelible impression on her mind. “He became the starting point of the only living patterns her mind was to know,” says the narrator.21

King Barlo is black-skinned, physically magnificent, and his face shines. Esther is so impressed by his mumblings and his religious frenzy that she can think of nothing else. Barlo attracts the attention of the community during his religious orgy, and whites and blacks alike are drawn to him, the blacks out of religious fear and the whites because of the awesome fear of blacks. Of him, the sheriff says, “Wall, y cant never tell what a nigger like King Barlo might be up t.”22 Barlo's accounts of the messages sent to him during his visions affect the whites and blacks differently. The blacks are “in tears,” but the whites are “touched and curiously awed.” For the blacks, he is a symbol of their father-king in Africa and he assumes the air of an African king as he says to them in a bellowing voice:

Brothers and sisters, turn your face t th sweet face of the Lord, an fill your hearts with glory. Open your eyes an see the dawnin of the mornin light. Open your ears—23

At the age of nine, Esther is so taken by the image of Barlo that she never forgets him. At sixteen, she begins again to dream of Barlo and, when a black baby is rescued from a fire, she imagines that she is its mother and has conceived the baby by immaculate conception. As she frantically loves the baby, the townspeople merely watch her and leave her alone. At twenty-two, Esther is still apart from the rest of the town, and the community relegates her to solitude because of her father's standing and because of her own aloofness. All day long, she dreams of Barlo, who is for her the black symbol of masculinity. She thinks in terms of his strength and his vicious ways: “Best cotton picker in the county, in the state, in the whole world for that matter. Best man with fists, best man with dice, with a razor.”24 Barlow has many attributes of the stereotyped black: he is a fist fighter, a vagrant preacher, and he is a lover of many women. Esther has the attributes of a Southern belle: she is very white and pale, blonde, sweet-natured, and accommodating. At twenty-two, however, Esther decides for herself that she loves the vagrant Barlo and that she will tell him so the next time she sees him. When he returns five years later, Esther throws off her lethargy and regains new life and decides to declare her love for him openly. When she goes up to him and offers herself to him, she is rebuffed and the onlookers say: “So that's how the dictie niggers does it. … Mus give em credit fo their gall.”25

Esther's social isolation is brought about by her near-white position in the community. Because she has been deprived of associations with whites and because the blacks respect her position, she allows herself to become a neurotic, living a life of fantasy. The world of fantasy in which she lives never becomes a reality because the blacks and King Barlo as well, humiliate and ridicule her for wanting to be a part of the only world she can ever come to know—the black world. Esther's position in the community symbolizes that of blacks in the American social order. They live in a world of fantasy concerning their complete acceptance into either the white or black worlds. In neither one do they completely belong.

Toomer has peopled “Esther” with characters who are faithfully drawn. Contrary to a practice of many black writers who were his contemporaries, Toomer does not glorify Esther because she is near-white, but rather he shows how she clings to many of the primitive traditions of the blacks. A victim of the belief that her near-white complexion has rendered her unapproachable, Esther is classified as “dictie.” Esther, however, has lived in fantasy the only life that she knows she will ever live in reality, that of the black. King Barlo represents for her the first tangible approach to reality that she has ever had. Formerly, she had regarded other blacks as people in a world apart from her. Toomer describes her:

Esther sells lard and snuff and flour to vague black faces that drift in her store to ask for them. Her eyes hardly see the people to whom she gives change. Her body is lean and beaten. She rests listlessly against the counter, too weary to sit down.26

But with the arrival of Barlo, who is symbolic of her link with her black past, Esther becomes animate. She longs to have “get-up” about her. As soon as she realizes that “purpose is not dead in her,” she throws off her bourgeois “dictie” ways and approaches Barlo and offers herself to him. That is, until she makes her first overture to Barlo, throwing off her acquired “dictie” ways, Esther has allowed her life to be regulated by the dictates of the black bourgeois which apes white society. Now she becomes full of life: “As if her veins are full of fired sun bleached southern shanties, a swift heat sweeps them. Dead dreams and a forgotten resolution. … Her mind is a pink mesh-bag filled with baby toes.”27

That Toomer has accurately visualized a small Southern town is evident. He describes a group that gathers to watch Barlo's religious trance:

Folks line the curb-stones. Business men close shop. And Banker Warply parks his care close by. Silently, all await the prophet's voice. The sheriff, a great florid fellow whose leggings never meet around his bulging calves, swears in three deputies. “Wall, y cant never tell what a nigger like King Barlo might be up t.” Soda bottles, five fingers full of shine, are passed to those who want them. A couple of stray dogs start a fight. Old Goodlow's cow comes flopping up the street. Barlo, still as an Indian fakir has not moved. The town bell strikes six. The sun slips in behind a heavy mass of horizon cloud. The crowd is hushed and expectant. Barlo's under jaw relaxes, and his lips begin to move.28

On the background of this small town in Georgia, in the heart of the black district, he has placed characters who represent both those who adhere to the customs of the “dictie” and those who still retain vestiges of African voodoo customs. King Barlo, for instance, combines what he has learned of the new world religious practices with remnants of an African religious dance:

Barlo looks as though he is struggling to continue. People are hushed. One can hear weevils work. Dusk is falling rapidly, and the customary store lights fail to throw their feeble glow … across the gray Georgia town. Barlow rises to his full height. He is immense. To the people he assumes the outlines of his visioned Africa.29

Toomer shows that there are traces of superstitions still prevalent among the primitives of Georgia. Many of Toomer's sketches reveal that he is highly critical of the smugness of the rising middle class among blacks and of those who try to model their actions on those of the whites with whom they have come into contact. Black critics too felt that Toomer had “betrayed” the race because he did not follow the traditional patterns of black writing. He did, however, as is shown by such an accurate portrait of a small Southern town as in “Esther,” show that he perceived black life with great insight and tenderness. He gives a realistic portrayal of life within the black race, showing the relationship of the white, the “off-white,” and the black societies.


“Blood Burning Moon,” another study of Southern black-white relationships, treats the rivalry that develops between two men, one black and one white, over a bronze beauty. This episode is based on the folk superstition that a full moon in the doorway is an evil omen, presaging disaster. The story opens:

Up from the skeleton stone walls, up from the rotting floor boards and the solid handhewn beams of oak of the pre-war cotton factory, dusk came. Up from dusk the full moon came. Glowing like a fired pine-knot, it illumined the great door and soft showered the Negro shanties aligned along the single street of factory town. The full moon in the great door was an omen. Negro women improvised songs against its spell.30

“Blood Burning Moon” is the last selection in Part One of Cane. Rightly placed, it is, in many aspects, a summary of themes, characterizations, and images developed in the preceding pages. It is the most intense dramatization of race relations, the most clearly drawn analysis of sexual rivalry, and a collage of violence, sensuality, and bigotry. The central character in “Blood Burning Moon” is Louisa, a black woman limited by her own blindness to the world around her as it really exists. She loves and is in turn loved by two men, one white and one black. Tom Burwell, her black lover, is violent and headstrong. Bob Stone, her white lover, is less a characterization than a caricature. His relationship is more self-directed and selfish. The triangle, as the reader guesses quite readily, will lead to tragedy.

When each man learns of the other's relationship with Louisa, a confrontation becomes inevitable. Tom Burwell threatens to cut Bob Stone. Burwell has already marked two black men, and it is no idle threat. Stone hears his name used in gossip concerning Louisa and her sexual proclivities. More in anger and chagrin than in quest of honor, Bob Stone rushes to factory town, injuring himself along the way by falling in the cane. He confronts Tom Burwell. They engage in ritual combat which immediately is reduced to a knife fight. Burwell cuts Bob Stone's throat, thus sealing his fate. It is one thing for one black to cut another, it is quite another for a black to cut a white, let alone kill him. Aroused to a pitch of frenzy, the whites form a mob, armed with guns and carrying rope and kerosene. Burwell is captured and silently accepts his fate. Toomer's description is brutally realistic. Not only is Burwell murdered, his body is mutilated and burned. Louisa gazes upon the reflection of Tom's burning remains, believing it to be the reflection of the moon. This image constitutes one of the most highly wrought symbolic elements in Cane. The moon is actually “blood-burning” since she is witnessing one of the most horrible consequences of racism. Rather than accept the reality of the situation, Louisa retreats into her own blindness to the real world.

“Blood Burning Moon” is based on the folk superstition that the full moon in the doorway is an evil omen, presaging disaster. “The full moon in the great door was an omen. Negro women improvised songs against its spell.”31 The folk superstition leads directly into Toomer's development of the relationship in “Blood Burning Moon.” The relationships here are based directly upon folk custom prevalent among the blacks and whites in the South. True to their background of African superstition, blacks close to the soil accept the authenticity of omens. Louisa, and the other blacks as well, accept the ill luck that follows the appearance of evil omens: the yelping and howling of hounds, the barking of dogs, the crowing of a rooster are proof enough that the “blood-burning moon” presages ill luck which no human being can prevent. Tom, for instance, just before the fight over Louisa, is aware of the ominousness of the full moon: “Away from the fight, away from the stove, chill got to him. He shivered. He shuddered when he saw the full moon rising towards the cloud bank.”32 Louisa also accepts the fight between Tom and Bob Stone as a part of the life within her race: “His black balanced, and pulled against the white of Stone, when she thought of them.”33 She accepts their antagonism as a part of the racial relationships of the South, just as she nonchantly accepts Tom's fate at the hands of the lynching party. But Tom and Bob, each sparked to a sexual rivalry that transcends all racial bars, are pitted against each other because they both love the same girl. And Tom Burwell refuses to share Louisa with Bob Stone because he resents a white man having an opportunity to make love to a black woman, while Bob Stone considers it the white man's privilege to have sexual relations with any black woman he wants. He thinks:

No nigger had ever been with his girl. Some position for him to be in. Him, Bob Stone, of the old Stone family, in a scrap with a nigger over a nigger girl. In the good old days … Ha! Those were the days. His family had lost ground. The clear white of his skin paled, and the flush of his cheeks turned purple. As if to balance this outward change, his mind became consciously a white man's. He passed the house with its huge open hearth which, in the days of slavery, was the plantation cookery. He saw Louisa bent over that hearth. He went in as a master should and took her. Direct, honest, bold. None of that sneaking that he had to go through now. The contrast was repulsive to him. His family had lost ground. Hell no, his family still owned the niggers, practically.34

But his analysis can never allow him to understand Louisa's primitive nature.

“Blood Burning Moon” is divided into three sections: the first, from Louisa's point of view; the second, from Tom's point of view; and the third, from Bob's, shifting to Tom's, and finally Louisa's again. This method made for a tightly controlled narration, enabling Toomer to emphasize the distortions of reality each develop. Moreover, it becomes more readily clear to the reader that society (i.e., the Louisas, Toms, Bobs, and those who blindly accept roles and mores) is also guilty of such distortions. It is remarkable that Toomer was able to make his point so clear by emphasizing distortions, especially since he is able to meld these images in the distortion of the source of the reflection Louisa sees on the door.

The major motif of “Blood Burning Moon” is blindness. The town itself is blind to change. The opening scene describes a cotton factory, dead since the Civil War. It is symbolic of the vestiges of racism still prevalent in “factory town.” Louisa, who lives in segregated factory town, blindly accepts separate relationships with her black and her white lover. Bob Stone is loosely connected with the cotton factory motif since he is the son of an employee. Despite all of the folk superstition warning Louisa believes she can control fate by inaction, blindly ignoring such dangerous activity. Bob Stone is blind to his own carnal lust, and the immediate danger in which he places himself. Because he is white, Bob blindly believes it is his right to have Louisa and to humiliate Tom Burwell, who would not dare to retaliate. Blindness costs Bob Stone his life as it does Tom Burwell. Burwell is blindly maddened that a white man is using his “woman.” The poem

“Red nigger moon. Sinner!
Blood burning moon. Sinner!
Come out that fact'ry door.”

concludes each section of the narrative. It also represents in microcosm, the elements of “Blood Burning Moon.” It is a primitive plan to superstition. It presages the burning of Tom Burwell, and it harkens back to the factory town element. It is also the omen Louisa must sing to as the narrative ends.

“Blood Burning Moon” completes the circular movement of Part One of Cane. Hints of violence, racial disharmony, and the dangers of sexual impropriety come to function as much as they are implied in “Becky,” “Karintha,” and “Esther” among the selections. Toomer also places several recurring characters in “Blood Burning Moon,” relating it to the previous narratives. Toomer includes “Old David Georgia, who brought sugar soup to Becky, and … Toomer's comparison of himself to Barlo.”35 In addition, John Stone, Bob's father, is a character from “Becky.” He donated material to assist in building her cabin. These elements remind the reader of Toomer's intentions of circularity for this section and “Blood Burning Moon” meets these requirements very well.

These six primitive women of Section One of Cane are meant to portray the varying degrees of beauty found within the lives of blacks who live close to the soil. Of these women, Karintha, the most primitive, is the most free and uninhibited in her way of life. She gives her body freely to men—“she smiles, and indulges them when she is in the mood for them.” She gives birth, animal like, to a child which “fell out of her womb onto a bed of pine needles in the forest.”36 And at twenty, she “has been married many times,” says the narrator, referring to the spiritual bond that she had developed with men. Toomer's belief that the lives of people who live close to the soil are far more beautiful than those of others is evident in this sketch of Karintha. Toomer has said about the life he observed in Georgia: “There one finds soil in the sense that the Russians know it—the soil every art and literature that is to live must be imbedded in.”37 Karintha achieves a fuller sense of life and beauty than any of the other protagonists of Section One of Cane. Becky, who also disregards man-made laws of Southern society by mating with both white and black men, lives close to the soil, but her life has been warped by society's rejection of her. Toomer makes it evident, however, that there is a heavenly approval of her way of life when he describes the flapping of the leaves of the Bible over the mound that is assumed to be her burying place. But Becky's sons are too close to the life of the community to disregard its social laws and are consequently often caught up in fights and brawls in an attempt to maintain their personal freedom and integrity.38 Esther, the protagonist who is near-white, probably suffers more than any of the others because she vacillates between two identities, white and black, and she soon finds herself living a life of fantasy.39 Carma suffers few restraints and her hysteria is developed as the result of restrictions imposed on her by society.40 The antagonism that develops between the two men in “Blood Burning Moon” is a rivalry animalistic in nature, a strong sexual urge for a female. Louisa's racial identity has no bearing on the opposition between the two men. The result of the struggle, Tom's death, means that the black has been subjected to the penalty of the Southern society, in America, lynching. And, in a larger sense, the lynching by the community goes back to the old law of “an eye for an eye.”41

Thus, some of Toomer's more primitive women, such as Karintha and Becky, live rich lives, full of beauty. But as the “song-lit race of slaves” takes on the characteristics and ways of the master race, in appearance and in living, life often becomes sordid and full of inhibitions. For instance, Fernie Mae Rosen, a mulatto who is half-Jewish, and the almost-white Esther both lack the vitality of their more primitive sisters. Carma, too, when faced with the restrictions of civilized racial codes, resorts to a hysteria that reduces her to a childlike state. Thus, the first section of Cane, composed of the lives of these six primitive women, bears out in a circular structure the nostalgia that the poet expresses in “Song of the Son.”

Toomer had managed to recapture the tenor and fundamental character of his primitives, each a “plaintive soul” which has prematurely passed from existence in the South. Each woman, in time, reignites this racial memory.

Toomer carries the section full circle since in the literal sense, his primitives are direct products of the slave-holding South and each selection is, as one sees, now an “everlasting song” and a constant reminder of the vestiges of that peculiar institution.


The second section of Cane takes us to Washington and to Chicago, city environments which show how man's essential goodness is warped by the restrictions that he finds in life there. In such environments, the primitive is restricted by houses, buildings, social customs, and man-made laws and aspirations. Some of the feminine protagonists of Section Two (as in Section One of Cane) are women whose love lives know no bounds. As noted, these women are called prostitutes by Robert Bone in his assessment of Toomer's primitives,42 but Toomer prefers to think of these as women whose giving of themselves is a natural impulse that disregards man's laws for the legality of marriage or of the social customs which hold that one mates with his own race only, or perhaps we should say, color.

These protagonists of the second part of Cane retain some vestiges of their Southern racial roots. They have not fully adjusted their lives to the confines of the city. The barriers of the city have limited their adjustment to natural life impulses, such as singing, lovemaking, creating, and brotherhood. These protagonists live in the city—in Chicago and in Washington—where the black life of the rural South mingles with that of the urban environment. In these black areas, like that near Seventh Street in Washington, the blood suckers of World War I, bootleggers wearing silken shirts and driving zooming Cadillacs, have sucked the life-blood of the soft-skinned blacks who have migrated there. The stale, soggy wood of the city houses has helped to confine these city people to their drug stores, to restaurants, to cabarets, and to shanties, and their confinement here has been the dominant factor that has distorted their lives. But blacks whose roots are still in the South have helped to give the city an air of vitality.


Toomer describes this Seventh Street in stale, bare prose, threaded with grim realism:

Seventh Street is a bastard of Prohibition and the war. A crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs, and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington. Wedges rust in soggy wood … Split it! In two! Again! Shred it! … the sun. Wedges are brilliant in the sun; ribbons of wet wood dry and blow away. Black reddish blood. Pouring for crude-boned soft-skinned life, who set you flowing? Blood suckers of the war would spin in a frenzy of dizziness if they drank your blood.43


“Avey” is the initial urban story in Cane and its placement in Section Two of the narrative demonstrates Toomer's insight into his purpose for the section. “Avey” resembles “Fern” in both stylistic and thematic format.44 It also reverses the characterization in “Karintha.” Thus, Toomer begins to develop analogues and echoes from Part One to supplement a continuity of characterization and setting. Toomer obviously intends that urban sterility is a major thematic consideration in “Avey” and the whole of Section Two. But, he also wanted the reader to measure the geographic and psychological distance between the Georgia selections and Northern selections. It is a successful method as “Avey” attests.

“Avey” is narrated in the first person by a professed sympathetic observer who attempts to sort out the puzzle of Avey's life. This method is similar stylistically to that used in “Karintha.” In fact, the theme of maturity, stagnation, and finally death in life coincides with the temporal aspects of “Karintha.” Moreover, Avey, like Karintha, takes money from men and gives her body in return. Avey also possesses a sensuality and “an unbridled response to life” like Karintha.

“Avey” begins with the narrator describing how he first became attracted to her. He is sitting with a group of his adolescent friends on V Street, waiting for Avey to leave her flat or a flat used to entertain her gentlemen callers. Their conversation consists of sexual innuendo. He admits that “we all talked dirt.”45 Avey finally comes down from the flat, ignores the waiting adolescents, and goes home. As a group, they wonder what will happen to Avey. Perhaps she will marry and settle down to a life of respectability. This seemingly offhanded remark underscores one of Toomer's repeated considerations in Cane. Just beneath the surface, each story, and in particular “Avey,” there is a morality element. One must conform to society's dictates, largely encumbered by the Christian ethic. These adolescents believe that if Avey does conform to societal dictates and marries, her moral virtues will likewise increase. One must not become an outcast, shunned from salvation and the fruits of the American Dream. Perhaps this stranglehold society has on V Street youth is best evidenced by the narrator's next comments. He goes home picturing himself as married. He will make her respectable and, in turn, gain the golden girl and respect for himself. Not once does it occur to the narrator that his fantasies might be off center or that Avey is content with her life. At this juncture, the narrator begins a lengthy series of idealized fantasies concerning his future relationship with Avey. He believes himself to be her heroic savior. At some point, he will rescue her from her indifference and sexual impropriety.

Section Two begins with the narrator regretting Avey's indifference to him. He attempts to impress her in a typical manner by showing off his athletic prowess in basketball, drill, swimming, and finally, dancing. She is not visibly impressed. He does make some breakthrough on an excursion to Riverview Amusement Park. At last Avey begins to notice his attentiveness. In a highly romantic setting, on the top deck of the Jane Mosely, the narrator finds himself alone with Avey. He begins to assume the Prufrock manner here as “do I dare?” creeps into his mind. He wants a passionate tryst and gives her “one burning kiss.”46 Instead of returning his passion, she places him on her lap and begins humming a lullaby. He is helpless to kindle a sexual response, or so he says. They converse but all the while his thoughts are on her sensuality: “Her eyes were soft and misty, the curves of her lips wistful. …”47 Unfortunately, the more he talks the less interested she becomes. The narrator does not realize it but he has inadvertently exposed the contrast between their concepts of life. He anticipates, intellectualizes, and becomes paralyzed by inaction. In contrast, Avey experiences the moment in carpe-diem fashion. She drinks of the atmosphere.

Section Three begins at Harper's Ferry one year later, a year lost in the pursuit of Avey. They are again in a romantic setting called Lover's Leap. The sensory images here are primarily aural as opposed to olfactory in Section One. The narrator recalls the sound of trains moving in the valley below, relating them to Avey. “The engines of the valley have a whistle, the echoes of which sound like iterated gasps and solos. I always think of them as crude music from Avey.”48 Again, he fails to arouse Avey's sensuality because of his inaction. He does touch her breast but goes no further even though they will spend many evenings at Lover's Leap. Almost imperceptibly, the narrator's attitude begins to change toward Avey. He begins to nourish a sense of superiority. According to him, Avey is guilty of “… downright laziness, sloppy indolence.” Toomer inserts some schoolgirl humor here as the narrator calls Avey a cow since the narrator believes her breasts have the same texture as udders he felt on Wisconsin cows while he was in agricultural school there. This air of superiority continues. The narrator thrusts Avey from his mind for two years after which he receives a letter from her. Avey informs him that “she had lost her school and was going away.”49 Rather than sympathize with Avey, the narrator takes pains to criticize her poor penmanship and sloppy stationery. He returns to Washington now of the opinion that Avey is a whore, unworthy of his attention.

Section Four begins some five years later. The narrator admittedly remains haunted by visions of Avey even though he maintains a patrionizing attitude toward her life-style. He begins an odyssey of sorts, attempting to find his lost Avey. By chance, he runs into her one lovely June evening on U Street. Still beautiful, Avey is walking with a gentleman friend. Shortly thereafter, the companion jumps into a cab, leaving Avey standing on the curb. The narrator suggests they they go to the park. Although he is relieved and encouraged by his reunion with Avey, the narrator demonstrates the same attitude toward her as he did at the conclusion of Section Two. He describes Avey as “indolent,” and her eyes as being “indifferent.” The reader strikes a different attitude toward the narrator. He truly believes himself superior even though during the five years away from Avey, he admittedly has accomplished little of substance. He remains paralyzed by inaction.

The fifth and final section begins as Avey and the narrator arrive at Soldier's Home, a park overlooking Washington proper. Once again, the narrator takes great pains to describe the romantic setting, emphasizing elements of the landscape. “And when the wind is from the South, soil of my homeland falls like a fertile shower upon the lean streets of the city.” The direct reference to loss of roots and nostalgia for the South is a thematic consideration not lost on the reader but its significance is lost on the narrator. Toomer sacrifices the lack of perception and depth in the narrator. He is guilty of precisely what he accuses Avey of being. Toomer accomplishes this lifting of the veil technique here by having the narrator take great pains to impress the reader with his control over the situation. He lets it be known that he is an intimate acquaintance with the park guard. Therefore, the guard lets the couple alone. True to form, the narrator allows their possibilities for physical intimacy to fade. He begins a long internal monologue, the substance of which is a rehashing of his development and hers: “I traced my development from the early days up to the present time, the phase in which I could understand her. I described her own nature and temperament. Told how they needed a larger life for their expression.”50 The key phrase in this summary is “phase in which I could understand her.” Obviously he does not understand Avey and the rest of his rhetoric is stripped away in light of this insight. Never content, he replaces his own failures by implying that Avey has not reached as far as he has and lacks the vision to realize her full potential.

Abruptly, the narrator changes moods. He becomes hostile and accusatory. He resents her laziness since she has not returned his professed affection. She is indifferent to his philosophical statements and abstractions. In fact, she has fallen asleep. The narrator lies there for hours, finally covering her with a blanket as the Washington dawn approaches. He compares her face to that dawn: “She did not have the gray crimson-splashed beauty of the dawn.”51 Her beauty is fading or is it that the narrator's view of her beauty if losing its perception. Toomer allows this ambiguity to slip by the narrator. The narrative ends with his solemn summary that Avey is an “orphan woman.”

Toomer evidently intended “Avey” to be a touchstone, linking this section to the earlier stories, particularly the ones dominated by female characterizations. “Rhobert,” the preceding narrative, also forms a thematic link to “Avey.” Toomer is quite successful with the format since there are correlations to “Karintha,” “Fern,” and the stilted, sterile rhetoric Rhobert employs to the same end as the narrator of “Avey.” Toomer also places emphasis on two motifs in “Avey”: the theme of blindness and the use of trees in symbolic fashion.

The narrator is blind to his own inadequacies and certainly blind to the true beauty and character of Avey. He is also blind to the natural feelings he takes such care to suppress. The separate settings in the last three sections of “Avey” are romantic enough in themselves but the narrator cannot see such potential in the landscape. Finally, the narrator is blind to his own insight or rather lack of it. He views the world through a very narrow perspective, thus limiting his own vision of himself and especially his view of Avey.

The use of trees in “Avey” as symbols is not so readily clear. Arlene Crewdson correctly notes the relationship between the motif of blindness and the tree imagery. She states that the narrator “sees himself and Avey as like the young trees held in and stunted by their boxes on the Washington streets, but although the narrator may hack at the boxes, he can never free the trees.”52 In effect, the narrator does not realize he is blind to the relevance of the analogy to their relationship. Like the boxed trees, he has categorized Avey, leaving her with no room to expand. This is also an indirect reference to the symbolic use of the box seat in the story of the same name and in “Theatre” where one is also limited by point of view and reference. The motifs of blindness and boxed trees serve Toomer's purpose well here.

The style of this sketch is much weaker, or perhaps we may say, much less effective than in many of Toomer's other sketches and stories. Though the tone of the piece would lead us to expect long, meandering, and monotonous sentences, actually the style, especially that of the opening scenes, is monotonous in that the author uses series of short, matter-of-fact statements that contribute nothing toward the building up of the narrator's passion for Avey. Hence, this sketch lacks the force of some of the earlier pieces in which the author's language contributes greatly to the reader's final impression. Some of the scenes, it is true, do contain fine descriptive passages, notably the first few scenes in which girls are compared to young trees in boxes: “The young trees had not outgrown their boxes then. … I like to feel that something deep in me responded to the trees, the young trees that whinnied like colts impatient to be let free.” Yet the sketch remains the weakest in Cane.


In one of the sketches about the dazzling night life of the city, “Theatre,” Toomer presents two class-conscious blacks who are unable to approach each other because of differences in social status. There is a barrier between the two because of respectability: stage people are not considered respectable, whereas audiences are. John, a theater-manager's brother, and Dorris, a chorus girl employed there, are mutually attracted, but each approaches the other only in a dream fantasy. John's social status as a university-educated man and as a very light black from the city convinces Dorris that he is “dictie” (an epithet Toomer applies to people who are conscious of their social class, such as light-skinned blacks or professional blacks). Dorris evidences her pride by the only art at her command, dancing, and she dances in hopes of winning him. Dorris dances spontaneously at rehearsal, and to John, who watches her from the audience, her singing and dancing seem to be of “canebrake loves and mangrove feastings.” Dorris is a bit of “black-skinned life” which permeates the walled-in life of the confines of the city. While John watches her at the rehearsals, Dorris sees him and senses that he might be someone who could offer her a family and a home life, but she is deterred in her thoughts about him when her dancing partner assures her that he is “dictie.” Dorris, however, throws herself so unconsciously into the dance routine that she draws the admiration of onlookers even from the alleyways. John is visibly affected by the high emotional quality of Dorris's dance and momentarily he loses himself in the reverie of an imagined affair with her and begins to dream of her:

The walls press in, singing. Flesh of a throbbing body, they press close to John and Dorris. They close them in. John's heart beats tensely against her dancing body. Walls press his mind within his heart. And then, the shaft of light goes out the window high above him. John's mind sweeps up to follow it. Mind pulls him upward into dream. Dorris dances … John dreams.53

Though Dorris and John unite only in an imagined sort of animal ecstasy, Dorris feels this union and expects John to make some overture to her. Instead of responding, John takes refuge in a dream. “Walls press his mind within his heart.” He escapes the reality of his own passion. As he dreams, Dorris looks at John and mistakes the passiveness of dreaming in his face for indifference, and she whirls off the dance floor. Had either John or Dorris been able to bridge the social distance between them, a satisfying relationship might have developed. This social distance is dual in nature: one an artificial separation and the other inherent in the nature of beings. Likewise, the title “Theatre” seems to signify the distance between the theater and real life.

Toomer makes it clear that personal communication is essential to any relationship. Throughout the narrative, neither Dorris nor John actually talks to the other. John represses his physical desires since he is an “actor” playing the role of intellectual. John fails to recognize that physical and intellectual development can coincide meaningfully. In fact, the more John rationalizes his relationship and beliefs about Dorris, about whom he actually knows little, the more he muddles the real Dorris. Instead of possessing her, he grabs one of his manuscripts and begins reading. She fades from his thoughts and from the narrative. “Theatre” in theme and character elicits Toomer's basic theme in Section Two. Blacks who live in urban areas like Washington, D.C., have lost some naturalness, an element prevalent in the Georgian section.


“Box Seat” is probably the sketch in which Toomer's theme of man's being constricted by modern society is most obviously evident. The protagonist is Dan Moore, a young black who believes himself to be destined to heal a sick world that has been confined by society. He says, “I am Dan Moore. I was born in a canefield. The hands of Jesus touched me I am come to a sick world to heal it.”54 Blacks, Dan says, are “withered people” who need to be called from their houses (a confinement symbol) and taught to dream.

Dan is in love with Muriel, a schoolteacher, and when he goes to see her, he becomes exceedingly aware of the conventions that are restraining her and keeping her, and other people as well, in bonds. While Dan is waiting for Muriel, he imagines that he is a representative of the underground races sent to free the world:

Dan goes to the wall and places his ear against it. A passing street car and something vibrant from the earth sends a rumble to him. That rumble comes from the earth's deep core. It is the mutter of powerful underground races. Dan has a picture of all the people rushing to put their ears against walls, to listen to it. The next world-saviour is coming that way. Coming up. A continent sinks down. The new-world Christ will need consummate skill to walk upon the waters where huge bubbles burst.55

Dan feels the stricture of confinement about Muriel also.

Dan rises. His arms stretch towards her. His fingers and his palms, pink in the lamplight, are glowing irons. Muriel's chair is close and stiff about her. The house, the rows of houses locked about her chair. Dan's fingers and arms are fire to melt and bars to wrench and force and pry. Her arms hang loose. Her hands are hot and moist.56

Dan believes that he, having been “born in a canefield,” has felt the hands of Jesus touch him and that he is equipped to free Muriel and the whole world.

Muriel, who is the symbol of conventionality, lives in a world of restrictions. As a schoolteacher, her conduct is guided by moral codes of the community. For instance, in the home of Mrs. Pribby, with whom she lives, she is constantly in fear of her conduct being unseemly. After a love scene between Muriel and Dan, Mrs. Pribby raps on a newspaper to obtain quiet and Muriel “fastens on her image”—that of a schoolteacher. Mrs. Pribby seems to be the projection of Muriel and her adherence to the established social and moral codes of behavior for teachers. Later in her box seat at the theater, Muriel is under observation by the stage performers, by the audience, and also by Dan, who has entered later and has seated himself where he can scrutinize her. Muriel feels that she is being confined by the seats of the theater:

Each one is a bolt that shoots into a slot, and is locked there. … The seats are slots. The seats are bolted houses. The mass grows denser. Its weight at first is impalpable upon the box. Then Muriel begins to feel it. She props her arm against the brass-rail, to ward it off.57

The box-seat symbol is a continuation of the house symbol, which Toomer uses to show how society and the mechanized world have constricted men so that they have built up inhibitions.

Toomer created Dan to project his own belief that men have been enslaved by modern mechanistic society. Once, just before his enlightening trip to Georgia, he had said in a letter to Lola Ridge:

It would surprise you to see the anemia and the timidity (emotional) in folks but a generation or so removed from the Negroes of the folk-songs. Full blooded people to look at who are afraid to hold hands, much less love.58

Muriel, as Toomer says, is afraid to hold hands or to love. Dan recognizes this and believes that his closeness to the soil has rendered him capable of being a savior to those like her who are confined as she is confined by society. Consequently, he is irritated by people who observe so faithfully the restrictions of society. From his seat in the theater, Dan can watch Muriel as she seems to be locked in her box-seat, and he thinks to himself: “He-slave. Slave of a woman who is a slave.” Muriel, too, feels that she is confined by her position and she fidgets in the seat and turns her head away from Dan. Dan, meanwhile, is sitting next to a portly black woman who symbolizes the person who still has roots in the South, close to the soil. He thinks of her:

A soil-soaked fragrance comes from her. Through the cement floor her strong roots sink down. They spread under the asphalt streets. Dreaming, the streets roll over their bellies, and suck their glossy health from them. Her strong roots sink down and spread under the river and disappear in blood-lines that waver south. Her roots shoot down. Dan's hand follows them. Roots throb. Dan's heart beats violently. He places his palms upon the earth to cool them. Earth throbs. Dan's heart beats violently. He sees all the people rush to the walls to listen to the rumble. A new-world Christ is coming up. Dan comes up. He is startled. The eyes of the woman don't belong to her. They look at him unpleasantly. From either aisle, bolted masses press in. He doesn't fit. The mass grows agitant. For an instant, Dan's and Muriel's eyes meet.59

Muriel has shunned Dan in the theater because she does not believe that he is aggressive enough in life and because he does not fit into her world of conventionality. She asks him why he does not get a job and settle down. At the theater, she sees him enter and realizes that he may embarrass her. She tries to convince herself that she does not love him and that her actions will keep him from daring to approach her in public. At her home, she had been able to rebuff him only with the help of Mrs. Pribby.

The vaudeville show which is presented reconfirms the main theme that society has enslaved people. The performers of the main attraction are two grotesque dwarfs who fight each other aimlessly yet furiously. Their fight is a symbol of the complete deterioration of mechanized society. The champion of the ludicrous fray singles out Muriel and offers her a rose which she reluctantly accepts. Dan, when Muriel accepts the dwarf's rose, is aware of her deceit because she accepts the rose from the dwarf but has rebuffed him. He becomes hysterical; he imagines that he will demolish the building (and all other means of confinement in society), and will arise and save the world. Dan leaves the theater, having thrown off the shackles of Muriel's love, and offends a theater patron, who challenges him to a fight. Dan, however, is free of the hold that both Muriel and society have on him: “He is as cool as a green stem that has just shed its flower.” The faces around him become impalpable and he disregards them. He walks away, free, from theater, from Muriel, and from society. “Box Seat” and “Theatre” are companion pieces. Dan and Muriel are contrapuntal to John and Dorris.

Toomer firmly believed that the black peasant's alienation from the soil had caused him to become emotionally sterile. His trip to Georgia, which gave him the fundamental groundwork for Cane, convinced him that he might find in racial substance something distinctive which should be a genuine contribution to art. He believed that slavery, once considered the black's shame and stigma, was a source of growth and transfiguration. As he said in his poem “Song of the Son,” “One plum was saved for me; one seed becomes / An everlasting song, a singing tree / Carolina softly souls of slavery.”60


“Calling Jesus” is a very short sketch, but it contains the central theme of the entire group of selections. It concerns an urbanized woman who has moved to the city and has developed the “anemia and emotional timidity” to which Toomer has referred. Enclosed in a big house in the city, she becomes estranged from her soul, which the narrator likens to a little thrust-tailed dog that follows her continually. Like the whimpering dog which is kept out of the house by a huge storm door, so is her soul kept from her body by the barriers erected by the city environment. Her eyes seem to have a longing for a place where builders find “no need for vestibules, for swinging on iron hinges, storm doors,” were she not confined by life away from the soil, the narrator is saying, her soul would not lack expression. He concludes:

Her soul is like a little thrust-tailed dog, that follows her, whimpering. I've seen it tagging on behind her, up streets where chestnut trees flowered, where dusty asphalt had been freshly sprinkled with clean water. Up alleys where niggers sat on low doorsteps before tumbled shanties and sang and loved. At night, when she comes home, the little dog is left in the vestibule, nosing the crack beneath the big storm door, filled with chills till morning. Some one … echo Jesus … soft as the bare feet of Christ moving across bales of southern cotton, will steal in and cover it that it need not shiver, and carry it to her where she sleeps: cradled in dream-fluted cane.61


The second selection and first narrative in Section Two of Cane is “Rhobert.” Its placement as an introductory sketch is deliberate and “Rhobert” encompasses the rootless urban characterizations which Toomer stresses in this section. Rhobert himself is a product of urban life, a life which results in massive sterility of mind and spirit. Hence, by extension, Rhobert is representative of a fatal removal from the soil, a loss of roots, which becomes the overriding symbol throughout the contrapuntal “Northern” section of Cane.

“Rhobert” is more an analysis and a philosophic treatise than a piece of short fiction. It consists of three paragraphs, the last two reiterating symbols and moralizing described in the first paragraph. In a tight, complex style, the narrator describes the character of Rhobert and his elemental losses as a materialistic being. Rhobert “wears a house, like a monstrous diver's helmet, on his head.”62 That is, material values and objects weigh Rhobert down, stifling his humanity. “He is way down.” Apparently this image is linked to the “weighted down” element of the house on his head. “He is sinking. This house is a dead thing that weighs him down.”63 The house becomes the central metaphor in “Rhobert.” It is an excellent metaphorical vehicle since the reader can identify the house with materialistic values, the boxed in intellect, and finally, appreciate the burden of objects which so many aspire to have. The word play with head of household is further evidence of the metaphor's usefulness. In this instance the head of the house is literally in view. The image of Rhobert carrying a house on his head is quite evidently surrealistic. It's not unlike the extended metaphor used by Kafka in Metamorphosis. In fact, Rhobert's house has rods protruding “like antennae” and the house is described as being “like a monstrous helmet,” similar to the carapace of an insect like Kafka's protagonist. The philosophic stance in “Rhobert” is similar to the more direct criticism Thoreau employs in the “Economy” section of Walden. Moreover, T. S. Eliot's “The Hollow Men” invites comparison to “Rhobert” since Toomer also inserts the “straw” and “stuffed” elements to his description of Rhobert's house.

The narrator reiterates Rhobert's description and plight in paragraphs two and three of the selection. Rhobert is a product of his own making. He cares more for the house than he does his family since “he cares not two straws as to whether or not he will ever see his wife and children again.”64 Eventually, the sheer weight of the house will drag him down and Rhobert will disappear in the mind. The narrator believes that his contemporaries will place a monument over the spot, “a monument of hewn oak, carved in nigger-heads.” Toomer solidifies his intentions for “Rhobert” with his description of a suitable monument. It is these uprooted blacks whom he uses as the primary subjects in Section Two. Out of their element, they will fall victim to society's materialism as surely as Rhobert does. When Rhobert “goes down” under the ooze, the narrator will join in the singing of “Deep River.” The narrative ends with the poetic

Brother, Rhobert is sinking.
Let's open our throats, brother,
Let's sing Deep River when he goes down.(65)

“Deep River” is a soul-opening spiritual, praising the natural elements so akin to and necessary for humanity. It is an appropriate death knell, recalling the price Rhobert pays for removing himself from his natural state. Rhobert's final resting place will be a wasteland, a monument with serious implications in itself.

Darwin Turner made a rather profound statement regarding Toomer's motivations for Section Two of Cane and it readily applies to “Rhobert.” Turner noted that after Section One was completed, “Jean Toomer the lyricist was dying; Jean Toomer the philosopher and psychologist reformer was coming into being.”66 Henceforth, as “Rhobert” demonstrates, Cane becomes less a fictive work than a philosophical one. Rhobert “is the apex of modern dehumanized man who is drowning in his own materialistic values.”67 Modern men, rootless men, like Rhobert are guilty of spiritual decadence. Toomer even describes his God in satirical fashion. “God is a Red Cross man with a dredge and a respirator-pump who's waiting for you at the opposite periphery.”68 It is precisely the image needed to describe the end result of such spiritual decadence.


“Bona and Paul,” the last story of the second section of Cane, represents the awakening of a young mulatto to the consciousness of his race. This story initiates the next turning of the thematic circle, which Toomer has structured as a complete circle beginning with the awakening of the black to his racial dilemma. In a letter to Waldo Frank, written while he was working on the volume, he said of this plan:

From three angles, Cane's design is a circle. Aesthetically, from simple forms to complex ones, and back to simple forms. Regionally from South up to North, and back into the South again. Or, from the North down into the South, and then a return North. From the point of view of the spiritual entity behind the work, the curve really starts with “Bona and Paul” (awakening), plunges into “Kabnis,” emerges in “Karintha,” etc., swings upward into “Theatre” and “Box Seat” and ends (pauses) in “Harvest Song.”69

This awakening of Paul and Bona to the racial dilemma in which they are enmeshed is the major problem of these two young people. Paul, a Southerner and a mulatto, has enrolled in the University of Chicago and has become friendly with Bona, a young white student. She has fallen in love with Paul, even though she is aware that he is possibly a black. Bona, from the South, finds that in Chicago, Paul's racial identity is negligible as a factor in her love for him. Though the dormitory girls and his roommate all question whether or not Paul is a black, Paul has never committed himself. Bona remains, however, exceedingly attracted to Paul and seeks at every opportunity to be in his presence. She attributes her attraction to him to the rumor that dark-skinned men are fascinating. Though the other girls in the dormitory, the waiters in the restaurants, and black doormen all cast knowing looks at the couple, indicating that they suspect that Paul is a black, Bona's desire to have him acknowledge his love for her is firm. Paul, however, finds that his mind keeps wandering back to his heritage. He thinks of his Georgia home:

Paul follows the sun, over the stock-yards where a fresh stench is just arising, across wheat lands that are still waving above their stubble, into the sun. Paul follows the sun to a pine-matted hillock in Georgia. He sees the slanting roofs of gray unpainted cabins tinted lavender. A Negress chants a lullaby beneath the mate-eyes of a southern planter. Her breasts are ample for the suckling of a song. She weans it, and sends it, curiously waving, among lush melodies of cane and corn. Paul follows the sun into himself in Chicago.70

This dedication is particularly relevant to Toomer's intent for the narrative and whole of Section Two. The passage reinforces Paul's nostalgia—his remembrance of the fertile Georgia landscape and the heritage owed to those natural roots. Toomer contrasts the fertility of the Georgia setting with the sterility of Chicago: the stock yards give off a “fresh stench,” but his love resounds with “lush melodies of cane and corn.” When Paul “follows the sun into himself in Chicago,” he develops an internalized view of the past. That is, Paul keeps his racial memories intact but does not verbalize them in “Bona and Paul.” This is one of the hazards of urban migration. So far removed from a natural surrounding, Paul can identify only with the sun, not with the stench of the city.

Paul becomes moody and distant as he thinks about coming to know Bona fully. But Paul's intellectual thirst takes precedence over his love for her. He knows that Bona comes from the South, where her attitudes toward blacks ought to be hostile, and he consequently believes that her makeup would be such that he could never come to know her fully. As he keeps dreaming of the “color and the music and the song” of his race, he recognizes that the distance between the two of them is too great to bridge the gap. In the final scene when another black stares at him, indicating that he knows his racial identity, Paul, in a moment of release from his attraction to the white girl, shakes the black's hand, tells him that he is going back to the dark faces that he may really know and in which he finds beauty that is “purple like a bed of roses would be at dusk.” Bona, too, has recognized the spiritual gulf between her and Paul and has fled from him.

“Bona and Paul” is divided into four sections. The first section is devoted to an impressionistic study of Bona. The setting is a gymnasium where various physical exercises are taking place, including drill and basketball. Bona, as observer, describes Paul: “He is a candle that dances in a grove swaying with pole balloons.” It is a rather strained metaphor but the poetic element is not Toomer's primary concern. Just as Paul will shortly reminisce about his Georgia roots, Bona recalls the prom setting of her adolescence. It is a remarkable contrast between the shanty and the upper class gala atmosphere. In an even more revealing comment which follows, Bona describes Paul as a “harvest moon,” “an autumn leaf,” and “a nigger.” It is an abrupt revelation, the single overriding fact in “Bona and Paul.” Because of his race, Paul's physical and spiritual beauty is muted. Nevertheless, Bona becomes a participant in the basketball game rather than a spectator. She wants to be close to Paul, perhaps even to impress him. She guards Paul too closely and is cracked in the jaw with his elbow. He grabs her before she can fall. She stiffens with the initial physical contact “then becomes strangely vibrant, and bursts to a swift life within her anger.” Paul senses her reluctance but a passion stirs within him, especially after Bona squeezes him. Paul becomes aware of the circle of staring faces, as does Bona. She jerks herself free and flees. Toomer creates a credible atmosphere of tension. Even though Bona and Paul momentarily become physically attractive, the strain of a black man holding a white girl becomes unbearable. The use of the word “whir” is significant. There is a whir of activity.

Section Two is devoted to Paul's perspective. He lives in a room beside a railroad track. There are two windows in Paul's room: “Bona is one window. One window Paul.” Racial ambivalence is symbolized by these windows: “Through one he sees his roots, reaching back to the hills of Georgia, and his heritage in the lullaby of the black woman singing under the lusting eyes of a southern planter. Yet at the second window, Bona's window, there is only blackness.”71 Paul is “passing” for white but the tension he feels begins to mount and will increase as the narrative progresses. The second section continues with the introduction of Paul's roommate Art, who is as uncertain of Paul's racial makeup as the rest. Art has “fixed up” Paul with a date. He is anxious for them to be on their way to dinner at the Pine Food Restaurant. Art and his girl, Helen, are going on a double date with Paul and Bona to the Crimson Gardens.

In Section Three, Toomer develops his characterizations by placing them in situational difficulties. Art is well dressed, bubbling over with anticipation. Conversely, Paul is “cool like the dusk, and like the dusk, detached.” The girls arrive. Art and Helen continue an argument “where he had last left it.” Bona squeezes Paul's hand but suddenly feels the same kind of tension she felt on the basketball court. In order to control her emotions, Bona “flares to poise and security.” On the way to Crimson Gardens, Bona asks Paul to tell her about himself, implying that he reveal his racial identity. But she only wants to know what he wants to tell her. Paul sidesteps her question, remarking that she has “the beauty of a gem fathoms under sea.” Bona professes love for Paul. This gem, the jewel, is cast into Paul's hand. Paul cannot speak of love. He wants physical proof from Bona because “love is a dry rain in my mouth unless it is wet with kisses.” Bona pulls Paul to her but stiffens again as in the gymnasium. She wants acknowledgment of love from Paul. He cannot make such an acknowledgment and accuses Bona of being cold.

The final section of “Bona and Paul” might properly be called the “Crimson Gardens.” Paul recedes into his shell, oblivious of the gala atmosphere of the surroundings. He feels self-conscious among all the white faces. Toomer uses window imagery to emphasize Paul's mood. He is “rosy before the window” and “with his own glow, he seeks to penetrate a dark pane,” Bona. He cannot yet reveal his concerns and attempts to become one of the revelers. “Crimson Gardens is a body where blood flows to a clot upon the dance floor.” Art and Helen are clots as well as Paul and Bona. As they dance, the conversation turns somewhat sour. Bona accuses Paul of being too cold, rational, and philosophic. She tries to move away from Paul in disgust, lest he grab her in much the same manner as he did in the gymnasium. “They are a dizzy blood clot on a gymnasium floor.”

The story ends rather abruptly when Paul and Bona leave the dance. They encounter a huge black uniformed doorman whom Paul engages in a revealing conversation. He says,

I came back to tell you, to shake your hand, and tell you that you are wrong. That something beautiful is going to happen. That the Gardens are purple like a bed of roses would be at dusk. That I came into the Garden, into life in the Gardens with one whom I did not know. That I danced with her, and did not know her. That I felt passion, contempt and passion for her whom I did not know. That I thought of her. That my thoughts were matches thrown into a dark window.72

Paul makes the conscious choice to become more intimate with Bona; the white world is his destiny. But as he turns he discovers that Bona has disappeared. Toomer's implication here is that Paul cannot know another until he knows himself. There is little chance that Paul will have this opportunity for self-knowledge since he has cut himself off from the Georgia roots. “Bona and Paul” ends on a negative note, consistent with the theme of lost heritage of subsequent sterility in Section Two of Cane.

Thus, the second section of Cane continues the aesthetic circle and treats blacks who are in sharp contrast to those of Section One. The primitives of the Georgia Pike of Section One, whose natural impulses have felt no sense of confinement, have experienced the beauty of life. As blacks move to city environments, where they are enclosed by houses, asphalt streets, and the smugness associated with the rising bourgeoisie, they lose their souls, as did the woman whose soul resembled a “little thrust-tailed dog.” Constrained by society, they constantly attempt, as Muriel of “Box Seat” does, to “fasten on an image.” Section Three continues the circle by recording the reactions of blacks to the various pressures of Southern environment, and analyzing the reaction of a Northern born and educated black to that of an old ex-slave who has been completely dehumanized.


The structural, aesthetic, and thematic circle of Cane is completed by a return to the South. The third section, a novella entitled “Kabnis,” is an adaptation of Toomer's drama by the same name. This section of Cane approaches the problem of the black, not by an acute analysis of the issues faced by the black, but by a poignant revelation of the feelings of a black whose chief concern is the aesthetic. In Section Three the protagonist is a Northerner who has returned to the home of his ancestors in the South to enjoy the beauty he hopes to find there. Like the poet in “Song of the Son,” Kabnis is a son of the soil returned to the land of his ancestors for the purpose of enjoying the aesthetic of the land and the red soil. But the neurotic lyricist, seeking beauty in a land that is filled with ugliness, cannot come to grips with the traditions of his slave heritage.

Ralph Kabnis is a Northerner of mixed blood. He returns to his family home in order to recapture a lost sense of self. He is the sum of the lost souls in Cane who precede him. His case is all the more gripping because he represents the ultimate danger of prejudice and its divisive results. At the end of the narration, Ralph has replaced the substance of manhood with the mere shadow of his former self.

Ralph Kabnis is overwhelmed by the beauty of the South but, to this frustrated poet, beauty becomes ugliness because he cannot endure the humiliation that blacks are forced to accept. He wonders how blacks can farm, sing, love, and sleep in the South and remain content with such a life. “This loneliness, dumbness, awful intangible oppression is enough to drive a man insane,” he says as he contemplates the school he is forced to teach in under the direction of Hanby, the autocratic principal. He is disturbed because he can see “white minds, with indolent assumption, juggle justice and nigger.” He sees the South as a place where blacks have been relegated to a position of ugliness in the midst of beauty; consequently, he finds it difficult to identify himself with the Georgia landscape. Blacks, he knows, are cut off from the beauty of the South because whites are in control. He hears the weird chill of the Georgia winds say: “White man's land. / Niggers, sing. / Burn, bear black childen / Till poor rivers bring / Rest, and sweet glory / In Camp Ground.”73

He finds that the restrictions placed upon him as a schoolteacher are inconsistent. For instance, under the code of unwritten law, he is not allowed to smoke, yet in the South, “they burn a nigger,” he says. He sees himself as “going bats” because of the loneliness forced upon him in the South. Kabnis, after listening to blacks' harrowing accounts of actual lynchings, develops a fear of lynching that completely unnerves him. At night, he comes to fear every small sound of nature and associates these with possible lynch mobs. This fear, as well as frustrating restrictions placed on Southern blacks, drown his ability to put into written lyrical expression his reactions to the “face of the South.” He is overcome by a “weird chill.”

In the process of his degradation, Kabnis touches various aspects of his black heritage, none of which serves to stabilize his neurotic despair. From the blacks whom he encounters, he is unable to gain any encouragement because all of them have in some way or other been detrimentally affected by the social traditions of the South. Toomer offers an indictment of the Southern educational system by his portrait of Samuel Hanby, the overbearing black principal in whose school Kabnis is forced to work, and in his description of Halsey, who is an exponent of the Booker T. Washington school of educational thought. Hanby, the principal of the training school for blacks, is the “Uncle Tom” representative of the whites among blacks. The school of which he is, as he says, the “humble president,” is obviously operated like a plantation, with Hanby as the overseer. Hanby has maintained a semblance of respect among whites because he spends his money with them. With blacks, however, he assumes a haughty, superior, Puritanical air, and reminds them frequently of his position of leadership in the community. When he comes to dismiss Kabnis, he delivers him an oration, meant to impress his listeners:

Hum. Erer, Professor Kabnis, to come straight to the point: the progress of the Negro race is jeopardized whenever the personal habits and examples set by its guides and mentors fall below the acknowledged and hard-won standard of its average member. This institution, of which I am the humble president, was founded, and has been maintained at a cost of great labor and untold sacrifice. Its purpose is to teach our youth to live better, cleaner, more noble lives. To prove to the world that the Negro race can be just like any other race. It hopes to attain this aim partly by the salutary examples set by its instructors. I cannot hinder the progress of a race simply to indulge a single member. I have thought the matter out beforehand, I can assure you. Therefore, if I find your resignation on my desk tomorrow morning, Mr. Kabnis, I shall not feel obliged to call in the sheriff. Otherwise. …74

After his dismissal, Kabnis is befriended by Halsey, who becomes one of the stabilizing forces in his deep slope downward. Halsey, who operates a small repair shop that caters to both white and black customers, has not been completely crushed by Southern life. He has simply accommodated his life to the prevailing ideals of the white South. He undergoes the indignities of the South by being somewhat of a servant to whites—and to some few blacks. Escaping into a sort of self-satisfaction by following the traditional path laid out for blacks, Halsey exists as an independent laborer. He advocates the cast-down-your-bucket-where-you philosophy of Booker T. Washington, which discourages blacks from following intellectual pursuits and favors their working with their hands at simple trades. He believes that an occupational trade is the only way a man can obtain soul satisfation. He says:

Give me th work and fair pay and I aint askin nothin better. Went overseas and saw France; an I come back … Went to school; but there aint no books whats got the feel t them of them there tools. Nassur. An I'm a tellin y72

Halsey's reaction to the Southern community is bred in his bones. Whereas the “ways of white folks” have frustrated Kabnis, Halsey has been reduced to a shadow of a complete man. He is easily intimidated; yet his very submission to the Southern way of life is his salvation—a salvation which Kabnis can never achieve because he refuses to allow himself to be completely subdued spiritually. Halsey is content to “stand in the doorway and gaze up the street expectantly,” hoping for jobs to come to him, but Kabnis rebels against the apathy of this type of black who has no incentive to be independent of white domination. Though Halsey, too, is an “Uncle Tom,” he does not tyrannize his fellow blacks as Hanby does. Halsey is condescendingly humble with whites, but with blacks he becomes militant. When Hanby irritates him by his dismissal of Kabnis, he threatens him:

Let me get you told right now, Mr. Samuel Hanby. Now listen t me. I aint no slick and span slave youve hired, an dont y think it for a minute. Youve bullied enough about this town. An besides, wheres that bill youve been owin me. Listen t me. If I dont get it paid in by tmorrer noon, Mr. Hanby (he mockingly assumes Hanby's tone and manner), I shall feel obliged t call the sheriff. An that sheriff'll be myself who'll catch y in the road and pull y out your buggy and rightly attent t y. You heard me. Now leave him alone. I'm takin him home with me. I got it fixed. He's goin to work with me. Shapin shafts and buildin wagons'll make a man of him what nobody, y get me? what nobody can take advantage of. Thats all. …76

Thus the militancy left in Halsey's spirit, after partial dehumanizing by his life in the South, is reserved for black underlings. Toward Hanby, the educated black, he assumes a superior air, but he is protective of Kabnis and tries to show him how to readjust himself by following what, for blacks, is the best course—that of not competing with whites intellectually. His philosophy toward Kabnis, blacks as well, is indicated in his final statement to Hanby: “Shapin shafts and buildin wagons'll make a man of him what nobody … can take advantage of.”77 Halsey has not allowed his life as a Southern black to become painful. He had adjusted himself to the life there and reorganized his talents according to the privileges accorded him by Southern society.

Layman, who “knows more than is good for anyone except a silent man,” also represents the voice of the Southern black. He is Georgia born and educated, by turns a teacher and a preacher. He has traveled widely in the South, has studied black-white psychology and he tells Kabnis: “Nigger's a nigger down this away, Professor. An only two dividins: good an bad. An even they aint permanent categories. They sometimes mixes em up when it comes to lynchin. I've seen em do it.”78

Like Halsey, who has accepted a life in the South which requires him to submit to numerous indignities, Layman suffers under the yoke of Southern white dominance, and assumes the air that his fate as a black is something which not he, nor any black man, can change. He never condemns whites; he simply adapts himself to the customs of the South.

Even Lewis, who might have served as a stabilizing force for Kabnis, is no help for him when he becomes disposed to react to the social predicament by resorting to debauchery and despair. Lewis is a Christ figure. He has a sense of direction and acts with intelligence whereas Kabnis lets his pent-up emotions guide his actions. As a character Lewis seems weak; yet Toomer seems to have so designed him for the purpose of making him represent the man that Kabnis could possibly have been if he had not allowed himself to be driven by his unconscious desires for the impossible. Kabnis consequently deteriorates while Lewis withstands the pressures of his environment by his Christ-like philosophy. Kabnis realizes Lewis's possible influence on him and the “licker,” which released the conflicts in him, sets him to talking. He tells Lewis:

Know what's here. M soul. Ever heard o that? Th hell y have. Been shapin words t fit m soul. Never told y that before, did I? Thought I couldnt talk. I'll tell y. I've been shapin words; ah, but sometimes theyre beautiful an golden an have a taste that makes em fine t roll over with y tongue. Your tongue aint fit f nothing but t roll an lick hog-meat.79

Kabnis refuses to acknowledge his black heritage but Lewis accepts his. Lewis reminds Kabnis that the old man who is kept in the dark cellar of Halsey's place is symbolic of their black past. Kabnis denies his black heritage: “An besides, he aint my past. My ancestors were Southern bluebloods—.” Kabnis the old man is a product of Uncle Tomism and a misused Christian religion. In the old man, Lewis sees strength which has come from the hardship and pain which he has suffered. Lewis chastizes Kabnis for not having accepted his black heritage as a part of his ancestry. He warns him that the white man is still master and that the black is his slave. Of whites, he tells Kabnis: “They fight and bastardize you … no use. …”

In his downward plunge to debauchery, Kabnis also meets two black prostitutes at Halsey's shop, one of whom tells him the reasons for her fall:

A white man took m mother an it broke the old man's heart. He died; an then I didnt care what become of me, and I dont now. I dont care now. Dont get it in y head I'm some sentimental Susie askin for yo sop. Nassur. But there's somethin to yo th others aint got. Boars an kids and fools—that all I've known. Boars when their fever's up. When their fever's up they come t me.80

When she becomes reminiscent and tells Kabnis, “Usall is brought up t hate sin worse than death—,” he replies aptly, “An then before you have y eyes half open, youre made t love it if y want t live.”

Kabnis vents his hatred on Father John, the old ex-slave who is kept in the cold and dark cellar of Halsey's shop. Symbolic of the black's past, he is like the black's slave heritage that is kept hidden as a part of their lives not to be remembered. Living in quarters strongly resembling the hold of a slave ship, Father John sits as though chained to one spot, blind and almost inarticulate and capable only of mumbling in a tragic monotone his indictment against the white folks for the sin of slavery. “Th sin whats fixed … upon the white folks—. … O the sins the white folks 'mitted when they made the bible lie,” he would say. Kabnis, who cannot come to grips with the memory of his black heritage, projects his hatred toward the old man. He gushes out at him:

You sit there like a black hound spiked to an ivory pedestal. An all night long I heard you murmurin that devilish word. They thought I didnt hear y, but I did. Mumblin, feedin that ornery thing thats livin on my insides. Father John. Father of Satan, more likely. What does it mean t you? Youre dead already. Death. What does it mean t you? T you who died way back there in th sixties. What are y throwin it in my throat for? Whats it goin t get y? My fist'll sink in t y black mush face t y guts—if y got any. Dont believe y have. Never seen signs of none. Death. Death. Sin an Death. All night long y mumbled death. … Death … these clammy floors … just like they used to stow away the worn out, no-count niggers in the days of slavery … that was long ago; not so long ago … no windows (he rises higher on his elbows to verify this assertion. He looks around, and seeing no one but the old man, calls.) Halsey! Halsey! Gone an left me. Just like a nigger. I thought he was a nigger all th time. Now I know it. Ditch y when it comes right down t it. Damn him anyway. Goddamn him. (He looks and resees the old man.) Eh, you? T hell with y too. What do I care whether you can see or hear? Y know what hell is cause you've been there. Its a feelin an its ragin in my soul in a way that'll pop out of me an run y through, an scorch y, an burn an rip your soul. Your soul. Ha. Nigger soul. A gin soul that gets drunk on a preacher's words. An screams. An shouts. God almighty, how I hate that shoutin. Where's the beauty in that? Gives a buzzard a windpipe an I'll bet a dollar t a dime th buzzard ud beat y to it. Aint suprisin th white folks hate y so. When you had eyes, did you ever see th beauty of th world? Tell me that. Th hell y did. Now don't tell me. I know y didnt. You couldnt have. Oh, I'm drunk an just as good as dead, but no eyes that have seen beauty ever lose their sight. You aint got no sight. If you had, drunk as I am, I hope Christ will kill me if I couldnt see it. 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. Theyve put y here t die, damn fool y are not t know it. Do y know how many feet youre under ground? I'll tell y. Twenty. And do y think you'll ever see th light of day again, even if you wasnt blind? Do y think youre out of slavery? Huh? Youre where they used t throw th worked-out, no-count slaves. On a damp clammy floor of a dark scum-hole. An they called that an infirmary. The sons-a. … Why I can already see you toppled off that stool an stretched out on th floor beside me—not beside me, damn you, by yourself, with th flies buzzin an lickin God knows what theyd find on a dirty, black, foul-breathed mouth like yours. …81

Thus, the old man represents the aspects of Kabnis's past that he wants to deny. Consequently Kabnis can only project his own self-hatred onto the old man. He hates him because of his lack of appreciation of the beauty which Kabnis is seeking for the South; he hates the old man's physical appearance and he hates the ties that the old man has with his slave past.

Lewis, but not Kabnis, recognizes that Carrie K., the adolescent sister of Halsey, symbolizes hope for blacks. Lewis sees immediately that her rich beauty and her spirit will fade, once she has been forced into the position of black women in the South. Toomer describes Lewis's meeting with Carrie K.:

Their meeting is a swift sunburst. Lewis impulsively moves toward her. His mind flashes images of her life in a southern town. He sees the nascent woman, her flesh already stiffening to cartilage, drying to bone. Her spirit-bloom, even now touched sullen, bitter. Her rich beauty fading. … He wants to—He stretches forth his hands to hers. He takes them. They feel like warm cheeks against his palms. The sunburst from her eyes floods up and haloes him. Christ-eyes, his eyes look to her. Fearlessly she loves into them. And then something happens. Her face blanches. Awkwardly she draws away. The sin-bogies of respectable southern colored folks clamor at her: “Look out! Be a good girl. Look out!”82

The dramatic novella ends with Kabnis having lost his complete dignity as he continues his descent into debauchery. His own self-hatred has been vented on everyone who represents any angle of vision of the black race, and he remains a confirmed coward in the face of his tradition. Kabnis, obviously almost white in appearance and in the outlook he wishes to adopt, is classified as a black. He revels in his own self-hatred, unable to find any outlet from his enforced position as a black. As a spokesman for the author Toomer, he represents two views toward the black race. On one hand, Kabnis sees beauty in the Georgia countryside which he cannot develop the complete freedom to enjoy or express in words. He also sees hope in Carrie K.—in the “calm untested confidence and nascent maturity which rise from her … mission,” but Kabnis is not resurrected by the hope that she portrays. He cannot “merge with his source” as Lewis does. Instead, Kabnis sees, on the other hand, only loss of dignity and not strength and courage in the black, not even that arising from the old ex-slave's years of subjugation of whites. He can see nothing but shame and degradation in the acknowledgment of his black past. “Kabnis” reaffirms the theme of the first two sections of Cane, that there is beauty in the life of the Southern black but that the beauty that is there has been destroyed by confinement. In “Kabnis” the symbols of confinement are represented by the trade into which Halsey is forced, by the “sin-bogies” of which Carrie K. is constantly aware, by the educational system for which Hanby is the white man's spokesman, and by the pathological fear of lynching which Kabnis has developed.

Kabnis dreams of the South: “Night winds in Georgia are vagrant poets, whispering,” but his dreams never become a reality because Kabnis is never able to “touch the soil.” He thinks:

And dreams are faces with large eyes and weak chins and broad brows that get smashed by the fists of square faces. The body of the world is bullnecked. A dream is a soft face that fits uncertainly upon it. … If I could feel that I came to the South to face it. If I, the dream (not what is weak and afraid in me) could become the face of the South. How my lips would sing for it, my songs being the lips of its soul.83

Thus, in “Kabnis” Toomer reaffirms his two views towards the black race, one of hope and one of self-hatred. Neither view is dominant with the protagonist Kabnis. His final position of despair is inevitable as he wavers between the lyrical beauty that he sees in the South and the hatred of his own self image.

The character Kabnis is a thinly disguised portrait of Toomer himself. Here is exemplified Toomer's need for a father figure and he builds in the necessary details to create for himself a father. For instance, in the home of Fred Halsey, he has described the portrait of an English gentleman—one who is cultured and seemingly wealthy. Toomer says that his nature and his features have been inherited by his great-grandson. Such is the picture that Toomer had always drawn of his paternal forebearers. In one of his biographies he has described his father as someone who resembled an Englishman—a man of distinction—and one who was not marked by black characteristics. Although Toomer never saw his father, these are the traits that he fondly imagines that he had. In the same room of Halsey's home, he pictures the portrait of a grandmother who has a Negro strain, possibly an explanation for his own Negro heritage.

Kabnis is a black neurotic who is described as having a lemon face, thin and silky hair and features generally associated with whites, all of which are features that Toomer possessed. Like Toomer, Kabnis has come South from the urbanized North to learn something about his roots and he finds what Toomer found in his own background, an agricultural setting. He is, like Toomer was, disillusioned at what he found in the South. He is made aware of the injustices heaped upon blacks by the whites of the South. He describes the deplorable cabins in which the blacks live and the domineering tones used in their voices when addressing blacks. All of these oppressive tactics are injustices which Toomer had not known before he went South. So with Kabnis.

Kabnis is a man who despairs easily and who calms himself with liquor and books. Toomer, likewise, was a man who despaired easily but who found his release in books. Toomer in other situations, such as his stay at the University of Wisconsin, at the City College of New York and at the University of Chicago, immersed himself in books and writing. Likewise, Kabnis is first shown as propped in bed reading, just as Toomer had pictured his Uncle Bismarck in one of his autobiographies. This picture of himself, surrounded by books and reading, constantly is one that pleased Toomer.

Again Toomer mirrored himself when he treats his ability to dance. In his autobiographies he has made no secret of the fact that he was a smooth dancer. In the first pages of “Kabnis,” he describes how he goes through a grand march with Stella and how he grabs Cora and parades around. It is now obvious that in seeing Kabnis we see Toomer. “Kabnis” is not the only work in which Toomer presents himself thinly disguised. For instance, in “York Beach,” he is disguised as Nathan.

Cane's thematic circle has been completed with the return to the South. In Section One, Toomer presents the six primitive protagonists, all of whom live close to the soil. The lives of these six women, all highly sexed, serve to give an insight into southern life along the Dixie Pike. The second section of Cane takes place in Washington and in Chicago, where blacks who have retained an essence of their primitive ways live. These traits which they have retained from their more primitive ways are the characteristics which make their lives meaningful. The primitives who live close to the soil—to the cane and the harvest—and who are content to sleep and to love are the happiest. Blacks whose lives are confined by the social customs of the cities are in the process of losing their essential qualities for living. They have allowed themselves to become “dictie” and have hence lost their feeling for goodness and for brotherhood. In Washington, women have been confined by the customs of decorum, while men (like Rhobert, for instance, who allows house ownership to become an all-consuming passion) have emphasized material values so that they have lost insight into the beauty of life. The narrator views the “new black,” the one who is moving rapidly into the confines of civilized society, with repulsion; the beauty lies with the fading “song-lit” race.

The final section of Cane treats of the tragic collapse of a young man who cannot adjust himself to an environment that will not allow him to enjoy the privileges of manhood and brotherhood and aesthetic beauty. Reared in the North where he had not lived under a daily fear of lynching, nor with a feeling of gross inferiority either to whites or to blacks who had achieved prominence because of their truculence to white ways, the protagonist slowly loses his sense of self-direction and lapses into self-hatred and indolence.

Robert Bone has said that a critical analysis of Cane is a frustrating task and that a process of restoration will destroy evidences of Toomer's art.84

It is true that Cane may, at first reading, seem artificial. In addition, Toomer's characters, for the most part, and especially those in Section One, are not substantial. Many of them are not fully developed and we gather only the very essences of their being. Karintha, for instance, remains a “whir” in the Georgia dusk. And we never see Fern clearly or know her fully; all we remember is that her “face flowed into her eyes,” and that something which the narrator called God flows into her eyes.

If an analysis makes Toomer's early work seem incoherent, possibly a further look at his style will clarify some of the nebulous ideas conveyed by his work. Though “Kabnis” carries a more unified theme than some of the earlier pieces in Cane, the entire collection of short stories, poems, and sketches of the volume exemplifies Toomer's penetrating style. One of the dominant features of his style is the musical quality, notably in the first two parts of Cane. Frequently Toomer almost imperceptibly drifts from prose into poetry, and often his prose has a poetic ring to it. For instance, he says of Karintha, “She was as innocently lovely as a November cotton flower.” Later he drifts from a musical passage into staccato phrases:

Karintha's running was a whir. It had the sound of the red dust that sometimes makes a spiral in the road. At dusk, during the hush after the sawmill had closed down, and before any of the women had started their supper-getting-ready songs, her voice, high-pitched, shrill, would put one's ears to itching. But no one ever thought to make her stop because of it. She stoned the cows, and beat her dog, and fought the other children.85

The sketch opens with a song in praise of Karintha, drifts into poetic prose, then into another song followed by snatches of description, and ends in a song. Little imagistic passages interspersing the narrative give rise to a vague portrait of Karintha: “Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,” “God grant us youth, secretly prayed the old men,” “Karintha … was a wild flash,” or she who carries beauty, “perfect as the dusk when the sun goes down.”86

The word pictures of his characters are well-drawn even though he outlines his characters only by the faintest essences. Finally, however, the characters evolve from the sketchy narratives. Of this method, “Becky” is an excellent example, for we never see Becky, the protagonist, in reality. We come to know her only from the hearsay about her and from the unheard secret that the pines “whisper to Jesus.” In “Becky” the matter-of-fact, straightforward language of the narrative is interspersed with clipped lines and singing phrases: “Becky was the white woman who had two Negro sons. She's dead; they've gone away.”87

Frequently Toomer's narrator enters and interrupts the narrative to comment:

Carma's tale is the crudest melodrama. Her husband's in the gang. And it's her fault he got there. Working with a contractor, he was away most of the time. She had others. No one blames her for that.88

When he lapses into a dreamlike reverie, Toomer shifts his style and his rhythm becomes slow and unhurried, and the musical state of the poet's soul seems to permeate his lines. Frequently, he launches into unhurried, running language, then again he punctuates his diction with a swift staccato beat, as may be seen by this selection from “Kabnis”:

God Almighty, dear God, dear Jesus, do not torture me with beauty. Take it away. Give me an ugly world. Ha, ugly. Stinking like unwashed niggers. Dear Jesus, do not chain me to myself and set these hills and valleys, heaving with folk-songs, so close to me I cannot reach them. There is a radiant beauty in the night that touches … tortures me. Ugh. Hell. Get up, you damn fool. Look around. Whats beautiful there? Hog pens and chicken yards. Dirty red mud. Stinking outhouse. Whats beauty anyway but ugliness if it hurts you? God, he doesnt exist, but nevertheless He is ugly. Hence, what comes from Him is ugly. Lynchers and business men, and that cockroach Hanby, especially. How come that he gets to be principal of a school? Of the school I'm driven to teach in? God's handiwork, doubtless. God and Hanby, they belong together. Two godam moral-spouters. Oh, no, I wont let that emotion come up in me. Stay down. Stay down, I tell you. O Jesus, thou art beautiful. … Come, Ralph, pull yourself together. Curses and adoration dont come from what is sane. This loneliness, dumbness, awful, intangible oppression is enough to drive a man insane. Miles from nowhere. A speck on a Georgia hillside. Jesus, can you imagine it—an atom of dust in agony on a hillside? Thats a spectacle for you. Come, Ralph, old man, pull yourself together.89

Cane was called perfect by Waldo Frank, and Paul Rosenfeld (one of the editors of the American Caravan series) believed that Toomer stood high in the rank of American letters. With Cane, Toomer was well on his way to success. He had shown in Cane that modern industrial society had caused man to lose his emotional spontaneity and made him its victim. His short stay in Georgia had revealed to him the measure to which the spirit of the Southern black had been driven to fear by Southern white social customs. He particularly deplored the black's tendency to allow his instinct for the folk-spirit, and especially the spirituals, to die:

But I learned that the Negroes of the town objected to the spirituals. They called them “shouting.” They had victrolas and player-pianos. So, I realized with deep regret that the spirituals, meeting ridicule, would die out. With Negroes also the trend was towards a small town and towards the city—and industry and commerce and the machines. The folk-spirit was walking in to die on the modern desert. That spirit was so beautiful. Its death was so tragic.90

Toomer's treatment of black materials with a style that was fresh and new were features of his writing that differentiated his work from that of most black writers of earlier periods. Subsequently, however, Jean Toomer turned away from the materials that he knew best, those about the black. Early in his literary career, he had expressed his desire to learn more about blacks so that he might use these materials for artistic creativity. He had said that he had been pulled deeper and deeper into the black group and that he had found himself loving it in a way that he could never love another group. He studied psychology; he tried to study himself in order to avoid becoming machinelike in a machine age. He came to avoid writing about the black group. He sought a universal message.

In 1966 David Littlejohn, after he had assessed writing by American blacks, said, “We wait, still, for a Negro writer who can tell us truly what it is like to be a Negro.”91 Jean Toomer, had he continued writing as he did during the Black Renaissance, might have become that writer. At the height of his creativity, however, he sacrificed the possibility of becoming an outstanding literary artist by turning his attention to work that would in no way reveal that he had “peeped behind the veil.” A look at Toomer's personal correspondence, some of his uncollected works, and his long Whitmanesque poem “Blue Meridian” will reveal that the trend of his later writing was toward a universal and raceless message. But the work of his later years does not give the aesthetic enjoyment such as that derived from reading Cane. His creative powers were lost in his struggle for racial anonymity.


  1. Addison Gayle, The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America, (New York: 1975), p. 98.

  2. Abraham Chapman, ed., Black Voice (New York: 1968), p. 83.

  3. Bernard Bell, “A Key to the Poems in Cane,CLA Journal 14 (March 1971): 252.

  4. Edward W. Waldron, “The Search for Identity in Jean Toomer's ‘Esther,’” CLA Journal 14 (March 1971): 227.

  5. Darwin Turner, “Introduction,” Cane (New York: Liveright, 1975), p. xxi.

  6. Jean Toomer, Cane (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923; New York: University Place Press, 1967), p. 21.

  7. Houston Baker, Singers At Daybreak: Studies in Black American Literature (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974), p. 8.

  8. Robert Bone, The Negro Novel in America (Revised edition; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), p. 82.

  9. Toomer, Cane, p. 5.

  10. Baker, p. 58.

  11. Cane, p. 13. The paperback edition (New York: Liveright, 1975) substitutes “cane” for “corn.” This is probably correct.

  12. Ibid., p. 14.

  13. Ibid., p. 18.

  14. Ibid., p. 17.

  15. Ibid., pp. 24-25.

  16. Ibid., p. 32.

  17. Ibid., p. 29.

  18. The word “dictie” is defined as stylish, high class, bossy, and snobbish. The Dictionary of American Slang, compiled by Harold Wentworth and Stuart Flexner (New York: Crowell, 1967), p. 146. It has a variant spelling of “dicty,” origin unknown, meaning uppish and conceited. A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, ed. R. W. Burchfield. Vol. I [A-G] (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 795.

  19. Cane, p. 38.

  20. Bone, p. 84.

  21. Toomer, Cane, p. 40.

  22. Ibid., p. 37.

  23. Ibid., p. 39.

  24. Ibid., pp. 42-43.

  25. Ibid., p. 47.

  26. Ibid., pp. 43-44.

  27. Ibid., p. 45.

  28. Ibid., p. 37.

  29. Ibid., p. 39.

  30. Ibid., p. 51.

  31. Ibid.

  32. Ibid.

  33. Ibid., p. 52.

  34. Ibid., pp. 59-60.

  35. Crewdson, p. 50.

  36. Toomer, Cane, p. 4.

  37. Quoted in Alain Locke's The New Negro (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1925), p. 51.

  38. Toomer, Cane, pp. 10-11.

  39. Ibid., p. 36.

  40. Ibid., pp. 16-20.

  41. Ibid., pp. 51-67.

  42. Bone, p. 87.

  43. Toomer, Cane, p. 71.

  44. A number of critics have noted this similarity.

  45. Cane, p. 78.

  46. Ibid., p. 80.

  47. Ibid., pp. 80-81.

  48. Ibid., p. 81.

  49. Ibid., p. 83.

  50. Ibid., p. 86.

  51. Ibid., p. 88.

  52. Crewdson, p. 61.

  53. Cane, p. 98.

  54. Ibid., pp. 105-106.

  55. Ibid., p.108.

  56. Ibid., p. 113.

  57. Ibid., p. 117.

  58. Extract from a letter from Jean Toomer to Lola Ridge. August 10, 1922, Toomer Collection, Fisk University Library.

  59. Cane, p. 119.

  60. Ibid., p. 21.

  61. Ibid., p. 103.

  62. Ibid., p. 73.

  63. Ibid.

  64. Ibid., p. 74.

  65. Ibid., p. 75.

  66. Darwin Turner. “Jean Toomer's Cane,Negro Digest 18:3 (January 1969): 61.

  67. Arlene Crewdson. Invisibility: A Study of the Works of Toomer, Wright, and Ellison (Unpublished Dissertation: Loyola University of Chicago, 1974), p. 59.

  68. Cane, p. 74.

  69. Extract of a letter from Jean Toomer to Waldo Frank, dated December 12, 1922. Toomer Collection, Fisk University Library.

  70. Cane, pp. 137-38.

  71. Crewdson, p. 85.

  72. Cane, pp. 152-53.

  73. Ibid., p. 157.

  74. Ibid., pp. 185-86.

  75. Ibid., pp. 200-201.

  76. Ibid., p. 188.

  77. Ibid.

  78. Ibid., pp. 171-172.

  79. Ibid., p. 223.

  80. Ibid., p. 219.

  81. Ibid., pp. 231-32.

  82. Ibid., p. 205.

  83. Ibid., p. 158.

  84. Bone, p. 88.

  85. Cane, p. 2.

  86. Ibid., p. 1.

  87. Ibid., p. 13.

  88. Ibid., p. 18.

  89. Ibid., pp. 161-62.

  90. Toomer, “Outline of Autobiography,” pp. 58-59. Jean Toomer Collection: Fisk University Library.

  91. David Littlejohn, Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes (New York: Grossman, 1966), p. 170.

Frederik L. Rusch (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: “A Tale of the Country Round: Jean Toomer's Legend, ‘Monrovia,’” in MELUS, Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 37-46.

[In the following essay, Rusch considers autobiographical aspects of the unpublished story, “Monrovia” and deems the story unique in Toomer's oeuvre.]

From his unpublished autobiographies, we learn that, throughout much of his life, Jean Toomer (1894-1967) was unhappy, frustrated, and uncertain about where he belonged in the scheme of existence.1 For a variety of reasons, most notably his mixed racial heritage and his somewhat chaotic and insecure childhood, Toomer seemed not to know who he was. Consequently, he spent much of his literary career trying to discover an identity through his writing.

In using the creative process as an important means toward gaining a strong sense of himself, Toomer recognized what most artists have recognized: the intimate and mysterious connection between the production of literature, or any art, and the understanding of oneself. As Katherine Anne Porter has said, “Style is the man. Aristotle said it first, as far as I know, and everybody has said it since, because it is one of those unarguable truths. You do not create style. You work, you develop yourself; your style is an emanation from your own being.”2 Style, as “an emanation from your own being,” is a tangible demonstration of the nature of that being. Through the form of his writing an author may clarify his sense of himself and thus discover some previously unformulated aspect of his personality.

Early in his career, Jean Toomer saw this connection between writing and identity. In his “Outline of Autobiography,” in which he discussed his struggles as a beginning writer in the period from 1920 to 1922, Toomer wrote, “Literature, particularly the craftsman's aspect of it, again became my entire world, and I lived it as never before. … I began feeling that I had in my hands the tools for my own creation.”3

The immediate result of Toomer's interest in the craft of literature as related to a sense of self was his major work, Cane, published in 1923.4 The inspiration for Cane was two visits Toomer made to the rural southern United States in the early twenties.5 Much impressed with the life of “the black peasant,” Toomer said that his visit to Georgia “was the starting point of almost everything of worth” that he had so far written.6 Because of the date of Cane, Toomer is usually identified with the Harlem Renaissance movement of the nineteen-twenties. The Renaissance movement was mostly a loose confederation of intellectuals who were interested in exploring black life. Certainly, Cane does reflect the new interest that was characteristic of many writers in the twenties. However, Toomer himself never really was close to the black intellectual groups of the Renaissance, as represented by men like Langston Hughes and Alain Locke. Toomer wrote about blacks in Cane, was published in anthologies like Locke's collections, The New Negro and Four Negro Poets, and is thus considered part of the Renaissance.7 However, Toomer's major literary friends were white and by the mid-twenties, when the Renaissance was in full flower, Toomer had abandoned black writing and left New York.8

In Cane, Toomer explored his black heritage. However, what he discovered about himself apparently did not satisfy him. He felt that he could never write another book like it, and he began to look into areas other than black life and art for a meaningful life.9

The fact is that Jean Toomer simply did not feel a close identity with any specific race, as he made clear in an unpublished autobiographical fragment: “I have no race consciousnes. That is, though I am aware that various races exist, I am not conscious of belonging to any one of them. Nor do I habitually think when I see a person: he is a white man (English, French, Jew, etc.) or he is a black man. I am more aware of yellow men, as such. Usually, however, I must make a mental effort, if I am to thus classify.”10 Toomer saw himself as a person of “scattered parts.”11 He speculated that his heritage was “French, Dutch, Welsh, Negro, German, Jewish, and Indian.”12 However, it is not known how he came up with this mixture. It is not even clear what color his father was.13 What is known is that his maternal grandfather was a mulatto, P.B.S. Pinchback, who during Reconstruction had been acting governor of Louisiana.14 Toomer himself was very light skinned.15 Certainly, Toomer's racial identity has always been something of a mystery. Briefly, he seemed to have a momentary identification with his black heritage, but Cane became a burden to him because in the minds of his readers it made him black, while he did not feel himself wholly black.

At any rate, soon after writing Cane, Toomer became interested in the ideas of the Russian mystic, Georges I. Gurdjieff, whose theories of ego-development were popular among some intellectuals during the nineteen-twenties.16 For many years, Toomer was an ardent follower of Gurdjieff, which was unfortunate because Gurdfieff's theories were not beneficial to his writing. In much of his Gurdjieffian writing, Toomer tried, in Katherine Anne Porter's words, to “create style.” That is, he came to his writing with such strong preconceptions about harmonious existence and ego-development, mostly learned from Gurdjieff, that he would not let his writing develop as an emanation from his own being, but rather as a mirror of the ideas of Gurdjieff. Since his writing was more a reflection of Gurdjieff than himself, it did not allow for the self-discovery that Toomer hoped his writing would provide. Thus his literature was often forced and stilted. This is why almost all of his post-Cane work has remained unpublished and he has been regarded by most people as a writer who wrote only one good book.17

However, there are some pieces by Toomer that do read well while also presenting a possible vehicle for understanding their author, without the deadening burden of the Gurdjieff influence. Two notable examples are the twenty-page poem, “Blue Meridian,” published in 1936,18 in which Toomer united all races into a single race represented by the “blue man,” and “Monrovia,” a brief, unpublished story. “Monrovia” deserves attention because it represents a successful working out of themes that were major to all of Toomer's work, yet in style and tone it is quite unlike almost everything else he wrote. Unfortunately, “Monrovia” is not dated.19 However, it is probably safe to speculate that it was written after Toomer's black period.

“Monrovia” appears to reflect the influence of a very important non-literary event in Toomer's life, his mystical experience of 1926. Toomer describes this memorable event at length in “From Exile into Being,” his unpublished autobiography of 1938.20 Apparently, while standing on an elevated train platform in New York City, he suddenly went into a mystical trance that profoundly changed his life because, as he wrote, it demonstrated to him the possibility of a “higher consciousness” that could transform him into a “radically different being.”21 He believed that this experience had shown him a world of harmony, in contrast to the world of chaos with which he was all too familiar. For once, he felt that he had perceived an ordered world, a world of meaningful form of which he was suddenly a part. In short, the movement from chaos to form experienced on a New York train platform was a moment of crystallization for Toomer, and he felt himself reborn.22

In “Monrovia,” Toomer seems to have transformed the esthetic wholeness of his mystical state into the esthetic wholeness of a beautiful, fanciful legend. Furthermore, with its fairy-tale quality, “Monrovia” reflects the important and meaningful influence that his mother's brother, Uncle Bismarck, had on Toomer as a child, when one of his favorite pastimes was to listen to Bismarck read him “myths and fables, folk tales, romances and adventures.”23 In his autobiography, Toomer writes that Bismarck and his stories were a strong influence on him: “I truly learned with and from Bismarck. … My mind was born and nurtured during those times with him.”24 He felt that his uncle's stories meant more to him than what he learned in school because legends are “the material needed for growth and expansion”25 of children's imaginations. Uncle Bismarck's stories provided Toomer with a point of meaning and solidity in a rather chaotic childhood, and as an adult, he, in turn, wrote a story about a woman named Monrovia, who became a legendary figure to those around her and whose development may have symbolized Toomer's own development towards a meaningful life.

Toomer's legend is set on a beautiful sea coast. It tells of Monrovia who is about to marry Asrael and move with him to a nearby island. But, on the night before their wedding, Asrael is drowned in a storm while transporting their belongings to the island. Monrovia, who has been greatly dependent on Asrael, is almost destroyed by his death. She falls into a long period of extreme sorrow and depression. She spends day after day staring out at the sea which has taken her beloved from her. Her constant crying becomes legendary: “Villagers from round-about used to come and watch from the edge of the wood. The flow of crystal down her still face became a tale of the country round (p. 8).” Slowly, her great and constant sorrow is destroying her. Then, one day, a stranger comes to Monrovia as she sits by the sea; he tells her to be strong and not let her suffering destroy her. Slowly, her weeping lessens. She begins to move out of herself and her sorrow and to turn towards the beautiful world around her.

As she recovers, Monrovia begins to spin and weave for the people of the countryside. The clothes she makes are greatly cherished by everybody, and she is satisfied with her weaving, which gives her a purpose in life, makes her forget her pain, and allows her to reach out to others. Her sorrow subsides, and finally her “crystal tears were gone. Her heart was growing (p. 10).” The whole countryside comes to love and admire her, and when she dies, there is universal mourning. But although dead, Monrovia continues to live with legendary significance in the hearts of the villagers.

“Monrovia” can be seen as a symbolic description of the feeling of harmony that Toomer encountered with his mystical experience. The nature of mystical experiences is such that it is difficult to describe them. The ecstatic feeling of oneness with and complete understanding of the universe is so strange that our language is inadequate as a means of description. However, although there may be no adequate way literally to describe the harmony felt in a mystical state, a writer can demonstrate that unity through the objectification provided to him in story telling. Furthermore, by writing a story that symbolically represents the mysterious and “indescribable” event, the author makes tangible that event so that its significance can be demonstrated as more “real” than the pure emotion of the event itself. In this way the author verifies his original experience and gives meaning to the original mystery.

Since legends and myths traditionally answer the questions of the riddles of the universe, they, according to M. Esther Harding, “act as molds for the developing psyche. … Jung himself has pointed out how important it is for children to be told legends and fairy tales, and for adults to be made familiar with religious myths and dogmas, because they constellate the archetypal patterns and give to man a sense of the meaning of life.’26 Toomer expressed a similar idea in his autobiography when he declared that children who were not exposed to traditional legends and fables would grow up to be “incomplete lopsided human beings.”27 Psychologically, as an incomplete human being himself, as, in his own words, a man “born to exile … born to be divided,”28 Toomer was, in a sense, still a child, but in “Monrovia” he was able to portray objectively the change from feelings of exile and loneliness to the contrary feeling of harmony with the universe that he had experienced on the platform of the elevated train in New York City. He did this through the character of Monrovia, who likewise moves from extreme sorrow and loneliness to a new feeling of communion with those around her. Through her experience of suffering, she finds herself at one with the world because she has enacted what Joseph Campbell calls the “nuclear unit of the monomyth”: “separation-initiation-return,” as represented in mythology by Aeneas' trip to the underworld and his return to the founding of Rome.29

In “Monrovia,” Toomer enlarged and universalized his own search for unity, this time using the common experience of death as a unifier, rather than a specific ethnic heritage as in Cane. Indeed, through the story of Monrovia he demonstrated the feelings he had had at the height of his mystical experience. “I was losing my life,” he wrote in his autobiography. “It was being taken away for a more noble creation. Life was in that other, in that wondrous visitor”30 which came to him in the form of a mysterious light. Monrovia, like Toomer, also is reborn after she heeds the advice of her wondrous visitor, the stranger who comes to her after her long period of sorrow.

Monrovia's rebirth into wholeness is manifested in the crafts which she takes up after the stranger has spoken to her, and “as time went on she spun and wove for the whole country-side. What she made was cherished for generations after, for usefulness and loveliness” (p. 10). Monrovia's craft, then, is like the writer's, both lovely and useful. After she has become whole, she can reach out to others and teach them the lesson she has learned, just as the writer teaches his readers. Monrovia becomes an inspiration to all who meet her, an inspiration to all who hear of her, even after her death: “They buried Monrovia, on her green cliff in a high crystal tomb, that shone with such splendor it became a beacon at night for ships far out at sea. People from all the world came to stand in its light. It stirred them strangely and made them whole” (p. 11).

The overall mood, the beauty and ultimate peacefulness, that Toomer created in “Monrovia” makes it different from most of his other writing.31 Using legend as his model, he deliberately places his story in a magical landscape. Typical of the mood is the scene at the beginning of the story where we find the maiden in a blissful state of intimacy with her natural surroundings:

The white does lay in the yellow-green grass, very still, dark eyes sad.

Monrovia was stretched out by the oldest, one arm round its neck, thick black hair pushed back from her forehead. Her gray eyes watched the beach down beyond the cliff.

“How purple the sand and how silver the little fish washed up by the sea,” she was thinking. The magnolia blossoms in the trees above gleamed like star-beams. The water was green as jade. Monrovia watched the tiny red crabs that flecked the shore.

She felt the doe beside her move a little. It brushed her arm with its nose, breathing warm sweetness towards her. Over her head the leaves rustled. There was a hum of bees in the salty air. Her scarlet gown spread about her, the grass still cool underneath it.

(p. 1)

The richness of imagery in this description creates a magic that is very effective and engaging. The magnolia blossoms are star-beams; the sea is jade. There is a rainbow of color: scarlet, white, green, black, purple, silver, yellow. Monrovia in this idyllic setting is a part of it, one of its creatures, barely distinguishable from the doe which she embraces. Indeed, at one point she even tells a doe of her impending marriage to Asrael, as if she and the doe have a common language (p. 5). This relationship is common in mythological settings, in which, according to Mircea Eliade, “friendship with animals and knowledge of their language represents a ‘paradisial’ syndrome.”32

Later, the intense beauty of nature becomes a mocking contrast to the discovery of death and the loss of the idyllic. On the morning of her wedding, the innocent Monrovia waits for Asrael in a remarkably beautiful setting, not knowing he drowned the night before:

The morning world glistened. It was as shining and expectant as Monrovia, who sat on the leafy cliff among her white deer, with long eyes as black as the rain that had beaten down all night. The sea in front of her was sapphire. It was swishing softly onto the purple beach and tossing iridescent drops over the small crabs.

She sat on her chest, in a silver gown—only her long sleeves scarlet—shy and proud, and still as her lovely white doe. Her pomegranate mouth was curved with delight at the morning. The magnolia blossoms were pearl lanterns among the wet green on the branches, the sea was turquoise, and the silver fish leaped and darted in gold sunlight. It was a world that might be hard to leave, she felt for a moment.

(p. 5)

However, Monrovia, like all of us, must leave this idyllic world, not for the even finer world Asrael has promised her, where “the air is like white wine … and the noise of the sea like a song” (p. 2), but for the world of sorrow and pain. Asrael's promise of an Eden with wind like wine, even greater than the world they already have, was the promise of love. Asrael had told Monrovia, “You are going to be safe and never lonely. I shall be there always” (p. 3), but at the moment that promise is to be realized, Monrovia instead learns that there will be no island of eternal happiness. She begins her ordeal of sorrow, but this leads finally to a new and truly meaningful life as part of her community and the world.

It would appear that a major reason for the artistic success of “Monrovia” is that Toomer was able to look at his own experience of harmony objectively. By putting his desires for wholeness and his mystical feeling of harmony into the symbolic form of a legend, he could grasp and understand his life more fully. The symbolic representation of his own feelings allows the writer to understand further his emotions in an objective setting. Here the important act of discovery is evident in the creative process because an artistic detachment from a major event in one's life allows for insight into that event. Putting events into a meaningful form—in this case the form of legend—provides an understanding of those events.

The development of Monrovia—from fragmentation to wholeness—is the development that Toomer sought for himself and what he had achieved—at least temporarily—in his mystical state. Although we do not know the date of the composition of “Monrovia,” we can speculate that Toomer's successful portrayal of Monrovia's development gave substance to the essence of his own mystical experience or, at least, provided some insight into the importance and significance of his mystical state for himself as a divided and unhappy person. Certainly, in “Monrovia,” Toomer, the man of scattered parts, was able to communicate effectively his ideas of harmony, whether they came from his moment of mystical ecstasy in New York or his constant longing for a meaningful place in the world. He must have been pleased with his effort.


  1. All unpublished work by Toomer cited in this paper has been until recently in the Toomer Collection at Fisk University. In 1962, at the urging of Arna Bontemps, Marjorie Content Toomer, Toomer's widow, sent all of Toomer's manuscripts and letters to the Fisk Library (letter, Marjorie C. Toomer to Frederik L. Rusch, September, 22, 1967). At the time, Bontemps, an old acquaintance of Toomer, was the director of the Fisk University Library. The Toomer collection contains over 30,000 items, made up of poems, plays, novels, short stories, literary criticism, philosophical tracts, correspondence, memorabilia, and clippings. Most of the writing would not be considered “black literature,” and most of it has never been published. The collection has been one of the most heavily used in the Fisk Library (see BANC!, Publication of Fisk University Library, II, 2, May 1972.

    At this writing, the Toomer Collection is being moved from Fisk University to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. At Yale, Professors Charles Davis and Henry-Louis Gates will be working on the Toomer material. However, as Yale has not yet organized and catalogued the material, this paper uses the Fisk Library classification when citing unpublished Toomer works. For further discussion of Toomer's unpublished work, see, among others, Darwin T. Turner, In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), Frederik L. Rusch, “Every Atom Belonging to Me as Good Belongs to You: Jean Toomer and His Bringing Together of the Scattered Parts” (Ph.D. dissertation, State University of New York at Albany, 1976), and Michael Jay Krasny, “Jean Toomer and the Quest for Consciousness” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1972).

  2. Katherine Anne Porter, quoted in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (Second Series), ed. George Plimpton (New York: The Viking Press, 1965), p. 156.

  3. Jean Toomer, “Outline of Autobiography,” quoted in Mabel Mayle Dillard, “Jean Toomer: Herald of the Negro Renaissance” (Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio University, 1967), p. 13. Toomer worked on a number of autobiographies for about twenty years from the mid-nineteen-twenties to the mid-nineteen-forties. Most of Toomer's various autobiographies remain unpublished per se. However, a short excerpt from “Earth-Being,” n.d. was published as “Chapters from Earth-Being: An Unpublished Autobiography,” Black Scholar 2 (January 1971):3-13, and recently, two autobiographies and part of a piece of autobiographical writing have been included by Darwin Turner in The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1980).

  4. Cane is a complex interweaving of prose and poetry. It has been published five times: 1) New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923; 2) New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927; 3) New York: University Place Press, 1967; 4) New York: Harper and Row, 1969; 5) New York: Liveright, 1975. The entire book has also been published in Nine Modern Classics, ed. Sylvia Barnet, Morton Berman, and William Burto (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973). Since the nineteen-sixties, selections from Cane have appeared in numerous anthologies of American prose and poetry. In his introduction to the 1975 Liveright edition, Darwin T. Turner states that Cane “is the most frequently studied, the most respected of all the books of the Harlem Renaissance; and Jean Toomer is ranked among the finest artists in the history of Afro-American literature (p. x).”

  5. Toomer was born in Washington, D.C. In 1920, he traveled in the South with Waldo Frank. (See Memoirs of Waldo Frank, ed. Alan Trachtenberg, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1973.) In 1921, Toomer spent about four months teaching at the Georgia Normal and Industrial Institute in Sparta.

  6. Jean Toomer to The Liberator, August 19, 1922, quoted in Arna Bontemps, Introduction to Cane (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), p. ix.

  7. The New Negro, ed. Alain Locke (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1925) and Four Negro Poets, ed. Alain Locke (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1927).

  8. At the time, Toomer's closest friend was Waldo Frank, to whom the last section of Cane, “Kabnis,” is dedicated. As Nathan Huggins points out, “Toomer differed in many ways from the other Harlem novelists: indeed, his artistic associations were really in Greenwich Village. But mainly he was self-consciously avant garde; no other Harlem writer was.” (Cited in Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1973, p. 180.) This is why Toomer probably felt more at home with writers such as Hart Crane, Kenneth Burke, and Gorham Munson, whom he knew from his association with the avant garde magazines, Broom and Succession. (See Malcolm Cowley, Exile's Return, W.W. Norton and Company, 1934.)

  9. “Outline of the Story of the Autobiography,” Book VII: “The Book of Death and Birth: 1920-1923,” n.d., Toomer Collection, Box 14, Folder 1, p. 59.

  10. Miscellaneous notes to “Earth-Being,” n.d., Toomer Collection, Box 19, Folder 3. In 1970, Marjorie Content Toomer said of her late husband, “Jean did not want to be classified white, black, anything. He thought it was time we all got together and considered ourselves human beings, and he simply refused to make these distinctions.” Quoted in Ann Allen Shockley, “Dedicated to Jean Toomer,” BANC!, II, 2, May 1972, p. i.

  11. “Outline of the Story of the Autobiography,” Box 14, Folder 1, p. 43.

  12. Bontemps, Introduction to Cane, p. viii.

  13. Toomer's father, Nathan, was known as a white man in the South and a black man in Washington, D.C. See Robert Bone, Down Home: A History of Afro-American Short Fiction from Its Beginning to the End of the Harlem Renaissance, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1975, p. 208.

  14. In The Mulatto in the United States, 1936, Edward Byron Reuter cites three books which call Pinchback a mulatto: Who's Who in Colored America, History of the Negro Race in America, by G.W. Williams, and The Facts of Reconstruction, by John R. Lynch. Richard Bardolph, The Negro Vanguard (New York: Vintage Books, 1959), calls Pinchback's mother, Eliza Stewart, “a very light mulatto.” Arna Bontemps, 100 Years of Negro Freedom (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1961), says Pinchback's father, Major William Pinchback, was a white painter from Mississippi, and his children by Eliza Stewart were “near-white.”

  15. Waldo Frank described Toomer as “lemon-colored” (Memoirs, p. 104); Arna Bontemps pictured him as “a man of fair complexion, indistinguishable from the majority of white Americans” (“The Negro Renaissance: Jean Toomer and the Harlem Writers of the 1920's,” in Anger and Beyond, ed. Herbert Hill, Harper and Row, 1968, p. 30); and Langston Hughes saw Toomer as “olive-skinned, … no more colored than white” (The Langston Hughes Reader, New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1958, p. 394). Good, full-page pictures of Toomer can be found on the cover of BANC!, II, 2, May 1972, and in Nine Modern Classics, ed. Barnet, Berman, and Burto, p. 350.

  16. In 1924, Toomer attended the Gurdjieff Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau, France.

  17. Another influence on Toomer was Quakerism. In the nineteen-thirties and forties, he wrote articles and lectured for the Society of Friends. He was particularly interested in the peace movement of the Quakers.

  18. Jean Toomer, “Blue Meridian,” in The New Caravan, Number 5, ed. Alfred Kreymborg, Lewis Mumford, and Paul Rosenfeld (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1936), pp. 633-53. Subsequent publication: The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1970, ed. Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970); Black Writers of America, ed. Richard Barksdale and Keneth Kinnamon (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972), and The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer, ed. Darwin Turner (Washington: Howard University Press, 1980).

    For discussion of “Blue Meridian,” see Frederik L. Rusch, “The Blue Man: Jean Toomer's Solution to His Problems of Identity,” Obsidian, Spring 1980; also Jean Wagner, Black Poets in the United States from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, trans. Kenneth Douglas (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973); also Bernard W. Bell, “Jean Toomer's ‘Blue Meridian’: The Poet as Prophet of a New Order of Man,” Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Summer 1980).

  19. Toomer Collection, Box 51, Folder 22. All subsequent page citations of “Monrovia” will appear in the text of this paper.

  20. Toomer Collection, Box 19, Folder 3.

  21. “From Exile into Being,” p. 8.

  22. “From Exile into Being.” On the title page of this MS, Toomer proposes two possible subtitles: “A Record of a Transforming Experience” and “A Record of New Birth.”

  23. “Chapters from Earth-Being,” p. 6.

  24. Earth-Being, p. 10.

  25. Earth-Being, p. 6.

  26. M. Esther Harding, The ‘I’ and the ‘Not-I’: A Study in the Development of Consciousness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), pp. 195-96.

  27. Earth-Being, p. 6.

  28. “Incredible Journey: Earth-Being,” n.d., Toomer Collection, Box 19, Folder 5, p. 6.

  29. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Cleveland and New York: World Publishing Company, 1966), pp. 30-31.

  30. “From Exile into Being,” pp. 4-5.

  31. One notable exception is Section 4 of “Winter on Earth.” In a mood somewhat similar to “Monrovia,” Section 4 tells of the White Islanders and their many legends, one of which “was the story of how a beautiful island girl had rescued from shipwreck a great prince of the mainland. They had fallen in love. When the prince departed, this girl, left with a broken heart, had lept” into the sea. The Second American Caravan: A Yearbook of American Literature, ed. Alfred Kreymborg, Lewis Mumford, Paul Rosenfeld (New York: The Macaulay Company, 1928), p. 705.

  32. Mircea Eliade, “The Yearning for Paradise in Primitive Tradition,” in Myth and Myth-making, ed. Henry A. Murray (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), p. 65.

Nellie Y. McKay (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: “Finding a Different Place: Cane (2),” in Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936, The University of North Carolina Press, 1984, pp. 125-50.

[In the following essay, McKay interprets the second section of Cane as an exploration of Toomer's urban experience in the North.]


After the violence and despair at the conclusion of “Blood-Burning Moon,” the narrator shifts the action from the rural South to the northern urban environment, and, in Section 2, he explores a new kind of black experience. Many factors contributed to the movement of large numbers of blacks to the North in the early part of the twentieth century, but the motives were always associated with improved economic, educational, and social status and a desire to escape the ignorance and violence of southern black life. The shift brought monumental changes, both negative and positive, to the black community. It also caused the irretrievable loss of many of the qualities of beauty and art that Jean Toomer would never have encountered had he not gone to Georgia in the fall of 1921.

When Toomer began to write about his Georgia experiences, he had no overreaching plan for the book that he eventually wrote. Had he had “more” to say about the experience, the book would have been different. This not being the case, however, he was forced to include pieces about life in the North, and for these he drew on his own experiences. Many of the places and events in his own life have been woven into the fiction of Section 2 of Cane.

In this part of the book, the artistic tension arises from the conflict between natural human impulses and the covert violence of the man-made urban environment. In the North, blacks struggle to establish an identity out of the remnants of their past and the values and ideals of their newly acquired home. Because race is a crucial factor, they will always be a separate group within the dominant culture, but survival demands the inculcation of new modes of thought and ideas as well as practical skills suited to city life. If the black folk culture is memorable because of its connections with qualities in the natural world that could not be wholly destroyed by racial oppression, then the black urban experience is memorable because it separated the people from the basic values of the folk culture. City life initiated black people into the world of Western culture, which, in its advanced stages of industrialization and mechanization, has become sterile, limiting, and destructive to the human spirit.

The organization of Section 2 of Cane is different in several ways from Section 1: There are only four full-fledged narratives and five poems here, but three prose poems in the section add a new form to the book. At the same time, the narratives are longer than the earlier ones, and they include more fully developed characters. In general, a language in concert with the sounds and vibrations of the city replaces the lyricism and images of nature. Ironically, the search for a larger life, which precipitated the exodus from the South, ended in new and different constrictions for the spirit of black people.

The section begins with “Seventh Street,” one of the prose poems. Compared with “Karintha,” which opened Section 1, it is strikingly opposite in tone, images, and resolution. Karintha was emotionally and psychologically destroyed by an environment that could not nurture her. The individuals in this new environment have long since lost the need for a gentle nurturing. Easy money, illegal activities, material goods, and the swift movement of city life have displaced nature and perfect beauty:

Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts,
Bootleggers in silken shirts,
Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs,
Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks.

(p. 39)

“Seventh Street is a bastard of Prohibition and the War,” proclaims the narrator (p. 39). Seventh Street, Washington, D.C., is one of the new homes of the former rural people in their flight from death and oppression. A shortage of labor in the North, because of World War I, is one incentive for the Great Migration. Untrained and unskilled for city work, the innocent, hopeful seekers soon discover that “only whites need apply” for what jobs there are. Exclusionary politics is not peculiar to the South, and most doors to economic and social advancement are just as closed to blacks in the North. The resourcefulness of generations of learning how to survive comes to the rescue. Prohibition gives them a chance to turn their moonshining expertise into an even more lucrative endeavor than it had been “down home,” with the advantages that the work is not tedious, the hours are flexible, and the pay is very good.

The black presence makes an impact on the city. The folk bring a dynamic strength with them from the South, and the “crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger-life,” with a pragmatic approach to the problems of strain and stress, breathes “jazz songs and love, … [and] unconscious rhythms … into the white and white-washed wood of [culturally repressed] Washington” (p. 39). The city will never be the same again. Color—literally and figuratively—has come to it, bringing new life in its wake.

This new life, new blood—strong and potent, black reddish blood, aggressive and pregnant with the will to live—forces its way into the “stale, soggy wood of Washington.” It is too strong for some: “Blood suckers of the War would spin in a frenzy of dizziness if they drank [it]” (p. 39). Others would like to stop its flow: “Prohibition would put a stop to it,” but it will not be deterred. Instead, it will absorb everything along the route of its flow, and the narrator, in mock wonder, and sarcastic about the “white and whitewash” that it devastates, asks where it gained the power that propels it “down the smooth asphalt of Seventh Street, … [from] shanties [of black people], [into] brick office buildings, theaters, drug stores, restaurants [of white people], and [back to the] cabarets [of black people]? Eddying on the corners? Swirling like a blood-red smoke up where the buzzards fly in heaven?” (p. 39). Even God does not escape its challenge or the narrator's satiric comment: “God would not dare to suck black red blood,” not unless he is a “Nigger God!” “Who set you flowing?” the narrator asks.

There are no delicate sensibilities here, no sunsets and dusky colors; there is aggressive force that cannot be ignored. The flow of this life-giving blood is associated with violence, and all the imagery of “Seventh Street” reenforces that concept. From the blood and ashes of so many Tom Burwells, phoenix-like, a new people have begun to rise.

“Seventh Street” is an extended metaphor for the black life that entered the city at a particular time in history. The prose poem captures the irony and pathos of that entry. The bastard of prohibition and the war, Seventh Street is a “natural” child, denied a name, and with no legal claims upon its sire: it is an offspring of the failure of America and the West. Robbed of its rightful heritage and forced to be an abused slave in the household of its father's other children, in righteous anger it comes to claim its place in that father's house. Nor does it come meekly, beseeching charity, or love, or justice at the back door. It enters forcibly, tearing at and splitting the portals.

“Seventh Street” exudes the energy and determination of the black people who left the oppression of the South, those who did not share the fates of Karintha, or Esther, or Louisa. Beyond disillusionment and hurt, separated from the land and soil of two pasts, they know they can return to neither. Rather, they face the challenges of a different place, resistant to them, too, with the aggressiveness and resourcefulness that do not easily concede defeat, even against awesome odds. The irony of their existence and the pathos of their condition are balanced by their ability to take a practical approach to the needs of survival. They transcend insurmountable hardships through the creativity of poetry and music.

From the initial shocks of new confrontations and difficulties, the folk people make adjustments to urban life and discover new meanings for themselves in its seductions and rewards. “Rhobert,” the second prose poem of the section, explores how “Seventh Street,” blinded by the dazzling aspects of an improved condition of life and inexperienced in appraising its true merits, loses its soul in the mire of modern urban life. Like the Israelites in bondage in Babylon, these people too forget the songs of their fathers in this strange land.

Rhobert's sense of values, in his new life, is the issue. Material goods and social conventions have become his main concerns, and they cause a moral disfigurement in him. His present condition—entrapment by the physical and mental accoutrements of his social status—is analagous to the physical deformity of his “banty-bowed” legs, which he has as a result of having had rickets as a child. The narrator is not unsympathetic to Rhobert's plight. The experiences of deprivation in early life leave Rhobert vulnerable to a distorted sense of values.

Rhobert and his house are inseparable. He is the “stuffing” of the house—the dead thing stuffed with the living man.

Rhobert wears a house, like a monstrous diver's helmet, on his head. … Rods of the house like antennae of a dead thing, stuffed, prop up in the air. … He is sinking as a diver would sink in mud should the water be drawn off. … Life is a murky, wiggling, microscopic water that compresses him. Compresses his helmet and would crush it the minute that he pulled his head out.

(p. 40)

Rhobert's preoccupation with his “house” causes him to lose his perspective on what constitutes the important things in life, such as relationships with people. Nor is he even aware of this problem. Instead, he sinks happily into the mud of his disfigurement: “And he cares not two straws as to whether or not he will ever see his wife and children again. Many a time he's seen them drown in his dreams and has kicked about joyously in the mud for days after” (p. 40). Although he holds him up to ridicule, the narrator does not dismiss the seriousness of Rhobert's case. The narrator exhorts the reader not to forget Rhobert's fate after he sinks from sight and suggests that a “monument of hewn oak, carved in nigger-heads” be placed on the spot where he goes down and that the tragedy be commemorated by the singing of the folk song/dirge “Deep River.”

In “Seventh Street” and “Rhobert,” Jean Toomer again demonstrates his ability to manipulate language and to control stylistic techniques. Satire, sarcasm, and ridicule are the principal literary tools he uses to explore the violence, ambiguities, and uncertainties of life in the North for southern black people. They have escaped the more overt oppression of one region for the more covert and psychological oppression of another.

Human disease and physiological defects enter Cane for the first time in “Rhobert” and will reappear later in this section of the book. Always, these are symbols of greater psychic damage in the victim. The energies and possibilities of “Seventh Street” are often subverted and perverted by the attractions and distractions of a repressive world.

“Seventh Street” and “Rhobert” are full of violence, but in the first sketch, the violence represents the infusion of life into something dead, the creative violence that enhances human freedom. In the second sketch, the violence represents decay. In “Rhobert,” Toomer also changes the meanings of images to explode their familiar significations. In “Rhobert,” “microscopic” water crushes Rhobert, and mud-dreams drown him; the house, the dead thing, has the live man for stuffing; and Rhobert is an “upright” man with banty-bowed rickets legs, whom people call a strong man. The loss of human values does violence to the human being. Rhobert's values “weigh” him down so that he cannot escape drowning. The “antennae,” which should warn him of impending danger, are imminently waiting to “cave in and [cause his] stuffing [to] be strewn … shredded.” His Adam's apple “strains” as he fights to hold on to life by breathing and fights to let go of it simultaneously.

Finally, the narrator satirically presents God as a Red Cross man. He built the house and waits on the “opposite periphery” of earth and heaven with a dredge and a respiration pump to rescue Rhobert, who obeyed him by becoming the stuffing for the house. Thus, the figure most associated with helping human beings creates the calamity rather than relieves it. Extensive use of word play and double meanings reenforces the themes that reveal Rhobert as both a grotesque and a pathetic figure. “Rhobert” warns of the tragic consequences of misplaced values.

“Calling Jesus,” the third and final prose poem, extends and elaborates on the meaning of “Rhobert.” It features a black woman who has lost sight of her soul. The soul, a “little thrust-tailed dog,” follows her around constantly during the daytime. She ignores it except in periods when she forgets the routine of the life that occupies her most constantly. In such moods, she changes: “Her breath comes sweet as honeysuckle whose pistils bear the life of coming song” (p. 55), and the fractured parts of her merge into wholeness. At other times, at nights, she leaves the soul in the vestibule of the building in which she lives, exposed to the cold. Kindly people rescue it and often take it to her as she sleeps.

For all of this gross neglect, the soul never deserts her. Each day it follows her around, both where the streets are lined with blooming trees and where there is only dusty asphalt. It embodies the remembrances of southern cane and cotton, of shanties where the folk sang and loved, thoughts forcing life in an enervating environment. “Calling Jesus” speaks to the loss of the spiritual aspects of the soul of the folk culture in the urban environment. The images are restraining and antihuman: storm doors, iron hinges, vestibules, and dusty asphalt. But the positive values of the folk heritage are never completely extinguished and can be revived whenever the effort is made.

The religious imagery makes this piece close in tone to the Georgia narratives. The narrator pleads for the renewal of values associated with the rural culture by emphasizing their redemptive qualities in comparison with the negative influences of the urban environment. The folk spirit waits to be “cradled in dream-fluted cane” (p. 55).

The five poems of Section 2 reflect the themes of the prose poems and narratives of the section, providing further insight into the narrator's vision of black urban life. “Beehive,” “Storm Ending,” and “Her Lips Are Copper Wires” are closely connected to the three prose poems. They are all concerned with the initiation of black people into a new environment and with their experience with a new system of values. The final poems of Section 2 extend the narrator's sense of disillusionment that is illustrated in the narratives.

“Beehive” compares the black community with a black beehive at night, and recalls the energy of “Seventh Street.” As black people break into the whiteness of Washington, so the bees, swarming and buzzing intently, pass in and out of the pale moon. This is productive energy, and the “silver honey [comes] dripping from the swarm of bees” (p. 48).

The poet, on the other hand, calls himself “a drone, / Lying on my back, / Lipping honey, / Getting drunk.” He places himself in the position of an observer of the activity as one who participates in its rewards without having contributed to its making. As the narrator of Cane, he recognizes the richness of the culture and is satiated with it. Anticipating the frustrations and pessimism that will follow, he wishes he could return and remain in an earlier time when life was easier and more innocent.

“Storm Ending” advances the action of the previous poem through an analysis of how external violence makes inroads into a vulnerable culture. No longer hiving bees, black people become “Full-lipped flowers / Bitten by the sun / Bleeding rain.” In a reversal of the positive qualities of nature, both the rain and the sun have become hostile and are the perpetrators of pain. The flowers, great, hollow, and bell-like, are offspring of the storm that “thunders” them “gorgeously” and has them “rumbling in the wind.” The poem emphasizes the clash between beauty and destruction, as the life of the flowers, which had once been like honey, drips away. “Storm Ending” comments on the loss of the positive aspects of the rural culture and on the rise of urban ugliness as “the sweet earth” flies from “the thunder” (p. 49).

In the third poem, “Her Lips Are Copper Wires,” the narrator as persona is more intimately involved with the culture and addresses it as an agent providing love and care. Earlier values now rejected, this poem is a companion piece to “Rhobert” and “Calling Jesus,” and what is important to the speaker is what he sees. He concentrates on the mechanistic attributes of his object of affection: the gleam of yellow globes of which she whispers, the instant contact with the “power-house,” and the flashy billboards. Like Rhobert, he welcomes and craves the attentions of the automaton whose lips he wants pressed to his own until they become as bright and glowing as hers. The poem satirizes the adoption of the values of the mechanized, industrial world.

These poems move from that which has been positive—if not “good”—to that which is negative. The writer maintains a tension throughout the poems that comes from his awareness that the victims of the violence of the Georgia scenes are losing the values that were the most important strengths of their earlier experience.

“Avey” is the first realistic narrative in Section 2 of the book. Here the storyteller recalls events from his childhood and young adulthood, which can also be seen metaphorically in relationship to his search for a cultural identity. Avey, as Woman, was at the center of the life and thought of his boyhood and that of his young companions from their first sexual awakenings until they became young men. They pursue her, angrily at times, always lustfully, and she mostly ignores their advances. In many ways, her behavior recalls that of Fern, the unreachable woman, for whom boys and men compete and never understand why they are motivated to do so.

On this literal level, Avey is another woman in a world in which men define women sexually. Because she does not conform to their expectations of her, they become anxious, frustrated, and even violent toward her. One way of reading the end of the story is to see her, in her rejection of a male-defined womanhood, as a woman in control of her selfhood.

On a more symbolic level, Avey represents the creative elements of the black folk culture that were brought to the North. The narrator and his friends are the urban black people who recognize the culture's values but who exploit them for self-serving purposes that do not enhance or enrich themselves or others. The four episodes of this account take place in Washington, D.C., and Harpers Ferry.

In the first, in Washington, we meet the narrator and a group of his friends holding a curbside conclave. They are at that stage in adolescence at which they realize that girls are “more … than … skirted beings whom boys at a certain age disdain to play with” (p. 42). It is also a time in a sensitive person's life when he compares himself with inanimate things. For instance, the narrator feels a similarity between himself and the young trees lining his street, which have not yet “outgrown their boxes.” He thinks their vigorous roots, in their box confinement, must feel as his own legs do when he sits on the curb for a long time and they grow cramped and stiff from the cold stone. One of the group's favorite pastimes is to hack the trees with their knives. He believes that the trees are as restless as the boys and “whinnied to be free.”

The narrative begins on the night when Ned, the one of the group most superior in his “smutty wisdom” on the “emotional needs of girls,” wore his first long pants. The event also marks the narrator's first awareness of his sexuality. The boys discuss Avey, who at the time is visiting with an out-of-town college man in the apartment building before which they are congregated. While the others are purely aggressive in their sexual fantasies of her and plan to “stone and beat that feller out of town,” the narrator realizes he has come to “love her, timidly, and with secret blushes,” and Ned's bawdy boasts cause “something like a fuse” to burn up inside him (p. 42).

The curbside session reveals the activities of a group of adolescent boys straining at the boundaries that separate childhood from adulthood. The recognition of male and female sexuality is a hallmark of this period of development. The physical violence of the knife-hacking of the young trees is a mirror image of the pent-up psychological violence that they release mainly through language. The talk of girls as “skirted beings,” the boys' chagrin at Avey's attentions to the man from out-of-town, Ned's boasts of sexual conquests and his appraisal of women's needs—“they werent much different from men in that respect. … ‘It does em good’”—and his impatience to have Avey for himself: “hell, bet I could get her too if you little niggers weren't always spying and crabbing everything,” are examples of this psychological distress.

Avey's cool aloofness is in marked contrast to the anxieties and frustration of the boys. Her evening with the young man over, she leaves the building “as unconcerned as if she had been paying an old-maid aunt a visit” (p. 42). The play on sexual images continues as the narrator “turned hot as bare pavements in the summertime” when she passes by. She ignores the group, seeming not to see them, while they watch her until she enters her own door. In their newfound sexual awareness, they see her only within the confines of their sexual fantasies. They even predict that she will soon leave home to marry someone. Ironically, when the gang breaks up, it is the narrator who “went home, [and] pictured [himself] married.”

The second episode, still in Washington, begins with the narrator's lament: “Nothing I did seemed able to change Avey's indifference to me” (p. 43). The adolescent boys are seriously competing against each other for her attentions. Each excels in sports—the narrator in basketball and swimming—and each hopes his accomplishments will cause her to take a special notice of him. Avey is polite and impartial toward them, but she does not give approval to their rivalry by acknowledging it.

Her attitude produces great frustration in the young men. They seem forever searching for ways to please her sufficiently to earn her attention, but they do not know how to do so. She strains their patience when their efforts to “buy” her favors by spending their money on her bring no results. The socially prescribed routes to success, especially in the world of men—perseverance, competition, sports, and the power and politics of money—are no match for Avey's indifference: “I'd meet her on the street, and there'd be no difference in the way she said hello. She never took the trouble to call me by my name. On the days for drill, I'd … call for a complicated maneuver when I saw her coming. She'd smile appreciation, but it was an impersonal smile, never for me” (p. 43).

When the narrator finally gets Avey alone, he is with her on the dance floor of a boat on the Potomac. A good dancer himself, he believes that this is his perfect opportunity to conquer the elusive maiden. But his hopes do not materialize: “although I held her tightly in my arms, she was way away.” Then, as they sit on the deck of the boat in the moonlight, she takes him in her arms, but surprisingly in a manner that is humiliating to him:

I could feel by the touch of it that it wasnt a man-to-woman love. … I felt chagrined. … She ran her fingers through my hair and kissed my forehead. I itched to break through her tenderness to passion. … I wanted her to love me passionately. … I gave her one burning kiss. Then she laid me on her lap as if I were a child. Helpless, I got sore when she started to hum a lullaby.

(pp. 43-44)

He has pursued her unsuccessfully for years, but when she claims him, she does so on her own terms and in a way that leaves her in control. Like the male figure in “Fern,” he decides to reorder the balance of power by talking: “I knew damned well that I could beat her at that.” But his tactic does not succeed: “Her eyes were soft and misty, the curves of her lips were wistful, and her smile seemed indulgent of the irrelevance of my remarks. I gave up at last and let her love me, silently, in her own way” (p. 44). At the end of the second episode of “Avey,” the attempts of the men to entrap Avey within their vision of her have failed, and the narrator is confused and ambivalent about himself and her.

The third episode moves the action up one year, takes it out of Washington, and places it in Harpers Ferry. Overt sexual imagery dominates the scene. The narrator and Avey are sitting on a “projecting” rock called Lover's Leap. The river is six hundred feet below, and the whistle and echo of the engines of the train in the valley sound like gasps and sobs to him. He thinks of them as “crude music from the soul of Avey.” They hold hands, and he wants to make love to her. He kisses her and fondles her breasts. She sits with him on the rock for many evenings. He worries about her reputation, but she seems impervious to the possibilities for scandal. He thinks it would be easy for him to have his way with her, to “strip” her “like a tree.” However, when his passion flares, Avey takes his hand and holds it until his “pulse cooled down.” She never loses her control over her actions and does not allow him to dominate or manipulate her.

Avey's uncompromising behavior produces conflicts within the man's feelings for her. The narrator, even as he presses his suit, is ambivalent about her. He finds other areas of her life about which he can be negatively critical. He is particularly piqued at her lack of “ambition” for the future, which he measures against his own desires to go to college and achieve “success.” Her lesser goals permit her to accept employment at a normal school. He “resented … her downright laziness. Sloppy indolence.” He thinks she is no better than a cow and is certain she is one when later he feels an udder of a cow in a stock-judging class at the University of Wisconsin.

At the university, “among those energetic Swedes,” the narrator makes up his mind to forget Avey altogether. He does not see her for two years, and they never correspond, a fact that he blames on her “laziness.” Yet, at the university, he discovers that the women whom he meets, who give themselves to him “completely,” do not excite the passion in him that he had experienced in just holding Avey's hands. Neither time, distance, nor physical absence lessens her attractions for him, and he remains frustrated over her. He cannot have her in the way he wants, he tries to reject her, but he cannot forget her.

The episode concludes on a discordant note. The narrator, having failed to “succeed” at the university, leaves it for “good” without accomplishing anything. He returns to Washington hoping, for his own peace of mind, that the city has “forgotten” Avey. To his discomfiture, Ned, “between curses” of outrage at his failure to “have” her, declares “she was no better than a whore.” For himself, he decides that she is irremediably intractable because her mother is an “old pinch-beck, jerky-gaited creature.” Only Avey is in calm control. When she loses her teaching position, she sends the narrator a note in a perfumed envelope. Years later he remarks that he has never forgotten its faint smell.

The concluding episode, which takes place five years later in Washington, comes after a period in which the narrator has experienced many unfulfilled expectations. His high hopes for himself, beginning with the promise of a university education, have ended in his admission that “the business of hunting a job or something or other had bruised … [his] vanity so that … [he] could not recognize it” (p. 45). In this condition of collapsed ego, his soul yearns for Avey desperately. Hearing that she has moved to New York, and having no money to travel there in a conventional way, he hitchhikes and works in a shipyard on the way to the city. At nights, he searches the streets for her, but without success. Feeling more defeat and failure, he returns to Washington and unexpectedly encounters her on a street there. It is an evening in June, at the “time when dusk is most lovely on the eastern horizon,” and her eyes “were still sleepy-large, and beautiful” as he remembered them from years before. She was walking with a man, and her dress seemed fine and costly, but she readily left her companion to join the pining narrator.

He takes her to the park overlooking the city, holds her hand in his, and recounts his life during the period in which he has not seen her. He also tries to tell her that his earlier perceptions of her have changed:

I traced my development from the early days up to the present time, the phase in which I could understand her. I described her own nature and temperament. Told how they needed a larger life for their expression. … I pointed out that in lieu of proper channels, her emotions had overflowed into paths that dissipated them. I talked … about an art that would be born, an art that would open the way for women the likes of her. … I recited some of my own things. … I sang a promise-song.

(p. 46)

At this point the narrator believes that he has achieved a new level of awareness in relationship to Avey, a spiritual instead of a physical union. He is so pleased with himself that he fails to note, until hours later, that she does not respond to him, not even to the “strange quiver” in his voice: “her hand had not once returned a single pressure.” Then he discovers that she has fallen asleep. His passion dies.

Not wishing to disturb her, and unable to leave her alone in the park, he borrows a blanket from a neighbor close by, covers her, then sits with her through the night even though his body grows numb with the cold. In the faint light of morning “the Capitol dome looked like a gray ghost ship drifting in from sea. Avey's face was pale, and her eyes were heavy. She did not have the gray crimson-splashed beauty of the dawn. I hated to wake her. Orphan-woman” (p. 47). He loses his vision of Avey as a creative force.

“Avey” represents another attempt in the narrator's search for cultural identity. In this narrative, as in others, Toomer uses black women to symbolize aspects of black culture. Avey has the same sensuousness as the women in the Georgia narratives, and she is as elusive as they are. The narrator and his friends, black people removed from the land and soil of the past, find their efforts frustrated when they attempt to appropriate elements of the culture for their own self-serving ends.

Of all those proffered by the others, the narrator's attentions are the only ones that Avey encourages. From the beginning, he has feelings for her that go beyond the immediate gratification his friends are seeking at her expense. He does not try to buy her favors, and it is he with whom she dances and sits on the deck of the boat in the moonlight. She tries to nurture him. Nature enters the second section of Cane for the first time when he gives himself up to her ministrations in the second episode of “Avey.” Then the “air was sweet like clover, and every now and then” one could sense “a salt tang, a stale drift of sea-weed” (p. 44).

For five years he tries to find a place in the world and hopes to forget his past. He attends the university and has a variety of jobs, but his efforts fail. Then he experiences a new magnetic pull toward his first love, who represents that early part of himself. Before he finds Avey, he feels alienation and a diminishing of self: “I felt old,” he notes, and he knows that he wants to see her. He walks and works in search of her, and when she reveals herself to him, having been there all along, images of nature return to the narrative. The place to which he takes her recalls the nature imagery and innocence of “Karintha.” In this place one can find “the simple beauty of another's soul. Robins spring about the lawn all day. They leave their footprints in the grass. … the grass at night smells sweet and fresh because of them. … Washington … [is] a blush against the darkened sky. … And when the wind is from the South, soil of my homeland falls like a fertile shower upon the lean streets of the city” (p. 46).

In the park, he perceives the beauty, simplicity, and fecundity of the pastoral in his southern heritage, while in the sterility of the city, which he associates with the North, the narrator is in the presence of the Janus-face that is his reality. In a building in the distance, a band plays in a jarring key—“like a tin spoon in one's mouth,” he observes. Close to Avey, in harmony with the folk spirit, he wishes to hear instead the Howard Glee Club singing “Deep River, Deep River.” Avey accepts his mood. She slips her hand into his and rests comfortably against his arm. She kisses his hand in a gesture that indicates her need for his nurturing, then like a secure child, she falls asleep.

Avey cannot participate in his exuberance as he reiterates his hopes because she is the past, her day is done, and he goes on into the future. All he can do is to sit up in the cold night while she sleeps and cover her with a blanket. The scene represents the wake he holds for her waning soul, for in the new day the gray ghost ship of the modern industrial world renders her obsolescent. In “Avey,” the narrator discovers more about the truth of his identity and the past.

In “Theater,” the second narrative in this section of Cane, Toomer uses the divisive effects of class distinctions among black people to continue to explore the negative results of unnatural social restraints. Uneven opportunities were responsible for promoting this particular problem within the black community in post-Civil War America. In “Theater,” the narrator skillfully addresses the question of what happens to human closeness when it is punctured by social-class divisions.

The setting is the Howard Theater in Washington, the performing center for Howard University. Instead of projecting the image of the university as an arm of Western education for the “civilizing” of black people, the introduction to the theater emphasizes its closeness to “Seventh Street,” to the cruder life of the black southern soul:

Life of nigger alleys, of pool rooms and restaurants and near-beer saloons soaks into the walls of Howard Theater and sets them throbbing jazz songs. Black-skinned, they dance and shout above the tick and trill of white-walled buildings. At night they open doors to people who come in to stamp their feet and shout. … Songs soak the walls and seep out.”


Left to themselves, the walls are “sleeping singers.”

At the center of the action are John, a writer and a brother of the manager of the theater, and Dorris, a woman who dances in the chorus. John is the victim of his social position, and like Rhobert, he is sinking into the mud of his respectability. Dorris, like Etty Beal, is a dancer and an artist; neither is thought respectable by the black middle class. It is afternoon and the dancers have assembled for a rehearsal. John, who comes to watch, sits at the center of the theater, where the light from the window above streams down on him, casting one side of his face in brightness and the other in shadows. The external separation of light and dark is an expression of his real self. On one hand, he embodies the living elements of his cultural heritage, because his presence has the ability to cause the walls to “start throbbing with a subtle syncopation … [as] the space-dark grows softly luminous”; and on the other, he is entrapped by his social status. His thoughts are the light on his face, but his actions are the shadows.

As the rehearsal gets underway, John is aware of the tension between the free artistic expression that many of the dancers possess and the efforts of the director to keep it in control. The walls awaken when the pianist begins to improvise jazz. As the girls in the chorus begin to dance, he notes that their movements are partly crude, partly individualized, yet monotonous. In his mind he urges them to break free of the director's control before they are tamed and their “sharp thrusts” made “blunt … in loosely suggestive movements, appropriate to Broadway” (p. 50). They laugh and shout as they “sing discordant snatches of other jazz songs,” and they “whirl with loose passion.” The mood of the room is hypnotic: “Girls dance and sing. Men clap. The walls sing and press inward. They press the men and girls, they press John towards a center of ecstasy” (p. 51).

One dancer, more impressive than the others, catches his attention. As John and Dorris become aware of their mutual attraction, they also become conscious that a formidable social distance separates them. Dorris takes John's measure and senses his ambivalence, but her own “glowing is too rich a thing to let her feel the slimness of his diluted passion.” He takes in the potential he sees in her body: “Her hair, crisp-curled, is bobbed. Bushy, black hair bobbing about her lemon-colored face. Her lips are curiously full, and very red. Her limbs in purple stockings are lovely. John feels them. Desires her. Holds off” (p. 51). Ideas of a cheap affair with her run through his mind. He dismisses them. He could not trick her into it because “her suspicion [of his motives] would be stronger than her passion.” She thinks that perhaps she should settle for an affair as a way of establishing a relationship with him. Then she would make him love her. At least, she would get a pair of silk stockings out of it. She dismisses the thought: “O will you love me? And give me kids and a home, and everything? (I'd like to make your nest, and honest, hon, I wouldn't run out on you)” (p. 52). She decides to win him with her dance.

As she begins, all attention flows to her and her sense of freedom is contagious. The stage men from the wings come out to watch the show. All around, black faces crowd in to see. The other dancers forget their set steps and make up their own, and even the director forgets his role and allows this outburst of expression. Dorris dances: “Glorious songs are the muscles of her limbs. And her singing is of canebrake loves and mangrove feastings. The walls press in, singing. Flesh of a throbbing body, they press close to John and Dorris. … John's heart beats tensely against her dancing body” (p. 53).

While Dorris dances, John dreams, transporting them both in his imagination beyond the concrete reality of the theater. He sees Dorris dressed in a loose-fitting black gown with lemon-colored ribbons splashed over it. Still in his reverie, he walks toward the stage door, and although there are no trees in the alley, he imagines that he is walking on often danced-upon autumn leaves and that the air smells of roasting chestnuts and burning old leaves. Dorris's face is the color of the autumn-tinted alley, and her perfume is of old flowers or a southern cane field. He walks into a room: “John knows nothing of it. Only, that the flesh and blood of Dorris are its walls. Singing walls” (p. 53). He reads from his own manuscript. When he arrives at a dancing scene, “the scene is Dorris. She dances. Dorris dances. Glorious Dorris” (p. 53).

Reality intrudes on John's dream when the pianist crashes a bumper chord to signal the end of the dance on the stage. The live performance was magnificent, and everyone applauds. Dorris looks to John hoping to discover that she has reached him, that the passion she feels in her soul will be reciprocated. “She seeks for her dance in [his face].” What she sees is his whole face in shadow. “She finds it a dead thing in the shadow which is his dream.” Overcome with disappointment, she rushes to her dressing room, and through her tears stares at the whitewashed ceiling with the “smell of dry paste, and paint, and soiled clothing.”

Although John has the ability to inspire artistic expression in himself and others, his life denies it. His identity—imaginative writer, on one hand, and stage manager's brother, on the other—is one of conflict. Dorris tries to save him, but fails. The separation of these two people by artificial standards of class shows how repressive conventions of modern society stifle humanity.

With another cast of characters, and a different set of circumstances, Toomer relentlessly pursues the subject of Western civilization's restrictive codes in conflict with the natural free spirit of human beings, and he shows the enormous toll the former exacts from the latter. Black people—cultural outsiders, still bearing remnants of their past, but anxious to assimilate into the mainstream—are the latest victims. In the third narrative, “Box Seat,” Toomer combines the boxes of the young trees of “Avey” with the seats in “Theater” to create a powerful narrative of victimization.

The opening image—“Houses are shy girls whose eyes shine reticently upon the dusk body of the street. Upon the gleaming limbs and asphalt torso of a dreaming nigger”—sets up the dichotomy between the woman in a condition of repression and the man as a free spirit, a dreamer, a poet. Dan Moore, unlike John, the dreamer in “Theater,” has no social position to protect. Born in a cane field, he is only a poor black man out of work, but he is a natural singer. He comes to people's houses as a savior, urged by the narrator to “stir the root-life of a withered people. Call them from their houses, and teach them to dream” (p. 56). The images of the houses are analogous to those that describe Rhobert's house, and Dan Moore's mission is to set the “house-girls” free.

Dan walks down chestnut-lined Thirteenth Street, where the eyes of the houses, like “soft girl-eyes,” touch him faintly as he passes and stir him. He wants to sing, to make music. However, when he tries to do so, he cannot. His voice is hoarse and it cracks. He tries to whistle, but the notes are shrill. Something in the houses keeps him from expressing himself. He concentrates on the woman he is on his way to visit: Muriel, whose “lips [are] flesh-notes of a forgotten song” he hopes he will recall.

Two images are prominent in this introduction to “Box Seat”—the flesh-and-blood remnant of the folk culture, around whom cling the vestiges of nature, and the repressed culture of the “lean, white spring,” which makes the notes hurt Dan Moore when he tries to sing. Black women trapped in the “houses” of this culture look “wistfully over the dusk body.” They are still beautiful in spite of their predicament, and he wants to produce a tune “in keeping with … [their] loveliness” (p. 56).

Images of nature recede when Dan enters a side street, and in the repressive environment of an iron gate and a doorbell he cannot find, his poetic demeanor undergoes a metamorphosis. Before this point, the houses had looked shyly but invitingly at him; he now wonders if he looks like someone trying to break in. He responds violently to this idea, his thoughts racing through an imagined attack on him and his retaliation:

Break in. Get an axe and smash in. Smash in their faces. I'll show em. Break into an engine house, steal a thousand horsepower fire truck. Smash in with the truck. I'll show em. Grab an axe and brain em. Cut em up. Jack the Ripper. Baboon from the zoo. And then the cops come. “No, I aint a baboon. I aint Jack the Ripper. … Give me your fingers and I will peel them as if they were ripe bananas.”

(p. 56)

He knocks many times on the thick glass door before anyone comes to let him in.

Muriel lives in a house that is owned by Mrs. Pribby, who finally lets him in. Everything about Mrs. Pribby is associated with the coldness and impersonality of a mechanized world. Dan hates her. She has blue eyes: “the blue is steel,” which “gimlets” him as her mouth “flaps amiable” to him. She fits into her chair with a sharp metallic click, “like the sound of a bolt being shot into place,” which stings his eyes. The house, “sharp-edged, massed metallic,” contracts around him. Mrs. Pribby's house is one in a row of houses bolted down, belonging to other Mrs. Pribbys. All the houses are like close-fitting boxes of steel into which people are bolted, and they, in turn, become a part of them. Dan realizes that was why he could not sing to them. He wonders why Muriel persists in living there.

Muriel is a schoolteacher, and like John in “Theater,” she is concerned about the respectability of her profession. While Dan's behavior is openly passionate toward her, although she loves him, she resorts to subterfuge in her conversations with him. She wishes she could love him openly, but she knows she will not violate the social codes of her world.

Although Muriel “clicks” into her chair, there is still a “fresh fragrant something” that is “life” in her face. She is uncertain of herself and feels torn between loyalties to Dan Moore's and Mrs. Pribby's worlds. When Dan looks at her, “her animalism, still unconquered by zoo-restrictions and keeper-taboos, stirs him. Passion tilts upward, bringing with it the elements of an old desire. Muriel's lips become the flesh notes of a futile, plaintive longing” (p. 59). Dan's visit to Muriel is unrewarding to him. The environment of Mrs. Pribby's house prohibits the common meeting of their souls. Although Muriel feels passion for him, she will not let herself be influenced by her feelings. He is angry when he leaves.

The scene shifts from Mrs. Pribby's steel-like, bolted-down house to the Lincoln Theater. Dan and Muriel arrive separately to attend a performance. Here the seats are literally bolted down, and “each [person in a seat] is a bolt that shoots into a slot, and is locked there. … The seats are slots. The seats are bolted houses” (p. 61).

In the theater, images of disharmony reflect the public discord of a repressed world and the private conflicts in the world of Dan and Muriel. Muriel's friend, Bernice, is “a cross between a washerwoman and a blue-blood lady.” Muriel herself wears an orange dress that clashes with the crimson draperies of her box, which clash with the “sweet rose smile her face is bathed in.” The orange of her dress complements the deep purple that comes from her hair, but she hides the dress beneath her coat, which she presses around her to hide her bobbed hair. Teachers are not supposed to have bobbed hair. The audience seems to Muriel like a dense mass, which she would like to protect herself from. She finds the thought ridiculous—these people are her friends; she is pressed down by agitation from her earlier meeting with Dan.

In the meantime, Dan takes his seat next to a “portly” black woman and he begins to dream:

A soil-soaked fragrance comes from her. Through the cement floor her strong roots sink down. They spread under the asphalt streets. Dreaming, the streets roll over on their bellies, and suck their glassy health from them. Her strong roots sink down and spread under the river and disappear in blood-lines that waver south. Her roots shoot down. Dan's hands follow them. Roots throb. Dan's heart beats violently. He places his palms upon the earth to cool them. Earth throbs.

(p. 62)

But things are not what they seem to Dan. He wakens from his dream to find the woman surveying him with hostile eyes, not the ones of his deep-roots inspiration. From the surrounding aisles, the bolted masses of people press in on him as Mrs. Pribby's house did—these withered people who have lost the ability to dream, to live.

Bored by the performance, Dan dreams of Muriel's intransigence and his own slavery to her. His thoughts are a jumble of fragments: of a dancer not bound by social conventions, whom he once knew; of relationships between men and women; of the slave past; of great historical figures; and of literary persons. He thinks of himself and his mission. He will reach up and “grab the girders of the building and pull them down” (p. 65). From the debris he will rise with the symbols of power in his hands: a dynamo in one and the face of a black god with a flashing light in the other. The flashing light of his fantasy is a flashing mirror held by a performing dwarf, which beams directly into Dan's face.

While Dan is dreaming, the show, an absurd boxing match between two dwarfs contending for the heavyweight championship of the world, entertains the audience. The winner sings to Muriel and offers her a white rose stained with the blood from his bleeding nose. She recoils from the gift as the applause of the crowd, “steel fingers that manacle her wrists and move them forward,” forces her to accept. Muriel sees only the disfigurement of the little man, but Dan, looking into his eyes, sees “wisdom and tenderness … suffering and beauty.” He sees eyes that plead for acceptance.

Dan Moore is out of place in this crowd and his very presence disturbs it. He shouts in language that is unintelligible when he should be silent, and he causes physical discomfort to those around him. He is an actively disruptive element in a setting in which his conduct flouts the rules of prescribed behavior. When he leaves the theater, he challenges a man, whose corns he has stepped on for the second time, to a fight. Then, out in the alley, with the audience following, and where “the alley-air is thick and moist with smells of garbage and wet trash,” he walks away (p. 67).

The conflict in the narrative is between the heritage of the folk culture and the new way of life adopted by black people who have rejected the old values. Dan Moore, with his “curled wool-blossoms” and his hard dusk body, symbolizes a remnant of the former, while Muriel represents the new, urban, class-conscious black people. Muriel both loves and fears Dan, but she cannot give up her new position and status to return to him. Dan goes in search of Muriel, but the incompatibility between his world and hers makes it impossible for him to compromise. Muriel tries to get him to change his ways—to “get a job and settle down, … to work more and think less … [which is] the best way to get along.” He cannot do this because he is a poet, a free spirit.

The narrative begins along a chestnut-lined street, moves through an iron gate, and ends in an alley with rotting garbage. Dan experiences only discomfort after leaving the street, and he makes everyone uncomfortable. Only in the dwarf, a misfit in the world, does he find empathy. As he leaves, the soft girl-eyes of the houses blink out, and the values of the folk heritage turn away from the treeless alley of the modern world.

Although the specter of racism is at the heart of Cane, overt violent racial confrontation occurs only in “Blood-Burning Moon.” In the other narratives, it is the effect of generally nonviolent white racism on black people that provides the background for external as well as internalized oppression. From “Seventh Street” to “Harvest Song,” Toomer's main concern has been with the black struggle to define its own identity. In “Bona and Paul,” Toomer pursues this struggle from another angle—he makes use of a mulatto protagonist in a last effort at reconciliation between the races.

Paul Johnson, a very light-skinned southern black college student, goes to school in Chicago. He is the subject of racial mystery to his roommate, Art Carlstrom, and to Bona Hale, a southern white woman student, who is sexually attracted to Paul. No one knows for sure, but rumors are that Paul is black.

The first scene occurs in the school's gymnasium, where the students are drilling. They are training to be teachers, and they will go out “into the world … to give precision to the movements” of others who have also been drilling for all of their lives. Paul is out of step with the rest of the class. Bona, who feigns illness to avoid the drill, watches him. “The dance of his blue trousered limbs thrills her” (p. 70). She associates him with images of ripeness, an “autumn leaf” and a “harvest moon,” and she wonders about his race: “He is a nigger. Bona! But dont all the dorm girls say so? And dont you, when you are sane, say so? That's why I love—Oh, nonsense” (p. 70). In a game of basketball, girls against boys, Bona plays against Paul. They collide, he catches her: “Her body … becomes strangely vibrant, and bursts to a swift life … ; a new passion flares at him and makes his stomach fall.” He looks at her. Together “they seem to be human distortions spinning tensely in a fog” (p. 71).

Back in his room, Paul gazes out of his window, thinking of Bona. Outside, the “South-Side L” divides the window into two: one is Bona, the other is Paul. Through the Paul window, he sees tints of lavender, the glow of the setting sun, and his thoughts carry him beyond the Chicago stockyards, past wheat fields, to a pine-matted little hill in Georgia: “He sees the slanting roofs of gray unpainted cabins tinted lavender. A Negress chants a lullaby beneath the mate-eyes of a southern planter. Her breasts are ample for the suckling of a song. She weans it, and sends it curiously weaving, among lush melodies of cane and corn. Paul follows the sun into himself in Chicago” (p. 71). He looks through the Bona window. She is in dark shadow.

Paul, the “song,” is the offspring of the union of the fecundity suggested by the image of the black woman and the seed of the white planter. Paul is nourished by the spiritual and artistic richness of black culture, which he takes into the white sterile world of Chicago schools and restaurants. Paul is distinguishable from the other people around because he is more exotic than they are. Could he be, they ask themselves, “a Spaniard, an Italian, a Mexican, a Hindu or a Japanese?” But he is more fundamentally different from them—“out of step” with the “rhythmical and syncopated” movements of their lives and thoughts. Yet, part of him comes from them.

Paul and Art are roommates—the “art” of Paul struggles to be both parts of himself. Paul loves the blond, slick-haired Art, who is a “purple fluid, carbon-charged, that effervesces beside him,” this “pale purple facsimile of a red-blooded Norwegian friend of his” who plays jazz, “tearing down” the piano. Art loves Paul, too. Sometimes responsible for arranging Paul's social life, Art worries about Paul's blood, for his “dark blood” makes him “moony.” Yet he is unsure of who Paul is: “Dark blood; nigger blood? Hell of a thing, that Paul's dark” (p. 72). Paul wants to make “art” a part of his whole life, not just the dark part that amuses him at night. He thinks: “I've got to get the kid to play that stuff [jazz] for me in the daytime. Might be different. More himself. More nigger. Different? … Curious, though” (p. 73). Paul's goal is to achieve reconciliation between the world of cane fields and the world of Art through the medium of art.

The task of creating wholeness out of the fractured relations between blacks and whites in America involves dealing with the doubts, hostilities, insecurities, and ambivalences that have separated the groups for generations. Paul Johnson must first find wholeness in the conflicted parts of himself, which make him different from the people around him; they see only that he is different. At the nightclub he visits with his friends

a strange thing happened to Paul. Suddenly he knew that he was apart from the people around him. Apart from the pain which they had unconsciously caused. Suddenly he knew that people saw, not attractiveness in his dark skin, but difference. Their stares gave him back to himself, filled something long empty within him, and were like green blades sprouting in his consciousness. There was fullness, and strength and peace about it all.

(p. 75)

From this position of creative isolation he sees and understands the meaning of his difference and can accept himself and his double identity. The reality of this identity runs through the narrative in language that combines the images and atmosphere of the Georgia sketches with those of the city sketches. Paul is “cool like the dusk, … his dark face … a floating shade in evening's shadow.” Colors of purple, lavender, and crimson are contrasted with pink petals that are soft, pale, and beautiful. Paul imagines Negro shanties and the singing of the canebrake in a city of asphalt streets, stone mansions, arc-lights, limousines, and the smell of exploded gasoline.

In his relationship to Bona, he aims for a physical and spiritual fusion that will transcend their history. Her attraction to him is sexual and full of ambivalence; she is sometimes passionate, sometimes uncertain. She justifies pursuing him by assuring herself that men like Paul “can fascinate. One is not responsible for fascination.” In addition, within her social group, her actions are part of an accepted convention: “not one girl had really loved Paul; he fascinated them” (p. 77). However, he understands that as a southern white woman, she can enjoy the luxury that enables her to “neither love nor hate a nigger,” and thus Chicago offers her the opportunity to engage in a superficial relationship with him. Before his awakening to himself, he would have accepted these limits in their relationship, but now he insists that he wants to know her: “You matter. I'd like to know you whom I look at. Know, not love. Not that knowing is greater than pleasure; but I have found the joy of it” (p. 76). When Paul dances with Bona, he feels the beginning of the union he wishes to have with her. On the way out of the nightclub, the Crimson Gardens, “purple like a bed of roses would be at dusk,” he explains this to the black doorman. While previously he had only passion and contempt for Bona, whom he did not “know,” in the Gardens his thoughts have now become matches thrown into a dark window, the twin of his lighted window. “White faces are petals of roses. … dark faces are petals of dusk. … I am going out and gather petals … I am going out and know her” (p. 78). Before he can reach her though, Bona has disappeared. His attempt at reconciliation has failed.


In its focus on the urban black experience, Section 2 of Cane explores the effects of a restrictive segregationist society on the human spirit and the failure of black people, as a group, to achieve emotional and psychological wholeness in America. In “Seventh Street,” the newly arrived rural people break the limits of custom and convention to establish a new life in a new environment. They were propelled into this new environment by the constraints that southern hate and oppression had imposed on them for generations. In the North, self-imposed psychological restraints, such as those seen in “Rhobert,” “Theater,” and “Box Seat,” replaced the overt physical restraints that had been imposed on them in the South. In “Avey,” securing a stable, positive black identity in the urban environment involved an understanding of the past, an understanding that could have been a useful asset in the present and for the future. Finally, in “Bona and Paul,” the burdens of reactionary history frustrate the protagonist's efforts to forge a reconciliation between racial divisions in his personal relationships. “Bona and Paul” is a companion piece to “Blood-Burning Moon.” Both are the only narratives in Cane in which white people and black people come together to confront issues of race. Toomer translates the physical violence of “Blood-Burning Moon” into psychological deprivation in “Bona and Paul.”

By the end of “Bona and Paul,” Jean Toomer had surveyed the imaginative landscapes of the northern and southern black experiences separately and had written of Paul's efforts to create racial unity. Toomer had examined race and sex, city and country, erudition and unletteredness, beauty and pain as parts of the double experience of which neither stands alone in the search for a secure black identity. On one hand, the past of the folk culture was lost, but its influence was still a vital force for black people; on the other, the present is in flux, in search of direction. In “Kabnis,” which is Section 3 of Cane, Toomer brings the past and the present together to provide a positive definition of the black American identity.

The final poems of Cane, “Prayer” and “Harvest Song,” are epilogues to Section 2 of the book and prologues to “Kabnis.” In these poems, the persona of “Her Lips Are Copper Wires” loses his desire to embrace the mechanical lover as he surveys the extent of his weakness and looks for more substantial nourishment. “Prayer” is the plea from the individual soul for assistance from the larger Spirit of the world. The poet acknowledges that his existence is formed by the body, the mind, and the soul or spirit. The soul sees both the body and the mind, although not clearly. While it is the most powerful of the entities, the soul is not always able to control the weaker parts, and the speaker is frustrated because of the soul's powerlessness. Thus the poet calls for aid from a more powerful source, for the individual soul is but a “little finger” of the Spirit and needs to be helped to the “lid of its flesh-eye.” The plea is made with the assurance that the Spirit of the world does not reside in realms beyond the reach of the poet's call.

“Harvest Song,” the final poem, returns to the rural environment and harvest time. But instead of offering the traditional, warm images associated with that time, the poet provides images of hunger, cold, blindness, frustration, and loneliness. The persona, at sunset, is a lonely reaper, isolated from others of his kind across the hills. Although he has completed the harvesting of his oats, he has no feeling of satisfaction in his accomplishment. He is too cold, tired, and hungry even to bind up his stalks. From long hours in the field, his throat is dry; his eyes and ears are caked with dust, leaving him blind and deaf as well as cold and fatigued. And in spite of his hunger, the grain he cracks between his teeth seems tasteless to him. His physical discomfort is too oppressive to enable him to appreciate any immediate comfort.

The lonely, disconsolate reaper looks out across the fields and hills at the other reapers. His own work, given his condition, seems futile:

It would be good to hear their songs … reapers of the sweet-
cane, cutters of the corn … even though their throats
cracked and the strangeness of their voices deafened me.

(p. 69)

He is an isolated man, lonely with his harvest, but when he beats his palm against the “stubble of [his] harvesting,” he feels a pain that keeps him from comprehending his hunger.

In “Prayer,” disillusioned with the human condition and the failure of modern values, the poet looks to the superior wisdom of the Spirit of the world—the soul of time. He knows that the desires of the body and the mind can lead to inhumane conditions like the ones described in “Theater” and “Box Seat,” conditions that are alien to the human spirit.

The reaper in “Harvest Song,” having sown his fields with oats, finds that hunger and separation from his fellow reapers fill him with pain and anguish. Yet he clings to that pain and paucity rather than attempt to make human contact.

Both poems reenforce a sense of the failure of modern values to fill human and spiritual needs. The South has failed, but so has the North, and Section 2 of Cane represents the discovery by black people that it takes more than finding a different place to repair the damage that American slavery and American racial attitudes have wrought on their collective and individual souls. The hope in “Kabnis” is for the wisdom to understand the meaning of the northern and the southern experiences in an effort to transcend it.

Sylvia G. Noyes (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “A Particular Patriotism in Jean Toomer's ‘York Beach,’” in College Language Association Journal, Vol. 29, No. 3, March, 1986, pp. 288-94.

[In the following essay, Noyes explicates the major themes of Toomer's short story, “York Beach.”]

Jean Toomer's short story “York Beach”1 was published six years after his masterpiece, Cane. While this neglected story differs in most respects from Cane, the works share a central theme: “The sin whats done against the soul.” The sin against the soul in “York Beach” is vulgar commercialism, a theme common throughout American literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne presented it in the symbol of the organ grinder's ugly monkey in The House of the Seven Gables. Melville continued it in The Confidence Man. William Dean Howells developed it further in The Rise of Silas Lapham. Sinclair Lewis parodied it in Babbit and Dodsworth. Yet by decrying modern man's dislocation in the cosmos, Toomer seems closer in tone to two contemporaries who spoke against the evils of materialism, Sherwood Anderson and Edwin Arlington Robinson. Nathan Anthrum, the protagonist in “York Beach,” is not only Anderson's lonely misfit,2 he is also Robinson's unhappy philosopher.

Not in his time did Toomer expect America to achieve the spiritual level Anthrum craves. In fact the contrast between the Maine town and its summer visitors illustrates how far short of spirituality America actually does come. The tourists illustrate hypocrisy, a product of mass psychology:

Hypocrisy. Everywhere hypocrisy. From the bottom to the top, north and south, east and west, everywhere hypocrisy. Business everywhere is a skin-game. I'll get you if you don't get me first. Bargaining is at the core of business; and trickery is at the core of bargaining. Some people admit this, and accept it as such. They have, if you can so call it, honest business. But here in America we pretend it is done in the spirit of Christ, for the love and uplift of our neighbors, for high living standards, for progress. We claim culture, and despise it. We claim liberty, and exist in economic, political, moral, and mental slavery. We are so thoroughly hypocritical that we don't know it.

(p. 82)

Toomer clearly suggests that America will never discard its mass psychology, disguised as progress, until young intellectuals, like Nathan Anthrum and his friend Bruce Roland,3 provide the impetus. An interesting character, Roland is unlike Anthrum. He brings to Maine an intuitive wisdom. There he “felt beauty everywhere and gave nature the response of wonder.” Anthrum is in Maine to refine his thoughts about mankind's, as well as his own intensely personal, sense of dislocation in the cosmos:4

Man alone is dislocated. Lower man dwells in his place with sullen or indolent acceptance, angry and mean, or happy and slothful, according to whether the spot is north or south with scant food hard won or with food in abundance and there for the gathering. Higher man suffers most. He knows with the conviction of his soul that he does not belong. The air, the sea, the continents, his own society, speak his lack of fitness. Each place, and he himself, make his soul dissatisfied and cause it to hunger for the next. Man is a goaded orphan. He is a nerve of the cosmos, dislocated, trying to quiver into place.

(p. 17)

The contrast between Anthrum and Roland may be noted in their response to Mrs. Shay's boarding house. Roland delights in the sparse clean accomodations while Anthrum is merely grateful that there is room for his books and papers, representations of what little satisfaction he has found in life. When they take their first swim, Roland comes to terms with nature, head-on, enjoying the shock and force of the ocean current and laughing at himself for being short-winded. Anthrum hates being off-form and soon begins to shiver. An Ishmael, even in Maine, Anthrum can only find release from depression by being with Roland. Yet even though they animatedly discuss transcendental philosophy and good naturedly compete for Miss Alma Oliver's attention, Anthrum remains the disoriented man who envies his friend's “alive response to nature”:

Bruce seemed to register everything; the trees were living individuals to him; the flowers; an inland pool surrounded by tall grass with a slight mist hovering over it; the flight of a heron; the rhythms of fields and cleared spaces; the subtle hues of the changing sky as the sun sloped towards sunset.

(p. 58)

Anthrum resents the tourists because he associates them with the stifling atmosphere of New York, from which he has escaped. But, being a writer, he cannot resist analyzing them. Finally, his resentment becomes anger. He hates them for having acquiesced to living “under the surface” in New York and hates them for surfacing in Maine where their presence inhibits his search for spiritual location.

His deliberate study of the York tourists begins in a small restaurant. Mass psychology, he observes, has produced an obsession with eating out “without gusto, without great relish, without keen hunger or sharp appetite, but simply as something to do to kill time and then talk about, food in quantities entering them only to overweigh and clog them.” He notes a vacationing family which overeates for emotional gratification. The plump mother, father, and two teenage daughters are lifeless. Like the father, whose “blank” and “sightless” expression “told that he neither tasted nor felt anything,” the family neither spoke to nor looked at each other. “They were curious as to nothing,” like the isolated middle-aged maiden who rocks alone on an inn's piazza watching the sea all day amid the buzz of summer chatter. Because people in the cities were jammed, “their habits forbade them to use the country. They were like a line of cars in the subway.” Angrily he condemns the vacationers: “They dominated the scene, threw a pall of dreary vulgarity over the countryside. Anthrum felt like knocking them back with one liberating gesture.” Because of their corruption by mass psychology, there will be no liberation for the Coney Island seekers in Maine.

If Toomer strains not to romanticize the York Beach vacationers, he does succeed, despite Anthrum's disgust of them, in creating sympathy for the tourists' loss of individualism. Toomer insists that the sin against their souls is purchased, ironically, by the very financial success which makes a Maine holiday possible. It is their reliance upon materialism which costs them initiative and responsibility. Yet a brief vacation in Maine wouldn't offer time enough to scratch the surface of their conditioning, even if they were aware of what they have become. Like Thoreau, then, Toomer asserts that the price Americans pay for success is too high. He also suggests that the price of resistance to materialism is also too high. Anthrum has become an embittered, unappreciated writer, and Roland, an unproductive aesthetic.

Anthrum bitterly observes that the York Beach residents seem more intent on earning a living than responding, as Roland does, to the grandeur of the environment. Still, he perceives a naturalness in their lives, even joy: “The waitresses were rather pretty and quite animated. They seemed to have a lot of fun in their work, informal but attentive” (p. 47). The bus driver, a lively fellow with the devil in him, has the girls crazy about him. Although he regrets that the businessmen of the community are sold to the idea of American prosperity, of progress, of making money, they are friendly towards each other and give the people of York fair goods at moderate prices. He thinks the young people are healthy, engaging, looking for a good time, but he deplores their eagerness to enter the current of business life, which applauds money success and condemns money failure (p. 70).

While driving with Roland through York village and through York Harbor to a shore road, Anthrum inhales the fumes of exploded gasoline. But for a while he enjoys the presence of mingled odors of bleached seaweed and driftwood. Then, while he and Roland sun themselves on the rocks, they count resort hotels and watch vacationers on the beach. Anthrum finds in the swimming children and their watchful parents natural images until his eye catches the sign “Great White Way” and “Do Drop Inn.” The tourists' cabins along the shoreline also disillusion him: “weather-beaten greys and yellows, the cottages, a long unbroken line of them” where middle-class vacationers come to “crouch, elbow, and pinch life one yard removed from the road.”

From his room that evening Anthrum gazes into the night:

The ocean was black. Waves rolled in, broke and churned against the rocks beneath him. The endless rhythms of the universe were in them. One star was so bright and low on the night horizon that it cast a trail of light across the waters. … For a long time he sat there, thoughts and senses one, experiencing the being of sheer sensibility.

(p. 46)

But in trying to articulate that sensibility, his mind, “[l]ike a balky engine, stopped dead.” One Sunday morning hypocrisy intrudes:

He sunned on the rocks, watched two boats leave the harbor for deep sea fishing, wished there was a sail which he could rent for a month. He saw a number of people with long poles trying to catch something from the edge of the rocks. People dressed for Sunday leaving the hotel to attend the village church. Religion. The twentieth century after Jesus Christ.

(p. 52)

Anthrum rejects the tourists' need for social and technological security, but he pities them, too, and wonders if he is yet one of them!

Still determined to be different from the shore and inn and cottage dwellers, Anthrum returns to the town. At first he is charmed, especially by the sign “Order your Beans and Brown bread now for Saturday.” He becomes friendly with a hotel proprietor who loves his town and his work. Anthrum envies him. He observes the number of movie halls, grocery stores, bowling alleys and even the fire department—all of which he strains to find meaningful. That the fire department sponsors benefit dances intrigues him until he learns that the main dance of the summer is to proclaim one of the bathing beauties Miss York Beach. Despite his longing to act as a “simple human being,” Anthrum's writing is agonizingly circuitous; his discussions with Roland fruitlessly long; his tentative flirtation with Miss Oliver, meaningless. There is, then, for all good intentions and honest effort, no spiritual value in the experience at York Beach for Nathan Anthrum.

Although he could not write much nor find spiritual placement in York, Nathan Anthrum “had respect for the feeling of whoever experienced a real affection for the place. He hoped they would understand that though on occasion he might satirize it, this satire was his [sic] feeling of it, one of his feelings; and that in expressing it he had no wish to violate their ‘feelings’ (p. 63). He even compliments the democratic vigor of Maine:

It had an air of honest amiable democracy. There seemed to be no difference of social class. There was no social pretense. There was no domineering, and no cringing. No giving of orders, no servility. It seemed and was in fact far more honestly democratic than most American towns.

(p. 71)

Bruce Roland, the intuitive man who can unify his ethical and physical natures in Maine, is portrayed by Toomer as one of the builders of a spiritualized America. Having a highly idealized character, he does seem representative of many Maine people who, with quick intelligence and senses alive to the sensuous world, build sincere human structures and who, in more recent years, seem determined to preserve their life style.

Toomer concludes “York Beach” with a definition of an American as one who makes “use of the here existing possibilities of self-development” (p. 83). But he died in 1967, three years before his Maine countrymen revealed their own brand of spirituality by demanding their “here existing possibilities” through strong environmental legislation. He died without suspecting that “York Beach,” his unacclaimed short story, expressed a particular patriotism which would within a decade capture the imagination of thousands of Americans intent upon preserving the natural beauty of their environment.


  1. Jean Toomer, “York Beach,” in The New Caravan: A Yearbook of American Literature, ed. Alfred Kreymborg et al. (New York: Macaulay, 1929), pp. 12-83.

  2. “York Beach” would not have been written if Toomer had taken Anderson's advice, given in a 1924 letter: “When I saw your work [Cane] I was thrilled to the toes … you'll stay with your own people [the American Negro], won't you?”

  3. Bruce Roland may be Paul Rosenfeld, Toomer's critic, publisher and friend. The two vacationed together one summer at York Beach, Maine.

  4. Toomer freely credited Georges Gurdjieff as the source of his metaphysical ideas: “I am not sure that I have a soul … but if I have then Gurdjieff has penetrated the shell and written upon the kernel indelibly” (Darwin T. Turner, In A Minor Chord [Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1971], p. 3).

Herbert W. Rice (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “An Incomplete Circle: Repeated Images in Part Two of Cane,” in College Language Association Journal, Vol. 29, No. 4, June, 1986, pp. 442-61.

[In the following essay, Rice uncovers “a pattern of imagery” in the first and second sections of Cane.]

The broad connections between Parts One and Two of Cane have been noted by several critics. Arna Bontemps points to the contrasting settings: Part One is set in the South, while Part Two is set in the North.1 On a more specific level, Donald Ackley notes the contrast between the roads in the two sections: most of Part One is set on or around the rural Dixie Pike, while Part Two begins on the urban Seventh Street.2 As Lucinda Mackethan states, “Footpaths are now busy streets.”3 Catherine Innes points out that “Rhobert” is a structural parallel to “Karintha” in the sense that it opens Part Two with images of suffocation just as “Karintha” opens Part One with images of fading life.4 Todd Lieber enlarges the possibilities of Innes' point by noting that both “Seventh Street” and “Rhobert” set up controlling themes and symbols for Part Two.5 Thus, the repressed blood of Seventh Street functions just as Rhobert's helmet or Karintha's dusklike skin: it begins a pattern of imagery.

In addition to these general similarities and patterns of contrast, there are specific connections between the images in the two parts. The poem which opens “Seventh Street” involves money and a big car, the two very symbols of white status which Barlo—the black convert to a “white-faced … god”—returns with in “Esther.”6 The narrator calls Seventh Street a “bastard,” recalling the miscegenation which eventually produced Esther's white skin. Moreover, the “unconscious rhythms” which Seventh Street is “thrusting” into Washington are described as “black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington” (p. 71). Black blood recalls the blood that is burned at the end of Part One. But the rhythms of the blood are now “unconscious.” The narrator asks over and over again, “Who set you flowing?” (p. 71), as if the African source is now unidentifiable. In addition to these connections, there is a vague echo in “Seventh Street” of the process of making cane syrup which begins and ends Part One. The “black reddish blood” (p. 71) recalls the brown cane syrup which David Georgia makes, while the drying “ribbons of wet wood” (p. 71) recall the “white pulp of stalks” (p. 54) which the men in “Blood-Burning Moon” chew around David Georgia's fire. Toomer's word choice is even similar: the wet wood in “Seventh Street” is in “ribbons,” and the stalks in “Blood-Burning Moon” “lay like ribboned shadows on the ground” (p. 54).

If “Seventh Street” shows what is left of the spirit of Part One in Washington, then “Rhobert” presents the spirit that will characterize Part Two. Appropriately, Toomer connects “Rhobert” to what has gone before. The stuffing of Rhobert's house, “the shredded life pulp” (p. 73), echoes the “ribboned” wood drying on Seventh Street and the chewed pulp of cane stalks in Part One. Also, “Rhobert” ends with a song, another reminder of Part One. But here both of these images have been transformed. Mackethan states, “The central images of Part One carry over into the second section with significant alteration.”7 Essentially, he is correct; however, the alternation is a growth rather than a sudden shift. The images reflecting the beauty fading in Part One now show the ugliness of the decaying world which is left. A good example of this transformation is the pulp image. In “Blood-Burning Moon,” live pulp is ground and chewed for the rich juices it contains. In “Seventh Street,” wood pulp dries and blows down the street. In “Rhobert,” the pulp is enclosed; it is what would be left in the water if Rhobert's “dead house” were to “cave in.” In short, the pulp is life enclosed in a box that is dead, a coffin of sorts. Instead of sustaining healthy life, the air Rhobert “gulps” is “air floating shredded life pulp” (p. 74). Life is as split apart as the white wood on Seventh Street; enclosed, it floats on “water that is being drawn off” (p. 73). In commenting on “Seventh Street” and “Rhobert,” Lieber says that Part Two centers on two themes: “the divorce of mind from body and body from soul … and the result of this divorce which is conveyed through images of burial and spiritual death.”8 As Lieber suggests, separation, enclosure, suffocation, and death are the major elements of these opening images.

In a similar way, the song image is also changed. Songs in Part One are ways of expressing pain, the sound of the dying black spirit, the hope of deliverance. In contrast, the song “Deep River” in “Rhobert” is bitterly sarcastic. Not only does it present the ridiculous spectacle of a rickety figure who wears a house on his head and sinks in “ooze”; by its very title, it also ridicules the fate of him for whom it is sung. In short, the pain of the picture of Rhobert produces not a song calling for deliverance but a song evoking scorn. Innes calls Part Two “much more sardonic” than Part One.9 The transformation of this image supports her view. Dying beauty calls for the hushed song of a swan; rotting ugliness calls for sarcasm.

With “Avey,” Toomer returns to a more traditional story reminiscent of the stories which make up the main body of Part One. However, his imagery functions basically as the imagery in the two earlier sketches functions: imagery from Part One continues to change, reflecting the decay of the world of Part Two. As Mackethan suggests, the trees enclosed in boxes remind us of Part One.10 There trees “whisper to Jesus” and are strummed like guitars. In Part Two, they are like the “life-pulp” of Rhobert; they are stuffed into boxes—vaguely like coffins—which confine and stifle them. Dusk imagery dominates Part One. Appropriately, the first scene of “Avey” and most of the narrator's subsequent encounters with Avey occur during the night. The ominous moon is even present in one scene. Songs also continue to reflect the ugliness. The echoes of the trains in the valley are like “crude music from the soul of Avey” (p. 81). The narrator compares them to “gasps and sobs” (p. 81), but ultimately they are sounds from a dead machine. In the anticlimactic final scene in Soldier's Home, the narrator wishes that “Deep River”—the song to be sung over Rhobert's ooze-covered grave—would replace the park band. In contrast to “Deep River,” the folk song the narrator sings recalls Part One, setting the scene for passion. But as his speech climaxes with a “promise song” sung “with a strange quiver” (p. 87), we realize that once again Toomer is using songs in an ironic, sarcastic way. The narrator's song only sends Avey into a trance. The imagery which Toomer uses connects Avey's trance to the death and night of Part Two. As the story ends, the narrator unsuccessfully attempts to wake her; the images point toward death. Her face is “pale,” and her eyes are “heavy.” As Seventh Street is a “bastard,” so she is an “Orphan-woman” (p. 88).

The irony of the narrator singing a “promise song” and finding his lover in a deep sleep points to a larger irony in the story and another contrast between Parts One and Two. At first, the narrator's desire is “to break through her [Avey's] tenderness to passion” (p. 80). In the early scenes of the story, she responds to him by completely avoiding passion as if she were a child. To his grand, mature attempt, her response is a deathlike sleep. The ironic thrust of the story is made clear by the pale, white color of Avey's face as the story closes: there is no passion beneath her tenderness; she is as dead as the face of the white man who puts the gun in Tom Burwell's ribs in “Blood-Burning Moon.”

Sexuality produces pain and frustration in Part One, but at least people communicate sexually. Every story but Esther's centers on some sort of reaction to sexual communion. In Part Two sexual contact ceases as characters like the narrator in “Avey,” Dorris in “Theater,” Dan Moore in “Box Seat,” and Bona in “Bona and Paul” struggle with their dreaming companions, trying impotently to awake passion in them. Beneath Esther's “chalk-white face” (p. 36), there are at least the “dull flames” of her contorted dream of conceiving Barlo's child. Beneath Avey's “pale” face, there is only lifelessness. There remains only the narrator's memory: “And when the wind is from the South, soil of my homeland falls like a fertile shower upon the lean streets of the city” (p. 85).

As “Avey” begins with tree boxes, an enclosure image, so “Beehive” begins with a “black hive,” another enclosure image. The bees are black and numerous within the enclosure, but ultimately all of their actions are dominated by the moon, an image of white oppression at the end of Part One. Like the “Song of the Son” in Part One, the black bees in the hive move “to-night,” Honey is “silver” in the moonlight, vaguely recalling the money with which Part Two begins and the money with which Barlo returns in Part One. As money precedes Barlo's conversion to whiteness, so “silver honey” deprives the black bees of their sobriety. But again, as in “Avey,” there is the memory of Part One; the wish for the fertile insides of a rural flower carries us back to the primitivism which fades there. It is inevitably only a wish, like the “unconscious rhythms” of Seventh Street.

But the storm in “Storm Ending” grows directly from this wish because it is described through flower images—“Thunder blossoms …, / Great, hollow, bell-like flowers, / Rumbling in the wind,” (p. 90). And the wind echoes the wind which brings “soil of my homeland … like a fertile shower” (p. 85) to the narrator in “Avey.” The flowers are “Full-lipped” like the women singing in Part One; they are bitten by the sun instead of the moon. They bleed rain, echoing the blood flowing down Seventh Street. And the rain is “like golden honey” (p. 90) instead of “silver honey.” This shift of imagery is subtle but important. It allows us to associate the rain with the fading sunlight of Part One, which is described as a “band of gold” (p. 17) in “Carma.” This image contrasts sharply with the silver moonlight which appears in the night of Part Two. “Silver honey” makes black bees drunk. In contrast, “golden honey” is rain. It comes from flowers associated with Part One, just as the “fertile showers” imagined by the narrator in “Avey.”

These two poems demonstrate a second important feature of the imagery in Part Two. Lieber calls Part Two “counterpoint,”11 and this term accurately describes what Toomer is doing through the imagery in these two poems. The growth from evening to night, from dying to decay, from seriousness to sarcasm is the movement of the imagery in the first stories in Part Two. As the second part continues to develop, Toomer increasingly counterpoints images of enclosure and decay with images which recall Part One.

The rain image connects “Storm Ending” to “Theater,” for as one ends with an image of rain, so the other begins with the same. The rain in “Storm Ending” returns us to the black spirit of Part One; the spirit which “soaks into the walls of the Howard Theater” (p. 91) is clearly a product of the enclosed, decaying life of Part Two: “Life of nigger alleys; of pool rooms and restaurants and near beer saloons” (p. 91). Songs are the product of this soaked-in life, for they are what the theater walls throb with when they are soaked. But songs are also the source of the life which soaks into the walls, for they leak out into the alleys and saloons at night. The entire process is a grim reminder of the rain of the previous poem: songs are like a liquid spirit falling from the sky only to be soaked back up again as it evaporates. The entire process counterpoints the fertile showers of the previous poem with stale, decaying life fitted neatly into enclosures, all a product of stage shows.

The other images in “Theater” are similar to this opening image; they present distorted versions of the images in Part One. Typical of the night of Part Two, the house is “dark” and the walls are “sleeping” until John enters or rehearsal begins: “Then … the space-dark air grows softly luminous” (p. 91). Appropriately, whatever light John's mind or the rehearsal in the theater produces is limited to the space that was dark. It is enclosed. Like the pulp of Seventh Street, John's face is split apart by the light; half of it is dominated by the light from the window, half of it by the shadow of the enclosure. His “mind coincides with the shaft of light” (p. 92); “[l]ife of the house … swirls to the body” (p. 92). In short, John is split apart. His thoughts and the glow of the theater “compact” about the light shaft. The light image recalls the fading light of Part One in contrast to the darkness of Part Two, but the light here is distorted, reflecting decay. It is filtered through a window or confined to a “shaft” which things “compact” about; it is quite different from the gold band covering the eastern horizon in Part One. The stage lights are similar: “soft, as if they shine through clear pink fingers” (p. 92).

Like the light images associated with John, images associated with the girls on stage also present distorted images from Part One. The girls' legs “jab the air and clog the floor” (p. 92) vaguely like blood, but “their tight street skirts” (p. 92) must be lifted in order to set them free. The girls are “full-lipped” with “dusk faces,” but their beauty is “distant,” and before they can be called “beautiful,” the audience must “paint” them “white.” They sing, but their songs are “discordant snatches,” ultimately unsustained. All of these distortions are enclosed by the walls of the theater, which “press inward.” John's “feet,” “torso,” and “blood” also press in. Everyone is compacted, just as Rhobert is within his house.

The girl whom John focuses on is described in images which fit into the same pattern as the other images in the story; they are enclosed or distorted images from Part One. Dorris's lips are “full” but “curiously” so. Her face is the lemon color of Carma's face in Part One, but her “bushy,” “black” hair is “bobbed.” The purple which is associated with dusk in Part One is Dorris's dance. It threatens to break all enclosures. It causes the girls around her to forget their patterned steps and “find their own” (p. 97); it causes Dorris to forget her “tricks.” It transposes the reader from the stale, enclosed theater, back to the “canebrake loves” of Part One, to the “Mangrove feastings” of Africa. It is a song that is “glorious” instead of sardonic. Her dance is like the fertile shower in “Storm Ending.”

But ultimately, the dance too becomes a stifled and suffocating image, dead and decaying within an enclosure; like all the other images in “Theater,” it is distorted by the forces of Part Two. It becomes a part of John's mind which leaves the theater, like the shaft of light, and seeks an internal enclosure all its own, a dream. John's dream is in single-space type, setting it off from the rest of the text as a separate enclosure. Within it, the imagery suggests death and enclosure. There are no trees. The autumn leaves have been walked on so much that they rustle no more. The air is “sweet,” but it is a sweetness which comes from burning “old leaves” and “roasting chestnuts,” odors which cannot enter the enclosure of John's mind because every sense but sight is sealed. Dorris again reminds us of Part One; she is tinted like autumn, old flowers, and a canefield. But immediately, she is enclosed in the story title which is presumably John's invention: “‘Glorious Dorris’” (p. 99). There are two more enclosures within the dream, the first is the room which is made of Dorris's flesh and blood. It is like the theater; its walls sing, and it contains distorted light. Significantly, “John knows nothing of it” (p. 99), except that it is Dorris. John and Dorris are separated from each other, as are the two main characters in “Avey.” The second enclosure is John's manuscript. Ironically, Dorris's glorious dance becomes enclosed in it, just as the trees are boxed and enclosed in “Avey.” The dance which threatens to break down all enclosures becomes “a dead thing in the shadow of which is his [John's] dream” (p. 99). It is at best a distorted reminder of the songs in Part One.

“Her Lips Are Copper Wire” continues the emphasis on the distorted light image. Artificial light, enclosed and distorted by globes, becomes the words of one lover to another. The breath of the other is like the bead on the globe, insulated from the source of light. Words are confined to “corridors of billboards” (p. 101), artificial and channeled. Passion is reached and enclosures are broken by removing the artificial barriers of insulation and tape. However, even when the insulation is removed and lips are pressed together in a kiss, they become themselves mechanically hot, “incandescent,” like a light globe. The entire poem presents distorted dead sexuality, much like that which exists between John and Dorris.

“Calling Jesus” shifts the perspective from images of enclosures which separate people from people to images of enclosures which separate people from themselves. The character in this story encloses herself at night in a house like Rhobert's. Her soul remains outside. Like John, she is split apart. The force which unifies the sleeping soul with the body is in each case described in images of Part One: “echo Jesus … soft as a cotton ball” (p. 102), or “the bare feet of Christ moving across bales of Southern cotton” (p. 103). When dreaming or sleeping, the character is made one with her soul. She is “cradled in dream-fluted cane” (p. 103). This image suggests rebirth through the “unconscious rhythms” of Seventh Street, the images of Part One. The only other time the soul is a part of her is when streets and alleys and houses, the counterpointing images of Part Two, are forgotten. Here again rebirth is suggested through images of Part One: “Her breath comes sweet as honey-suckle whose pistils bear the life of coming song” (p. 102).

The house image carries over into “Box Seat,” where it stands opposite the street image. Houses, an image of Part Two, are “shy girls.” As in “Seventh Street,” the street is once again associated with the unconscious rhythms of the black spirit, recalling Part One. Streets are “the gleaming limbs and the asphalt torso of a dreaming nigger” (p. 104). Once again, the black spirit functions to revivify the enclosed white world of Part Two, as the “fertile showers” in “Avey” and the “dream-fluted cane” in “Calling Jesus” functioned. The “dreaming nigger” street is to invigorate the “lean, white spring” (p. 104), to “woo virginal houses” (p. 104) with a “street song.” But Toomer distorts these fertility images by counterpointing them. Dan Moore demonstrates the decay of Part Two. He walks down the street as a “dreaming nigger.” He sees the “girl-eyes” of the houses. But he cannot sing to them; “[h]is notes are shrill” (p. 105). His desire is also futile. Instead of being “liver lips” which invigorate, his lips are “flesh-notes of a forgotten song” (p. 105). The blackness inside him is dormant, dreaming.

The same sort of counterpointing occurs in the imagery which permeates Dan Moore's thought. When he cannot find the doorbell at Muriel's residence, he imagines breaking in and doing violence to the house and the people inside. He answers the implied thoughts of the imaginary policeman by saying, “No, I aint a baboon” (p. 105). In so doing, he is denying the distorted image which a white holds of the black man. In place of it, he carries us back to the fertile, invigorating power of the “dreaming” street image: “I am Dan Moore. I was born in a canefield. The hands of Jesus touched me. I am come to a sick world to heal it” (pp. 105-06). However, no sooner is this uttered than we are returned to the distorted baboon image as Dan proposes to “peel” the fingers of the officers like “ripe bananas” (p. 106).

Mrs. Pribby is connected to the enclosure images of Part Two. Her eyes are “steel.” Her chair clicks metallically “like a bolt being shot into place” (p. 107). Her house is “metallic” and “[b]olted.” Dan and Muriel become two more Rhoberts within an enclosure, but nonetheless, the counterpointing images continue. Dan's imagination turns to the renewing Christ-like power of underground races, the “rumble … from the earth's deep core” (p. 108), which recalls the invigorating street image. But Toomer immediately contrasts this image of renewal with the enclosed decay of a real black, Muriel. Her rumble from the stairs replaces the imaginary rumble from below. As his potential lover, she makes Dan “doubly heavy” because they both bear the pressure of the enclosure.

As the street songs of the black were to “woo … houses,” so Dan Moore attempts to woo Muriel. The fertility of Part One is once again suggested through images. Muriel's “animalism” is “unconquered” by enclosures. Her lips are “flesh-notes” of “longing”; though “futile,” they are momentarily not forgotten as the “flesh-notes” of the song of Dan's lips. Dan threatens to break the enclosures of Part Two, echoing the power of Dorris' dance. Dan's arms glow with heat and passion which can “melt and … wrench” (p. 113), freeing Muriel. But again we are returned to an image of Part Two as Mrs. Pribby's newspaper becomes a “cool thick glass between them” (p. 115). The rustling paper distorts the natural flow of passion.

Like Mrs. Pribby's house, the Lincoln Theater is another enclosure where each seat is bolted into a slot, and like the house, the theater encloses Muriel and Dan. Again Toomer presents contrasting image groups. Muriel is reminiscent of Rhobert; she feels pressure, as if she were in a “diver's helmet.” On the other hand, once again Dan is momentarily connected to images from Part One. The black woman whom he sits beside emits a “soil-soaked fragrance” (p. 119) and vibrates with the “new-world Christ.” Her eyes present the contrast, they do not seem to be hers. Rather, they are a part of the theater which presses inward. The image suggests that like Muriel and Rhobert, Dan feels the pressure of enclosure.

Toomer's counterpointing rises to a crescendo in the last part of “Box Seat.” What has been mainly a part of the imagery, now becomes a part of the action. Dan's physical struggle to win Muriel over to passion in the first section is counterpointed by the dwarfs' boxing match. This is counterpointed in turn by Dan's internal struggle. The conclusion of both struggles leads directly to Dan's near-fight with the man behind him in the audience. The relationship of the various struggles becomes clear through the imagery. Each paragraph describing the dwarfs' struggle is alternated with a paragraph describing “tail ends” of Dan's experience, his internal struggle. The first “tail end,” Muriel's dance, is reminiscent of the potentially fertile dance of Dorris, but more specifically the image of Dan's eyes “Burning clean” suggests sexuality and returns us to Part One where the black spirit burns white. The second “tail end,” Dan's sarcastic proposition about feminism, is a “mental fiber” made to fill a vacant enclosure, a cavity, a hole in the relations of modern men and women. The imagery as well as the time connects the entire paragraph to Part Two. The third “tail end” centers on Dan's memory of an old black man, a man associated with the slave spirit of Part One as well as the machines and enclosures of Part Two. He was “Born a slave … swing low, sweet chariot” (p. 125), but he “knows everyone who passes the street corners” (p. 125), and he remembers the first cars. Dan implies that his mentioning of the “rumble” from below sends the old man into a stroke. The last “tail end” involves Dan in the posture of the savior whom the “rumble” foreshadows, the savior with whom he has been contrasted since the beginning of the story. As the old man is destroyed by the “rumble,” so the Dan Moore who arises destroys the enclosure, bringing about a storm like the “fertile showers” in “Storm Ending.” This storm, however, does not return us to Part One as that storm does; instead it flashes “white light from ebony” (p. 126).

Through their very incoherence, these “tail ends” suggest Dan's fragmented state of mind. More than that, however, they present the elements of his fragmentation: the primitive sexual world that was, the eyes of the slave spirit existing within a world of street corners, machines, and enclosures, unifying white and ebony—the black of Part One and the white of Part Two. Momentarily the counterpoint moves to resolution.

But this resolving flash is immediately distorted and called into question by what it becomes, what it is in reality, the dwarf flashing a mirror. It is essentially another image of distorted light, suggesting its delusional qualities. Moreover, it is the same light which soon flashes into Muriel's eyes. At the beginning of the story, Muriel rejects Dan's offering of passion; he fails to woo her. Enclosed in the “steel” fingers of the audience, she accepts the dwarf's offering. In earlier portions of Part Two, flowers have recalled the fading fertility of Part One; blood has suggested the underlying throbbings of the black spirit. Now both images are distorted; the flowers and blood are the products of stage shows, artificial passion offered and accepted in artificial tenderness. The dwarf wins the battle Dan loses, and Dan, the man who envisions himself “a new-world Christ” (p. 119), sees his own diseased reality: “Jesus was once a leper!” (p. 129). The flower image is presented now in a new context. Dan has shed his flower, and all hope of renewal is gone. Appropriately, the next struggle is to take place in the black alley in the scent of decaying garbage and “rancid flowers.” Dan no longer takes part in the struggle; in the midst of decay, he is dormant instead of flowering.

The fragmentation and the desire for wholeness which the imagery of “Box Seat” suggests is the primary focus of “Prayer.” The entire movement of the imagery is put into psychological terms. The various parts of the narrator's being are cut off from one another, just as the “tail-ends” of Dan Moore's experience are separate, just as the images of Part One and Two are counterpointed. Like Dan, the subject seeks to unify. He tries to temper the body “unto the spirit's longing” (p. 131), to “Direct” the spirit to “its flesh eye” (p. 151). Dan Moore's dream of unity was futile. Likewise, the narrator of the poem finds that his voice cannot be heard by the spirits who direct his soul. Like Dan, he is impotent, incapable of renewal.

In this poem, Toomer enables us, through its title, to grasp the movement of his imagery in this part of the book. In “Seventh Street,” “Rhobert,” and “Avey,” imagery connected with the dying world of Part One gives way to imagery which demonstrates the dead world of Part Two. With “Beehive” and “Storm Ending,” images of vitality begin to be interspersed with the imagery of decay of Part Two. Most of these images of vitality recall Part One and the fertile world that dies there. The images are usually associated with a moment charged with spontaneity, such as Dorris' dance, or a dream, such as the “dream-fluted cane” (p. 103) in “Calling Jesus.” They contrast sharply with the images of Part Two, forming a sort of counterpoint. Beginning with the union of body and soul in “Calling Jesus” and growing in emphasis in “Box Seat” and “Prayer,” there appears a vision of revivification and unity. Though in each case futile, the image of the black street wooing the “white house,” the image of “liver lips” giving birth to a “white spring,” the image of “white light” from “ebony” are all, in a sense, “prayers” that body and soul might be one, that black might merge with and renew white, that counterpoint might move to resolution. This latter movement of the imagery supports Catherine Innes' assertion that the struggle for racial and spiritual fusion is a main element in Cane.12

In the context of this large framework of imagery, “Harvest Song” presents us with the most unified view of the imagery in the book thus far. The reaper, the harvester, and sundown are all from Part One, but they are described in the context of Part Two. It is night, the harvest is over, and the reaper is enclosed by his senses' failure to function. He cannot taste grain, he is blind from dust, and he is deaf even to the sounds of other reapers. “Dusk” obscures and “dulls” the blade of his scythe, ending the harvest; sundown is when the reaper's “muscles set.” He is like the other characters in Part Two, enclosed, incapable of action, a set sun. But like Dan Moore and the narrator of “Prayer,” he seeks unity. He seeks to break the enclosure of his senses by trying to see and hear other reapers. But interestingly, all his communication with his brothers is parenthetical, suggesting its weakness; it is a thought or a whisper. The contrast between this communication and that of the reapers in “Cotton Song” is clear. They—the reapers of Part One—shout “Echo, echo, roll away!” (p. 15) in the loud unison of a work song; the reaper in Part Two is alone, and at best can mutter. Like the narrator of “Prayer,” his voice does “not carry.” Consequently, his ultimate choice is one which “will not bring me knowledge of my hunger” (p. 133)—communion through shared pain, futile and unfulfilling.

In “Bona and Paul,” Toomer further explores the dilemma of the singer in “Harvest Song,” breaking through enclosures and becoming one with another, the unifying of opposites, the resolution of counterpoint. The story begins with an enclosure image; the precise rows of drilling students in the gym. Like Dan Moore, Paul seems to threaten the composure of the enclosures as his legs “dance” fertilely, as Dorris' do in “Theater.” Like Dan, he is connected to Part One; Bona thinks of him as “an autumn leaf … a nigger” (p. 134). But like Dan's, his blackness is not pure; she also thinks of him as a “harvest moon” (p. 134), an image which combines the rich harvesting of Part One and the oppressive white moonlight of “Blood-Burning Moon” and Part Two. Bona is attracted by the threat which Paul offers to the white enclosures around her: “He is a candle that dances in a grove swung with pale balloons” (p. 134). Despite her attraction, the section ends with their struggling, which again recalls “Box Seat.” Two complete opposites—male and female, black and white—approach one another, but ultimately they burst apart.

In section two, the dilemma is presented from Paul's point of view. Again the imagery centers on enclosures; Bona and Paul are described as separate windows. Paul's window again connects him to the fertility of Part One. But again the images are not pure; the whiteness of Part Two distorts them. The setting sun tints things not the purple of dusk in Part One but “lavender,” a white, pale purple. Nonetheless, as Paul looks “into the sun,” across the wheatlands and stockyards, he sees Georgia as well as Chicago. The images associated with Georgia are fertile: the Southern planter has “mate-eyes”; the black woman “suckles” and “weans” a song. Despite this fertile potential, Bona's window is still dark like the night of Part Two. She is obscured and enclosed.

In the second part of section two, the dilemma is presented from a third perspective. Art is white; as Paul is connected to images from Part One, so Art is connected to images from Part Two. He is “like the electric light” (p. 138), an image which recalls “Her Lips Are Copper Wire.” As Paul has sought to break the enclosure surrounding Bona, so Art seeks to break through Paul by speculating about him. As Bona's window is “dark” to Paul, so Paul is “dark” to Art. First of all, he is “dark” because he encloses himself by asking questions instead of trusting. Second, he is dark because of his blood: “Dark blood; nigger?” (p. 139). The fact that Paul is from the black world of Part One cuts him off from the “electric light” world of Art. Thus Art stereotypes him, assuming that his “Dark blood” makes him “moony”—dreamy and elusive. The closing image of Art from Paul's perspective returns us to the image of blackness revivifying a stale white enclosure: “I'm going to kick the living slats out of you. … And your slats will bring forth life … beautiful woman …” [sic] (p. 139). The image again connects Paul to Dan Moore, who dreams of pulling the girders from the Lincoln Theater and unifying white light and ebony.

Section three presents a fuller description of Art from Paul's perspective. As Paul appears to Art in images of Part One, so Art appears to Paul in images of Part Two. The “healthy pink” of his face recalls the distorted pink light in “Theater” (pp. 92, 99). As that light was artificial, so is the color of Art's face; it is the product of a massage, shave, and powdering. But the distortion is twofold, for the night makes his pinkness look purple, the passionate color of cane, dusk, and burned blood. His joy is also artificial, “a purple fluid, carbon-charged, that effervesces” (p. 141). Moreover, as Art finds Paul to be “dark,” so Paul finds Art to be pale. His skin is tinted a “purple pallor” by the evening. His is a “pale purple facsimile of a red-blooded Norwegian” (p. 141). As Art's name implies, he is artificial. As Art sees Paul's “dark blood” as an explanation for his sluggishness, he stereotypes him. Paul does likewise; he sees Art's white skin as an explanation for his artificiality; “Perhaps … white skins are not supposed to live at night” (p. 141). Consequently, the “good looks” that Paul's mirror “gave him,” the color of the night “tints”; the bubbles of joy which the black carbon of night produces in him are all qualities imposed on nothingness, complete artificiality. Ironically, Art's passion is “moony” to Paul just as Paul's blood is to Art. Each finds the other to be enclosed and dreamy; thus each uses the moon, an image of Part Two, to describe the other. Each is enclosed by his own skin color. Beyond it, into the world of another, he cannot see. Thus, though Paul is like the dusk which combines light and dark, he is still enclosed, a “detached … floating shade in evening's shadow” (p. 141), unable to merge.

The imagery in the second part of section three reemphasizes the artificial, decaying setting of Part Two, connecting this story to the rest of Part Two. The two couples are on a Boulevard lighted by “arc-lights” and car lights. Dry leaves soften the ground, recalling John's dream. Once again, Toomer focuses on two people observing each other, and again the imagery is significant. The first images are from Paul's perpective. To Paul, Bona is like Art; she is obscured by paleness and artificiality. Her face is pale, and “Her words have no feel to them.” They are similar to Paul's pink face: “pink petals that fall upon velvet cloth” (p. 143). She is removed from him, enclosed as a jewel beneath the sea. She and Paul are unfulfilled and enclosed; the love that would unite them is “a dry grain” reminiscent of the harvest singer's futile nourishment. Significantly, Bona also sees color as an enclosing circumstance. Paul is to her as he is to Art—“colored; cold.”

Section four is set within another enclosure, the Crimson Gardens. As within the other sections, people once again observe one another. Colors again begin to enclose them: “people saw not attractiveness in his dark skin, but difference” (p. 145). From Paul's perspective, however, their stares are “green blades,” for they remind him of his blackness, his potential fertility, his being apart from them. To him, their faces are artificial like Art's. They are “white lights,” distorted by the artificial pink of the garden. As they are cut off from him, so is he from them; he perceives his friends “[d]istantly. … God if he knew them” (p. 146). The images which Paul associates with the entire enclosure suggest that it appears to him as they do—artificial, enclosed, and distorted. Like Art, the Gardens are to Paul “A carbon bubble,” one that he imagines the night distorts into the passionate purple of the dusk and blood of Part One. As he looks through Bona's “dark pane,” his speculation eventually returns to the difference, the separation between himself and those who are around him. “The color and the music and the song” (p. 148) of the Crimson Gardens are counterpointed by the black woman who “chants … beneath the mate eyes of a Southern planter” (p. 148). Two mutually exclusive worlds are once again set before us. The perspective is Paul's, and once again he is enclosed from those around him. The eyes around him are “unawakened”; his own are quite different: “they're awake all right” (p. 148). His eyes see the passionate purple coloring as a distortion. Those eyes around him are merely a part of it.

In the last scene of the story, we are returned to another struggle to unite. As in earlier stories in Part Two, the dance becomes the vehicle of passion: dancing couples are blood clots on the floor of the Gardens. In the midst of red-blooded passion, the Gardens cease to be a “bubble” and become a “body.” The real blood of passion counterpoints the artificial glow of faces transformed and distorted by light. Thus, Bona and Paul—“a dizzy blood clot” (p. 151)—feel something “the pink faced people have no part in” (p. 152). The Gardens still appear to be a purple bubble in the blackness of the night, but Paul does not perceive them as artificial, like the purple bubbles of Art's joy. Instead, they become a symbol of his passion for Bona, of breaking down enclosures which separate black and white: “white faces are petals of roses … dark faces are petals of dusk” (p. 153). But ultimately his vision is like Dan Moore's dream of flashing “white light from ebony” (p. 126), of wooing Muriel, for it is only a vision. As C. W. Scruggs says, “Paul has had a vision of wholeness in the Gardens, but in his excitement to understand it, he loses it.”13 Bona departs. Both sexual union and racial union are out of reach. The dusk of Part One and the pink of Part Two only merge momentarily to produce the purple color of the passion which fades in Part One. The counterpoint of the imagery continues. The Gardens are a distortion. They delude Paul just as the distorted light from the dwarf's mirror deludes Dan.

On the page that follows Part One, there is an arc. On the page that follows Part Two, there are two arcs facing each other. Together they form an incomplete circle which visually represents the fragmentation of the two worlds Toomer has described—the dying rural world of Part One and the decaying urban world of Part Two. All of the attempts at unity ultimately fail, and we are left with an incomplete circle, complete fragmentation.


  1. Arna Bontemps, Intro., Cane, by Jean Toomer, A Perennial Classic (1923; rpt. New York: Harper, 1969), p. xii.

  2. Donald G. Ackley, “Theme and Vision in Jean Toomer's Cane,Studies in Black Literature, 1 (Spring 1970), 54.

  3. Lucinda H. Mackethan, “Jean Toomer's Cane: A Pastoral Problem,” Mississippi Quarterly, 28 (1975), 428.

  4. Catherine L. Innes, “The Unity of Jean Toomer's Cane,CLA Journal, 15 (1972), 312.

  5. Todd Lieber, “Design and Movement in Cane,CLA Journal, 13 (1967), 41.

  6. Jean Toomer, Cane, A Perennial Classic (1923; rpt. New York; Harper, 1969), p. 49. This and all subsequent references are to this edition.

  7. Mackethan, p. 428.

  8. Lieber, p. 41.

  9. Innes, p. 312.

  10. Mackethan, p. 428.

  11. Lieber, p. 41.

  12. Innes, pp. 318–19.

  13. Charles W. Scruggs, “The Mark of Cane and the Redemption of Art,” American Literature, 44 (May 1972), 277.

Robert Bone (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Jean Toomer,” in Down Home: Origins of the Afro-American Short Story, Columbia University Press, 1988, pp. 222–28.

[In the following excerpt, Bone discusses “Fern,” “Theater,” and “Bona and Paul” as prime examples of Toomer's narrative technique.]

The genre of Cane has been the subject of considerable speculation and debate. Some critics have viewed the book as an experimental novel; others as a miscellany, composed of poetic, dramatic, and narrative elements; still others as a work sui generis, which deliberately violates the standard categories. The problem is complicated by the fact that parts of Cane were published independently as poems, sketches, and stories.1 This would suggest that Toomer thought of them as separate entities, whatever their subsequent function in the overall design. Without attempting to resolve the larger issue, let us reduce the book to its constituent parts, in order to determine which may be legitimately classified as short stories.

Of the twenty-nine units of which Cane is composed, fifteen are plainly poems, written for the most part in free verse. “Kabnis” is a free-form play, complete with stage directions. Six of the less substantial pieces are sketches, or vignettes, or prose poems, too slender to afford much narrative development.2 The seven that remain may reasonably be regarded as short stories.3 Of these seven stories, we have chosen to discuss three: “Fern,” “Theater,” and “Bona and Paul.” They will serve to illustrate the tendency of Toomer's art to move beyond mere surfaces to a realm of transcendent reality.

“Fern,” which first appeared in the Little Review of Autumn 1922, has been as widely anthologized as it has been misconstrued. Restricting their vision to the psychological plane, critics have variously regarded Fern as a victim of sexual repression, a promiscuous, castrating female, and an emblem of the mystery of Negro womanhood. The bafflement of the young narrator, in short, has been shared by most commentators, who have failed to perceive that the story functions primarily on a philosophical or religious plane. The heroine's sexual passivity is evoked merely to accentuate her otherworldly qualities. The story's theme, which may be traced to Vachel Lindsay's poem, “The Congo,” is the spirituality of the Negro race.

Fern spiritualizes everything and everyone with whom she comes in contact. The story opens with the sentence: “Face flowed into her eyes.” The eyes, in Toomer, are windows to the soul, and in Fern's countenance they dominate, and even obliterate, the surrounding flesh. They seem to focus on some vague spot above the horizon, seeking always to transcend, or rise above, the Georgia landscape. The movement of the imagery is upward, and it defines Fern's relation to the world. Her domain is the unseen and intangible: the noumenal world that exists beyond the senses. The men that she encounters, including the narrator, are uplifted and ennobled by the contact, and struggle subsequently to transcend their selfishness.

Fern's spiritual force is redoubled by virtue of her mixed ancestry. The daughter of a Jewish father and a Negro mother, she is the inheritor of two sets of sorrow songs. At his first sight of her, the narrator recalls, “I felt as if I heard a Jewish cantor sing. As if his singing rose above the unheard chorus of a folk-song (28).”4 Fernie May Rosen possesses the Jewish genius for suffering. She takes upon herself the agony of others, including the sexual torment of her lovers. She is the eternal scapegoat who must suffer in order that others (specifically the narrator) may be born. That is why, in the minds of the townspeople, she remains a virgin, and why she is associated, in Toomer's iconography, with the Virgin Mary.5

Fern embodies not only the Negro of the folksongs, but also of the revival meeting and the emotional church. That is the point of the climactic episode in which the narrator—half curious concerning Fern, and half in love with her—escorts her through a canebrake. Vaguely conscious of her spiritual power, but acting from force of habit, he takes her in his arms. She responds by running off, sinking to her knees, swaying back and forth, and uttering convulsive sounds, “mingled with calls to Christ Jesus.” She thus performs a priestly, if not a sexual office. Her body, although he doesn't recognize the gift, has been offered as the instrument of his salvation.

Fern is a symbol, in short, of the Negro folk-spirit. As such, she is the repository of a doomed spirituality. The quality of soul that she embodies, and whose cultural expression is folksong and revivalist religion, is about to disappear. It will not survive the Great Migration: “Besides, picture if you can, this cream-colored solitary girl sitting at a tenement window and looking down on the indifferent throngs of Harlem (28).” Fern could not exist apart from her pastoral milieu, and yet this rural folk-culture is fading into memory. The elegiac note is unmistakable. It is in the Georgia dusk that Fern weaves her most potent spell. Images of evening suffuse the story, producing that peculiar blend of sadness and tranquillity which is the hallmark of pastoral elegy.

“Theater” was inspired by a two-week stint that Toomer served as assistant manager of the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. It was long enough to absorb the atmosphere of a Negro vaudeville house and to fashion out of this milieu a complex symbol. In the opening paragraph, the walls of the theater are described as a kind of semipermeable membrane through which a complicated process of osmosis takes place. The “nigger life” of alleys, poolrooms, restaurants, and cabarets nourishes the shows that are presented within these walls, and conversely, the shows exert a shaping influence on the life-style that gave them birth. The theater thus emerges as an emblem of the two-way, reciprocal relationship of life and art.

The walls of the theater press in upon the human world until they become symbolic of the prison of the flesh, from which imagination alone can offer an escape. In the translucent glow of the lighted theater, human flesh seems to dissolve: “Stage lights, soft, as if they shine through clear pink fingers (92).” The theater is a place of shadowy forms, of artificial contrivances, of elaborate mirrorings of life. Throughout the story, Toomer never lets us forget the paraphernalia of illusion: the scenery and costumes and lighting effects that function to transform reality. His theme is precisely the relationship between the image and the life it represents, or, in Ralph Ellison's illuminating phrase, between the shadow and the act.

Toomer's theater is a place where magical transformations occur. The throbbing life of Washington's black belt is translated by the black musicians into jazz forms. The raw sexuality of brown and beige chorus girls is converted before our very eyes into dance forms. Dorris, the most talented among them, is transfigured into a woman of surpassing loveliness by the writer-hero's dream. The instrument of all these metamorphoses is the human imagination, symbolized by the shaft of light that streaks down from a window to illuminate the afternoon rehearsal.

On this symbolic stage the plot unfolds. John, the manager's brother, and a writer, watches Dorris dance. He entertains erotic fantasies, but finally dismisses them, not because of the obvious barrier of background and education, but rather on complicated philosophic grounds. While he is dedicated, in a priestly vein, to contemplation of the noumenal, she represents precisely the attractions of the phenomenal world. Putting it another way, John is torn between the higher and lower functions of his being. Dorris, on her part, does her best to win him through the only art at her command: the dance. Failing to ignite his passion, she mistakenly concludes that he has rejected her on the grounds of social class.

Momentarily the philosophic gulf between them is bridged in the imagery of John's dream. This climactic episode, where daydream shades off into fiction, is emblematic of the transforming power of imagination. In it the raw materials of John's experience are transfigured by the writer's art. Dorris becomes a woman of surpassing beauty; their imagined union, disembodied and ideal: “But his feet feel as though they step on autumn leaves whose rustle has been pressed out of them by the passing of a million satin slippers (98).” In this image of nature dematerialized by art, Toomer reveals the heart of his esthetic. John's dream is a vision of the union of flesh and spirit, of the phenomenal and noumenal worlds.

Art-as-transfiguration is Toomer's theme. He is concerned in “Theater” with the death of experience and its rebirth as art. Thus John's renunciation of a love affair with Dorris, and his distillation of their encounter into poetry. John is to Dorris as an artist to his material: she represents untransformed experience. But the artist, by definition, is a man who cannot tolerate the untransformed world. Through his imagination, he must remove the rustle from the autumn leaves. Paradoxically, the artist must renounce the phenomenal world, even as he celebrates it. The result is a tragic alienation, whose subjective mood is melancholy.

“Bona and Paul” derives from Toomer's undergraduate experience at the American College of Physical Training in Chicago. The hero of the story is a near-white college boy, studying to be a gym director. He becomes romantically involved with Bona, a Southern girl who is attracted not so much to Paul as to the idea of a Negro lover. Bona has the courage to defy convention to a point, but only by inverting, rather than transcending racial categories. Paul, who wishes to be loved for himself alone, struggles to escape the burden of exoticism. Ironically, he loses the girl by being overly intellectual: that is, by refusing to conform to Bona's preconceived idea of blackness.

The kernel of the story is contained in the opening tableau. On the floor of a gymnasium, students are engaged in precision drilling. Paul, out of step with the rest, is dressed in nonregulation blue trousers. It is precisely this nonconformity that Bona finds appealing. The precision drilling is symbolic of a regimented society that not only marches, but thinks in rigid line formation. Paul's white companions, as the story unfolds, are alternately fascinated and repelled by his ambiguous exoticism. Tormented by uncertainty, and desirous of reassuring absolutes, they press him to declare his race. They remain, in short, unawakened to the possibilities of life, to the individual reality that lies beyond the social category.

The theme of the story is epistemological. Verbs of cognition predominate, as Paul and Bona grope across the color line for a deeper knowledge of each other. Toomer's central metaphor, which compares the lovers to opaque windows, is drawn from St. Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians: “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known.”6 The color line, symbolized by the South-Side L track that divides the city, constitutes an artificial barrier to human understanding. Based on a priori rather than a posteriori knowledge, it serves to blind rather than illuminate.

The story moves to a climax in the episode of the Crimson Gardens. As he enters the nightclub with Bona, Paul feels inclined to cheer, for the Crimson Gardens represents a yea-saying, an affirmation of life. With its white patrons and Negro music, the club is a symbol of cultural amalgamation. It is also the Garden of Eden, where Paul loses Bona by eating of the Tree of Knowledge. As the young couple whirl around the floor, “The dance takes blood from their minds and packs it, tingling, in the torsos of their swaying bodies (151).” Intoxicated with passion, they head for the exit, but their progress is interrupted by a leering Negro doorman. Paul steps back to assure the man that something beautiful is about to happen, but when he returns for his companion, Bona has disappeared.

The resolution of the story is conveyed entirely through the imagery. The style becomes intensely lyrical, as it attempts to shape the moment of epiphany: “I came back to tell you, brother, that white faces are petals of roses. That dark faces are petals of dusk. That I am going out and gather petals. That I am going out and know her whom I brought here with me to these Gardens which are purple like a bed of roses would be at dusk (153).” Reality, in other words, is not categorical, but contingent. A flower that is red in daylight is purple in the dusk. And dusk is the point in time when day and night mingle and become one.

What Paul has mastered, in short, is a new epistemology, a new way of knowing. He has discovered the imagination as a mode of knowledge. He has learned that while thought divides (categorizes), imagination synthesizes. Through metaphor, the language of poetry, the imagination transcends categories and frees the human mind for a genuine encounter with reality. At the same time, Toomer's hero pays an awesome price for his new knowledge. Intent on philosophic clarity, he loses the girl. It is Toomer's characteristic gesture of renunciation: the eternal paradox of earthly values lost, even as transcendent aims are realized.

“Bona and Paul” is a model of artistic economy and symbolic compression. In its density of texture and profundity of theme, it is one of Toomer's richest stories. On the face of it, the story seems to undermine the central thrust of Cane. Once we take account of its strategic position at the end of Part II, however, this difficulty is resolved. The urbanization of the Negro, Toomer feels, will lead inexorably to his assimilation. In the process, America will be transformed. Like Toomer's hero, we will one day discover within ourselves the courage to transcend our racial categories. Then we will see not through a glass darkly, but face to face at last.


  1. “Karintha,” for example, was published in Broom, January 1922; “Calling Jesus” (then entitled “Nora”), in the Double Dealer, September 1922; “Fern,” in the Little Review, Autumn 1922; and “Kabnis” in Broom, September 1923.

  2. Among the sketches and vignettes are “Karintha,” “Becky,” “Carma,” “Seventh Street,” “Rhobert,” and “Calling Jesus.”

  3. Among the short stories are “Fern,” “Esther,” “Blood-Burning Moon,” “Avey,” “Theater,” “Box Seat,” and “Bona and Paul.”

  4. Page numbers in parentheses refer to the Harper and Row edition of Cane.

  5. For references to the Black Madonna, see Cane, pp. 31 and 40.

  6. First Corinthians, 13:12.

Peter Christensen (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Sexuality and Liberation in Jean Toomer's ‘Withered Skin of Berries,’” in Callaloo, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 616-26.

[In the following essay, Christensen assesses the flaws in “Withered Skin of Berries” and deems it “an indispensable part of our heritage from the Harlem Renaissance.”]

The publication of The Wayward and the Seeking1 in 1980 did not turn out to be a major event in American literature. For many people, Jean Toomer's claim to fame still begins and ends with Cane.2 Yet, two selections included by Darwin T. Turner are closely related to Cane and the Harlem Renaissance. One of these, as Nellie Y. McKay indicates in detail in Jean Toomer, Artist,3 is the play, Natalie Mann. The other is the story, “Withered Skin of Berries,” which seems to me the most important text in the volume, not only because it is well written, but because in it Toomer goes farther than before in analyzing black Americans in relation to other oppressed groups in American society of the 1920s.

In The Wayward and the Seeking, “Withered Skin of Berries” is not associated with a specific year of composition, and perhaps it cannot be. However, McKay provides some additional information which may help date the story. Speaking of Cane, she writes:

When the manuscript was completed, Jean Toomer appeared happy to his friends. In a letter to Waldo Frank, he intimated that he was in full agreement with Frank's introduction. In February 1923, in response to a letter from Horace Liveright he noted that nothing short of being hit by a “street car” would keep him from having more manuscripts for publication in the near future. He had two pieces in mind, each about the length of “Kabnis,” and another long story; these were to be the three pieces for his second book. “[T]he mileau [sic] is … Washington … the characters dynamic, lyric, complex.” His autobiographical writings suggest that Natalie Mann was one of the works intended for this book.

(JTA 84)

It seems quite likely that “Withered Skin of Berries,” with its Washington setting, was one of the above-mentioned stories, and that it represents Toomer's farewell to a type of fiction combining personal experience with meditations on blacks in the United States. With Balo and Natalie Mann it would have formed an interesting second book, had Toomer's publishing plans not been changed so much by his new interest in Gurdjieff. As this book never appeared, it is also possible that there are some autobiographical elements in the story which Toomer may have wanted to keep hidden. For example, McKay speaks of his relationship with a young black woman, Mae Wright, in the summer of 1922, at Harper's Ferry, one of the locations of “Withered Skin of Berries” (JTA 54). As in all of Toomer's other early stories, sex and the “battle of the sexes” is a theme as important as black experience.

“Withered Skin of Berries” is a celebration of the redeeming power of love and sex, but the story is not without its problems and obscurities. It can be divided into four main sections surrounded by a lyrical opening and closing. For this analysis, it will be best to summarize the plot briefly, look at the puzzling ending, and then work from the ending back into the story.

The central figure is Vera, a young black typist posing as a white woman in an office in Washington, D.C. during the twenties. She goes across the Potomac (Scene 1) to Great Falls on a date with Carl, a bigoted, upwardly mobile white coworker. Their time together is curtailed, as she forces Carl to take her back to the city to meet Art Bond, a black friend, for a date. Whereas Carl had been less than passionate, Art wants to have intercourse with her, and she pushes him off in a struggle (Scene 2). In an interlude at work some days later (Scene 3), a black woman in Vera's office has been caught “passing,” and many of the whites are dragging this woman's name through the dirt. Some day soon after, Vera finally goes out with David Teyy, a black man whom she finds poetic and inspired. They go across the river to the area she visited with Carl, where she reluctantly submits to David's demand for intercourse. Soon after, Carl arrives. Vera tells him she cannot marry him since she loves David, who is actually an old college acquaintance of Carl's.

The ending of the story is confusing. Before Carl can move off apologetically, David begins to build a fire and watches Vera and Carl draw near to it. Then he sings a song about John Brown's body (since the Harper's Ferry incident had occurred nearby) and makes a declaration which ends with the following lines:

“Know you, people, that you sit beside the boulder where Tiacomus made love. Made love, you understand me? Know you, people, that you are above a river, spattered with blood. With blood, you understand me? John Brown's blood. Know you, people, that you are beneath the stars of wonder, of reverence, of mystery. Know you that you are boulders of love, rivers spattered with blood, white red blood, black red blood, that you are stars of wonder and mystery. Roll river! Flow river! Roll river! Flow river! River, river, river, Roll!”


After this declaration, Toomer only casually returns to the main plot in the concluding three paragraphs. In the next paragraph we learn that the boulder near which all three were sitting “seemed cleft by a clap of thunder. As if the falls had risen and were thundering its fragments away …” (164). The penultimate paragraph is a variation on the second paragraph of the story, and the final paragraph is the same as the opening one. They deserve to be quoted in full:

Tick, tick, tick, tick, pounding of typewriters, metallic slide of files, rustle of starched paper. Young girls who work all month to imitate leisure-class flappers. Young girls from South Carolina, Illinois, Oregon, waiting. Widows of improvement men who had been somebody in their day. Boys who have left school. Men dreaming of marriage and bungalows in Chevy Chase. Old digested fellows. Negro messengers. Carl but little changed. The slow process of digestion, Black life pepper to the salt of white. Sneezes. Tick, tick, tick, tick. Vera listless, nervous …

Men listen to her lispings and murmurs. Black souls steal back to Georgia canefields, soft and misty, underneath a crescent moon. The mystery of their whispered promises seems close to revelation, seems tangibly incarnate in her. Black souls, tragic and fiery, dream of love. Sing joyful codas to forgotten folk-songs. Spin love to the soft weaving of her arms. Men listen to her lispings and murmurs. White souls awake to adolescent fantasies they thought long buried with the dead leaves along the summer streets of mid-western towns. Solvents of melancholy burn through their bitten modes of pioneer aggressiveness to a southern repose. They too spin love to the soft weaving of her arms. White men, black men, only in retrospective kisses, know the looseness of her lips … pale withered skin of berries …


The first/last paragraph is a variant of the lyrical descriptions of women such as Karintha in Cane. “Withered Skin of Berries,” however, tries to join narrative realism with lyric symbolism as in “Bona and Paul” and “Kabnis.”

As the story closes, apparently David has liberated himself, and the cosmos has marked the occasion with a thunderclap. The river is spattered both with John Brown's blood and the blood of the no longer virginal Vera. Nevertheless, we ask, why are these two symbols united? Apparently, Vera goes back to her office and Carl is little changed. But if Vera does not marry her passive suitor, Carl, neither does she go off with David, who seems to think his whole life is now changed because he has had intercourse with her. With business as usual, Vera returns to being the untouchable object of both black and white longings, the emotionally frigid ice maiden whose great sin, the inability to love a man, is repeatedly symbolized by the phrase, “pale withered skin of berries.”

David's sexual experience, unlike Vera's, has a historical referent to it. Whereas she is only exposing herself to pregnancy and societal disapproval, David, as the Indian, Tiacomus, is having communion with the abolitionist movement and with the Indians who have also been victimized by whites. If we are to accept the story on these terms, it is very sexist. Vera is singled out as being an emotional cripple, but David, whom she hardly knows, is supposed to be her sexual savior. One can instructively compare Toomer to D. H. Lawrence, whose The Lost Girl had been published in 1920. Here Alvina Houghton, a potential old maid of the Midlands, is rescued into pregnancy by her exotic and well-muscled Italian lover, Ciccio. As Nellie Y. McKay points out, with reference to Natalie Mann, Toomer can not credibly imagine a woman rescuing herself. The narrator allows David to end his career as a character on a moment of exultation, whereas Vera and Carl are thrown back into the humdrum work world.

What is particularly strange about the story's ending is the suggestion, made clear by David, that heterosexual experience will lead to happiness. After all, Vera is disappointed and disturbed by all three boyfriends. In contrast, the only happy and mutual, if muted, sexual experience of the story is a homosexual one. It is the blissful night which Carl spent in a canoe with David Teyy on Lake Michigan while they were fraternity brothers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This incident is introduced as a narrative that Carl tells Vera at the point in their date where Vera is noting that Carl is not very amorous and her thoughts are wandering to the new man in town (that is, David Teyy), whose name she can't quite remember. Here Toomer writes:

They too had found a boulder. One's voice could be heard. Vera seated Indian fashion, responding, perhaps, to some folk persuasion of the place, rested Carl's head in her lap. Carl had been talking brokenly, trying to tell himself just how he felt. Her holding him made it easier to think. If it was love, it was curiously without passion. Passion was not love; but it was a part of it. One should pretend not to feel too much until one was married. But hiding it, and not feeling it at all, were two different things. “Once at Madison,” he said aloud to Vera, “I felt like this.” Her mind wanted Vera to listen. She must not tease or play with him.—Tease Art Bond though. Its almost time, it must be time for my date with him. What was his name? O wont you come to me? Poet, I will not admit that he ever did or ever could hurt me. Oh yes and just you wait, I'll tease him too. Him whom I cannot tease. Who put beauty, a senseless warm thing like a sucking baby, in my mouth.


This interesting paragraph begins from Carl's point of view and then switches to Vera's. Whereas Carl's lack of passion could be attributed to any number of causes in itself, the story's insistence on Vera's magnetic desirability and the subsequent tale of the perfect homoerotic moment make us wonder if Carl is really a repressed homosexual.

Carl, however, is enjoying his experience of love with Vera. We read:

Carl's conscious mind had not planned on love. With a million coming, things could wait. It came. Love was a tender joy, protective-like, that gave soft scents of sandalwood above the din of churning waters, beneath the chaste fire of the evening star.


If Carl loves Vera, then when he says that at Madison “I felt like this,” we know that he must have been in love with David Teyy also. In fact, Vera seems particularly lovable because he can confess to her the love he has felt and been unable to tell anyone. Talking to her gives him a chance to relive this central experience of beauty. Meanwhile, Vera is also thinking of David, who has transformed her life at first sight. He is the man she cannot have power over, since her ability to tease represents her power. Her image of David as one who “put beauty, a senseless warm thing like a sucking baby, in my mouth” is very odd. After all, why would anyone put either beauty or a sucking baby in one's mouth? Later, David tells her, “You hold a phallus to the eye, and tease yourself” (156).

Vera speculates that her “poet” must be “like the fellow Carl is talking about” (147). Together they are united by their love for the black man who offers redemption. In Carl's case the redemption is from racism. Carl can be pleasant in his daily dealings with blacks, but underneath the surface he resents them, particularly for the way they look. He hates Jews even more. But when he went out in the canoe, all this was forgotten:

“One night he took me in his canoe. Just him and I. The moon was shining. When we got out in the middle of the lake, he slid down on the bottom, on the cushions, and began to hum. Yodels and singing were coming from canoes all over the water. I didnt notice him at first. And then, something like a warm finger seemed to touch my heart. I cant just explain it. I looked around and saw him. His eyes, set in that dark face, looked like two stars. ‘Put the paddle in,’ he said, ‘we'll drift.’ I did. ‘Turn around and slide over the bar, theres a cushion on the bottom for you,’ he then said. He saw me try, tip the canoe, and hesitate. ‘Come on, dont be afraid, youre with an Indian, pale-face friend.’ Saying that, way out in the middle of the lake, surrounded by shores that were once the home of Indians, made me feel strange and queer, you bet. Lights gleaming from the boat-house were far to shore. I made it, and again he started humming. ‘Are you an Indian, really’ I asked. He kept on humming.”


In one of the most brilliant touches of the story, David, the black man, identifies himself as a Native American, thus introducing a theme that has its final resolution when David lights the fire at the boulder for Carl and Vera. Perhaps it also indicates Toomer's unwillingness in many respects to separate the experience of black Americans from other Americans and his dislike of the concept of “black writer.” In any event, the image of the drifting boat presided over by the Indian guide is a very fitting one, since, in forgetting his prejudice, Carl is entering uncharted waters, and also since there is no beaten path in heterosexual society for men who wish to remain together. Nevertheless, perhaps for David the homoerotic component of the experience is not as great as for Carl, who tells us that David was “strong for girls” (146). Since David is not cutting through his worst self and is more open to life, their time together may be remembered by him with a less romantic aura.

David tells Carl about the Native Americans:

“Dead leaves of northern Europe, Carl, have decayed for roots tangled here in America. Roots thrusting up a stark fresh life. Thats you. Multi-colored leaves, tropic, temperate, have decayed for me. We meet here where a race has died for both of us. Only a few years ago, forests and fields, this lake, Mendota, heard the corn and hunting songs of a vanished people. They have resolved their individualism to the common stream. We live on it. We live on them. And we are growing. Life lives on itself and grows. The mystery and wonder of it.” He paused.


David's identification with Native Americans is symbolic. He can clearly see that the oppression and murder of Native Americans has led to a loss in numbers that blacks have not experienced. However, it is disconcerting that David should tell Carl that “a race has died for both of us,” while still believing, “We live on it. We live on them. And we are growing. Life lives on itself and grows. The mystery and wonder of it.” Presumably, this must be taken as an acceptance of the life force rather than passivity before some destiny manifested in the increase in black and white Americans at the expense or the original inhabitants.

When David proclaims, “Deep River spreads over Mendota. Whirl up and dance above them new world soul!” we feel the same force that invigorates his closing speech to Vera and Carl. The “black red blood” and the “white red blood” are the blacks and whites who are continuing the vitalistic legacy of the Native Americans.

David's hand-holding with Carl was part of his first statement in the story of his views on American Indians. Even on the second occasion, his date with Vera, he predicts that Carl will come to the woods where they are talking. Yet David's attitude toward American Indians is challenged by the way the heterosexual experience is presented. Vera tells David:

“Your questions chill me. Your words. O do not talk to me David. Love.”

Lips that but a few moments ago were the pale withered skin of berries, who tautened you with dew? Brushed you with the sweet scent of cane? Sandalwood odor of hair. Murmurs. Lispings. Love spinning to the tight pressure of tensioned arms. David … wedge … cleaving. Bronze sun, hammered to a sharp wedge … cleaving … His lips tasted of copper and blood.

“O David, David, not that. Not that, David. How could you—after to-night, you kneeling at the point?”


“No, David, O no—love.”

“Young girl asking for the moon.”

“What do you mean? O David—you cannot sin so. Love.”

“Young girl asking for the moon.”

“David, you are killing something in me. You cannot sin so. Mother of Christ, forgive him.”

Hands that tautened with dew, brushed with the sweet scent of cane, you are Indian givers.

Vera lay, a limp, damp thing, like a young bird fallen from its nest, found in the morning, in David's arms. John Brown's body rumbles in the river …


“I cant, David, I want to go home.”


Who is it, we ask, that considers the hands that tautened Vera's lips with dew “Indian givers”? Most logically, it would be Vera rather than the narrator, yet there has been a pattern established of associating many of the lyric outbursts which have previously occurred with the narrator. However, if the narrator really feels that Vera is betrayed, as indeed she is, then David's subsequent exultation is full of an irony inconsistent with the rest of Toomer's characterization.

Vera's experiences of betrayal are also linked to her feelings about Carl and Art Bond. Both Carl and Art noticed her sandalwood-like hair, and it was Art whom she first perceived as a wedge trying to cleave her. Sex with David is in part a memory of her trauma rather than an authentic experience in the present. David sees Vera only as a person with mixed-up values, not as someone who finds sex intolerable at that moment. Ironically, the moon which seems tarnished for David had given to Carl's experience in the boat with him the equivalent of Wordsworth's “light that never was, on sea or land.”

Vera's attitude toward Carl in a way parallels David's attitude toward her. In each case, one is offended by the lack of physicality that the other displays. Halfway through Carl's narrative, we are presented with Vera's thoughts on this:

—He does not paw me. His arms embrace the shadow of a dream. I cannot tease him. His dream is a solvent of my resolution. He has taken something from me. It will be harder to face the office. I'd like to hate him for it. Easier to face the office because I share his dream. Will it melt something in me? Why cant I feel? If Art Bond should dream, I could not tease him.


For Vera personal worth is partially measured in terms of her desirability. If she cannot “turn on” on a man, she knows that her worth must be decreasing, and this feeling leads to her hatred.

The experience which Carl and Vera have near Great Falls also parallels Vera's meeting with David in another way. Carl is not only reminded of David by Vera, but he also thinks of David, the self-styled Indian, because they are in “the shadow of a boulder where some Indian made love” (148). The Indian who made love by holding the football player's hand and the one who later has intercourse with Vera near the boulder are the same person, David. In fact, David's presence is incorporated in Carl and Vera's meeting in a lyrical outburst:

Carl shifted positions and took her in his arms. He kissed her lips … pale withered skin of berries, puckered a little tight … and drew her to him with a tension that was more muscular than passionate …

John Brown's body, rumbles in the river,

John Brown's body, thunders down the falls …

“What was that Carl?”

“I didnt hear a thing, sweetheart.”


These words about John Brown are repeated in David's song at the end of the story. If they are heard only by Vera, then she must be credited with a kind of telepathy, even though she and David do not seem to be operating on the same frequency later on. If they represent the narrator's lyrical outburst, there is some irony in them, since it was only when the Indian “threat” in the Midwest and Central Plains was by and large over that people in those areas, such as John Brown, had time for the abolitionist movement. Once again this motif relates to the idea of the Indian serving as a kind of sacrifice for blacks and whites. Here the mention of John Brown prefigures the knowledge Vera can have if she becomes better balanced sexually. A link between John Brown's belief in human freedom and Vera's denial of it is made on the basis of “blood.” In the next passage, we read:

Why were men so callous? Brutal in insisting on her sacrifice. Then they wouldnt want her … she must keep her body pure. Why couldnt she feel to return it? Feel for him the emotion that had spattered in “beautiful.” Perhaps—Vera, lead in her heart, faced the possibility, that, for some unknown reason, maybe she really couldnt love.


Whereas John Brown, glamorized by Toomer, sacrifices himself for future Americans, Vera refuses to sacrifice herself for men, who, except for Carl, are too brutal for her tastes. To David, by keeping her body pure, she denies the “black red blood” and “white red blood” which he finds so efficacious.

Unknown to Carl, Vera has been trying to cope with her experiences. In her encounter with Art Bond, she communicates to him what she has learned from not responding to Carl, namely, that men pour themselves into her because she is empty. When Art becomes eager for sex, Vera backs away:

Vera, softly weaving arms. Sandalwood odor of hair. Murmurs. Lispings. Art's arms tightened around her. Vera averted her lips. He kissed her throat. Caught a soft fold in his teeth and bit it.

“You musnt Art.”

“Musnt love you?”

“Not that way … O cant you see I'm empty … Art, Art I'm empty, fill me with dreams.”

“With love.”

“No, with dreams. Dreams of how life grows, feeding on itself. Dreams of dead leaves, multi-colored leaves. Dreams of leaves decaying for a vernal stalk, phosphorescent in the dusk, flaming in dawn. O Art, in that South from which you come, under its hates and lynchings have you no lake, no river, no falls to sit beside and dream … dream?”


Vera's ambivalence toward the dream is pronounced. Her brief meeting with David has awakened the dream within her. Yet she doesn't care for Carl's dream about her. Her dream of life, growing by “feeding on itself,” is, of course, David's dream already. Vera wants Art to dream as she and Carl have done, but once he offers her his dream (of the Syrup Man), she panics because she realizes she has lost her hold over him.

The scene at the office which follows reminds us of the tentative hold Vera has over her everyday life of “passing.” She continually faces colleagues who will not take her side if she is discovered. Since Vera is always feigning ‘whiteness,’ it is no surprise that she has also taken up feigning love and desire with her suitors. Hoping to escape to a new life, Vera calls up David.

Vera imagines a different response than she gets from David:

Something from David Teyy ran down the steering-gear, down the brakes and clutches, and gave flesh and blood life to the car. Vera was curled, as if she was in the dark enclosure of a womb. She could drive on forever. Covered by life that flowed up the blue veins of the city. Up Sixteenth Street. David was a red blood center flowing down. She sucked his blood. Go on forever with David flowing down. He had hardly spoken to her. She wished he would never speak. Life flowed away from her to gestate his words.


Vera is presented as a vampire who sucks the hero's blood, the life force (perhaps a Lawrentian one), which, like the Potomac, flows on. David tells her, “You are a living profanation of the procreative principle of Deity” (156). David does not associate God with love or goodness, but with fertility. Surely, this is the worst type of date that Vera could have. Considering her obsession with virginity, the occasion is less like a woman finding her lover than a masochist finding the right sadist. The story does not allow us to separate David's philosophy of God from an overworked come-on line, and so Vera has little means of working out her relationship to David.

When Vera is reminded of “Deep River, Mendota,” Toomer thwarts our expectations that some attractive homoerotic tenderness has survived in David. Instead, when Vera asks him if Art Bond is a friend of his, he goes into the following complaint:

“One of the best. The best, here, perhaps, except for his habit of fastening on the ghosts of my dead selves. Ghosts, the spiritualists tell us, should be allowed to depart, with a bon voyage for the way. That is a serviceable truth that should be brought from the cheap tappings and illogic of the seance to the practice of broad day.”

Smile; serious.

“You believe in ghosts?”

“Your meaning of the word is beside the question. Things die, transmute. Their memory lingers. A preoccupation with them clogs creative life. People who are forever fastening on them give tangibility to the clogs. They can very easily slip from friends to nuisances.”


Although what David says about Art may be true, he sounds extremely patronizing of his best friend. David believes that he has all the answers. Yet he cannot help Vera. She thinks, “Virgin Mother, you will understand if I drown in the river” (158), and she even tells David that “it would be a Godsend for the river to overflow and sweep me under” (158). Despite the fact that he tells her sarcastically that “Emptiness desires Nirvana” (158), he slips to his knees before her. She sinks on the grass and feels that God has saved her from suicide. Thus David first drives her to thoughts of suicide and then acts as the man who rescues her from death. This seems like a doomed relationship. Perhaps this is why Vera goes back to work and David slips out of her life. Vera's problems are more than can be solved in an evening. David disappears. Although Toomer may think that David has found some new insight, it seems to me that this insight is buried under the lyricism of his final speech. The ending is still flawed.

“Withered Skin of Berries” does not fulfill its ambitions. It is about liberation—of blacks, Native Americans, women, and potentially gay men, yet it leaves us with only one liberated moment, Carl's momentary escape from racism in his love for David. Unfortunately, if David really believes that the principle of Deity is allied to procreation, then that does not allow men to reach beyond one night of holding hands without oppression. David does not see Carl as a force of nature as he does Vera, and he might have realized that this is an advantage, for his mystic elevation of life-giving womanhood is ultimately just another stereotype a black woman has to face. At the end of the story, nothing has changed. Vera remains a fantasy figure. The major question the story cannot answer is whether she has driven men to this fantasy or whether she is the emotionally stunted victim of repressive male eroticism.

Any reader of Natalie Mann will see in David Teyy's speech to Vera an echo of Nathan Merilh's declaration of love to Natalie in Act 2 Scene 4. Less obvious perhaps is the theme of male camaraderie in the play. Just as David was critical of Art behind his back, Nathan, without adequate justification, pushes his best friend, Therm Law, away from him and has no desire to help him when he is in trouble.

We can contrast what Law and Nathan say of each other. Law tells Mertis Newbolt:

… I think of myself stretched on an immaculately clean enameled table with a firm but kindly surgeon bending over me, probing for a bullet in an ugly wound. Something strong and resolute wells up inside me to meet him. I become disdainful of anesthetic, and my spirit seems to float outside of me into life unconditioned by questions of mere pleasure or pain. …


Sometime later in New York, Nathan tells Natalie that

… perhaps underneath [Law is] really ashamed of his own ideas. Not sure of them from the logic of his emotions. It takes the actual maturity and conviction of experience to break away from ingrained notions. He has known only child-women. I half suspect that his ideal is still that of innocence. And that he conceives the tragedy of woman as residing in its so-called betrayal.


Here we have Nathan's betrayal of Law, based on what Nathan considers to be Law's anemic version of heterosexuality.

Like Nathan and David, the narrator of Cane is also concerned with sexual rejection. He takes Fern in his arms, but she begins to sing and then faints. When he holds Avey, she does not respond sexually, but falls to sleep in a child's slumber. Both women have long been objects of his fantasizing, and although these stories are beautifully written, they also represent a threshhold in dealing with black women's experiences which he can not pass beyond with complete success, neither here nor in “Withered Skin of Berries.”

“Withered Skin of Berries” moves beyond Cane as Toomer tries to think of black American experience in the light of Native American experience. This outlook is not typical of Harlem Renaissance literature. Nor was the literature of the Harlem Renaissance particularly concerned with homosexuality. Unfortunately, Toomer is unable to capitalize on Walt Whitman's hopes and insights in thinking of gay male experience as a democratizing force in American society. This is particularly disappointing, since “Blue Meridian” (1936) indicates that Whitman must have meant a great deal to Toomer. Given flaws such as these, however, “Withered Skin of Berries,” despite its late publication date, is an indispensable part of our heritage from the Harlem Renaissance.


  1. Jean Toomer, The Wayward and the Seeking, ed. Darwin T. Turner (Washington, D.C.: Howard UP, 1980).

  2. I have been unable to find any detailed evaluations of The Wayward and the Seeking as a whole or any individual analysis of “Withered Skin of Berries.” For books on Toomer see: Darwin T. Turner, In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1971), 1-59; and Brian Joseph Benson and Mabel Mayle Dillard, Jean Toomer (New York: Twayne, 1980). The recent biography of Toomer is Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge, The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987). See p. 80.

  3. Nellie Y. McKay, Jean Toomer, Artist (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1980), 68ff.

Sandra Hollin Flowers (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Solving the Critical Conundrum of Jean Toomer's ‘Box Seat,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 301-05.

[In the following essay, Flowers contends that Toomer effectively explores 1920s class division among African Americans in “Box Seat.”]

Contemporary critics tend to read Jean Toomer's Cane as the odyssey of the black writer in search of racial heritage. Consequently, since “Box Seat,” one of Cane's short stories, is set in the city, it is treated as part of the urban leg of the odyssey.1 In numerous letters and journal entries, Toomer encourages this approach by citing a 1921 trip to Georgia as the impetus for Cane. Admittedly, Toomer's leaving the amenities of Washington, D.C., for the privations of the rural South does indeed ring of odyssey. Nellie McKay, however, reveals that the teaching position which took Toomer to Georgia was but one in a series of jobs Toomer's grandfather secured for him. McKay concludes that Toomer's trip “actually occurred without any planning on his part, and [that] he went [to Georgia] not in search of his roots but in quest of temporary release from the drudgery of the domestic activities [of caring for his grandparents].”2

Though in criticizing Cane McKay ultimately succumbs to the odyssey siren, her disclosure regarding the Georgia trip invites new readings consistent with recurring themes in Toomer's canon. In this regard, I would argue that “Box Seat” is a prose counterpart to Toomer's Natalie Mann, an expressionist drama denouncing black middle-class values. Toomer's disdain for these values, evident in characterization and themes throughout his published and unpublished writings, may be his response to his own family's sliding through the middle class on its way from affluence to poverty. Whatever the case, Toomer, in “Box Seat,” effectively uses enclosure, locking, and positioning imagery to criticize class division among Afro-Americans during the early 1920s. The coalescence of this imagery, however, escapes one when “Box Seat” is read as the urban correlative to a rural journey.

Afro-American class division originated in the occupational differences and racial mixture of slave populations and antebellum freedmen. However, since “Box Seat” is set in 1920s Washington, D.C., E. Franklin Frazier's description is a fitting prelude to analysis:

Washington became … the center of Negro “society” and retained this distinction until after the first World War. … Because of its relatively large Negro professional class … Negroes in the nation's capital had incomes far above those in other parts of the country. This enabled Washington's “colored society” to engage in forms of consumption and entertainment that established its preeminence among American Negroes.3

“Box Seat” condemns the values Toomer perceives in Frazier's Washington. Part I unfolds as Dan walks through a middle-class neighborhood of shuttered houses. Dan, unemployed and without social standing, is too intimidated even to whistle or sing to himself “tones in keeping with the houses' loveliness.”4 Ushered into a side-street house by the landlady, Mrs. Pribby, Dan pays court to Muriel, a teacher aspiring to a position among Washington's black elite. Muriel, though, is distant and chiding. Ambivalently, she rejects Dan's advances, reflecting that she could love him if Mrs. Pribby and the town would let her—that, indeed, she does love him but must not let him know.

Part II begins a short while later as Muriel and her friend Bernice arrive at the Lincoln Theater. Dan enters and follows an usher to a seat near Muriel. Erotic fantasies and angry thoughts distract Dan during the evening's main event—a boxing match between dwarfs. The audience revels in the savagery the dwarfs inflict upon one another. After the match, the victor serenades the women in the audience. Dan's fantasy changes to a vision of himself as Samson, pulling the theater down upon the decadent audience. At the end of the song, the dwarf offers Muriel a blood-stained white rose. As Muriel reaches for the rose, Dan leaps up, shouting, “‘JESUS WAS ONCE A LEPER!’” (66). The story ends with Dan's walking away from an angry theater patron who, accompanied by a cheering mob, waits in an alley to trounce him.

Aside from its utility as a transitional device, Toomer's two-part structure enables him to exact parallel meanings from recurring imagery. Part I, for instance, establishes socio-economic distinctions by using houses, seating arrangements, and movement to demarcate the social classes. Part II modifies this imagery to parody the nascent middle class's pretensions. Here, for example, theater boxes—the box seat of the title—serve the same function as do the houses and furnishings of Part I. In Part II, Toomer amplifies the house symbolism by bestowing upon the middle-class audience the appellation “the house.”

Toomer's enclosure-locking-positioning imagery begins as soon as the story itself does. Dan, for instance, first appears as an interloper who would “woo the virginal houses” (56), that is, threaten the equilibrium of the emerging black middle class. Passing through an iron gate—the house's figurative chastity belt—Dan fumbles for the doorbell, fearful that “Some one passing by might see him, and not understand. Might think that he is trying to sneak, to break in” (56). Muriel reinforces Dan's status as outsider when she greets him: “‘Hello, Dan, stranger, what brought you here?’” (58).

Within the confines of the house, Mrs. Pribby snugly “fits into her chair” (57). Similarly, “Muriel's chair is close and stiff about her.” The sight repels Dan, who “feels the pressure of the house … shift to Muriel” (58) and imagines “The house, the rows of houses locked about her chair” (60). By contrast, Dan “[sinks] into a soft couch” (57), the very softness of which both bespeaks middle-class comforts and underscores Dan's unsubstantial foundation. These distinctions follow Dan and Muriel to the theater. Where Muriel sits, “The seats are bolted houses” (61). Dan, lacking a comparable haven, “has to squeeze past the knees of seated people to reach his own seat” (62).

A profusion of locking imagery fortifies the enclosures. Toomer omits the sounds of the locks and keys that presumably would precede Mrs. Pribby's opening the door. Dan, however, perceives the house as being “Bolted to the endless rows of metal houses” (57). And when Mrs. Pribby seats herself, “There is a sharp click as she fits into her chair. … like the sound of a bolt being shot into place” (57). Similarly, Muriel, upon joining Dan in the parlor, “clicks into a high-armed seat” (58), around which are locked the rows of houses. At the theater, “Each [person] is a bolt that shoots into a slot and is locked there” (61). The new middle class, then, is not only encased in protective enclosures, but also riveted against the possibility of dislodgement.

Equally suggestive of class division is the imagery of position and vertical movement. As a teacher, Muriel is a certified member of the middle class. It matters little that she is on the periphery of this class—Dan “turns into a side-street” (56) to reach her house; she still outranks Dan socially. This socio-economic distinction is portrayed metaphorically when Dan “Mounts the steps” (56) to reach Mrs. Pribby's house and when, after rejecting Dan's overtures, Muriel “retreats before him till she reaches the landing of the steps that lead upstairs” and, at his continued advance, “steps backward up one step” (61).

Complementary position imagery pervades the theater scenes, where—in addition to the separation between box seat patrons and the multitudes—Muriel's box seat is adjacent to “the right [that is, correct] aisle,” though in the “lower,” that is, bottom tier (61). Thus Muriel's position on the most vulnerable rung of the middle-class ladder is subtly reiterated. As though to counteract the precariousness of her position, “She takes the first chair, and indicates that Bernice is to take the one directly behind her” (61).

The position of Bernice's seat has further implications. Throughout the evening, Dan entertains notions of an underground race whose rumblings are audible above ground. At the Lincoln, Dan sits next to the personification of this race, a woman exuding a “soil-soaked fragrance,” sending her roots through the cement floor into the river where they “disappear in blood-lines that waver south” (62). Considering the story's other imagery and the recurrence of the word “masses” in this segment, this woman's description suggests that Dan's underground race is the masses of Afro-Americans, an inescapable underclass whose specter invades the havens of the middle class. Muriel's friend Bernice, “a cross between a washerwoman and a blue-blood lady” (61), is a first-generation fugitive from the underclass. That she is Muriel's companion suggests Muriel's own proximity to that underclass. Hence Muriel's putting Bernice behind her is tantamount to her trying to outdistance her immediate, damning past.

Finally, the dwarf boxing match offers an especially rich metaphor of positioning. A scant lifetime removed from slavery, Afro-Americans of the 1920s were themselves a politically and economically dwarfed race. In “Box Seat,” however, the minuscule middle class, like the story's literal dwarfs, jockey among themselves for position. Toomer parodies the excesses of this jockeying through a “heavyweight championship” bout between dwarfs, whose size is analogous to that of jockeys.

The significance of the dwarf fight and its aftermath—particularly Dan's cry that “‘JESUS WAS ONCE A LEPER!’”—lies in the coalescing of the story's imagery in the final scenes. During the dwarf fight, Dan directs scathing thoughts at Muriel: “Muriel—bored. Must be. But she'll smile and she'll clap. Do what youre [sic] bid, you she-slave. … Drag me in with you. Dirty me. Prop me in your brass box. I'm there, am I not? because of you. He-slave. Slave of a woman who is a slave” (63). These thoughts are a distillate of the story's recurring imagery. Mention of Muriel's brass box revives the enclosure imagery; Dan's labeling Muriel and himself as slaves recalls the locking imagery; and Muriel's figurative dragging of Dan into the box seat mirrors the positioning imagery.

Further, this passage emphasizes the inevitability of Muriel's capitulation to the values Dan abhors. Muriel ultimately will “do what [she's] bid,” whatever is required for social acceptance. Dan, too, is perilously close to capitulation, as suggested by the double entendre, “Dirty me.” On the one hand, this is part of Dan's triple imperative to Muriel—drag me, dirty me, prop me. At the same time, “dirty me” is a self-descriptive adjective, indicative of both Dan's lowered self-esteem (brought on by his willingness to compromise his values) and the perception “the house” has of people like him.

After uniting the story's imagery through Dan's reverie, Toomer further prepares the reader for the story's ending. First, he restores the reader's sense of Dan's strength through the Samson fantasy, complete with partial blinding via the singing dwarf's mirror. While Dan dodges the blinding light, “the house” mocks him as it had ridiculed the dwarfs during the boxing match. Upon regaining his sight, Dan views the dwarf compassionately—“identifies with him,” in the language of popular psychology. Thereafter, Dan and the dwarf are symbolically interchangeable, since neither is socially acceptable to “the house.” Thus Dan is aghast when, at the urging of “the house,” Muriel accepts the bloodied rose, the proffering of which is the dwarf's final demeaning act. In accepting the rose, Muriel becomes an instrument of the dwarf's humiliation and, necessarily, of Dan's.

Through her action, Muriel endorses the debased values underlying the evening's travesty; Dan, by contrast, experiences an epiphany which enables him to salvage his besmirched integrity. Seen in this light, Dan's declaration that Jesus was once a leper becomes an allusive judgment of, and an elliptic message to “the house.” Jesus once walked among lepers, Dan signifies, an act which, for the time, made Jesus a leper by association. Yet the black middle class, fearful of contamination, disdains to walk among the poor. Rejecting these impoverished values, “Dan steps down” from the seat where he stood to shout his message (66), figuratively assuming the social position to which he is both consigned and resigned.

Clearly “Box Seat” occupies a more significant place within the canon of Toomer's work than has generally been recognized. Rather than simply balancing the rural portions of Cane, this story strongly depicts Toomer's preoccupation with the social and psychological pettiness of the black middle class of his era. Unfortunately, in none of Toomer's later writings does he succeed in handling this sensitive subject as adroitly as in “Box Seat.”


  1. Representative of this approach are S. P. Fullwinder, “Jean Toomer: Lost Generation, or Negro Renaissance?” Phylon (Winter 1966), 396-403; William J. Goede, “Jean Toomer's Ralph Kabnis: Portrait of the Negro Artist as a Young Man,” Phylon (Spring 1969), 73-85; Darwin T. Turner, “Jean Toomer: Exile,” in his In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1971); Charles W. Scruggs, “The Mark of Cain and the Redemption of Art: A Study in Theme and Structure of Jean Toomer's Cane,American Literature 44 (May 1972), 276-91; and George C. Matthews, “Toomer's Cane: The Artist and His World,” CLA Journal (June 1974), 543-59.

  2. Nellie McKay, Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of Chapel Hill Press, 1984), pp. 45-46.

  3. E. Franklin Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise of a New Negro Middle Class in the United States (London: Collier Books, 1962), p. 164.

  4. Jean Toomer, “Box Seat,” Cane (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923; rpt. 1975), p. 56. All further references are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

Ralph Reckley, Sr. (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “The Vinculum Factor: ‘Seventh Street’ and ‘Rhobert’ in Jean Toomer's Cane,” in College Language Association Journal, Vol. 31, No. 4, June, 1988, pp. 484-89.

[In the following essay, Reckley emphasizes the thematic and stylistic significance of “Seventh Street” and “Rhobert” in Cane.]

Whether Cane is considered to be a novel or a montage of poetry and prose, the one thing that cannot be denied is the fact that the two works that begin the second section of the volume, “Seventh Street” and “Rhobert,” are vinculums. They are linchpins for Cane not only because they are structurally transitional devices, but also because they act as conductors and modifiers for the mood, the tone, and the theme that Toomer sets in Part One of his book. While “Seventh Street” appears to be retrospective in nature, it contrasts sharply with Part One, and it anticipates Part Two. “Rhobert” immediately emphasizes the tone and the mood introduced in “Seventh Street,” and, at the same time, it suggests to the reader a foreshadowing of section three.

In the first part of Cane, Toomer's two major themes dominate: (1) the black man's affinity for the soil and the soil's productivity, symbolized by the abundance of cane and green pine trees, and (2) the spiritual and emotional—if not physical—sterility that results from proscriptions and prohibitions placed on the individual by society. The second section of the volume is a variation on these themes. Where there are organic forces of the soil in the South, one is confronted with inorganic asphalt in the North. Where there is growth and continuity in the live cane and pine trees in the South, one is overwhelmed with dry rot and decaying wood in the North. And where characters in the South become astigmatized because they refuse to adhere to society's norms, the characters in the North, for the most part, become maladjusted and disfunctional because they are weighed down by materialism and/or oversocialization. The fulcrum on which these variations turn is “Seventh Street” and “Rhobert.”

“Seventh Street” is the shortest prose piece in the entire volume. In brevity it vies with “Rhobert” and “Calling Jesus,” but it is slightly shorter than either. Impressionistic, it depends on mood and tone for its effectiveness. And effective it is. In less than a page and a half, Toomer describes the life-styles of people of the inner city of Washington more effectively than Elliot Liebow does in his entire book Talley's Corner. Toomer zooms in on Seventh Street and focuses not on individuals or concrete objects, but rather on images and symbols. Seventh Street, the bastard of prohibition and World War I—and it is obvious here that Toomer implies that these two historical events illegitimized the Negro by uprooting him from the land and changing his social values—is “a soft-skinned wedge of nigger life” which pours its blood, its life-blood, into “the white and whitewashed wood of Washington.”1

Dry rot—decayed, water-logged wood—in Cane is symbolic of decay and death. Hence, when Toomer stresses the fact that the black life-style on Seventh Street is a wedge in the stale, soggy wood of Washington, that this wedge will split the soggy whitewashed wood again and again, and that the wedge will make shredded ribbons of this decayed, whitewashed wood, the message that comes through the symbol of decayed wood and through the figurative image of the wedge becomes quite clear: the black life-style, despite its being uprooted and removed from the soil, is still strong and will bring change to Washington. White wood and white-washed wood should not be taken lightly, because the image of a black wedge splitting white wood certainly suggests the influence of a black presence. Implicit in the image, too, is the notion that while Seventh Street might literally have been a wedge of black humanity in the city of Washington, it would, eventually, produce change in the city in the manner in which the wedge splits and changes the shape of wood. However, while the inhabitants of Seventh Street bring new life to a dying city, it must not be forgotten that the city changes both the values and the customs of an uprooted, dispossessed people. Instead of the hard-working, honest people of the South, one finds “Bootleggers in silken shirts, / Balooned, zooming Cadillacs, / Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks.” In other words we find not a hard-working rural black, but an entirely different urban black man on this bastard street created by “prohibition and the war.”

It was stated earlier in this paper that “Seventh Street” is somewhat retrospective in that it takes the reader back to themes and images in the first part of Cane. The image-clusters that are present in decayed wood, sawdust, and old houses are basically associated with the North, although there are some uses of the clusters in the South. The last major incident in “Becky,” for example, is the crumbling of her house. A more subtle use of this image-cluster is present in “Blood Burning Moon.” The thematic imagery in “Blood Burning Moon,” when studied in conjunction with “Seventh Street,” seems to establish the latter work as a bridge between the two sections.

In “Blood Burning Moon,” the last work in the first part of Cane, decayed wood as a symbol of deterioration and death is obvious. As we see Tom Burwell, head erect in the flames of death, we are reminded of the rotting floor boards that are ripped up and used to make Tom's fiery cross. We are also made aware of the deteriorating structure of the sugar mill where Tom is burned. The images of rotting wood and a decayed building that end Part One of Cane are the predominant image-clusters that pervade the second section of the work. In the North, however, these clusters have their matrix in “Seventh Street.” Because Toomer is an extremely subtle artist, we have a tendency to overlook the fact that Factory Town is a wedge of “nigger” life in Georgia the same as Seventh Street is a wedge of “nigger” life in Washington. And like Washington, it too has its bloodsuckers, who destroy not only the spiritual and psychic being but also the physical being.

“Rhobert,” the first short story in Part Two of Cane, sets the tone for this entire section. At the same time, it suggests a linkage between section two and section three in that the protagonist of the third section, Kabnis, is also a Rhobert (robot): “He [Kabnis] totters as a man would who for the first time uses artificial limbs. As a completely artificial man would” (p. 163). Where Rhobert has become an artificial man because of materialism, Kabnis becomes an artificial man because of his fear. However, both Kabnis's fear and Rhobert's materialism are traits that come from the American mainstream as a result of oversocialization.

“Rhobert,” like “Seventh Street,” is impressionistic. And again, Toomer makes use of images and symbols. In this instance he relies on dead houses—the symbols, of death and decay—and mud to convey his concept of spiritual corrosion and moral dilapidation. Rhobert (whose name is indicative of his inhumanity: he is a machine-like thing rather than a human being) “wears a house like a monstrous diver's helmet on his head. … His house is a dead thing that weights him down. He is sinking as a diver would sink in mud should the water be drawn off” (p. 73).

Rhobert is enslaved by material things—by possessions. So much is he controlled by the mechanical that he rejects all social responsibilities. And what is even worse is the fact that he believes that the aim of life should be the acquisition of wealth:

Like most men who wear monstrous helmets, the pressure it exerts is enough to convince him of its practical infinity. And he cares not two straws as to whether or not he will ever see his wife and children again. Many a time he's seen them drown in his dreams and has kicked about joyously in the mud for days after.

(p. 74).

In short, Rhobert has become so materialistic that he has lost all of his social and moral values. Physical things have become more important to him than the institution of the family.

Arthur P. Davis, in From the Dark Tower, notes that Toomer's tone in part two of Cane is much harsher than it is in part one.2 Darwin Turner in his introduction to the 1975 edition of Cane3 (and also in his article in the Negro Digest4) agrees with Davis. Perhaps what these critics see as harshness is Toomer's attack on materialism, an attack that is found in “Seventh Street” and that resounds throughout the remainder of the second section. Toomer's attitude towards materialism is best expressed in his essay “Race Problems and Modern Society,” where he says:

Thus, wealth, and such power as wealth gives, are increasingly considered valuable: More and more men are devoting themselves to their attainment, seeing in them the end of life and the highest goal that life offers. The big businessman is the modern hero. The average man, that is, the average businessman, is already the ideal, even the idol of millions of people; and there is a growing tendency for institutions of higher education, physicians, and psychologists to accept and affirm the average businessman as the ideal at which all people of sound sense should aim.5

Toomer feared America's materialistic tendencies. As a result he attacked materialistic attitudes in his works.

The characters presented in the first part of Cane are close to the earth, close to nature; they have not become prostitutes to Mammon; they are not like the “bastards of prohibition and the War,” nor have they become so socialized that they are afraid of the primitive. As a result, Toomer endows these characters with more “soul,” more humanity, a greater zest for life. The characters that appear in the second section are urbanites who are enslaved by possessions, inanimate objects. Then, too, because of their urbanization they have become afraid of life at the primal level. To Toomer, there is little saving grace, if any, in these characters. As a result he exposes them for what they are—sterile, materialistic lumps of humanity.

While Toomer's criticism of the North might seem harsher than his criticism of the South, his mood and his imagery remain constant. There is, however, a reversal of the major themes from the first to the second part. The reversal is subtly introduced in “Seventh Street.” It is immediately repeated in “Rhobert” and, as stated previously, resounds throughout the entire section. Thematically and structurally, then, “Seventh Street” and “Rhobert” are important in Cane because these two sketches make the transition from the South to the North, from the rural to the urban, and from the spiritual to the material without destroying the wholeness and unity of Toomer's work.


  1. Jean Toomer, Cane (New York: Univ. Place Press, 1923), p. 71. Hereafter cited in the text.

  2. Arthur P. Davis, From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900 to 1960 (Washington: Howard Univ. Press, 1974), p. 47.

  3. Darwin T. Turner, Intro., Cane, by Jean Toomer (New York: Liveright, 1975), p. xxii.

  4. Darwin T. Turner, “Jean Toomer's Cane,The Negro Digest, 18 (1969), 56.

  5. Ellsworth Huntington et al., Problems of Civilization, Vol. VII of Man and His World: Northwestern University Essays in Contemporary Thought, ed. Baker Brownell (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1929), p. 72.

Robert B. Jones (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Gothic Conventions in Jean Toomer's ‘The Eye,’” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 20, No. 2, Autumn, 1992, pp. 209-17.

[In the following essay, Jones provides a laudatory assessment of “The Eye,” asserting that the unpublished story “is unique in its evocation of terror in the Gothic tradition.”]

Among the scores of unpublished short stories written by Jean Toomer, a newly discovered one is unique in its evocation of terror in the Gothic tradition. Deciphering the facsimile copy is tedious and laborious. Comprising eighteen pages of typed manuscript, with extensive and numerous corrections on every page, the text contains strikeovers, deleted (and inserted) words and sentences, typographical errors, interpolated pages, and handwritten emendations often bordering on illegibility. A disturbing tale of violence, guilt, and insanity, “The Eye” unfolds as a psychological drama of two Victorian spinster sisters, Edith and Eula Ogden.1 While the action focuses on Edith's steady descent into paranoia and madness, it also highlights Eula's character as the Gothic villain. In this way, Toomer explores the roles of evil and madness in terms of their links between personal identity and family relationships.

According to Northrop Frye's theory of romance, there are four primary narrative movements in literature: the descent from a higher world, the descent to a lower world, the ascent from a lower world, and the ascent to a higher world. “All stories in literature,” he declares, “are complications of, or metaphorical derivations from, these four narrative radicals.”2 The descent themes, then, fall into two categories: those that suggest descent from one of the two higher worlds, Heaven and Eden, and those that suggest descent to a subterranean nether universe beneath the Edenic or natural world. As Frye defines it, Gothic fiction derives from the romance, although it represents a unique variation within its parent genre. In romance fiction the hero or heroine descends from the Edenic or natural world to the underworld in search of lost identity. In this underworld the protagonist undergoes ritual sufferings, culminating in a reclamation of identity. Following this achievement, the protagonist returns to the higher world and establishes a new Eden. In Gothic fiction there is a similar descent from the natural world to the underworld, in a quest for identity. Despite perpetual ritual sufferings, however, there is no achievement of identity, nor is there a return to the higher, natural world. Instead, the protagonist remains hopelessly fragmented in a demonic nether world of cruelty, evil, and terror. In sum, romance fiction represents a fable of identity, whereas Gothic fiction represents a fable of the impossibility of identity. The narrative pattern of “The Eye” conforms to Frye's Gothic fantasy paradigm, as the structure of plot dramatizes Edith's loss of identity and descent into madness.

The first stage in Edith's descent occurs when the sisters are children, long before the action of the story begins. In an intentional act, born of “sullen hatred,” Edith blinds Eula in one eye. As a result, Eula is disfigured and begins wearing an artificial eye. Recognizing her sister's guilt, Eula soon learns to use her handicap as a weapon. Indeed, she becomes an artful dissembler, skillful in projecting guilt and fear by means of her false eye. This stage continues into the present. In the opening scene of the story, Edith absent-mindedly sketches an eye, revealing her enduring, deep-seated guilt:

She let her eyes look straight at the pupil of the eye she had drawn on the margin of the letter, the lashes shaded and curled, the eye itself intense and vivid, like the great eye of some sin burning through one's flesh and fat, through the bone itself and the blood, into the soul

(p. 2).

Suddenly realizing what she is doing, she crushes the sketch in her palm, in a moment of fear and self-loathing. Periodically, Eula visits Edith to remind her of the “crime,” and on this day Edith ominously awaits her terrible arrival. Eula is a ghost figure, and her metaphysical presence, as symbolized by her haunting, ubiquitous eye, lingers over every scene of the story. Upon her arrival, Eula begins taunting her sister with memories of the past. Unable to endure the agony, Edith cries out and begs her sister to leave the house. This is precisely the behavior Eula had hope to evoke. Slowly, she moves closer and closer toward Edith's face, allowing the full force of her bleary, false eye to wreak its terrorizing havoc:

as she held herself solid and blank, Eula moved her head so that the strong light came down on her false eye that looked always ahead so that Edith could remember and see again that moment when it happened, her rage, her unthinking, stupid blow that was done for some sullen hatred and foolishness. She held her head so that Edith might take her fill of the deadly work, so that she might even hear the screams that were so terrible that people ran from their houses. She stopped breathing as she remembered her mutilation, her loss of faith, her loss of beauty through this senseless Edith. And as she remembered tears filled her other eye and rolled down her cheek and she pressed her lips tightly together but she did not speak out or cry aloud. Finally she said, ‘But even when you did it I forgave you, Edith. Even then I knew it would be worse for you than for me’

(p. 7).

Throughout the story, Eula's incessant (albeit feigned) forgiving is emblematic of her character, revealing her perverse and maniacal mind.

In the next scene, Eula decides to move back home and take over the household. Edith now locks herself in a bedroom, becoming a prisoner in her own house. Dressed in black satin, Eula's dark presence suggests the intrusion of evil upon an otherwise tranquil domestic scene:

And now as she waited, suddenly her eye changed and gleamed again in washed newness, and the pupil grew intense and vital, ravenous to find all secret hiding places, all false shelters, ravenous to penetrate the one earthly hiding place where a person might crouch in safety, the one roof that might conceal a tormented body from that melting terrible gaze of eternal light and its power of burning deep and far into the guilty heart

(p. 10).

At the close of this scene, she sits in a wicker chair near Edith's bedroom door, like a hound closing in on its prey. “She seemed to fall asleep with her wide opened eyes and alert ears, her lip falling and exposing her gleaming lower teeth and her pointed red tongue” (p. 11).

The second stage in Edith's descent provides an ironic counterpoint in the structure of plot. Here Edith attempts to liberate herself from Eula's terrorizing influence and create a newly guiltless, fearless identity. Set at night in Edith's locked, claustrophobic bedroom, this scene dramatizes Edith's anxieties as she sleeplessly endures the stillness, the quietness, the darkness. Yet during these bleak moments, as she stares blankly from her window, she comes to understand the universality of suffering, and how suffering must surely expiate guilt.

All people, herself, Eula—all people were reduced, their living washed out of them. Those who had struggled were the same as those who had been swept heedlessly on with no arm raised, no cry from within to push them above their futile lives. Those who were strong were reduced and from the weak all life was swept away, all traces of crime and guilt, the cruel hand, the small shaded eye. All were reduced together to breathe with the dark land, held together by the breath of wind that gathered constantly their particles. … Now they were all the same, one as good as another, mixed, reduced to their last particles

(p. 11).

With this realization comes the confidence to create a new life for herself, a life free of guilt and anxiety. By morning, she develops the resolve to confront the past and her guilt.

Following her “dark night of the soul,” Edith greets a new day, symbolically sunny and serene. She leaves her room and ascends the stairs to the attic. With its creaky, rusty-hinged door and its walls covered with crawling mice and rats, the room is terrifying to enter, yet initially she feels no trace of fear:

Her eyes suddenly visioned the walls covered with grey mice, working their claws into the rough wood as they lifted their loathsome bodies higher and higher, their stiff tails poking out behind, their round fat bellies pressing soft against the wood. And this vision that once would have made her cover her face and give a low terrible scream, did not produce even a flicker in her eyes or in her breast. She went on. Her body looked as if it were prepared, after this night, to meet any wild animal, any prowling beast that might have lurked since childhood behind the trunks waiting for human flesh to rend with its white, firm teeth

(pp. 12-13).

Toomer's animal imagery symbolizes Edith's fears and provides the link between her guilt and Eula, who is also described in animal imagery. As she reclines in an old broken rocking chair, her eyes focused on the ceiling, Edith becomes a transparent eyeball, being and simultaneously seeing her being in a moment of absolute terror:

She tried to close her eyes but they would not close. They stayed open. They seemed to open farther and farther until all her strength went into her eyes and she was one huge eye gazing at these millions of knots in the ceiling that were as brown and forlorn as Eula's hound eye that burned through any substance, any form, straight to the sinful heart that shrank from its crime

(p. 14).

The final stage chronicles Edith's loss of identity, her descent into utter madness. Following her visit to the attic, she escapes from the old house and flees to the train station, in route to Seattle. At the ticket window, she impulsively wishes her sister were dead. In another moment, her impulse shifts toward suicide. Fearing her sister's arrival at the station, she locks herself in the dressing room until the train, the Pioneer, arrives. And when it does, she boards quickly, hurries to her compartment, and breathes a sigh of relief as the train leaves the station. “She closed her eyes, soothed by the swiftness of the flying train. She decided, half in her sleep, to will the house to Eula, to give everything to her. Something in her felt eased. She would pay in money and property to right her crime” (pp. 17-18). Having settled this matter in her mind, she calls a female attendant for a manicure. When the attendant arrives, Edith suffers a complete mental breakdown when she discovers, much to her horror, that it is Eula, and so lapses into the insanity prefigured for her throughout the story.

Edith never regains the lost Eden she associates with the time before her crime. Her descent into the underworld of her dark and tortured past is symbolized by her visit to the attic where her ritual sufferings could have led to a reclamation of her prelapsarian childhood. Yet in Edith's Gothic universe no such reclamation is possible. As William Day defines it, “the descent into the Gothic underworld becomes a descent into the self in which the protagonists confront their own fears and desires and are transformed, metamorphosed, doubled, fragmented, and destroyed by this encounter.”3 Edith is destroyed by her encounter with the past, as symbolized by the artifacts she discovers in the attic, each of which is an emblem of her fragmented self. The school dresses, “clean but unironed,” symbolize the wrinkles in her sentimental character; the forget-me-nots on the leghorn hat, her inability to forget the crime; the decaying dolls, exposed to mice, spiders, and dust, her vulnerable, innocent self, exposed to the perverse pleasures of her sister; the trunks and school books she used in college, her previous attempts to escape Eula's terrorizing influence. Edith remains a victim of the past, as she descends deeper and deeper into psychic decay. No whole identity emerges from her search, even after she decides to flee to Seattle, where she hopes to begin a new life in the symbolic America of new beginnings, the West. Instead of a new beginning, she experiences a tragic defeat. As she sits in the train station ready to depart for her new life, she regresses once again to the private world of the closed dressing room to escape her sister's detection. And in the final scene she is roundly defeated when Eula's evil presence overwhelms her and she capitulates to madness in the closed room of her train compartment, never reaching the symbolically open American West.

Throughout the text, Eula is portrayed as Edith's powerful, imperious nemesis, the classic Gothic villain: both Edith's mad, evil double, and grotesque and demonic.4 Like Edith, she evidences signs of madness, although her insanity takes a different form; her insanity derives from repressed feelings of hatred for Edith and alienation resulting from her defiled beauty. These repressed emotions emerge as perverse acts of revenge, as she uses her “evil eye” to project guilt and terror. Over the years, she becomes possessed by perversity and obsessed by revenge. Like Shakespeare's Richard the Third, she is “determined” to prove a villain. Indeed, it is the alienation she experiences that creates her status as “other,” as pariah, as a grotesque who menaces and terrorizes Edith. Nowhere is Toomer's symbolism more ingenious than in his use of animal imagery to represent Eula both as a hounding ghost and as a grotesque, Gothic villain, intent upon destroying her sister. Throughout the text Eula is likened to a hound stalking its prey. Her eyes are bleary and watery, “like the melting eyes of a hound”; her “gleaming strange ears,” described as “long and smooth like the ears of a hound,” quiver as she surveys her surroundings; and her movements are imaged as “springs” and “pounces.”5 But it is Eula's “evil eye” that most clearly defines her as grotesque and as demonic, and that becomes the central symbol of the story.

The idea that one can project agony or torment through willful glances is a belief shared by many different cultures throughout the world. Anthropological studies agree in finding that the evil eye symbolizes aggressive feelings and the desire to destroy; its possessor reveals a deep-seated desire for power and mastery over another individual, usually a rival or enemy.6 According to Joost Meerlo, “being caught in the enemy's visual field is, as it were, the beginning of being attacked and destroyed. The victim is terrorized—stricken and immobilized. Indeed the eye of the predator often has a paralyzing and trapping influence on his prey.”7 The blinding incident, and Eula's subsequent acquisition of the false eye, transforms her into a masterful being, intent upon directing events with a glance. As Edith's guilt overwhelms her, powerfully assisted by her sister's calculated behavior and evil stares, Edith unwittingly endows Eula with supernatural power.

The relationship between the two sisters, then, may be described in terms of domination and submission. According to Day, the instability that derives from such relationships results in the creation of typically Gothic doubled identities:

The figure of the double transforms the self-other relationship into a self-self relationship. Rather than finding the Gothic protagonist isolated in a hostile world, we see that the Other resolves itself into a version of the self, a fragmentation and externalization of identity that destroys the self as fully and as surely as the overt attacks of its nemesis. … Because the self embodies within it both sides of the dynamic of all relationships in the Gothic world, and because the self manifests this duality through the creation of doubles, we can see that the encounter of the self with the Gothic world leads to the transformation and metamorphosis of the self into its opposite, either into the Other or its own hidden double. … Doubling, then, is not simply a convention, but is the essential reality of the self in the Gothic world.8

It is precisely in this context that we are able to understand the transformation and metamorphosis of Edith's and Eula's identity, for each of them possesses a dual nature that is reflected in the other. Edith is the protagonist and sentimental heroine, consistently portrayed throughout the story as fearful and submissive. Yet this personality is the result of guilt; she is the same individual who, as a child, coldly and intentionally blinded her sister. Eula, the Gothic villain who willfully torments her sister into insanity, also enlists our sympathy because she is the victim of a senseless and brutal act of violence. Both characters are therefore passive and aggressive, neither totally good nor totally evil:

Such ambiguous presentations are frequent in later Gothic works and are connected with the use of the doubled figures. Both aim at securing a reaction in the reader that is an amalgam of compassion for and horror of the figure of monstrous evil presented to him. Out of these mixed feelings comes the attitude of moral relativism that is perhaps the most important feature of the Gothic.9

In Toomer's Gothic world, every mind is capable of slipping into evil and madness.

That Edith sees Eula on the train in the closing scene of the story reveals Edith's complete degeneration into madness and hallucination. Here Edith's double becomes a symbolic representation of her own conscience, as well as a reflection of her own repressed evil, which she can not control. Toomer's handling of this scene is masterfully ambiguous, like the ending of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, as it leaves the reader wondering if Eula's presence in the train compartment is real or merely a projection of Edith's paranoia and guilt; Toomer heightens the ambiguity by suggesting that Edith falls asleep upon entering the compartment and that the final scene is sheer Gothic fantasy, a symbolic nightmare. In either case, however, Edith cannot escape her sister's menacing influence. As she awaits the arrival of the train, she impulsively wishes her sister were dead. Yet this death wish for her double represents a latent desire to destroy herself: “she planned to rush to the dressing room and lock the door, then climb out a window and wait until the Pioneer came rushing in and then throw herself down on the tracks in front of it. The thought of death eased her and she relaxed, sinking down on the hard bench as if it were velvet” (p. 16). Like Poe's Roderick Usher, who tries to destroy his twin sister and double, Madeline, Edith wishes to destroy that part of herself that ties her to a fearful and nerve-racking existence. And like Usher, she knows instinctively that the death of the sister-double is tantamount to the death of the self.

As with the sister-double, so too with the sisters' surrounding world. One of the most familiar of all Gothic conventions is the doubling of the castle or house with its owner, as in Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto or Edgar Allan Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher.”10 In “The Eye,” the Ogden manse, and particularly the attic, similarly functions as Edith's double, an externalization of her decaying self. The house, like Edith's mind, is haunted by the past and by Eula's ubiquitous presence. As Edith lives imprisoned within the closed world of the house, she also lives within the closed world of her dark and tortured mind.

Despite her efforts to maintain the house as it was when she and Eula were children, she cannot regain the prelapsarian innocence she possessed before her crime. When Eula arrives at the Ogden manse, she comments on her sister's attempts to retain the old house as it used to be. “Well, the house looks just the same, the furniture is just as it was when we were children” (p. 6). In the next scene, however, Eula changes the setting to reflect the present-day scene. “Now everything was like a party, just as if Miss Edith had never lived there,” exclaims Emma, the maid (p. 9). Edith's and Eula's comments on the past embedded in the house reveal an ambiguous attitude toward history, a mixture of longing and repulsion that is a hallmark of Gothic fiction. For Edith, the past evokes nostalgia for a time before the accursed crime began to destroy them. By contrast, Eula is repulsed by the past, as she associates it with the very origin of the violence against her. Diabolically, and paradoxically, she wishes to retain the horror of Edith's crime. Parallel to a vision of a prelapsarian past is the concomitant vision of a perverse and paradoxical present.11

While there is no date on the Beinecke facsimile copy, and there are no intratextual references useful in dating this story, “The Eye” was very likely written between 1925 and 1929, a period when Toomer composed the group of unpublished stories that comprise his projected short story collection, Lost and Dominant (1929). This would locate this new tale in the Gurdjieff period in Toomer's canon, a period during which he renounced race consciousness in favor of “New American” democratic idealism. Throughout his career as a writer and philosopher, Jean Toomer explored the metaphysics of the self as a corollary of his philosophical idealism. Drawing upon his studies in Oriental theosophy, and later upon Gurdjieffian idealism, he consistently asserted a monistic vision of reality, in which opposites are reconciled as interactive entities, each blending into union with its antithesis.12 “The Eye” uses this philosophy in formulating a poetics of terror, dramatizing the idea that good and evil, as well as sanity and insanity, inhere within the self in degrees of consciousness. This is, of course, a Romantic notion, as seen in Toomer's forebears of the American Renaissance, especially Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe. “The Eye” allegorizes this conception of the self in Edith and Eula, both of whom contain within them the possibilities for evil and madness. It is this Romantic conception of the self, presented within a specifically Gothic literary tradition, that establishes “The Eye” as a significant contribution to modern American fiction.


  1. Jean Toomer's “The Eye” may be located in Box 51, Folder 11 in the Jean Toomer Collection, The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Further citations to this short story will be to page numbers only. Precisely when this story was written is unknown. For a bibliography of Toomer's published and unpublished short stories, see my “Jean Toomer's Lost and Dominant: Landscape of the Modern Waste Land” in SAF, 18 (1990), 85-86.

  2. Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1976), p. 97.

  3. William Patrick Day, In the Circles of Fear and Desire (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 27.

  4. See Elizabeth McAndrew, The Gothic Tradition in Fiction (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 81-82, for a typology of Gothic villains.

  5. For discussions of animals and animal imagery related to the grotesque, see Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), pp. 57, 115, 152, 182, 183, 198, and 209. Kayser's comments on domestic animals, like the dog, and on vermin (p. 182) are especially illuminating for Toomer's uses of these images in “The Eye.” In this context, it is significant that “The Eye” was originally entitled “The Hound.”

  6. For other studies of the evil eye phenomenon in light of its aggressive powers to destroy through empowerment, see Clarence Mahoney, ed., The Evil Eye (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1976), pp. v-xvi; Tobin Siebers, The Mirror of Medusa (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1983), pp. 27-56; Lawrence DiStassi, Mal Occhio (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981), pp. 15-60; and Frederick T. Ellworthy, The Evil Eye (London: Collier Press, 1958), pp. 1-25.

  7. Meerlo Joost, Intuition and the Evil Eye (Wassenaar, The Netherlands: Service Publishers, 1971), p. 15.

  8. Day, p. 20.

  9. McAndrew, p. 99.

  10. McAndrew, pp. 48-49.

  11. On the importance of the past in Gothic fiction, see Day, p. 97.

  12. For a discussion of Toomer's metaphysics of the self as a corollary of his philosophical idealism, see my introduction to The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer, ed. Robert B. Jones and Margery Toomer Latimer (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988), pp. ix-xxxiv.

Robert B. Jones (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Cane: Hermeneutics of Form and Consciousness,” in Jean Toomer and the Prison-House of Thought: A Phenomenology of the Spirit, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1993, pp. 33-62.

[In the following essay, Jones analyzes Toomer's utilization of and experimentation with myriad literary forms in Cane.]


In his foreword to the 1923 edition of Cane, Waldo Frank properly locates the pulse of Toomer's Symbolist-Modernist aesthetic, heralding him as “a poet in prose.” In describing his own writing, Toomer corroborates Frank's assessment: “As for writing—I am not a romanticist. I am not a classicist nor a realist, in the usual sense of those terms. I am an essentialist. Or, to put it in other words, I am a spiritualizer, a poetic realist. This means two things. I try to lift facts, things, happenings to the planes of rhythm, feeling, and significance. I try to clothe and give body to potentialities.”1 In words reminiscent of Ezra Pound's summons to “make it new,” Toomer asserts that the modern writer “has a wish to produce by experimentation a new form. Certainly he will aim to make an individual use of the old forms.”2 Toomer's original use of literary forms intermediate between poetry and prose not only accentuates his own search for form, it foregrounds the structure of language in Cane. In this context, Roman Jakobson's research on the nature of poetic language and Victor Shklovsky's theory of ostraneniye provide useful heuristic strategies for examining the book's range of verbal art.

The character of verbal art, according to Jakobson, is twofold: it develops either by contiguity, as in prose, or by similarity, as in poetry. The former is described as metonymic discourse, the latter as metaphoric.

In verbal art the interaction of [metonymy and metaphor] is especially pronounced. … [In poetry] The primacy of the metaphoric process in the literary schools of romanticism and symbolism has been repeatedly acknowledged, but it is still insufficiently realized that it is the predominance of metonymy which underlies and actually predetermines the so-called “realistic” trend, which belongs to an intermediary stage between the decline of romanticism and the rise of symbolism and is opposed to both.3

The “contiguous,” or metonymic, language of realistic narrative is essentially denotative and explicitly referential, as it advances by combination and contexture. The “similar,” or metaphoric, language of poetry, however, is essentially connotative and explicitly reflexive, as it advances by selection and substitution.

Jakobson also isolates six functions of language, noting that every “message,” though often fulfilling more than one role, is framed in a predominant context. He defines the domain which is specific to poetry by extension of his distinction between the metonymic and metaphoric poles of language: “The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection onto the axis of combination.”4 That is, the principal way in which the poetic function manifests itself is by projection of metaphoric language onto the metonymic speech act. “By emphasizing resemblances of sound, rhythm, and image, poetry thickens language, drawing attention to its formal properties and away from its referential significance.”5 Jakobson further observes that “similarity superimposed on contiguity imparts to poetry its thoroughgoing symbolic, multiplex, poly-semantic essence.”6 It is in this context that Victor Shklovsky's theory of defamiliarization complements Jakobson's description of the linguistic function which is specific to poetry.

In “Art as Technique,” Shklovsky argues that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. Thus the purpose of art is to impart artfulness or literariness to life—by de-automatizing it, by defamiliarizing it—in order to distinguish it for sensuous perception. “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”7 “Defamiliarization” effectively transfers the object of perception into a new sphere of heightened perception. Victor Erlich, who labels the transference “semantic shift,” describes this sphere as the very raison d'être of poetry. “By tearing the object out of its habitual context, by bringing together disparate notions, the poet gives a coup de grâce to the verbal cliché and to the stock responses attendant upon it and focusses us into heightened awareness of things and their sensory texture. The act of creative deformation restores sharpness to our perceptions, giving ‘density’ to the world around us.”8

In “The Subject Matter of Art,” Toomer uses three examples to illustrate the Symbolist notion that art which derives from inner experience is the product of the self's artistic defamiliarization, a process which evokes, in Toomer's words, “a range of experiences” within the reader. The illustration is of five people riding in a car, including a man who is a musician. What type of music is he to create for the occasion? On the one hand, if he makes music of the sounds of the car (e.g., the whir of the motor and the rattle of the body), he merely translates an experience common to all, inspiring no one. On the other hand, if he makes music of the ordinary moods of himself and his companions (e.g., the excited mood of starting; the tedium; the restlessness), according to Toomer, there is nothing in this type of art to warrant one's having spent years mastering the techniques of music. However, as a third alternative, if the musician uses techniques to express his true inner life and utilizes his technical facility to evoke higher levels of consciousness in himself and in his companions, then he evokes a range of experiences which neither the car nor their moods could provide. “Imaginatively place yourself in that car. Ask yourself which type of music you'd most like to hear and participate in. There is no doubt that the third type would mean most, precisely because it would transport you into a creative state of being, a state of being inner active as never before, whereas types one and two but repeat that with which you are already familiar.” In other words, the musician's creative imagination defamiliarizes our common, habitual perceptions, distinguishing them for sensuous perception.

In narrative discourse defamiliarization is problematic, as it is in Cane. For whenever linguistic defamiliarization occurs within narration, a distinctly “poetic” dimension is introduced; that is, self-reflexive language in narration “makes strange” the metonymic speech act. When the “principle of equivalence” is projected from the metaphoric onto the metonymic axis of language, metaphor widens the gap between signifier and signified. The result is poetic verbal art, an aspect of creative deformation not unlike Brooks's dictum on the language of paradox, or Empson's types of ambiguity. In like fashion, Jakobson maintains that “ambiguity is an intrinsic, inalienable character of any self-focused message, briefly a corollary feature of poetry. … The supremacy of poetic function over referential function does not obliterate the reference, but makes it ambiguous.”9 For Jakobson, as for Shklovsky, the language of poetry widens the gap between the sign and its referent.

The function of poetry is to point out that the sign is not identical with its reference. Why do we need this reminder? … Because along with the awareness of the identity of the signs and the referent (A is A1), we need the consciousness of the inadequacy of this identity (A is not A1); this antinomy is essential, since without it the connection between the sign and the object becomes automatized and the perception of reality withers away.10

Shklovsky's defamiliarization theory illuminates Jakobson's theory of poetic discourse. For if the metaphoric language of poetry is more defamiliarized than the metonymic language of prose discourse, then metonymy may be equated with linguistic habituation (“the automatism of perception”), and metaphor with linguistic defamiliarization (heightened perception). That is, in prose we do not notice individual words as words, because perception in reading “smooth” or referential language presents little difficulty. But in poetry, language is “roughened” or sign oriented; the autonomy of the word is emphasized. It follows, then, that mimesis in Symbolist or “poetic” fiction is a complex process indeed, involving not only the way in which the “real” world is reflected (and distorted) but also how genre conventions are observed (and subverted). This is what Jonathan Culler implies in citing “linguistic deviation” as a major hallmark of “the true structure or state of poetry,” and what Ralph Freedman and Karl Uitti mean in employing the terms “distortions” and “deformations” to describe the techniques used by Symbolist novelists in their subversions of conventional, realistic narrative.11 But clearly, all three critics understand poetic language to be a “heightened” form of prose, which transcends its sheerly mimetic qualities to achieve a higher level of ostraneniye than the corresponding act of “creative deformation” in realistic narratives.

In the light of Jakobson's and Shklovsky's research, we are able to posit a continuum illustrating the range of verbal art in Cane in terms of degrees of literary defamiliarization—that is, in terms of the predominance of self-reflexive poetic tropes, such as ambiguity, simile, metaphor, imagery, rhythm, and repetition.


Poems: “Reapers,” “November Cotton Flower,” “Face,” “Cotton Song,” “Song of the Son,” “Georgia Dusk,” “Nullo,” “Evening Song,” “Conversion,” “Portrait in Georgia,” “Beehive,” “Storm Ending,” “Her Lips Are Copper Wire,” “Prayer,” “Harvest Song”

Prose poems: “Seventh Street,” “Robert,” “Calling Jesus”


Lyrical narratives: “Karintha,” “Becky,” “Carma,” “Fern”

Prose narratives: “Esther,” “Blood-Burning Moon,” “Avey,” “Theater,” “Box Seat,” “Bona and Paul,” “Kabnis”

In order to specify the degrees of distinctions among these forms, as well as explore the structure of language which inheres in each, let us examine “Song of the Son,” “Calling Jesus,” “Karintha,” and “Avey” as representative of their respective forms.12

Manifesting such lyrical tropes as imagery, metaphor, alliteration, repetition, and rhyme, “Song of the Son” represents the patently metaphoric pole of Cane's verbal art. Composed in iambic pentameter, the poem develops in two movements, the first composed of three five-line stanzas (a b b a a), the second of two four-line stanzas (a b b a). The first movement opens with an invocation to a late-evening singer, whose song evokes the essence of the “sawdust glow of night” and pierces the twilight silence and stillness. Here night symbolizes the oblivion into which the African-American folk spirit is passing. “Velvet pine-smoke” from the sawdust pile, like incense, transports the essence of the evening song, the essence of the Southern black experience, toward heaven. The song symbolizes the truth of artistic beauty, transcending the mutable world. The poet declares himself a prodigal son, returning home “just before an epoch's sun declines” to preserve in art the fleeting legacy of a “song-lit race of slaves.” The second movement comprises an apostrophe to the “souls of slavery,” described in terms of “dark purple ripened plums / Squeezed, and bursting in the pinewood air” (12). This image suggests the cloying state of fruit as it passes into the oblivion of the post-harvest. Yet the poet affirms the power of art to preserve and immortalize “one plum” and “one seed” of the passing African-American heritage in his

everlasting song, a singing tree,
Caroling softly would of slavery,
What they were, and what they are to me.


Further along the continuum of verbal art in Cane are the prose poem “Calling Jesus” and the lyrical narrative “Karintha,” both of which affirm Toomer's modernist predilection to “produce by experimentation a new form.” Few critics have attempted to define the prose poem, although it has existed as an autonomous literary genre for over three hundred years. The tradition of the prose poem dates from the publication of Fénelon's Les Aventures de Télémaque (1699), although it is more generally acknowledged that this hybrid form was created by Aloysius Bertrand in his poème en prose. The most popular practitioners of the prose poem were the French Symbolists, particularly Charles Baudelaire in Petits poèmes en prose (1869), Lautrémont in Les Chants de Maldoror (1867), and Arthur Rimbaud in Les Illuminations (1886). Although both poetic prose and the prose poem reveal a writer's predilection for metaphoric discourse, they represent distinctly different yet contiguous forms. Poetic prose remains essentially prose discourse, whereas the prose poem is precisely a poem. Susan Bernard proposed three criteria for the poème en prose: unité, gratuité, and breveté. For Bernard, the prose poem

presupposes a conscious will or organization into a poem; it must be an organic, autonomous whole, which allows it to be distinguished from poetic prose (which is but a raw material, or a form of the first degree if you prefer, starting with which one may construct essays, novels, or poems as well); this will lead to the notion of organic unity: as complex as it may be, and as free in appearance as it may be, the poem must form a whole, a closed universe. … a poem does not propose for itself any end outside of itself, not more narrative than demonstrative; it does utilize narrative or descriptive elements, it is with the condition that they are transcended and are made to “work” in a whole and to uniquely poetic ends. … the poem does not progress towards a goal, does not play out a succession of actions or ideas, but proposes itself to the reader. … the modern prose poem is always brief.13

According to Bernard, the poème en prose endeavors to transcend the double principle which inheres in its hybrid form: it wills to go beyond language while utilizing language; it strives to destroy form while creating form; and it struggles to escape from literature even as it exists as an autonomous literary genre. It is this internal contradiction, this essential antinomy, Bernard argues, that gives the prose poem the character of an Icarian art, reaching toward an impossible self-transcendence, toward a negation of its own conditions of existence. Owing to degrees of artistic defamiliarization, we are able to contrast the language of the prose poem “Calling Jesus” with the language of the poetic narrative “Karintha” in order to specify the distinctions between these forms.

A poem in three movements, “Calling Jesus” unfolds as an extended metaphor of the relationship between existence and essence, here symbolized by Nora and her “little thrust-tailed dog,” respectively, to comment upon the dissociation of body and soul and the need for self-integration. Here, as in his poetry, Toomer employs such tropes as simile, metaphor, imagery, and repetition (parallelism) to establish lyrical form. The first movement opens with a simile comparing Nora's soul to a small dog separated from its mistress. The poet uses the vestibule of a house to symbolize the threshold that separates inner from outer, spiritual from physical. To be sure, Nora demonstrates a callous disregard for her spiritual self-development, leaving her dog in the cold vestibule overnight. Yet the poet envisions the force of transcendental unity, “soft as a cotton ball brushed against the milk-pod cheek of Christ, stealing in to cover the little dog” and uniting it with Nora, who “sleeps upon clean hay cut in her dreams” (55). That is, though her self-integration is thwarted by the city and its “vestibules,” she dreams of union with her spiritual self, here described in rural nature imagery drawn from part 1 of Cane.

In the second movement we learn that during the day Nora experiences mystical flashes of self-integration, “when she has forgotten the streets and alleys, and the large house where she goes to bed at night.” It is precisely during these moments that “a soft thing like fur begins to rub your limbs, and you hear a low, scared voice, lonely, calling, and you know that a cool something nuzzles moisture in your palms.” In a moment of mystical union with the inner self, Nora's breath comes “sweet as honeysuckle whose pistils bear the life of coming song. And her eyes carry to where builders find no need for vestibules.”

The opening lines of the third movement repeat the opening lines of the poem, reiterating Nora's self-fragmentation. Here the little dog is imaged as lagging along behind her by day and, again, enclosed in the vestibule by night. In the closing lines the poet reintroduces the force of transcendental unity developed in the first movement, again affirming its power to reconcile both inner and outer selves. The simile of spiritual intervention, described as “soft as a cotton ball brushed against the milkpod cheek of Christ” in the first movement, is here imaged as “soft as the hare feet of Christ moving across bales of southern cotton.” Thus this spiritual mystical force is imaged as light and fleeting. The closing lines reiterate the need for spiritual awakening and self-integration. Again, as in the first movement, Nora's dreams are associated with the landscape of rural nature, “cradle in dream-fluted cane.” In sum, language in “Calling Jesus” is highly symbolic and self-reflexive, as in poetry.

Like the poème en prose, the lyrical narrative also derives from a time-honored tradition, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister (which Toomer greatly admired), Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen, André Gide's La Symphonie Pastorale, J. K. Huysmans's A Rebours, and Virginia Woolf's The Waves. Yet a lyrical narrative is not a prose poem; rather, it employs patterns of reflexive references and poetic tropes to advance a narrative design. According to Ralph Freedman, “The characteristic differentiating lyrical from non-lyrical fiction is portraiture, the halting of the flow of time within constellations of images or figures.”)14 Thus while the lyrical narrative “tells a story,” in accordance with E. M. Forster's maxim on the art of fiction, it also renders the immediacy of portraiture through spatial form achieved by reflexive references. Lyrical narratives, then, unfold simultaneously on both metaphoric and metonymic levels of interpretation. Yet, ultimately, a constellation of images emerges to advance what is primarily a narrative design.

On the metaphoric or self-reflexive level, “Karintha” manifests extensive use of “roughened” or poetic language. There is the artful use of simile (Karintha's skin is “like dusk on the eastern horizon,” her beauty is “perfect as dusk,” she is “as innocently lovely as a November cotton flower,” her darting was “like a blackbird that flashes in light”), of metaphor (Karintha was “a growing thing ripened too soon” and “a wild flash,” her darting was “a bit of vivid color” and her running was “a whir”), of descriptive imagery (“dusk on the eastern horizon,” “feet flopping in the two inch dust,” “smooth and sweet” pine needles which are “elastic to the feet of rabbits,” smoke from a “pyramidal sawdust pile” which “curls up and hangs in odd wraiths about the trees” and “spreads itself out over the valley”), and of present tense verbs to arrest the immediacy of portraiture (“Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk”; “Karintha is a woman. She who carries beauty”; “Karintha smiles and indulges her male suitors” (1).

On the metonymic or referential level, however, “Karintha” is a realistic and moral tale, narrating the untimely maturation of a beautiful young girl whose inner essence is ignored, especially by men. In this way, we come to understand Karintha as a victim of her environment. Even as a child her “perfect beauty” attracts men's attention. They dandle her on their knees, wishing “to ripen a growing thing too soon.” Over the years, the community indulges her mischief because of her physical beauty, and by age twelve she ripens under the rays of undisciplined free play: “She stoned the cows, and beat her dog, and fought the other children. … Even the preacher, who caught her at mischief, told himself that she was as innocent as a November cotton flower” (1). By age twenty she has been married several times and developed contempt for the men around her. Yet they all still desire to possess her, believing “that all they had to do was to count time.” Several weeks before giving birth to an infant, she inhabits a pine forest living near a sawmill until the baby is born—onto a bed of “smooth and sweet” pine needles. If indeed Karintha buries the infant under the smouldering pyramidal sawdust pile, as the text seems to suggest, then the smoke, which curls up in odd wraiths about the trees and is so dense that everyone tastes smoke in the water, is an ill omen and reminder for the community of shared guilt. The closing lines of this story reiterate the contrast between Karintha's inner essence and her outer beauty and tell how the members of her community, especially the men, regard only her physical development: “Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon. They will bring her money; they will die not having found it out.”

Representing the metonymic pole of language is “Avey,” the most conventional “realistic” narrative in Cane. While this short story employs such metaphoric tropes as simile (“trees that whinnied like colts impatient to be set free,” “Avey was as silent as those great trees,” “soil of my homeland falls like a fertile shower upon the lean streets,” “Their playing was like a tin spoon in one's mouth,” “The Capitol dome looked like a gray ghost ship drifting in from sea”), imagery (“the moon was brilliant. The air was sweet like clover. And every now and then, a stale tang, a stale drift of sea-weed,” “light spread like a blush against the darkened sky. Against the soft dusk sky of Washington,” “She did not have the gray crimson-splashed beauty of the dawn”), and repetition (“the moon was brilliant. The air was sweet like clover. And every now and then, a stale tang, a stale drift of sea-weed”), the language of the text remains primarily metonymic (42-47). Most important, however, there is a conspicuous absence of the reflexive reference patterns and constellations of repeated images used in the prose poems and lyrical narratives to arrest the immediacy of portraiture. To be sure, in “Avey” plot and not image is the measure of narrative design.

Reminiscent of James Joyce's “Araby,” “Avey” is a story of disillusionment and self-awareness. Avey herself represents modern woman in the postwar decade. Like Eliot's London secretary in The Waste Land, she countenances men's sexual advances with indifference. The plot unfolds in three intervals, each chronicling the narrator's increased self-awareness in terms of his encounters with Avey. Thus the narrator's quest, like that of Eliot's Parsifal, is directed by a debased Sybyl.

The first interval recounts a boyhood incident in which the narrator is sexually awakened by romantic illusions of Avey. Later in this account, his illusions are partially realized during an amorous encounter with her on board the Jane Moseley. His masculine pride is bruised, however, when she meets his affection with maternalistic condescension. “I could feel by the touch of it that it wasn't a man-to-woman love. … I itched to break through her tenderness of passion. … I gave her one burning kiss. Then she laid me in her lap as if I were a child. Helpless. I got sore when she started to hum a lullaby” (43-44).

During the second interval, which begins a year later, the narrator continues harboring romantic illusions about Avey, although his ideals are diminished when her indolence begins to offend him. Upon reflection, he surmises that it is precisely her environment (the modern world itself and Washington, in particular) which induces her spiritual sterility. Toomer's Sybyl leads the narrator on a quest of self-discovery, from Washington to Wisconsin to New York, as her metaphysical presence continues to haunt him.

The third interval describes the narrator's newfound self-awareness in terms of an epiphanic experience. After five years, he again meets Avey in Washington “strolling under the recently lit arc-lights of U Street” with a male companion. By now Avey is a courtesan, while the narrator has learned “to find the truth that people bury in their hearts.” Thus he attempts to lecture her on carelessness and inner self-development. In spite of his eloquence, however, when he turns to look at her, she is asleep, and his passion dissipates. Several hours later, watching the sun rise, the narrator experiences an epiphany. He is rid of his illusions about Avey forever. “I saw the dawn steal over Washington. The Capitol dome looked like a gray ghost ship drifting in from sea. Avey's face was pale, and her eyes were heavy. She did not have the gray crimson-splashed beauty of the dawn. I hated to wake her. Orphan-woman” (47). The range of Cane's verbal art reveals Toomer's search for form, particularly a form consistent with his idealism. Here we note his transcendental vision of modern art, a vision in which poetry and fiction, metaphor and metonymy, are reconciled as interactive entities, each blending into union with its antithesis. It is precisely in this manner that Toomer's literary experimentation locates him within the Symbolist-Modernist tradition. As we shall see, not only his experiments with language but also his experiments with spatial form define his modernist aesthetics.


The individual works which compose Cane illustrate Toomer's art of literary portraiture. His innovative experiments with time and plot progression demonstrate an ever-present attempt to collapse self and world, lyrical and narrative—in sum, to introduce poetic strategies into narrative. Moreover, portraiture, which employs imagery and description primarily, breaks up the consecutiveness of plot, thus thwarting the conventional narrative surge toward completion. “To call a narrative a ‘portrait’ is to warn the reader at once not to expect much action, to look for resolution in the completion of an artistic pattern rather than in status achieved in the lives of the characters. In his precocious first draft of A Portrait Joyce defined a literary portrait as an attempt to present the present not in “its iron memorial aspect” but as a “fluid succession of presents.”15 Joyce was not the only modern writer who attempted to arrest the wholeness and immediacy of experience in “a fluid succession of presents.” Indeed, the American who pioneered the art of literary portraiture was Gertrude Stein; in the context of Stein's portrait writing we are perhaps best able to understand Toomer's art of literary portraiture.

Stein often employed patterns of repetition, what she calls insistence, to spatialize form and produce literary portraits. Realizing that the spatial form which inheres in the plastic arts does not inhere in the literary arts, she sought to eliminate the illusion of time in her narratives, much in the way that Picasso sought to eliminate the illusion of depth during his Cubistic period. By de-emphasizing the temporal dimension of her art, Stein, like Picasso, was able to achieve heightened sensory perception, as well as the illusion of spatial creation. But the specific importance of Stein's experiments was the spatialization of literary form, which resulted in the introduction of a distinctly lyrical dimension into her art.

In creating literary portraits, Stein sought to create a “continuous present” by “beginning again and again.” In commenting on this method she used in creating the portraits of Picasso and Matisse, Stein tells us: “Every time I said what they were I said it so that they were this thing, and each time I said what they were as they were, as I was, naturally more or less but never the same each time that I said what they were, not that they were different nor that I was different but as it was not the same moment I said I said it with a difference. So finally I was emptied of saying this thing, and so no longer said what they were.”16 Accordingly, in her “Portrait of Picasso” she uses two patterns of insistence to depict this famous artist:


One whom some were certainly following was one who was completely charming

(line 1)

One whom some were certainly following was one who was completely charming

(lines 5-6)

Some were certainly following and were certain that the one they were following was one bringing out of himself then something that was coming to be a heavy thing, a solid thing and a complete thing

(lines 9-13)

One whom some were following and some were certainly following him

(lines 23-24)

This one had been one whom some were following

(line 35)

This one was one whom some were following

(lines 68-69)

He did have some following

(line 84)


… the one they were then following was one working and was one bringing out of himself then something

(lines 7-9)

One whom some were certainly following was one certainly working

(lines 24-25)

One whom some were certainly following was one having something coming out of him something having meaning and this one was certainly working

(lines 26-28)

This one was one who was working

(line 39)

This one was one going on working

(line 42)

This one was one who was working

(line 77)

This one was not one working to have anything come out of him. He always did have something having meaning that did come out of him

(lines 80-83)

He was one who was working

(lines 84-85).17

Here Stein relies upon present participles and nouns ending in -ing to create a sense of presentness and immediacy in narrative, much in the way Imagist poets relied upon the sustained image itself.

Like Stein, Toomer similarly sought to create a continuous present through lyrical “insistence” and an artful use of present tense forms. In many of the selections in Cane Toomer uses a tripartite formal design to approximate the presentness of portraiture: (1) an introductory lyric, (2) an exemplum, and (3) a concluding lyric. This formal strategy is evident in “Becky,” “Carma,” and “Calling Jesus,” but it is perhaps most artfully realized in “Karintha” and in “Seventh Street.”

“Karintha” unfolds as lyrical statement, lyrical narrative, and lyrical restatement. The lyrical statement and restatement frame this portrait of dusky beauty. Within the narrative itself, three patterns of reflexive references thwart the consecutiveness of narrative in favor of imagistic description and portraiture:


Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,
                                        O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon. …
                                        When the sun goes down

(lines 1-4)

                                        Her skin is like dusk,
                                        O cant you see it,
                                        Her skin is like dusk,
                                        When the sun goes down

(lines 36-39)

                                        Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon
                                        O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
                                        Her skin is like dusk on the eastern hori-
                                        zon. …
                                        When the sun goes down

(lines 64-67)


… this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha
carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down

(lines 5-6)

She carries beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down

(lines 40-41)

                                        Karintha at twenty, carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down

(lines 62-63)


Karintha is a woman

(lines 41)

                                        Karintha is a woman

(lines 45-46)

But Karintha is a woman, and she has a child

(lines 48-49)

Here is as artful an illustration of spatial form achieved by reflexive references as we will find in modern literature. Particularly significant is Toomer's emphasis upon “making you see” (“O cant you see her”). Indeed these three patterns function to depict (I) her dark skin, (II) her perfect “dusky beauty,” and (III) her femininity, all of which lead men to ignore her inner, spiritual essence. As in Stein's portrait, Toomer's reflexive references occur as present-tense verb forms (“carrying,” “carries,” “goes,” “Karintha is a woman,” “she has a child”). Finally, in both Stein's and Toomer's portraits, the reader is able to “see” the total portrait only retrospectively, after having moved beyond the parameters of the continuous present. Each of the individual (and repeated) references must be connected by the reader and viewed as a whole before the portrait fits together, like a mosaic, into a meaningful pattern; knowledge of the whole is essential to an understanding of its parts.

The lyrical statement in “Seventh Street” images materialism and activity:

Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts,
Bootleggers in silken shirts,
Ballooned, zooming cadillacs,
Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks.


Within the lyrical narrative itself, reflexive images of “a wedge,” “white and whitewashed wood,” and “black reddish blood” attempt to capture the élan of Washington's Seventh Street in the Roaring Twenties:

Seventh Street is a crude-boned soft skinned wedge of nigger life
[Seventh Street is] thrusting unconscious rhythm, black
reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington
.....Wedges are beautiful in the sun
.....Black reddish blood. Pouring for crude-boned soft skinned
life, who set you flowing?
.....Flowing down the smooth asphalt of Seventh Street, in
shanties, brick office building, theaters, drug stores,
restaurants, and cabarets? Eddying on the corners?


“Wedge” is an appropriate metaphor for Washington's Seventh Street, since this thorough fare thrusts (“wedges”) throngs of blacks through the channel of an otherwise all-white area of the city, the “white and whitewashed wood of Washington.” “Wood,” then, is a metaphor for the city itself, and “black reddish blood” is a metaphor for the urban blacks swirling and flowing through the office buildings, theaters, and cabarets. Moreover, Toomer's use of present tense and present participal verbs stimulates the presentness of portraiture: “money burns,” “pocket hurts,” bootleggers are “zooming cadillacs” and “whizzing down the street-car tracks,” Seventh Street itself is “breathing its loafer air” and “pouring unconscious rhythms,” black reddish blood is “pouring for crude-boned song unconscious rhythms,” and black reddish blood is “pouring for crude-boned soft-skinned life,” “flowing,” “eddying,” and “swirling.” The lyrical restatement concludes this portrait of vigorous spirit and movement.

On the micronarrative level, then, the individual works which compose Cane reveal Toomer's search for form within the Modernist-Formalist tradition. In terms of language, there are attempts to transcend dualistic genre distinctions to create new forms, like the prose poem and the lyrical narrative. As for plot, there are efforts to transcend history, to arrest time within constellations of images to create literary portraits. In both cases, these innovations represent the author's attempts to find literary equivalents for his idealism. Moreover, these literary experiments may be traced to Toomer's reified consciousness, specifically his efforts to reconcile his divided self, as well as self and world, within a unified philosophical system.

Beyond Toomer's formal uses of Symbolism to collapse poetry and prose and Imagism to create literary portraits, idealist reification is also manifested in Cane's character typology and themes. As for character typology, we note the alienated narrator and the exiled hero figure in “Fern,” “Beehive,” “Harvest Song,” “Bona and Paul,” and “Kabnis.” There is, moreover, the figure of the divided protagonist (Kabnis and Lewis) in “Kabnis.” Also, as in “Withered Skin of Berries” and in Natalie Mann, there is the male spiritual guide and idealist philosopher who serves as the instrument of female self-realization, as seen in “Avey.” Regarding themes revealing reification, we note the mind-body problem reconciled in favor of the mind and “inner essence” in “Karintha,” “Calling Jesus,” and “Prayer.” Also, the theme of mysticism is presented in “Becky,” “Georgia Dusk,” “Fern,” “Esther,” and “Kabnis.” Yet, other works manifest the author's struggles against reification. In terms of character typology, there is the first-person narrator or protagonist who participates in the community, as in “Becky,” “Carma,” “Song of the Son,” “Fern,” and “Kabnis.” There are themes of racism and social justice in “Becky,” “Esther,” “Blood-Burning Moon,” “Conversion,” “Portrait in Georgia,” “Bona and Paul,” and “Kabnis.” And the theme of the African-American past is treated from socially realistic perspectives in “Cotton Song,” “Song of the Son,” “Georgia Dusk,” and “Conversion.” Finally, there are satirical attacks on capitalism in the postwar decade in “Seventh Street” and in “Rhobert.” Toomer's struggles against alienation and self-fragmentation are further manifested on the macronarrative level. Yet it is Toomer's own commentary on the structure of plot in Cane that provides the most compelling evidence of the author's capitulation to idealist reification.


Although Jean Toomer shared in the postwar temper of literary experimentation and was influenced by both Symbolist and Imagist aesthetics in the years before writing Cane, few critics have attempted to examine his masterwork from the perspective of Modernist-Formalist criticism. For more than six decades reviewers and critics have debated the issue of form in Cane.18 The polemical discussions on unity have centered on repeated elements within the book, from which general thematic analyses have developed. On the issue of genre, scholars remain divided over Cane's status as a novel, critics on both sides failing to consider the evolution of new literary forms within the modernist tradition and subscribing to the practice of judging all narrative literature by standards appropriate only to the novel. In formulating a theory of narrative, the critic must consider technique in its relationship to two major concepts: subject matter and overall structure. In Cane, both may be explained in terms of the author's metacommentary on spiritual design, and both elucidate the structure of plot. While there have been discussions of unifying themes, to date there has been no systematic analysis of the structure of plot in Cane. To my mind, it is the author himself who provides the most comprehensive commentary on form and narrative design.

From three angles, Cane's design is a circle. Aesthetically, from simple forms to complex forms, and back to simple forms. Regionally, from the South up to the North, and back into the South again. … From the point of view of the spiritual entity behind the work, the curve really starts with “Bona and Paul” (awakening), plunges into “Kabnis,” emerges in “Karintha,” etc., swings upward into “Theater” and “Box Seat,” and ends (pauses) in “Harvest Song.” … Between each of these sections, a curve. These to vaguely indicate the design.19

According to Toomer, design in Cane may be interpreted in three ways: aesthetically, regionally, and spiritually, and all in terms of a circle. While several critics have alluded to the aesthetic and regional “angles,” only Charles Scruggs and Rudolph Byrd have attempted to analyze spiritual design in Cane. Scruggs and Byrd define unity in terms of myth and theme, respectively, rather than the structure of plot, however; and neither defines the book as a specifically narrative account of a spiritual odyssey.20 A narrative is distinguished by two requirements: a teller and a tale. In Cane, the teller is represented by the metaphor of the “spiritual entity behind the work.” This teller, the author's self in art, may be assimilated to the role of an implied narrator. “Even the novel in which no narrator is dramatized creates an implicit picture of an author who stands behind the scenes, whether as stage manager, as puppeteer, or as an indifferent God, silently paring his fingernails. This implied author is always distinct from the ‘real man’—whatever we may take him to be—who creates a superior version of himself, a ‘second self,’ as he creates his work.”21 The tale itself allegorizes the narrator's experiences as successive stages of consciousness. Indeed, the five arcs in Toomer's cyclical narrative design correspond to Evelyn Underhill's five stages in the development of spiritual consciousness.22 The subject of the tale, then, is the self, and the structure of plot may be represented as a mandala. …

As an instrument of the self's awakening and a chart of its spiritual evolution, a mandala comprises a constellation of images. Usually a formalized circular design containing or contained by a figure of five points of emphasis, each representing the chief objects of psychic interest for the maker, the mandala points toward spiritual perception. Carl Jung defines the psychic function of mandalas in Eastern philosophy as follows:

“Mandala” means a circle, more especially a magic circle. … quite in accord with the Eastern conception, the mandala symbol is not only a means of expression, but works an effect. It reacts upon its maker. Very ancient magic effects lie hidden in this symbol for it derives originally from the “enclosing circle,” the “charmed circle,” the magic of which has been preserved in countless folk customs. … by means of these concrete performances, the attention, or better said, the interest, is brought back to an inner, sacred domain, which is the source and goal of the soul and which contains the unity of life and consciousness. The unity once possessed has been lost, and must now be found again. … The unity of these two, life and consciousness, is the Tao.23

Considering technique in its relationship both to subject matter and structure, we are able to read Cane as a dramatization of consciousness. In terms of the nature of narrative, the five arcs or stages of consciousness in Toomer's spiritual design may be assimilated to a Formalist critical perspective.

In his often-cited essay “Thematics,” Boris Tomashevsky makes an important distinction between story and plot. In the latter, events are “arranged and connected to the orderly sequence in which they were presented in the work,” while the former represents a background against which the plot arrangement is examined. The five arcs in Cane's narrative structure constitute an arrangement of the events of the story into an artful design. Consistent with Tomashevsky's poetics on narrative, these arcs may be defined as “bound motifs”: “Usually there are different kinds of motifs within a work. By simply retelling the story we immediately discover what may be omitted without destroying the coherence of the narrative and what may not be omitted without disturbing the connections among events. The motifs which cannot be omitted are bound motifs; those which may be omitted without disturbing the whole causal-chronological course of events are free motifs.24 The remaining “free” motifs in Cane are not inconsequential, for they sometimes dominate and determine the construction of plot. Yet it is the predominant “bound” motifs that chart a journey from spiritual awakening in “Bona and Paul” to spiritual loss in “Harvest Song.”

“Bona and Paul” allegorizes awakening to racial consciousness in Cane's spiritual design. Set in Chicago, the story recounts Paul Johnson's awakening perception of himself as dark and different. Paul's romance with Bona, who is white, provides the basis for the central conflict. Upon entering a cabaret with her, he becomes self-conscious when they are greeted by a multitude of stares. In an epiphanic moment, he suddenly experiences alienation:

A strange thing happened to Paul. Suddenly he knew that he was apart from the people around him. Apart from the pain which they had unconsciously caused. Suddenly he knew that people saw not attractiveness in his dark skin, but difference. Their stares, giving him to himself, filled something long empty within him, and were like green blades sprouting in his consciousness. There was fullness, and strength and peace about it all. He saw himself cloudy, but real.


According to Underhill, the awakening of the self “entails a vision of the Absolute: a sense of divine presence: but not true union with it.”25 In the story this awakening is realized as Paul's mystical vision of the South and of himself.

Paul follows the sun, over the stockyards where a fresh stench is just arising, across wheat lands that are still waving above their stubble, into the sun. Paul follows the sun to a pine-matted hillock in Georgia. He sees the slanting roofs of gray unpainted cabins tinted lavender. A negress chants a lullaby beneath the mate-eyes of a southern planter. Her breasts are ample for the suckling of a song. She weans it, and sends it, curiously weaving, among lush melodies of cane and corn. Paul follows the sun into himself in Chicago.


His newly awakened identity is represented by his sudden spiritual identification with the black doorman, whom he addresses as Brother. Their handshake at the end of the story symbolizes Paul's acceptance of his total self.

“Kabnis” allegorizes the second cycle in Toomer's spiritual design, which is preparation for union with the spirit of African-American consciousness. In the character of Kabnis, the author embodies both the portrait of an alienated individual who attempts to become integrated into the community and the portrait of an artist who must surrender his pride and suffer humility before experiencing the illuminated vision requisite for literary creation. Kabnis's initiation proceeds in three stages.

The first stage is marked by alienation, which prevents him from transforming Sempter's black folk tradition into literary art: “If I … could become the face of the South. How my lips would sing for it, my songs being the lips of its soul” (81). He is tantalized by the spirit of intellectual beauty which surrounds him: “Dear Jesus, do not chain me to myself and set these hills and valleys, heaving with folk-songs, so close to me that I cannot reach them. There is a radiant beauty in the night that touches and … tortures me” (83). Kabnis stands outside of the Southern black tradition because his own participation in producing it is mystified. As a detached spectator, he exemplifies the split between observer and participant. The next stage describes his apprenticeship in Halsey's workshop, as he overcomes alienation through associations with members of the community. During this stage, as Underhill defines it, there is a struggle between the inharmonious elements of the self.26 Toomer dramatizes this struggle in doubling Kabnis (the artist-observer) with Lewis (the reformer-participant). Using this technique, he represents the hero's encounter with his alter consciousness as a highly symbolic epiphany. Lewis's eyes “turn to Kabnis. In the instant of their shifting, a vision of the life they are to meet … Kabnis, a promise of the soil-soaked beauty; uprooted, thinning out. Suspended a few feet above the soil whose touch would resurrect him. There is a swift intuitive interchange of consciousness. Kabnis has a sudden need to rush into the arms of this man. His eyes call, ‘Brother’” (96).

Kabnis represents the reified self; he stands outside of the African-American tradition, and his participation in producing it is mystified. Lewis, however, represents the “real” self; he participates in reforming Sempter's social and racial climate, and he confronts Kabnis with the facts of racial heritage. In the final stage of his initiation, Kabnis descends into a cellar for an all-night party. By now he is a candidate for membership into the community, as symbolized by the robe he dons throughout the night, and he is soon referred to as Brother Kabnis. His most significant encounter during this stage, however, is with Father John, who symbolizes the perennial spirit of African-American consciousness. Initially, Kabnis denies any identification with Father John, while Lewis respects the old man as a symbol of racial heritage. Again, character doubling functions to suggest the blend of qualities Kabnis must possess if he is to capture the passing essence of the African-American folk experience. After a night underground, during which time the depths of his racial consciousness are tested, Kabnis takes off his candidate's robe, symbolizing initiation into the community. As he prepares to greet the rising sun of a new day and ascend the stairs ready to commence his labor as a humble blacksmith, he undertakes nothing less than the fulfillment of his desire to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race. That conscience is artfully realized throughout the next motif, which celebrates a vision of union with the spirit of African-American consciousness.

The works from “Karintha” to “Blood-Burning Moon” convey the empathetic union motif, which I shall also term the Karintha cycle. Here the narrator perceives an extraordinary radiance and mystery in rural Georgia, its inhabitants, and its African-American heritage. Underhill notes that such illumination is accompanied by the perception of visions and that literary art produced during empathetic union with “the joy of illumination” is lyrical and mystical in nature.27 Indeed, the illuminative process is incomplete unless it is coupled with the perception of visions. Whereas “bound motifs” dominate the first two stages in Cane, here four “free motifs” determine the construction of plot, each group representing a moment of vision.






“Evening Song”



“November Cotton Flower”

“Cotton Song”




“Song of the Son”

“Georgia Dusk”




“Portrait in Georgia”

“Blood-Burning Moon”

The Karintha cycle thus comprises four distinct subplots. The work in this cycle most representative of the narrator's empathetic union with ancestral consciousness is “Song of the Son.”

“Song of the Son” is a celebration of the narrator's illuminated vision of spiritual union with the African-American past. The first movement uses time, nature, and music imagery to represent the persona as a native son returning home “just before an epoch's sun declines,” intent upon representing in art the fleeting legacy of a “song-lit race of slaves” (12). The second movement symbolizes the African-American folk tradition as a plum tree nearly stripped of its fruit. Yet the poet is able to preserve “one plum” and “one seed” to immortalize the essence of an era in art. It is precisely this single, preserved “plum” which engenders the “everlasting song,” the “singing tree” that is Cane.

The fourth motif in Cane's spiritual design manifests a shift away from the illuminated visions that characterize the Karintha cycle to a spiritually sterile urban landscape during the postwar decade. The “Theater”—“Box Seat” cycle signals the narrator's return from empathetic union with the spirit of African-American consciousness following a period of sustained mystical activity. Underhill defines this stage as the Dark Night of the Soul: “The self which thought itself so spiritual, so firmly established upon the supersensual plane, is forced to turn back, to leave the Light, and pick up those qualities which it had left behind.”28 This stage is also marked by spiritual ennui and the return of alienation, as the self once again becomes cognizant of its dissociation from the transcendental state of illumination. The works in this motif may be grouped into the following categories:


“Seventh Street”




“Box Seat”




“Calling Jesus”


The only illuminated moments of vision in the “Theater”—“Box Seat” cycle are “Her Lips Are Copper Wire,” which intimates the possibility of love in the urban landscape, and “Storm Ending,” which images the return of sunshine and tranquility following a storm. The most representative work within this cycle is “Calling Jesus.”

In “Calling Jesus” imagery borrowed from the Karintha cycle symbolizes the narrator's nostalgia for the return of spiritual transcendence and for the unity of existence and essence in the urban wasteland. The text develops as an extended metaphor, comparing Nora's soul to a small dog separated from its mistress. Despite their separation by an urban vestibule, which symbolizes the gap between inner and outer reality, the narrator envisions a force of transcendental unity, “soft as a cotton ball brushed against the milk-pod cheek of Christ,” intervening to unite Nora, who “sleeps upon clean hay cut from her dreams,” with her spiritual essence: “Someone … eoho Jesus … soft as the bare feet of Christ moving across bales of Southern cotton, will steal in and cover it that it need not shiver, and carry it to her where she sleeps: cradled in dream-fluted cane” (55). In this way, the narrator allegorizes the dissociation and alienation that characterize this dark stage in consciousness. In Underhill's study, the Dark Night stage functions to bring the self “to the threshold of that completed life which is to be lived in intimate union with Reality.”29 As we shall see, however, in Cane the Dark Night is no harbinger of the self's union with the spiritual world.

Completing the spiritual design, “Harvest Song” dramatizes the narrator's loss of empathetic union with the essence of African-American culture and consciousness. Ironically titled, the poem describes an artist's inability to transform the raw materials of his labor into art. Reminiscent of Robert Frost's “After Apple-Picking,” “Harvest Song” develops as an extended portrait of the poet as reaper. Although the poet-reaper has successfully cradled the fruits of his labor, when he cracks a grain from the store of his cradled oats, he cannot taste its inner essence. In vain, he attempts to stare through time and space to understand the sources of his inspiration; he also tries to make up the physical distance by straining to hear the calls of other reapers and their songs. But his dust-caked senses preclude any meaningful or helpful intervention. The “knowledge of hunger” he fears is the failure of consciousness and of the creative impulse. Thus he is reluctant to call other reapers, for fear they will share their truly inspiring grains, grains he is unable to assimilate.

It would be good to hear their songs … reapers of the sweet-stalk'd cane, cutters of the corn … even though their throats cracked and the strangeness of their voices deafened me.

Still, he beats his soft, sensitive palms against the stubble of the fields of labor, and his pain is sweeter and more rewarding than the harvest itself. He is then comforted by the pains of his struggles, although they will not bring him knowledge of his hunger.

Cane allegorizes a spiritual odyssey from awakening to racial identity in “Bona and Paul” to loss of racial identity in “Harvest Song,” and ends on a note of alienation rather than of union, which implies the narrator's loss of empathetic union with African-American consciousness. In this context, the “spiritual entity behind the work” is a metaphor for the reified self, divided between the “real” conception of himself as an African-American and the reified conception of himself as the transcendental “First American.” Thus, the loss of racial consciousness signals the ascendancy of reified consciousness. As early as July of 1922, Toomer conceded that “the impulse which sprang from Sparta, Georgia last fall has just about fulfilled and spent itself.” Still, the text remains a triumph of Romantic idealism. In John Keats's “Ode to a Nightingale,” the poet achieves empathetic union with the immortal spirit of nature in a truly transcendental moment of vision. After the passing of this moment in the final strophe, he remains alone, his dissociation from the nightingale complete. Yet he is enriched by the experience, having achieved, if only momentarily, the transcendental unity of inner and outer, self and world. The narrator in Cane achieves a similar transcendental union in the Karintha cycle, if only momentarily, and is similarly enriched. Indeed, retrospectively, Toomer viewed the book through the lens of his perennial idealism as a spiritual fusion, not only of life and consciousness, but also of life and art.

While my instinct to dreams and reading built up that inner life by means of which the outer is transformed into works of art, by means of which the outer gets its deeper meaning, it must not be thought, however, that these two loves existed, as it were, side by side in a mutual and sustaining contract. For a long while just the opposite was true. Whichever was for the time being dominant would try to deny and cut off the other. And from this conflict a most distressing friction arose. In fact, only a year or so ago did they creatively come together. Cane is the first evidence of this fusion.30

In analyzing precisely why Toomer turned away from African-American subjects to Gurdjieffian “higher consciousness,” we need only return to the metacommentary that inheres in Cane's spiritual design. As the text allegorizes it, racial consciousness is awakened as a result of the narrator's alienation from white society, resulting in his identification with his African-American heritage, as seen throughout the Karintha cycle. Yet, after a period of heightened racial consciousness, he similarly experiences alienation from black society, as seen in “Harvest Song.” His alienation is thus complete, as he exiles himself from both races and adopts Gurdjieffian idealism, with its transcendental conception of humanity united.


If we are able to posit Toomer's spiritual design as the basis for formulating a theory of narrative in Cane, then we are also able to examine the issue of genre, as well. In Cane, the text telescopes the author and the narrator into a lyrical perspective that defines the book as a lyrical novel and as metafiction. Genre conventions (and a writer's abrogations of those conventions) affect our interpretation of a text. It follows, then, that valid interpretation begins with a valid inference about genre and that to misconstrue the emphases of a text is surely to misunderstand it. Indeed, artistry attributed to a given work often results from the way we perceive it. Thus the necessity remains for finding a method by which Cane may be understood in terms of its own constitutive features. In defining Cane as a lyrical novel, three issues must be considered: the concept of the self, the structure of language, and the structure of plot.

In a lyrical novel, the narrator or “symbolic hero” represents an idealized version of the self, the author's self in art. According to Ralph Freedman, this self-reflexive narrator creates a point of view analogous to the lyrical “I” in poetry.

He is the cause of the novel's world, its landscape and stylized textures of faces and events. In his point of view, perceptions, illusory or real, are transmuted into imagery. But he also plays the role of the protagonist: he unifies not only symbolic images but also the novel's scenes. The relationship between these two roles played by an identical figure constitutes an important dimension of lyrical fiction … reflected in an ambiguous world composed simultaneously of a texture of images and of the linear movement of narrative.31

Thus, the lyrical novel is ideologically conditioned, as it reflects an idealist epistemology of narrative. That is, the text seeks “to eliminate the disjunction of self and world in the very genre that seems most to require their separation.”32 In Cane, the “spiritual entity behind the work,” the author's self in art, assumes the role of a “symbolic hero,” a self-reflective narrator who proceeds to draw a self-portrait as he allegorizes his symbolic encounters in art.

Any discussion of the structure of language in the lyrical novel is inextricably related to the structure of plot. For the presence of both metaphoric and metonymic poles of language within the same text, as in Cane, thwarts any overall narrative surge toward completion. To include lyric within narrative, “roughened language” within the language of discontinuous plot, deprives narrative of the second-degree semiotic system by which it is constituted. In sum, roughened language inhibits the production of discontinuous plot when these two modes of literary defamiliarization are included within the same text.33 A theory of narrative in Cane must therefore postulate a mechanism which reconciles lyric and narrative defamiliarization. That mechanism is reflexive reference. Reflexive reference is a technique for combining primary and secondary semiotic systems (poetic language and discontinuous plot) into a ternary system that forms a pattern of meaning, as in the lyrical novel. “Depicting experience and enacting it through a progression of images, the hero renders himself as a symbolic vision.”34 In a lyrical novel, as in Cane, there is “a vast number of references and cross references that relate to each other independently of the time sequence of the narrative. These references must be connected by the reader and viewed as a whole before the book fits together into any meaningful pattern.”35

As for the structure of plot, time in a lyrical novel is represented as a spatial form, resulting in literary portraiture. In other words, a constellation of images is fused with an underlying plot of spiritual evolution, from which a design of motifs emerges. “A lyrical novel assumes a unique form which transcends the causal and temporal movement of narrative. … rather than finding its Gestalt in the imitation of an action, the lyrical novel absorbs action altogether and refashions it as a pattern of imagery. … Ordering all parts [of the narrative] retrospectively in a total image … [the reader] sees complex details in juxtaposition and experiences them as a whole.”36 In Cane, the constellation of images composing the five arcs of Toomer's spiritual design represent experience as a circle and as a spatial form. The underlying plot of spiritual evolution is represented by the successive stages in the narrator's self-reflexive dramatization of consciousness. In the tradition of the lyrical novel, Cane renders spiritual design as a symbolic vision and as a portrait of the artist.

Cane may also be defined as metafiction. In Writing Degree Zero, Roland Barthes employs the term écriture (mode of writing) to differentiate style (verbal obsessions) and language (the author's linguistic heritage) from the function a writer gives to language, the set of institutional conventions within which the activity of writing occurs.37 Borrowing Barthes's concept of écriture, Culler develops a spectrum of modern modes of writing, ranging from realistic (the “socially given” text and the “general culture” text) to self-referential (the “conventionally natural,” or metafictional, text and the “parody and irony” text).38 That is, as a text moves along a continuum from the sheerly mimetic to the sheerly self-referential, at some point its technique becomes its subject. It is at this point that a text crosses the line from the emphatically mimetic to the emphatically metafictional. Under Culler's system of “Naturalization,” the lyrical novel—in its formal synthesis of metaphor and metonymy and in its combination of both discontinuous plot and “roughened language” within a coherent narrative design—is “naturalized” at the level of metafiction. At this level, the lyrical novel

finds its coherence by being interpreted as a narrator's exercise of language and production of meaning. To naturalize it at this level is to read it as a statement about the writing of novels, a critique of mimetic fiction, an illustration of the production of a world by language. … The best way to explain this level of naturalization may be to say that citing or opposing conventions of a genre brings about a change in the mode of reading.39

A metafictional text establishes an opposition between itself and its genre, so as “to make a statement about the imaginative ordering of the world that takes place in literature.” Thus, “We read the poem or novel as a statement about poems or novels (since it has, by its opposition, adumbrated that theme),” and we learn to “read particular elements or images as instances of the literary process.”40 While Cane is essentially a mimetic text, holding a mirror up to nature throughout its lyrical narrative design, the text also manifests metafictional impulses. In order to extrapolate or “lay bare” those impulses, the critic must locate within the text an appropriate perspective that allows mimetic elements to be read as “instances of the literary process.”

Toomer's description of the “spiritual entity behind the work” may be assimilated to the role of a self-conscious narrator who plays upon the opposition between fiction and truth. As Fredric Jameson notes, metafictional analysis, or what he terms metacommentary, is of particular importance in understanding novels in which the narrator plays a significant role in shaping our perception of the plot. “In the novel of point of view, where little by little the action of the book comes to coincide with the consciousness of the hero, interpretation is once more interiorized, immanent to the work itself, for it is now the point-of-view figure himself who from within the book, reflecting on the meaning of his experience, does the actual work of exegesis for us before our own eyes.”41

The metaphor of the “spiritual entity” as interiorized critic implies that Cane may be read on a metafictional level as the story about the writing of a story—more specifically, a story chronicling the stages of consciousness during the writing of a story. Cane reveals other metafictional perspectives, as well. “Kabnis,” for example, represents the central character as a writer intent upon capturing the African-American folk spirit in art. And if we are able to read “Bona and Paul,” which immediately precedes “Kabnis,” as a symbolic awakening of the artist, then Paul Johnson is the prototype for Kabnis. Moreover, both “Song of the Son” and “Harvest Song” are patently metapoetic. In “Song of the Son” the writer figure as poet is imaged as a prodigal son returning to write about his homeland. On a metapoetic level, then, the “one seed” and “one plum” he saves are metaphors for the raw materials of his art; thus, the “everlasting song” and the “singing tree” are the text that is Cane itself. A similar metafictional perspective inheres in “Harvest Song.” In an extended metaphor of the poet as reaper, this poem describes the poet's inability to transform the fruits of his labor into art. The “fatigue” the reaper experiences, from a metapoetic perspective, symbolizes the failure of the poet's creative imagination. A similar metapoetic perspective inheres in “Prayer,” where the failure of creative powers is reflected in the lines “I am weak with much giving. / I am weak with the desire to give more.” Through these perspectives, Cane examines its own ontological status as art.

In a letter to Sherwood Anderson, Double Dealer editor John McClure praises Toomer as a “lyrical genius” and locates him within the modern Symbolist tradition.

[Toomer] can be an unusually good short story writer or a supremely fine lyrical rhapsodist, as he pleases. He should mold his stories into lyrical rhapsodies rather than attempt to present them realistically. … The lyrical genius is not restricted to poetry. A novel can be lyrical. Realism can be lyrical. … Toomer's character seems to me to be lyrical—he is so intensely an individual that it is useless for him to attempt anything other than to express himself. … Anything he touches will be transmuted into a personal expression.42

As Toomer sought literary equivalents for his idealism, he not only fused his inner and outer selves to form a transcendental or symbolic self in art, he also attempted to reconcile lyric and narrative, metaphor and metonymy, metafiction and mimesis within the same text. Cane was not Jean Toomer's total life; yet it remains his most ambitious attempt to create an art reflective of his Symbolist idealism.


  1. Turner, The Wayward and the Seeking, 20.

  2. Toomer, “The Psychology and Craft of Writing.”

  3. Roman Jakobson and Morris Halle, Fundamentals of Language (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), 91-92.

  4. Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in Style in Language, ed. Thomas Sebeok (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960), 358.

  5. Robert Scholes, Structuralism in Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 26.

  6. Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” 370.

  7. Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in Russian Formalist Criticism, trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 12.

  8. Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism: History-Doctrine (The Hague: Mouton, 1965), 177.

  9. Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” 370-71.

  10. Quoted in Erlich, Russian Formalism, 181.

  11. Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), 164; Ralph Freedman, The Lyrical Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), 10, 35, 36, 38, 179; Karl Uitti, The Concept of Self in the Symbolist Novel (The Hague: Mouton, 1961), 42-60.

  12. These selections are from Jean Toomer, Cane (New York: Liveright Publishing, 1975). Further references are to this edition and will appear parenthetically with page numbers only.

  13. Susan Bernard, The Prose Poem from Baudelaire to the Present, trans. Alan F. Rister (Paris: Librairie Nizet, 1959), 14-15. Bernard also quotes Mme. Durry, who maintains that prose poems share in common “the same desire to escape from known and familiar language, a wish to invent a hitherto unknown language in which at last may be expressed perhaps what men will never succeed in explaining by means of words” (12). See also Maurice Chapelan's introduction to Anthology of the Prose Poem (Paris: Julliard, 1946), where he notes that it is the very absence of generic conventions which confers upon the prose poem “a dynamism all the other genres of traditional lyricism have lost” (16); and Vista Clayton, The Prose Poem in French Poetry of the Eighteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936). Part 2 of Clayton's book is devoted to recalling the controversies concerning the relative value of verse and of prose, to presenting the theories on poetic prose and on the rhythm of prose, and to seeking out the principal elements that define poetic prose.

  14. Freedman, Lyrical Novel, 273.

  15. Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 237.

  16. Gertrude Stein, “Portraits and Repetitions,” in Writings and Lectures: 1911-1945, ed. Patricia Meyerowitz (London: Peter Owen, 1967), 109.

  17. Stein, Selected Writings, 333-35.

  18. See Blyden Jackson, “Jean Toomer's Cane: An Issue of Genre,” in The Twenties, ed. Warren French (Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1975), 317-33.

  19. Toomer, letter to Waldo Frank, 12 December 1922, JTC Box 3, Folder 6. Several months earlier, Toomer projected a formal design ostensibly modeled after Whitman's Leaves of Grass: “I've had the impulse to collect my sketches and poems under the title perhaps of Cane. Such pieces as K. C. A. [“Karintha,” “Carma,” and “Avey”] and ‘Kabnis’ (revised) coming under the sub-head of Cane Stalks, Vignettes under Leaf Traceries in Washington” (letter to Waldo Frank, 19 July 1922). By December of 1922, however, Cane had evolved into a Whitmanian “Song of Myself.” As for the curves or arcs, two appear in the text between “Bona and Paul” and “Kabnis,” and one appears between “Blood-Burning Moon” and “Seventh Street.” These arcs plot the structure of spiritual design.

  20. See Charles Scruggs, “The Mark of Cain and the Redemption of Art: A Study in Theme and Structure of Jean Toomer's Cane,American Literature 44 (May 1972): 276-91. Scruggs argues that Toomer uses the biblical account of Cain's descendants to depict the black experience in mythical terms (277); see also Rudolph Byrd, Jean Toomer's Years with Gurdjieff: Portrait of an Artist, 1923-1936 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990), 16-48. Byrd attempts to show how the theme of “man's lack of and search for wholeness” unifies the works in Cane (17).

  21. Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 151.

  22. Underhill, Mysticism, 205-7.

  23. The Secret of the Golden Flower: A Chinese Book of Life, trans. Richard Wilhelm, with a foreword and commentary by Carl Jung (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962), 99, 102, 103.

  24. Boris Tomashevsky, “Thematics,” in Russian Formalist Criticism, 68.

  25. Underhill, Mysticism, 206.

  26. Ibid., 262.

  27. Ibid., 287.

  28. Ibid., 463.

  29. Ibid., 480.

  30. Jean Toomer, “Autobiographical Note,” JTC, Box 64, Folder 15. In a letter to The Liberator, dated 19 August 1922, Toomer writes: “From my point of view I am naturally and inevitably an American. I have strived for a spiritual fusion analogous to the fact of racial intermingling. Without denying a single element in me, with no desire to subdue one to another, I have sought to let them function as complements. I have tried to let them live in harmony. … Now I cannot conceive of myself as aloof and separated. My point of view has not changed; it has deepened; it has widened.”

  31. Freedman, Lyrical Novel, 28. There are essentially three distinct points of view in Cane: the lyrical “I” (as in the poems), the first-person narrator (as in “Avey”), and the third-person narrator (as in “Karintha”). While Toomer's spiritual design seems to imply a first-person point of view, owing to its self-reflexive narrator, all three points of view may be ascribed to the perspective of the “spiritual entity,” or implied narrator. As Freedman notes, “Since the formal presentation of a self is a ‘self-reflexive’ method, most lyrical novels indeed seem to require a single point of view. But actually the tradition of lyrical fiction is considerably more generous; it is capable of including many novels which feature several important characters or suggest a panoramic form” (15).

  32. Ibid., 17.

  33. Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” 22-23. Shklovsky defines poetic language as highly “defamiliarized” or “roughened” language.

  34. Freedman, Lyrical Novel, 9.

  35. Joseph Frank, The Widening Gyre (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963), 16.

  36. Freedman, Lyrical Novel, 2, 6.

  37. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), xvii and 9-18.

  38. Culler, Structuralist Poetics, 140-60.

  39. Ibid., 150-51.

  40. Ibid., 151.

  41. Fredric Jameson, “Metacommentary,” PMLA 86 (January 1971): 13.

  42. John McClure, letter to Sherwood Anderson, 29 January 1924, JTC, Box 1, Folder 1.

George Hutchinson (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Jean Toomer and American Racial Discourse,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 226-50.

[In the following essay, Hutchinson contends that the predominant motif of Cane is the author's exploration of his own racial identity.]

The culture which will transcend, and thus unite, East and West, or the Earthlings and the Galactics, is not likely to be one which does equal justice to each, but one which looks back on both with the amused condescension typical of later generations looking back at their ancestors.1

Knowledge of what cannot be said … signals the rock-bottom shape, the boundaries, of our situation in the world; it is the ethical, in the classical sense of the term.2

An undated poem kept in a tin box that no one but the author ever saw in his lifetime bears haunting witness to the great lack of Jean Toomer's existence:

Above my sleep
Tortured in deprival
Stripped of the warmth of a name
My life breaks madly. …
Breaks against world
Like a pale moth breaking
Against sun.(3)

In their biography of the poet, The Lives of Jean Toomer, Cynthia Kerman and Richard Eldridge discuss the relationship of this poem to Toomer's sense of lacking a permanent and certain name, deriving from the fact that his name had changed during his childhood and that different family members called him by different names. His grandfather, for example (the patriarch with whom he lived to young adulthood and who died, Toomer claimed, the day after he completed the first draft of “Kabnis”), would not acknowledge the name he had been given at birth.4 “Jean Toomer” itself is a later fabrication of the author.

No doubt it is a fact of the first importance that Toomer was a self-named man. He was also a man who devoted an extraordinary amount of energy to defining himself, authoring some seven autobiographies that never found publishers in his lifetime.5 In all of his self-definitions, Toomer dwells intensely on his racial identity, which he specifically differentiates from the races now acknowledged and named in the public discourse of the United States. He names his own race, the “American” race, striving to claim the central term of our national discourse to signify an identity which few “Americans” have been willing to acknowledge. If Toomer's family could not agree with each other upon what exactly to call him, thus stripping him of the “warmth” of a name, so far most of those who read his works have equally “de-nominated” and renamed him, conferring on him the denominations “Negro,” “Afro-American,” “black.” The naming has curiously and ironically empowered his voice by fitting it anew within the very “American” racial discourse whose authority he radically, incessantly disputed. Only recently have a very few critics begun to take his racial self-identification seriously. Donald B. Gibson, for example, has argued that Cane is “an index of the orientation of its author”: “It is difficult to believe that critics who have seen Cane as in some sense a revelation of the essential black soul are not talking about something other than Toomer's book.”6 But it is precisely the orientation of the author that comes under Gibson's attack, as an “escapist” philosophical idealism: “Rather than a depiction of black life as it really is, Cane turns out instead to be the response of one for whom black life in its social, political, and historical dimension was too much to bear.”7 If Cane is not a “black” text, the argument goes, then it is escapist and “inauthentic.” The vast majority of teachers and critics, however, have disagreed with Gibson's conclusions and have insisted instead upon the “blackness” of Cane, in part by differentiating it from the rest of Toomer's published and unpublished texts. Hence, it has entered the anthologies and literary histories as a seminal work of African American literature. Contrary to this conventional wisdom, I believe that Cane is of a piece with the other texts Toomer wrote in the early to mid-1920s. The difficulty of speaking or writing from outside the dominant discourse of race is a pervasive motif throughout Cane, and it has been matched by the difficulty of reading the text against the boundaries of that discourse.

Toomer's career, the reception of his published texts, and his texts themselves (including Cane and contemporaneous works) indicate how the belief in unified, coherent “black” and “white” American “racial” identities depends formally and ethically upon the sacrifice of the identity that is both “black” and “white,” just as American racial discourse depends upon maintaining the emphatic silence of the interracial subject at the heart of Toomer's project. Moreover, the very acts of discursive violence that banish the forbidden terms and thus enable the social fictions by which we live must remain unacknowledged, virtually unconscious gestures—in the case of Toomer scholarship, typically North American “racial” gestures with undertones of the rituals of scapegoating.


Most critics who recognize the nature of Toomer's insistence upon a new “American” racial identity nonetheless perceive Cane either as falling into a brief period when the author considered himself a “Negro” or as affirming (regardless of the author's identity) an African American vision, as well as revealing African American expressivity as the “true source” of Toomer's creativity.8 In the most interesting and sophisticated recent interpretation of Cane, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., while seeming to accept Toomer's self-identification, tries ingeniously to evade the problem this identification poses not only by separating intentionality and biographical context from textuality but by defining the “multiracial” text as “black.” Hence, because of its “double-voiced discourse,” Cane is “the blackest text of all.”9 Even if we accept the necessity of separating textuality from biography, however, the trap remains the same: a discourse that allows no room for a “biracial” text (except by defining it as “black”) is part of the same discursive system that denies the identity of the person who defines himself or herself as both black and white (or, in Langston Hughes's phrase, as “neither white nor black”). Critics routinely ignore Toomer's idea that, as “black” is to “white” identity, the “American” identity (in Toomer's sense) is to “black/white” identity. The “American” race in his view “differ[ed] as much from white and black as white and black differ from each other.”10 Toomer dramatizes, that is, another threshold of “racial” difference that he considers to be of a “higher level” than the threshold between black and white, and his “multi-voiced” language aims to bring us to that threshold, to give us a glimpse of what lies beyond.

In fending off the disturbing implications of Toomer's racial thought, readers often fall into the yet more disturbing rhetorical gestures of traditional American racial discourse, despite their own avowed resistance to that discourse. For example, Gates charges, “In a curious and perhaps perverse sense, Toomer's was a gesture of racial castration, which, if not silencing his voice literally, then at least transformed his deep black bass into a false soprano.”11 Here, as so often in discussions of the “mulatto,” the signifier of interracial mediation is replaced by the trope of a sexual lack (a fact all the more ironic in that Gates himself is often attacked for betraying the “authentic” voice of the “black bas[e]” and too intimately embracing seductive “white” theory).12 It is not Toomer who is doing the castrating. Deeply revealing, Gates's metaphors connect with an old racialist tradition that held male “mulattoes” to be more effeminate, less potent sexually, than either blacks or whites. “Highly ephemeral persons,” according to this self-serving white fantasy, mulattoes were “effete … both biologically and, ultimately, culturally.”13 Indeed, “mulatto” sexual unions purportedly produced fewer offspring than any other combination, and if black-white unions would only cease, according to many authorities “mulattoes” would entirely die out. Male “mulattoes” were, like mules, effectively castratos unless they “back-crossed” with one of the “purer” races—and Southern custom, of course, determined with which of the races “mulattoes” would fuse.14 This white Southern “muleology” has been curiously transmuted from biological theories of racial inheritance to the analysis of Toomer's texts and to interpretations of Cane's relation to “racial” tradition. Ultimately, it seems that the division between “biographical” and “textual” criticism evaporates when we turn our attention to the positions of both “racial self” and “racial text” in American discourse.

Other revealing metaphors from the critical tradition suggest that Toomer “disappeared” into “white obscurity” or became “invisible.”15 His “visibility,” like his potency, is directly connected to his status as a “black” author. One may well ask whether Cane would enjoy whatever canonical status it does today—whether, indeed, it would even be in print—had it not been “rediscovered” and valorized in the late 1960s as a “seminal” “black” text, comfortably fitting within the North American racial archive. Perhaps the greatest irony of Toomer's career is that at the time modern American racial discourse was taking its most definite shape, “mulattoes”—because they threatened the racial bifurcation—“disappeared” as a group into either the white “race” (through passing) or the black “race” while the “one-drop rule” was defined in increasingly definite terms. The 1920 U.S. census, coinciding with the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, was the last to count “mulattoes.”16 At the same time, “interracial” mating, and particularly “interracial” marriage, rare as it already was, drastically declined.17 By 1990 the census forms, despite objections, explicitly instructed that all persons who considered themselves both black and white, or biracial, must designate themselves “black.”18

The mutely “tragic,” “ghostly” figure of the “mulatto” haunts our racial ideology as its absent center, the scapegoat whose sacrifice both signifies the origin of racialist discourse and sustains it. As René Girard has emphasized, scapegoating purges a community of the threat of “strange mixtures,” first instituting and then maintaining the system of differences upon which signification itself depends. Every discursive system, indeed, depends upon some such sacrifice.19 Thus, as Simone Vauthier has written, the biracial character in the literature of the United States, “designates the moment of origins,” exposing and undermining “the myth of two discrete races separated by an impassable gulf.”20 The maintenance of racial boundaries demands the sacrifice of the “mulatto” either through tragedy or by his or her incorporation into one of the “fixed” racial groups.21 Kenneth Burke's meditations on the relationship between tragedy and scapegoating are relevant here. Viewing tragedy as a secular extension of the “therapeutics” of scapegoating, Burke argues that tragedy reduces to a specific conflict a pervasive, unresolved tension typical of a given social order and, by doing away with the “marked” hero, purges fears of basic ideological contradictions.22 Little wonder, then, that the “mulatto” is America's most distinctive tragic figure. As Werner Sollors has argued, it is the story of the mulatto that, “against all odds, continued the tragic tradition in the New World” by confronting racial fictions with kinship lines.23 With Nella Larsen, Toomer has come to be regarded as one of the chief “tragic mulattoes” of American literary history because—like increasing numbers of biracial youths today—he insisted upon a self-naming that threatened racialist discourse, along with the rich structures of knowledge, identity, and power to which that discourse is inextricably bound.24

In a preface to one of his unpublished autobiographies—appropriately called “Book X”—Toomer regrets that he will have to resort to conventional and distorting terms to get his racial message across, as our very language allows no other means of expressing his sense of identity; he has considered the problem for years and cannot find any adequate solution. “If I have to say ‘colored,’ ‘white,’ ‘jew,’ ‘gentile,’ and so forth, I will unwittingly do my bit toward reinforcing the limited views of mankind which dismember mankind into mutually repellant factions.”25 Toomer's attempts to explain himself led to a very precise awareness of the connection between language and ideology, the impossibility of developing an entirely “new” discourse that would be independent of the inherited one.26

The problem was so severe that for a period he stopped writing, convinced that the more he wrote, the more he reinforced the very ideology he was trying to escape.

This dilemma of the writer happens to strike me with peculiar force. It impresses and sometimes depresses me and makes me beat my brains almost to the point that I voluntarily seal my lips and stop writing. Indeed in the past there was a time when I did become mute, owing to a realization of this very matter which, as I saw then as I see now, involved the entire use of words with reference to any and all aspects of life.27

The sense of entrapment in a racialist language founded specifically upon the denial of his own “racial” name precipitated an intense realization of the general inadequacy of language to express “truth.” Language, always shaped by oppressive social conventions and more profoundly by what Michel Foucault would later call the “archive” of the “cultural unconscious,” was a hindrance to spiritual development and self-redescription. This rather remarkable insight of Toomer's helps us understand why, when he, as most readers would have it, “turned his back on his race”—seeking what countless critics have termed a “raceless” identity but which he considered the only self-consciously “American” one—he simultaneously turned to mysticism, a route to knowledge “beyond words.”

The years of silence to which Toomer refers in the autobiography are in fact basically the years following Cane, a work that, he wrote in a letter to the editors of The Liberator, was “a spiritual fusion analogous to the fact of racial intermingling.”28 The general audience's interpretation of this book, he once said, was “one of the queer misunderstandings” of his life. He later thought it ironic that his writing, which should have made his racial position understood, “was being so presented and interpreted that I was now much more misunderstood in this respect than at any time of my life.”29 Discounting or ignoring such attestations, most critics see Cane as falling into a brief period of the author's strong identification with his “true” racial heritage and lament his turn away from “racial” writing toward mysticism, but Cane and the works written along with it—the story “Withered Skin of Berries” and the play Natalie Mann—show, upon close reading, a strong impetus toward the deconstruction of a traditional American racial ideology and the “birth-pangs” of a new one. To Toomer, the “old” racialism, for whites and blacks alike, had reached a dead end. Together with his contemporaneous works, Cane exemplifies the frustrations attendant upon a transformation from one field of “racial” existence to another. The works of the early 1920s are attempts to initiate a new American tradition, to provoke a new “racial” consciousness that would displace the dualistic racial consciousness of “white” and “black” Americans. Although all of Cane can be read as initiating such a tradition, in “Kabnis”—the climax of the volume—Toomer achieves the most concentrated and complex articulation of his theme. He dramatizes the tortured “dusk-before-dawn” of a new kind of ethnic subject, the possibility of whose existence was disallowed by both “white” and “black” definitions of “racial” subjectivity.30


A few comments about significant elements in the first two sections of Cane will help to show how the concluding story/play relates to the volume as a whole. The first section of the book, which Toomer called a “swan song” for the dying African American folk culture of the South, shows the enormous contradictions inherent in Southern “racial” culture. Behind all the tragedies of the South lies the repression of “natural” desires, repression of life itself by conventions governing all human relations. A chief contradiction (which Toomer's friend and mentor Waldo Frank would also make the basis of his novel Holiday) is the desire certain members of each “race” feel for members of the other—and by extension, for incorporation into the “new race”—despite a brutally enforced, “unnatural” segregation. The sexual and racial codes of the South turn this desire into various perverted, stunted, and oppressive manifestations, but interracial desire remains an ineluctable fact.

The text is full of people of “mixed race,” episodes revolving around or emanating from interracial liaisons. The “biracial” Fern (Jewish and African American)31 is an erotic-mystical magnet to black and white alike, for example; but one whom, like a vestal priestess, both black and white men leave alone, sensing something “taboo” about her: “She was not to be approached by anyone.”32 The narrator, indeed, draws male readers of both “races” into her spell: “([I]t makes no difference if you sit in the Pullman or the Jim Crow as the train crosses her road,” 18). The reference to her “weird,” mystical eyes as a “common delta,” into which both God and the Southern landscape flow, evokes Toomer's consistent trope (from the 1910s through the 1930s) of a river signifying the dissolution of the “old” races into the “New World soul.” Moreover, Fern's spiritual “hunger” and frustration as well as her muteness match Toomer's sense of the frustration and inarticulateness of the yet “unawakened” people of his new race.

Interracial desire is denied, thwarted, made a tool of oppression (as in “Blood-Burning Moon”), driven underground, or violently purged throughout section 1 of Cane. Manifestations of this desire and denial—this burial, this violence—become sacred, taboo in such pieces as “Becky,” “Fern,” “Esther,” “Blood-Burning Moon,” and “Portrait in Georgia.” Since women are the objects of a dominating male desire, they often bear the “cross” of this contradiction.

In “Becky,” for example, the title character—who has given birth to “mulatto” sons—is ostracized by both black and white communities, each of which “prayed secretly to God who'd put His cross upon her and cast her out” (7). Toomer emphasizes a parallelism in white and black responses to Becky and her unknown lover: “Damn buck nigger, said the white folks' mouths. She wouldnt tell, Common, God-forsaken, insane white shameless wench, said the white folks' mouths. … Low-down nigger with no self-respect, said the black folks' mouths. She wouldnt tell. Poor Catholic poor-white crazy woman, said the black folks' mouths” (7). Blacks and whites together have built her a cabin precisely on an “eye-shaped piece of ground” between a road and the railroad tracks, and she—who has become “invisible”—lives at this boundary line between the white and black sections of town. No one ever sees Becky, and she is utterly silent. Yet people scribble prayers on scraps of paper and throw them toward her house as they pass it, until one day the chimney of her disintegrating cabin caves in and buries her. Returning from church on a Sunday, the narrator and his friend Barlo hear the chimney fall and even enter the home. The narrator thinks he hears a groan, but instead of investigating further and possibly saving her, the two men quickly leave, Barlo throwing his Bible on the mound. Like a true scapegoat, Becky is invested with the sacred aura of the taboo; the food and other objects people leave near her home are distinctly presented as propitiatory offerings for the sign of “pollution,” the sacrifice of which sustains racial identities. Even her boys disappear, shouting, “Godam the white folks; Godam the niggers” (8). The mutual decision by blacks and whites to ostracize Becky gives them a commonality: “We, who had cast out their mother because of them, could we take them in?” asks the narrator. “They answered black and white folks by shooting up two men and leaving town” (8; emphasis added).

The poem “Portrait in Georgia” is another haunting evocation of the racial boundary, curiously merging the image of a white woman and of a lynched black person—implied to be a man burned to death for “despoiling white womanhood.”

Hair—braided chestnut,
                    coiled like a lyncher's rope,
Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath—the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
                    of black flesh after flame.


On one level, the white woman becomes a sinister figure, rather like the seductive “White Witch” of a James Weldon Johnson poem of that name, or like Lula in Amiri Baraka's Dutchman. But Toomer goes beyond these writers in suggesting an identity between the figures joined in his poem. By superimposing the images of the white woman, the apparatus of lynching, and the burning flesh of the black man, Toomer graphically embodies both a union of black male and white female and the terrifying method of exorcising that union to maintain a racial difference the poem linguistically defies.

Other pieces suggest the terrible price to be paid for transgression of the racial divide, or indeed for literally embodying the transgression of that divide as a person of “mixed race” such as Fern and Esther. Edward Waldron has aptly written of the latter: “Caught between two worlds, one which she denies herself—a world of mixed-color reality—and one which is denied her—the world of total blackness/Purity, a dream world which can only exist in her desperate mind—Esther finds nothing. She is left in Limbo, with not even a Hell in sight.”33 She attempts in vain, by seeking Barlo, to embrace a “pure” blackness that will ensure her a sharply defined identity. The story suggests that this proposed solution to her problem of selfhood is delusional.

Toomer's vision of a coming merging of the races makes perfect sense within the framework of the first section of Cane: the dystopia of the contemporary South implies a corresponding utopia. Alain Solard's comment on “Blood-Burning Moon” is apt: “To the artist, Bob, Tom, Louisa belong to ‘another country’ which they feel, but do not know is their own.”34 When desire is freed (as segregation is dismantled), it will cross racial boundaries without violence, embarrassment, or perversion. Those “mixed-race” persons now left in “limbo” will ultimately find home; indeed, the entire country will be transformed in their image. The United States will be a “colored” nation. But at the same time, many elements contributing to the beauty of the South—specifically of the African American folk spirit—will be lost as the conditions of its emergence disappear. “America needs these elements,” Toomer wrote in a well-known passage the year he composed Cane.

They are passing. Let us grab and hold them while there is still time. Segregation and laws may retard this solution. But in the end, segregation will either give way, or it will kill. Natural preservations do not come from unnatural laws. … A few generations from now, the negro will still be dark, and a portion of his psychology will spring from this fact, but in all else he will be a conformist to the general outlines of American civilization, or of American chaos.35

“Race-mixing,” in Toomer's view, follows natural laws. If Toomer would hasten the end of racial division and oppression, he would also have to accept the end of that specific sort of folk culture engendered by slavery, a largely preindustrial economy, Jim Crow, and post-Reconstruction peonage. Hence, he is called, in this swan song, to memorialize. “The Negro is in solution,” he wrote Waldo Frank.

As an entity, the race is loosing [sic] its body, and its soul is approaching a common soul. … In my own stuff, in those places that come nearest to the old Negro, to the spirit saturate with folk-song: Karintha and Fern, the dominant emotion is a sadness derived from a sense of fading, from a knowledge of my futility to check solution. There is nothing about these pieces of the bouyant expression of a new race. The folk-songs themselves are of the same order.36

Toomer implies that if there is nothing in these pieces about the “buoyant expression of a new race,” the “sense of fading” of the “old races” will be followed by such expression. Indeed, Cane presupposes such expression.

Precisely because of the deep “roots” of black culture in Southern soil, because of what Toomer considered the settled, non-“pioneer” nature of black folk culture, in the South many indispensable elements of a truly aboriginal—though hybrid—American culture could be found. This is exactly what Toomer's friend Waldo Frank had failed to consider in his influential book, Our America (1919).37 Moreover, important elements of the folk culture (those developed in urban centers, via jazz, e.g.) were powerful antidotes to “Puritanism” and Anglophilia, as well as to the acquisitive “pioneer” mentality that had outlived its usefulness. All of these concerns find their distilled expression in the second section of Cane.

In “Seventh Street,” Toomer sets the tone for the entire section by opposing the spirit of “black reddish blood” and the “crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life” to the “white and whitewashed wood of Washington.” The wedge of folk-descended black life (presented in partially phallic sexual images) will “split” the stale “wood” of the city, scandalizing social conformists. “Blood suckers of the War would spin in a frenzy of dizziness if they drank your blood. Prohibition would put a stop to it” (41).38 The intoxication of its “loafer air, jazz songs and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms” threatens the sexual as well as racial mores of proper Washington, black and white. It is even pitted against the authority of established religion, “Swirling like a blood-red smoke up where the buzzards fly in heaven.” “God would not dare to suck black red blood. A Nigger God! He would duck his head in shame and call for the Judgment Day” (41). An ungovernable bodily force threatens at once sexual mores, racial purity, and the religious divisions of “spirit” and “body,” heaven and earth.

The lyric opening and closing of the piece also indicates the opposition of the strident jazz spirit to “Puritan” mores embodied in thrift, sexual continence, Prohibition, and taming of modern exuberance:

Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts,
Bootleggers in silken shirts,
Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs,
Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks.


Throughout the second section of Cane, one has the impression of bottled-up desire finding brief expression in jazz or dance, occasionally a sort of uncontrolled rage intent on breaking the inhibitions to erotic/“spiritual” satisfaction. (For Toomer, as for his prophet Whitman, the erotic and the spiritual are properly one.)

The section includes a series of vignettes suggesting hunger, thirst, unsatisfied or unacknowledged desires. Characters repeatedly fail to achieve the “fusion” of several important dualities: body and soul, intellect and emotion, blackness and whiteness, manhood and womanhood. The “powerful underground races” (as they are called in “Box Seat”) hold the key to breaking the repression that inhibits American self-realization. From deep below ground, a “new world Christ” is coming up. Instinctive desires, the urges of life, however, are far in advance of mental and social conditioning. Hence, even whites can be moved by jazz to overcome, provisionally, sexual and racial restraints; but as soon as the music stops, so to speak, they stop dancing and go back to their old ways, as Bona does in “Bona and Paul.” Moreover, as “Box Seat” and “Calling Jesus” indicate, the “black bourgeoisie” itself is as adamant as the white in repressing desire and self-knowledge. They have adopted the “pioneer” and “Puritan” mentalities with a vengeance, in self-defensive reaction against white stereotypes of black people.

In the terms of “Harvest Song,” people “fear knowledge of [their] hunger” (71). The poem, which Toomer once suggested was the culmination of the “spiritual entity” behind Cane, epitomizes the sense of the ending of a cycle that we find throughout the book—whether signified by dusk, autumn, “blood-burning” harvest moon, or fallen leaves. Toomer depicts the ending of one cycle of American history, a “dusk” that must be followed by a dawn—the birthing of his “American” race. In “Bona and Paul,” the final piece of the second section (and also set at dusk), the fear of interracial hunger is dramatically evident in Bona's fear of her “hunger” for the mulatto Paul, who tells the black doorman at a nightclub as he leaves with her: “I came back to tell you, brother, that white faces are petals of roses. That dark faces are petals of dusk. That I am going out and gather petals. That I am going out and know her whom I brought with me to these Gardens which are purple like a bed of roses would be at dusk” (80). Predictably, when Paul turns to rejoin Bona, she has been overcome by her sexual/racial fear and deserted him. So ends the final story in section 2 of Cane, which Toomer associated with his “spiritual awakening.” The importance of the interracial taboo in this story carries over to the intensely autobiographical drama that follows, “Kabnis.”


It is instructive to read “Kabnis” in relation to the other texts Toomer was working on between 1921 and 1923. In notes for a book he apparently intended to publish just after Cane, for example, he outlines the concept of a hero whose consciousness, at the beginning of the novel, is “shredded by surfaces which it cannot relate” and by glimpses of a “scattered humanity” of segregated ethnic groups. The intellect of the hero, like Lewis's and Kabnis's in Cane, is not yet related to his “spiritual” and “emotional” “heave.” He is, like Kabnis, “tortured for synthesis.” This hero has “touched” but not yet “absorbed” the work of the writers associated with Seven Arts magazine, such as Waldo Frank's Our America (which had had a tremendous impact upon Toomer before he wrote Cane). After a psychic breakdown, he leaves New York City for mountain country where he convalesces (as Toomer had done at Harper's Ferry), then returns to New York. “Again shredded. Forces converge and drive the character down South: Washington, first, Georgia.”39 The outline closely follows Jean Toomer's own development up until his trip to Sparta and also connects with the title character of “Kabnis,” whose consciousness is similarly “shredded” and “tortured for synthesis,” whose intellect is unrelated to his spiritual and emotional energies (Cane, 108-09). In the second book, however, Toomer apparently envisioned the hero as emerging from his underworld experience, an articulate embodiment of the “new race”—like Toomer himself—expressing himself in a “classic American prose,” a fusion of diversely appropriated idioms.40

I argue that Kabnis is a man struggling to create the words adequate to a new ethos, a new and, in Toomer's terms, “inclusive” consciousness—the sort of consciousness exemplified in the works that were at one time intended to appear in yet another volume that was to follow Cane, “Withered Skin of Berries” and Natalie Mann, the heroes of which would be articulate exemplars of the new American race.41 In each of these works, significantly, the prophet/hero has written a piece that Toomer would insert in the first section of Cane—“Conversion” and “Karintha,” respectively.

Most scholars interpret “Kabnis” as if the failure of the hero is caused by his rejection of his “true” African American identity. This interpretation hinges upon particular views of Lewis, Carrie Kate, and Father John, as well as the title character—upon the idea that the black Christian/folk tradition embodied in Father John and carried on by those such as Carrie Kate will herald a new dawn of African American peoplehood. Too weak to accept the pain of the African American past, Kabnis, so the argument goes, rejects his “true” “black” identity, and this explains his failure to become “whole.” Moreover, because of its strong autobiographical echoes, the story is thought to represent Toomer's brief identification of himself as a “black” author. Indeed, just after finishing the manuscript, he wrote Waldo Frank in an intense letter, “Kabnis is me.42

The story opens with the haunting lyrics of a song the “night-winds” whisper through cracks in the walls of Kabnis's cabin:

White-man's land.
Niggers, sing.
Burn, bear black children
Till poor rivers bring
Rest, and sweet glory
In Camp Ground


The lines, of course, bring to mind the African American heritage, specifically the spirituals. But Toomer puts a strange spin on familiar phrases. In a letter to Waldo Frank counseling the latter on how to write the introduction to Cane, Toomer wrote that such lines as “I want to cross over into camp ground” (from the spiritual “Deep River”) not only signified the desire for salvation but could be translated in social terms as meaning, “my position here is transient. I'm going to die, or be absorbed.”43 Indeed, preposterous as it sounds, Toomer interpreted the lines as prophetically anticipating the merging of the “Negro” into the new American race. In “Withered Skin of Berries,” the “mulatta” Vera longs to plunge into a river, signifying the merging of black and white races in the “new world soul,” intoning, “Lord, I want to cross over into camp ground.”44 She longs for the river to “sweep her under” as she “crosses” over into the “American” identity. Indeed, Toomer frequently uses images of rivers in his work written at this time and later to suggest the current that would dissolve past racial and cultural identities into a new one.45 He adapted this motif in part from Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe, in which the Rhine acts as a prophetic solvent of French and German identities—the identities Jean-Christophe blends in his music of a new pan-European culture.46 Jean-Christophe was a modern John the Baptist and Christ figure, whose first name Toomer had taken for himself, altering his given name “Eugene” at the time he turned seriously to writing as a vocation.

Kabnis suffers inner conflict in great part because of his denial of the pain of the black past and his connection to it. However, the conflict is exacerbated by his “mixed” racial identity. Like Toomer, Kabnis has straight, thin hair, a “lemon” face, brown eyes, and a mustache of “slim silk” (83). He longs to become “the face of the South.” Like Toomer's, his ancestors were “southern blue bloods” as well as the black slaves Lewis will not let him deny. The conflict between these identities is precisely the key to Kabnis's difficulty. Lewis charges: “Can't hold them, can you? Master; slave. Soil; and the overarching heavens. Dusk; dawn. They fight and bastardize you. The sun tint of your cheeks, flame of the great season's multi-colored leaves, tarnished, burned. Split, shredded: easily burned. No use” (108-09).

Whereas, in the work planned to follow Cane, the protagonist's consciousness is initially “shredded by surfaces it cannot relate,” the metaphor of “multi-colored leaves” also appears prominently in the pre-Cane story “Withered Skin of Berries,” in which David Teyy (the hero) is the “man of multi-colored leaves”—white, black, and American Indian. Significantly, part of a poem attributed to him shows up in the first section of Cane as “Conversion.” An “American” prophet, he is obviously a projection of Toomer's ideal image of himself, a reborn Kabnis. The female character, Vera—also of “mixed” race but still thinking of herself as “Negro”—needs him to “fill” her with “dreams”: “Dreams of dead leaves, multi-colored leaves. Dreams of leaves decaying for a vernal stalk, phosphorescent in the dusk, flaming in dawn.”47 Each of the main characters in this story—white, black, and “mixed”—has “choked with the sum” of racial identities contributing to the new race. Some instinct toward “amalgamation” has stirred them in a spiritual experience they scarcely dare to credit; all but the hero have repressed the memory. In speaking of her dreams to Art, her black suitor, Vera asks, “[I]n that South from which you come, under its hates and lynchings, have you no lake, no river, no falls to sit beside and dream … dream?”48 (He replies that rather than rivers he has red dust roads—a primary image in Cane.)

Ralph Kabnis calls himself a “dream” and regrets that a dream is soft, easily smashed by the “fist” of “square faces.” He lacks the “bull-neck” and “heaving body,” the strength, to bring his dream to reality. “If I, the dream (not what is weak and afraid in me),” he wonders, “could become the face of the South” (83-84). Lewis, perceiving the difficulty of “holding” the “sum” of his conflicting “racial” origins, precisely indicates the source of Kabnis's problem in achieving an identity and its adequate expression, an expression that would make him “the face of the [white/black] South” that would realize his dream.49 In fact, Kabnis longs to achieve an identity by means of verbal expression and is frustrated by his inability to shape the right words, to name his reality adequately. Speaking of people of the “expanding type” (i.e., the “new” people), Toomer once wrote, “often they have been so compelled and are now so accustomed to use the dominant, which is to them an alien, language, that they can find no words for even talking to themselves, much less to others.”50

In striving for an integration of his personality and an adequate expression of his sense of the world, Kabnis is caught between violently antagonistic racial identities, victimized by a history of racial oppression and hatred, a world divided. As a person who physically and culturally embodies the transgression of that division, he is the signifier of “sin,” taboo, that which cannot be spoken except in curses—and Kabnis curses profusely. The achievement of “Kabnis,” its very language, derives from the sort of tension Kabnis feels—not merely the tension between black and white but, most important, the tension between “black/white” discourse and the dream of an alternative one, a new “American” discourse that would be completely divorced from the old. Toomer came to realize, however, that he would have to borrow terms from the “old” language of race even as he strived to destroy it. This realization is anticipated by the way that Kabnis's violent verbalizations betray the frustrations of a man who hates the very words he speaks.

The most common reading of the story assumes that Father John—a representative of the slave past and African American Christianity—holds the secret that could “cure” Kabnis, but a number of details in the story make this assumption problematic. First of all, it is unclear whether the old preacher is, in Lewis's terms, “a mute John the Baptist of a new religion—or a tongue-tied shadow of an old.” Given the close relationship between Kabnis and the old man, it makes sense to interpret the former as a Toomer-like mute prophet of a new religion (unable to shape the words to fit his soul), and the latter as a “tongue-tied shadow of an old.” While Kabnis clearly must face the pain of the past and accept his African American heritage, one cannot infer that this acceptance precludes the prophecy of a “new” race that will arise as the older racial identities fade away. Quite the contrary, Toomer associated the rising of the new race with a recognition of the contributions of all past races and of the great suffering endured in the “birthing” of the new race. “Black” culture would be a powerful force in transforming “white” culture, even as both were “absorbed.”

The narrator, who rarely speaks, interrupts the dialogue just after Lewis names the old black preacher “Father John”: “Slave boy whom some Christian mistress taught to read the Bible. Black man who saw Jesus in the ricefields, and began preaching to his people. Moses- and Christ-words used for songs. Dead blind father of a muted folk who feel their way upward to a life that crushes or absorbs them” (106). The narrator here gives explicit voice to Toomer's own conception of the future of the black folk culture that Father John represents. In the same letter in which he told Waldo Frank that “Kabnis is me” as he finished the manuscript, Toomer wrote, “Don't let us fool ourselves, brother: the Negro of the folk-song has all but passed away: the Negro of the emotional church is fading.”51

Father John's “banal” emphasis upon the “sin” of the white folks in making the Bible lie, as Darwin Turner has suggested, is presented without any clear indication of how it will help lead toward the future.52 Even Lewis, who perceives Father John's importance as a link to the past, finds the Christian attitude wanting. He parodies Christianity: “Get ready, ye sinners, for the advent of Our Lord. Interesting, eh, Kabnis? but not exactly what we want” (101). Moreover, earlier in the story, the narrator pointedly undercuts the adequacy of a Christian vision for the reality that confronts Kabnis. As the black community gathers for worship, “[t]he church bell tolls. Above its squat tower, a great spiral of buzzards reaches far into the heavens. An ironic comment upon the path that leads into the Christian land” (88).

If Kabnis both resists Father John and fails to achieve self-integration, it is not at all clear that embracing what Father John represents would alone solve his problem. Throughout Cane the Christian attack on “sin” is undermined—which is not to say that oppression is accepted or that white America can escape responsibility for its history. The sins of the white masters and the “skeleton stone walls” that survive them as racist custom (as in “Blood-Burning Moon”) are precisely what make so difficult a “synthesis” of the past racial identities—even though those sins, in the form of rape and concubinage, for example, have played a part in producing the “germ,” so to speak, of the new race. I think we can credit Kabnis's statement that the main sin was not making the Bible lie, but something more far-reaching, the violation of a sacred relation (indeed, a family relationship, a relationship of the soul and the flesh) between blacks and whites:

It was only a preacher's sin they knew in those old days, an that wasn't sin at all. Mind me, th only sin is whats done against the soul. Th whole world is a conspiracy t sin, especially in America, an against me. I'm th victim of their sin. I'm what sin is. Does he [Father John] look like me? Have you ever heard him say th things you've heard me say? He couldn't if he had th Holy Ghost t help him.


Significantly, Carrie Kate has been taught to “hate” sin. In attempting to identify the nature of “sin” in contradistinction to Father John's conception, Kabnis—whose very name is an abbreviated inversion of “sin ba[c]k[wards]”—expresses his racial difference from Father John and his need for a new language to express his soul (which is, in effect, the repressed soul of the nation itself). That transgressive, “miscegenationist” soul is “sin” in America (from the conventional point of view), and at the same time the soul sinned against (in Toomer's view) the tabooed, denied, nearly unspoken spirit of a new conception.

The reality of this conception is cruel; Toomer expresses it in natural images both serene and harsh: “White faces, pain-pollen, settle downward through a cane-sweet mist and touch the ovaries of yellow flowers. Cotton bolls bloom, droop. Black roots twist in a parched red soil beneath a blazing sky” (107). White pollen, black roots, red soil—the associations are consistent with Toomer's system of racial metaphors in contemporaneous works. Whites are mobile, spread across the land like seed (just as white men, often by rape and concubinage, spread their “pain-pollen” and thus, despite their racist beliefs, helped conceive the new race); the Native Americans, aboriginal, are the spirit of the land, red soil; black people, in Toomer's view kept in “place” by slavery, the only American “peasant” group, have struck roots deep in the red southern soil of aboriginal America.

Kabnis, the very embodiment of this harsh and pained new growth, struggles for the words to express his “soul”—that soul that is “what sin is,” impure, polluted, an abominable and “tortured” mixture.

The form thats burned int my soul is some twisted awful thing that crept in from a dream, a godam nightmare, an won't stay still unless I feed it. An it lives on words. Not beautiful words. God Almighty no. Misshapen, split-gut, tortured, twisted words. … White folks feed it cause their looks are words. Niggers, black niggars feed it cause theyre evil an their looks are words. Yaller niggers feed it. This whole damn bloated purple country feeds it cause its goin down t hell in a holy avalanche of words. I want t feed the soul—I know what that is; the preachers dont—but I've got t feed it.


“Kabnis,” the action of which occurs almost entirely at night, ends before its central character achieves what Toomer would call “fusion.” Indeed, nowhere in Cane do we find fulfillment. Apparently Toomer intended Cane as an embodiment of a phase that both he and the United States were about to pass out of, while his projected next book would indicate the future.53 The controversial closing scene of Cane has Kabnis ascending the stairs from “the Hole” with a bucket of dead coals while Carrie Kate, who relies on Christianity and keeps telling Kabnis to go to church to find the answer to his problems, kneels before Father John murmuring, “Jesus, come.” “Light streaks through the iron-barred cellar window. Within its soft circle, the figures of Carrie and Father John” (117). It is a serene scene, but, I would argue, one representing the past, a confinement in an oppressive racial (and religious) discourse from which Kabnis has collected his dead coals.54 Given the attitude to Christianity (even African American Christianity) throughout the story, how can we now believe that Carrie and Father John represent the future?55Outside, the sun arises from its cradle in the tree-tops of the forest. Shadows of pines are dreams [Kabnis's “nightmares”?] 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” (117; emphasis added). The “gold-glowing child” substitutes for the “golden words” Kabnis would like to utter but cannot because the form burned into his soul is “a twisted awful thing that crept in from a dream, a godam nightmare” (111). Caught in that nightmare, dissipating his energies, as Toomer would later comment, Kabnis does not have the strength to win “a clear way through life” and ends frustrated and defeated, driven to a “passive acceptance” of “white dominance and its implications”—including, most importantly in Toomer's mind, the pervasive racialist discourse of the United States.56


Many scholars have charged that Toomer, like Kabnis, finally accepted white dominance and its implications. This conclusion follows from the perception that he denied his African ancestry.57 But, as David Bradley has suggested, he could be charged more accurately with refusing to deny the rest of his ancestry. His growing frustration with the insistence that he be either “black” or “white” forced him to a tactic of denying association with any race except the “American” race. Thus, ironically, the demand that he accept a “black” identity drove him away from connection with African American culture, a fundamental source of his art.58

Toomer once wrote, in reference to the period of his apprenticeship to writing, “I began feeling that I had in my hands the tools for my own creation”—the tools, we might say, to name himself with “golden words.”59 This brief faith in the power of self-naming, however, was shattered by the reception of Cane and Toomer's growing awareness of the impossibility of making himself understood. In the context of the dominant racial discourse, the “American” race could have no name; in the vision which that discourse bespoke, no visible place. Its invisibility, after all, made possible the defining light and shade of the vision. Hence, Henry Louis Gates's revealing accusation: “To be a human being … Toomer felt that he had to efface his mask of blackness, the cultural or racial trace of difference, and embrace the utter invisibility of being an American.”60 Such a statement precisely misses Toomer's point, in a predictable way. It is representative of a pervasive repression of Toomer's idea that, rather than erasing all racial “traces of difference,” he envisioned a new difference as fundamental—as, indeed, the only (and the inevitable) route out of America's continuing racial nightmare. Toomer felt that his “race” was invisible to other Americans because they had yet to cross the divide in which “black” and “white” could be perceived as elements of the same spiritual, discursive, and social field, a field in which his ideas could only be considered mad, his “race” invisible.

“New Negro” and not at the same time—North American in the specific conflicts that produce it and in its idiomatic language, its clash of “racial” forms—as we read it Cane can, however, make visible the nature of our assumptions about “race” and American identity. In its silences—in Kabnis's failure to find the words to name his soul—it reveals the significant silences of our own deeply racialized social text, the gaps and absences which critics, in turn, have failed to make speak.61 The rules and structures of our racial “archive”—shaped both for and in reaction against white hegemony, while leaving its foundational discursive violence intact—operate against any acknowledgment of sanity in Toomer's speech. There are certain things that we are ideologically forbidden to say. Toomer's struggle, like Kabnis's, was to break the silence as he brought his “fragments” to “fusion,” as he liked to say, a struggle in which he did not, could not, publicly succeed. He became a “mystical irrationalist”; according to the prevailing view he “disappeared.” Terry Eagleton has well expressed the sort of conundrum Toomer found himself up against:

[T]he languages and devices a writer finds to hand are already saturated with certain ideological modes of perception, certain codified ways of interpreting reality; and the extent to which he can modify or remake those languages depends on more than personal genius. It depends on whether at that point in history, “ideology” is such that they must and can be changed.62

By illuminating what, racially speaking, “cannot be said,” Toomer's Cane, as the second epigraph to this article would suggest, poses an ethical challenge. It dramatizes in its own thematic focus and form, enacts in its relation to the crisis of Toomer's literary career, and exemplifies in its interpretive history—its “racial” place in the “canon”—the suppression of the “invisible,” “transcendental” signifier upon whose sacrifice our racial discourse ultimately depends. Through his “failure” (to create a language, to be called by his own name) and his subsequent “disappearance” from the literary scene, Toomer revealed the shared contradictions in “black” and “white” American racial ideologies, the violate and tabooed space of miscegenation that, like the black and white citizens who at least can agree to ostracize white Becky for her mulatto sons, we mutually repress and unwittingly sanctify to preserve our racial selves.


  1. Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972-1980 (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982), xxx.

  2. Bruce W. Wilshire, Introduction, William James: The Essential Writings, ed. Bruce W. Wilshire (Stony Brook: State U of New York P, 1984), lxiii.

  3. Margorie Content Toomer Papers, in the possession of Margery Toomer Latimer, Pineville, PA; qtd. in Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge, The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987), 29.

  4. “Outline of an Autobiography,” 59, box 20, folder 515, Jean Toomer Papers, American Literature Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Kerman and Eldridge, 28-30.

  5. Kerman and Eldridge, 393-94.

  6. Donald B. Gibson, “Jean Toomer: The Politics of Denial,” The Politics of Literary Expression: A Study of Major Black Writers, ed. Donald B. Gibson (Westport: Greenwood, 1981), 155.

  7. Gibson, 179.

  8. Two important exceptions are David Bradley, “Looking Behind Cane,Southern Review 21 (1985): 682-95; and Alain Solard, “The Impossible Unity: Jean Toomer's ‘Kabnis,’” Myth and Ideology in American Culture, ed. Regis Durand (Villeneuve d'Ascq: U de Lille III, 1976), 175-94. For the more traditional view, see, for example, Robert Bone, The Negro Novel in America (1958; rev. ed., New Haven: Yale UP, 1965), 56, 60, 80-89; S. P. Fullinwider, “Jean Toomer: Lost Generation, or Negro Renaissance?” Phylon 27 (1966): 396-403; Clifford Mason, “Jean Toomer's Black Authenticity,” Black World 20 (1970): 70-76; Darwin T. Turner, In A Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1971), 1-59; George W. Kent, Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture (Chicago: Third World, 1972), 26; Bowie Duncan, “Jean Toomer's Cane: A Modern Black Oracle,” CLA Journal 15 (1972): 323-33; Mabel M. Dillard, “Jean Toomer—the Veil Replaced,” CLA Journal 17 (1974): 468-73; Michael J. Krasny, “Jean Toomer's Life prior to Cane: A Brief Sketch of the Emergence of a Black Writer,” Negro American Literature Forum 9 (1975): 40-41; and Nellie Y. McKay, Jean Toomer, Artist (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984).

  9. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (New York: Oxford UP, 1987), 206.

  10. Toomer, “Autobiographical Sketches,” unpaginated, box 11, folder 343, Jean Toomer Papers.

  11. Gates, 208.

  12. See, for example, Joyce A. Joyce, “The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism,” New Literary History 18 (Winter 1986): 335-44, and “‘Who the Cap Fit’: Unconsciousness and Unconscionableness in the Literary Criticism of Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,” New Literary History 18 (Autumn 1986): 371-84; Harold Fromm, “Real Life, Literary Criticism, and the Perils of Bourgeoisification,” New Literary History 20 (Autumn 1988): 49-64; Diana Fuss, “‘Race’ under Erasure? Poststructuralist Afro-American Literary Theory,” Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference (New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1989), 73-96; and R. Baxter Miller, “Forum,” PMLA 105 (Oct. 1990): 1124-25.

  13. Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (New York: Free P, 1980), 73, 95.

  14. Thomas F. Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in America (Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1963), 48-59; and Williamson, 114, 73, 95-96.

  15. See, for example, Arna Bontemps, “The Negro Renaissance: Jean Toomer and the Harlem of the 1920's,” Anger and Beyond: The Negro Writer in the United States, ed. Herbert Hill (1966; rpt. New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 24; Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976 (Westport: Greenwood, 1980), 48; and Gates, 202.

  16. Williamson, 114.

  17. Williamson, 188-90.

  18. The instruction was necessary because a rising number of “biracial” persons objected to being identified as strictly “black” or even “African American.” A movement then arose to ignore the census instructions and use a new identifying term in common, but it seems that people failed to agree on what name to use! Avowedly, the reluctance to be counted as only black derives not (as in an earlier era, perhaps) from shame or “racial self-hatred” but rather from a reluctance to accept a sacrifice of identity written into the racial discourse, and to the fact that many of these people's closest family members (mothers or fathers) are white. The debate was partially carried on in the new magazine, Interrace, which is aimed at interracial families. The editor of the magazine, interestingly, finally suggested a non-English word, melange—to put the identification entirely outside of the dominant discourse—but responses to this suggestion apparently have been mostly negative, precisely because it is not “American” enough.

  19. On the relation of scapegoating to the origins of communal discourse, see especially René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977); and Eric Gans, The Origin of Language: A Formal Theory of Representation (Berkeley: U of California P, 1981). In a gloss on Girard, Julia Kristeva writes: “Sacrifice designates, precisely, the watershed on the basis of which the social and the symbolic are instituted: the thetic that confines violence to a single place, making it a signifier” (Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller, New York: Columbia UP, 1984, 75).

  20. Qtd. in Werner Sollors, “‘Never Was Born’: The Mulatto, an American Tragedy?” Massachusetts Review 27 (1986): 305.

  21. According to Judith Berzon, the options open to fictional “mulattoes” in American literature are limited to their becoming African American race leaders, “‘passing,’ adopting a white middle-class image and value system, or succumbing to despair” (Neither White Nor Black: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction, New York: New York UP, 1978, 14). Even in African American fiction since the Harlem Renaissance, typically the mulatto character either is destroyed (or spiritually diminished) by inner conflicts caused by his or her alienated condition in a racially bifurcated society, or he or she becomes “whole” by becoming wholly “black.” The idea of biracial people achieving healthy identities by embracing their multiple ancestry has been virtually unthinkable to writers and critics alike.

  22. Kenneth Burke, “Coriolanus—and the Delights of Faction,” Language as Symbolic Action (Berkeley: U of California P, 1968), 81-97.

  23. Sollors, 296, 309.

  24. Larsen, writes Adelaide Cromwell Hill in her 1971 introduction to Quicksand, “always wishing to seem apart from her race, to be accepted as a writer, not as a Negro, was permanently weakened as a writer in 1930” before she went to Europe to write a never-finished novel. She returned from Europe, divorced her black husband, and “sank into oblivion by becoming just another nurse. So far as one can ascertain, she neither passed as White nor identified with Blacks—she merely existed” (in Nella Larsen, Quicksand, New York: Macmillan, 1971, 16; emphasis added). Barbara Christian assents to Hill's view: “Larsen, like Jean Toomer, … disappeared into the wide world, to be neither black nor white, but merely apart” (48; my emphasis). “Mere” “existence” and “apartness” are here explicitly differentiated from “strong” selfhood and positive identity, which would require submission to the dominant discourse. The “disappearances” of Toomer and Larsen—more accurately, their “silences”—seem to be intimately related. Moreover, the history of the reception of their books reveals many parallels.

  25. “Preface no. 3” of “Book X,” 10, box 11, folder 359, Jean Toomer Papers.

  26. See also “Race Problems and Modern Society,” 31-32, box 51, folder 1120, Jean Toomer Papers.

  27. “Preface no. 3,” 12.

  28. Toomer to The Liberator 9 Aug. 1922, Jean Toomer Papers. This was in the same letter in which Toomer said that the black folk culture of the South had awakened his artistic impulses, a statement that has been used repeatedly as evidence that he identified himself as “black” while writing Cane.

  29. “On Being an American,” 51, box 20, folder 513, Jean Toomer Papers.

  30. Both white and black readers (including Toomer's publisher and some of his closest friends) insisted upon viewing Toomer as “Negro” and considered his objection to this designation a denial of his race. On the other hand, a close black friend, upon hearing him read and explain his poem “The First American,” responded disparagingly, “You're white” (see Toomer, “On Being an American,” 42, 50, 36).

  31. Fern has a “semitic” nose, a common Jewish surname, and “cream-colored” skin. On first seeing her, the narrator is reminded of a Jewish cantor's singing. See also Hargis Westerfield, “Jean Toomer's ‘Fern’: A Mythical Dimension,” CLA Journal 14 (1971): 274-76, which makes much of Fern's German Jewish surname.

  32. Jean Toomer, Cane, ed. Darwin T. Turner (New York: Norton, 1988), 16-17; hereafter cited in the text.

  33. Edward Waldron, “The Search for Identity in Jean Toomer's ‘Esther,’” Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation, ed. Therman B. O'Daniel (Washington, DC: Howard UP, 1988), 275.

  34. Alain Solard, “Myth and Narrative Fiction in Cane: ‘Blood-Burning Moon,’” Callaloo 8 (Fall 1985): 558.

  35. Toomer to Waldo Frank, box 3, folder 84, Jean Toomer Papers. The letter is undated but internal evidence indicates it was written after the fall of 1922 and before the publication of Cane, thus placing it sometime in the winter or spring of 1922-1923.

  36. Jean Toomer to Waldo Frank (winter or spring 1922-23), box 3, folder 84, Jean Toomer Papers. Contrary to McKay's assertion in Jean Toomer, Artist (91), that Toomer attributed the dissipation of the folk culture to racist oppression, Toomer believed that such oppression was a necessary condition of that culture (a position that matches Waldo Frank's idea that oppression had fostered the depth and beauty of European and Russian peasant cultures). Writing of Harper's Ferry to Frank, he notes that “[r]acial attitudes, on both sides, are ever so much more tolerant [than in ‘Middle Georgia’], even friendly. Oppression and ugly emotions seem nowhere in evidence. And there are no folk songs. A more stringent grip, I guess, is necessary to force them through” (letter of Aug. 1922, Jean Toomer Papers).

  37. See Toomer's unpublished typescript, “The South in Literature”: “The South has a peasantry, rooted in its soil, such as neither the North nor West possess. Therefore it has a basic adjustment to its physical environment (in sharp contrast to the restless mal-adjustment of the northern pioneer) the expression of which the general cultural body stands in sore need of” (1, box 48, folder 1008, Jean Toomer Papers). In “General Ideas and States to Be Developed,” Toomer points out that writers concerned with the American scene have so far ignored “the peasant-adjustment rhythm of the Southern Negro. The non-pioneer rhythm of the South” (4, box 48, folder 1002, Jean Toomer Papers). This was certainly true of Our America, which lamented that North America had no peasantry like Russia's and Europe's; such a peasantry in the Old World carried the deep potential energy, religious and aesthetic, that feeds great art and empowers movements of revolt. After his contact with Toomer, while working on Holiday, Frank expressed the intention to revise and expand Our America in order to include the Negro. See Toomer to Frank, 25 July 1922, box 3, folder 83, Jean Toomer Papers.

  38. Toomer's point here fits with the concepts of the one-time Seven Arts group to which he was so close, connecting fervor for war and false “patriotism” with prohibition, “Puritanism,” “Anglophilia,” American hypocrisy, and racism.

  39. Toomer, “Book I,” leaf 2, box 48, folder 1002, Jean Toomer Papers.

  40. “Esthetic,” 2, box 48, folder 1002. These are notes on the form and prose for the work outlined in “General Ideas and States to Be Developed.”

  41. See Kerman and Eldridge, 100; and Toomer, letter to Waldo Frank, undated (probably summer 1923), box 3, folder 84, Jean Toomer Papers. Nathan Merilh, the hero of Natalie Mann, is commonly considered “black” by scholars today, but Toomer pointedly contrasts him with his “New Negro” friend, Brown, who considers him “inimical to the race.” Similarly, Merilh's homes in both Washington and New York suggest a fusion of “white” and “black” identities into a new “racial” ideal in which we well know Toomer believed. See Natalie Mann, in The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer, ed. Darwin Turner (Washington, DC: Howard UP, 1980), 243-325.

  42. Toomer to Frank, undated (winter or spring 1922-23), box 3, folder 84, Jean Toomer Papers. Significantly, this is the same letter in which he wrote, “[T]he Negro is in solution. … As an entity, the race is loosing [sic] its body, and its soul is approaching a common soul.”

  43. Toomer to Frank, undated (winter or spring 1922-23), box 3, folder 84, Jean Toomer Papers.

  44. Toomer, “Withered Skin of Berries,” The Wayward and the Seeking, 157.

  45. The same motif shows up in a Georgia Douglas Johnson poem of this period, “Fusion,” which seems to have been inspired by discussions Toomer led at her home, shortly before he went to Georgia in 1921, concerning the “place and condition of the mixed-race group” in the United States. See George B. Hutchinson, “Jean Toomer and the New Negroes of Washington,” American Literature 63 (1991): 683-92.

  46. Toomer's initial ambition as an artist (modeled after Jean-Christophe) was to be a musician—an interest that contributed significantly to his later writing. In Natalie Mann, for example, the hero Nathan Merilh is a musician combining European and African American forms in his inspired pieces. In a letter to Mae Wright of 15 Aug. 1922 (when Cane was still being composed out of scattered pieces), Toomer says Jean-Christophe is “true to me. Many of his trials and problems are or have been or will be mine. To know him is to know the more difficult side of Jean Toomer” (Waldo Frank Correspondence, Special Collections, Van Pelt Library, U of Pennsylvania). See also Charles Scruggs, “Jean Toomer: Fugitive,” American Literature 47 (Mar. 1975): 84-96.

  47. Toomer, “Withered Skin of Berries” 151.

  48. Toomer, “Withered Skin of Berries” 151.

  49. Notably, Toomer was convinced at this time that the South would be the origin of a new, truly “American” literature. He apparently thought that he and Waldo Frank together were its harbingers.

  50. “Race Problems in Modern Society,” 31-32, box 51, folder 1120, Jean Toomer Papers.

  51. Toomer to Frank, undated (winter or spring 1922-23), box 3, folder 84, Jean Toomer Papers.

  52. Turner, In a Minor Chord, 25.

  53. While arranging and polishing Cane, Toomer had plans for a second book composed of short pieces (including “Withered Skin of Berries,” Natalie Mann, and another story or play, perhaps Balo), which was to be completed by fall of 1923. Liveright had even taken an option on publishing it before the appearance of Cane. Toomer also had in mind a novel about which he was particularly excited. “This whole brown and black world heaving upward against, here and there mixing with the white world. But the mixture being insufficient to absorb the heaving, it but accelerates and fires it. This upward heaving to be symbolic of the proletariat or world upheaval. To be likewise symbolic of the subconscious penetration of the conscious mind” (Letter to Waldo Frank, undated, probably summer 1923, Jean Toomer Papers). Based on other statements in the letter, it is evident that Toomer wrote it when he was preparing “Kabnis” for its initial publication in Broom. Kerman and Eldridge (100) mention the proposed novel but mistakenly identify it with the collection Toomer had in mind and which he had already largely completed even as he worked on Cane.

  54. See Turner, Minor Chord, 25: “The virgin child prays before a deaf, blind, and senile savior. Meanwhile, Kabnis, who is unfit to be a laborer, carries the ashes of dreams into his apprenticeship for a trade which is soon to be obsolete.”

  55. Toomer wrote to Frank concerning the religion of the “peasant Negro”: “Their theology is a farce (Christ is so immediate); their religious emotion, elemental, and for that reason, very near sublime” (letter of 21 Aug. 1922, Waldo Frank Correspondence). The vision of Carrie Kate and her words, “Jesus come,” exemplify such a combination of sublime emotion and (in Toomer's view) an imprisoning religious dogma that Cane consistently discredits.

  56. Toomer, “The South in Literature,” 6.

  57. It is true that Toomer finally began implying that he did not know positively of any “Negro blood” in his background, but this was long after Cane and after continued frustration in making his racial position understood.

  58. Bradley, 692-93.

  59. Toomer, “Outline of the Story of an Autobiography,” 55, box 20, folder 515, Jean Toomer Papers.

  60. Gates, 202.

  61. My point here is adapted from Pierre Macherey's argument about the ways in which a text is tied to ideology less by what it says than by what it does not and cannot say (see A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).

  62. Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (London: Verso, 1976), 26-27.

Janet M. Whyde (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Mediating Forms: Narrating the Body in Jean Toomer's Cane, in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 42-53.

[In the following essay, Whyde investigates Toomer's narrative representation of the body in Cane.]

Long before Jean Toomer published his first novel, Cane, in 1923, the questions of racial definition and identification were important ones for blacks and whites alike.1 For white Americans, the problem of the color line was primarily political. For African-Americans, however, more was at stake than just their right to vote or issues of skin color. In part, what African-Americans sought through self identification was definition and validation of their unique experience and culture, both by the dominant culture and within their own communities. To achieve this validation, African-Americans first had to become conscious of themselves as worthy to be subjects of serious art or study. Then, they had to make the more controversial choice of which experiences should be deemed appropriate for depiction. To this end, African-American artists and scholars sought the origins of their culture in their distant ancestral past in Africa and their not-so-distant ancestral past as slaves in the South.

Houston Baker, Jr., in his study of modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, notes that African-American modernists transform (“deform”) the language of mastery in the quest for their origins in the “sound and space of an African ancestral past” (56). The quest for origins assumes that African-Americans separated from their past cannot be whole, so implicit in the quest for origins is the quest for a unified self. Not accidentally, modernism occurs most forcefully at that historical moment when African-American artists consciously deny their function as objects and assert themselves as subjects for art. In Cane the quest for the self-defined, unified self gets played out most vividly in Toomer's narrative representations of the body, in which the body becomes the site for both external and internal conflicts—oppressions and repressions.

Nellie McKay has pointed out that Jean Toomer sought harmony of the mind, body, and intellect throughout his life. During his teaching stint in Sparta, Georgia, in 1921, which he accepted “as a respite from the frustrations of his divided life” (5), he discovered black folk culture: “he felt magnetically attracted to its spirit, and the disparate parts of him came together into a unity he had not experienced before. He began to write … with the assurance that he had found his own voice” (5). What he found were the songs that synthesized the African experience with the slave experience, the black experience with the white. With his new-found voice, Toomer produced Cane, a work that aims to produce unity from fragments and may be itself a narrative of the development of an artist who creates “from his own struggle with [a] … character's conflicts the work of art that frees him from the character's failure and consequent fragmentation” (Blake 210).

As Toomer's personal history will attest, the body is a problematic sign of one's race, and some results of this problematic sign are fragmentation and division, which are key motifs that Toomer emphasizes in Cane by reducing social relations into dialectics—male/female, black/white, past/present, North/South, and so forth. Toomer's goal is to reconcile and unify these opposites, but to do so, he must collapse the antinomies into mediating forms. In Part I of Cane, the body of the woman mediates between the past and the present, the ideal and the real. The various characters function not representatively as individuals, but as signs to be interpreted and reinterpreted. As such, “woman” in the first part is obliterated and transformed through interpretation by an outside agent—the narrator/speaker and/or male characters within the individual sketches—into metaphor.2 The woman's body in Part I is continually transformed into poem/songs in such a way that it becomes the narrative direct link to the African-American's origins.

Many of the women portrayed in Part I are either partial bodies or nothing but ephemeral images; that is, they are not women but shadows of women. One of the most dramatic—if not violent—examples of dividing the female body occurs in the short poem “Portrait in Georgia.” Each body part is figuratively linked to the violence done to the slave's body—lynchings, burnings, whippings.3 The poem imagistically and forcefully expresses the pain of the African-American.

Perhaps the most dramatic shadow woman is Karintha [in “Karintha”], who is described as “carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down” (1, 3, 5), “a wild flash that told the other folks just what it was to live” (1), “a bit of vivid color, like a black bird that flashes in light” (2), “as innocently lovely as a November cotton flower” (2), “a woman” (3, 4). The imagistic similes and the unqualified, undefined noun take the place of Karintha's body. The flashes of light and color that characterize her replace her physical presence, and the desire men feel for her subsumes her. Woman is narratively transformed into desire, which mediates the relationship between male and female, literally and figuratively turning the two into one.

Denying her both body and voice—hers is “high-pitched, shrill” (2), but it does not speak—the narrator interprets her story: “Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon” (4). As a sign, she is narratively emptied of all meaning and then filled by the narrator; she is a passive object whose meaning is imposed on her from the outside. Her body, in fact, becomes embodied in the song that punctuates this cautionary tale. The song connects her experience with the past, connects her with the sound and space of her African ancestral past. Karintha is both transitory—“Beauty so sudden for that time of year” (7)—and eternal, embodied in the song that connects the past to the future, just as the poem/songs connect “Karintha” to “Becky.”

Unlike Karintha, Becky has a body, but it becomes a meaningful absence in the tale that ambiguously maintains and closes the gap between the white and black communities. “Her eyes were sunken, her neck stringy, her breasts fallen, till then. Taking their words, they filled her, like a bubble rising—then she broke. Mouth setting in a twist that held her eyes, harsh, vacant, staring …” (8). Within the narrative, her body disappears into ellipses—the punctuation of absent words—and the description of her body falls, quite literally, between the interpretation of her by the white community as an “insane white shameless wench” and by the black community as “Poor Catholic poor-white crazy woman” (8). Like Karintha, she is made into a passive object such that her body functions as a sign that, as it is interpreted by these two communities, unifies the communities and collapses the difference between white and black. The two communities reach hermeneutical consensus, but the very act of interpretation renders her a blank.

Having reached consensus, the communities have no need for her presence, though each must continue to maintain her as a sign of her sexual transgression and their difference. “Becky becomes, for the town, a scapegoat, an unrecognized Christ-figure. … [O]ther people create a myth centering on her social evil and use that both to restrict her from social interaction and as a scapegoat for their own ‘narrowness and cruelty’” (Clark 183). The house that sits in the no-man's land between the road and the railroad tracks replaces her body and serves as a constant reminder for the community. Like the difference between white and black in the interpretation of her body, her house/body collapses; whether or not she is buried remains ambiguous and largely irrelevant, as the house itself has come to be Becky. Like Karintha, Becky becomes embodied in the refrain that marks her story's beginning and ending; it divides her from the other narratives in the first part, and at the same time incorporates her into the song tradition that connects past to present.

Embodiment in song seems to be the fate for the individual subjected to interpretation. We see Toomer playing with this idea in “Cotton Song,” a poem/song connecting “Becky” to “Carma,” that calls for slaves to assume an active role in freeing themselves from shackles: “Cant blame God if we dont roll, / Come, brother, roll, roll!” (15). But Toomer more consciously effects this embodiment in “Carma,” such that the conflict over Carma's body reenacts the conflict of slavery, setting that historical conflict in the present, or, in other words, inscribing the sexual conflict over Carma's body as the historical conflict over the Africans' bodies. In this way, Toomer collapses the gap between past and present, slavery and freedom.

Carma may be a passive actress in the “crudest melodrama” (18, 20), but we must ask ourselves if that melodrama is indeed the sexual melodrama of Carma's inability “to limit her desire to one man” (Lieber 183). Like Karintha, Becky, and all the women of Part I, Carma is an object interpreted by the narrator who, by characterizing her story as “melodrama”—“a term that suggests both sensational events and hollow characters” (Blake 199)—reduces Carma to a mere role, a place holder in a prescribed plot. Although the narrator renders Carma a passive agent, he at the same time describes her as having a body that is both male and female: “Carma, in overalls, and strong as any man” (16). The female/male dichotomy disappears in her body, which is not only hermaphroditic, but also directly linked to the African past. “She does not sing; her body is a song. She is in the forest, dancing. Torches flare … juju men, greegree, witch-doctors … torches go out. … The Dixie Pike has grown from a goat path in Africa” (emphasis mine, 17-18). Unlike Karintha and Becky, she is not embodied in the song; she embodies the song of the past. In her body, the past and present collapse into one another.

Her body becomes, in fact, the site of the conflict of slavery redux, where sexual conflict is transmuted into historical conflict by the hermeneutical usurpation of her body. Like the other women, she disappears by being interpreted, transformed into the physical sign of a unifying abstraction. Bane—appropriately defined as “Fatal injury or ruin” and “a cause of death, destruction or ruin”—plays his part in the conflict as the destructive force that exerts his right to her body and, like the white slaveholder, brings about through violence his own loss of power over the body. Bane's words, “like corkscrews” (18), sap her strength and nearly bring about her destruction as he attempts to appropriate her body as his.

Her real bane, however, is the narrator, whose words have a more significant effect. He succeeds in narratively destroying Carma, reducing her story to a melodrama, by defining her body in such a way that she no longer functions as a character, an individual, but as a form to mediate the basic dichotomies of male/female, past/present, slavery/freedom. The narrator appropriates her story—“her tale as I have told it” (20)—to unify fragmented individual history and racial history. The narrator's final question—“Should she not take others, this Carma, strong as a man, whose tale as I have told it is the crudest melodrama?” (20)—is a political question that transcends the sexual and suggests the dilemma of the African-American in the 1920s. If she (he) takes others—i.e., asserts her freedom—she risks conflict; if she (he) does not, she tacitly accepts slavery, albeit in new forms.

Part II of Cane is composed of character sketches, set in the North, of individuals struggling with new forms of slavery. Slavery in Part II, however, is chosen, not imposed. Unlike the characters in Part I, the characters in Part II are not simply passive objects, but active agents of their own psychological imprisonment. “In the North, blacks struggle to establish an identity out of the remnants of their past and the values and ideals of their newly acquired home” (McKay 125-26). The body in Part II mediates between the intellect, associated with internalized white values, and passion or vitality, associated with their African heritage, which battle for control of the African-American's body.

The tone for Part II is set in the first vignette of the section, “Seventh Street.” The narrator metonymically reduces black life to blood flowing in the streets as a result of the violence generated by Prohibition and the War, both “white” events. The street itself is completely devoid of bodies, which appear instead in the opening/closing song. Black opportunists achieve material success on Seventh Street, but they pay the price of self destruction or obliteration.

In “Rhobert,” which follows “Seventh Street,” the narrator describes Rhobert's body—a grotesque combination of malnourished body and inanimate object. “Rhobert wears a house, like a monstrous diver's helmet, on his head” (73). This image makes external the internal landscape in which the conflict over control of Rhobert's body is being fought. As in “Seventh Street,” the consequence of capitulation to white values is obliteration, but Rhobert's middle-class version also carries with it the threat of more general acceptance: “Soon people will be looking at him and calling him a strong man” (75). Rhobert, then, is a sign of the more general struggle for control of the black community.

Toomer captures in this single image the process he dramatizes in the later sketches of Part II. In “Avey,” for example, a young, male narrator attempts to appropriate and define Avey to make her acceptable to his middle-class values. Like Rhobert, the narrator is trapped in a narrow conception of the world that he ultimately finds frustrating and limiting, like the boxes around the trees. The narrator has ambition and is concerned about Avey's lack of it. Sitting on the hill with Avey, he “wanted the Howard Glee Club to sing ‘Deep River, Deep River’” (86), the spiritual, ironically, that marks Rhobert's fate, his death by drowning. In each of his judgments of Avey and her “indifference” or “indolence,” he reveals the narrowness of his worldview and the sterility of his intellectualized passion.

Avey's own passion may be just as sterile, but the first-person point of view makes the narrator's characterization of Avey suspect. In fact, we learn very little about Avey. Avey's body functions in this sketch, then, as a means to reveal the narrator's narrowness and possible impotence. The narrator limits the information he provides about her, thus, like the narrator(s) of Part I, emptying her of meaning so that he may determine how and what she means. This narrative move, on one hand, reveals his power to make meaning, while, on the other, it reveals the very emptiness of this power and his character.

Although the narrator silences Avey, her body yet speaks to him, but as a mother: “She took me in hers [her arms]. And I could feel by the touch of it that it wasnt a man-to-woman love. … I felt chagrined. … I itched to break through her tenderness to passion” (80). Avey's continual rejection of his physical advances (half-hearted though they may be) does not stop his intellectual assault of her. Finally, however, he interprets her to no end but his own “death”:

I talked, beautifully I thought, about an art that would be born, an art that would open the way for women the likes of her. I asked her to hope, and build up an inner life against the coming of that day. … I began to visualize certain possibilities. An immediate and urgent passion swept over me. Then I looked at Avey. Her heavy eyes were closed. Her breathing was as faint and regular as a child's in slumber. My passion died.

(emphasis mine, 87)

The genesis of his passion is his own rhetoric and dreams, not the body of the woman lying next to him whose reality is unacceptable. It is in fact the implications of her passion that he reviles. In calling her, finally, “Orphan-woman” (88), he cuts her off from her roots and denies her the power to signify the racial heritage that they share but that he has repudiated or put to sleep in himself.

A similar act of repudiation occurs in “Theater.” Unlike Avey, Dorris's body, in “Theater,” is not completely silenced. She uses art, dance, to express her freedom, to connect to her African past, but John, “whose body is separate from the thoughts that pack his mind” (92), cannot let go of the social distinctions that define each of them. Dorris's body when she dances is free of social constraints or inhibitions or even choreographed steps:

Dorris dances. She forgets her tricks. She dances.
Glorious songs are the muscles of her limbs.
And her singing is of canebrake loves and mangrove feastings.


Much like Carma, she embodies the songs of her African origins in her dance. She uses her body to generate and communicate desire, which she thinks will break down the social wall between John and herself, close the gap between the stage and the spectator, the body and the mind. She is frustrated by the artificial social differences that he accepts and that stand in the way of her dream of marriage and children and of the artificial moral strictures that stigmatize the sexually experienced female: “Aint I as good as him? Couldnt I have got an education if I'd wanted one? Dont I know respectable folks … In Philadelphia and New York and Chicago? Aint I had men as good as him? Better” (95).

However, while her body evokes the physical freedom of passion and desire, she remains a slave to John's interpretation of her. That is, while she is able to affect John's body with her dance, she cannot capture it. When she is finished dancing, she “looks quick at John. His whole face is in shadow. She seeks for her dance in it. She finds it a dead thing in the shadow which is his dream” (99). John ultimately controls the fulfillment of her dream; while she is free on stage to express herself, to make herself an important subject, she is for John simply an object to be used for his own purposes in his own way.

John's interpretation is inscribed by the values that separate mind and body, privileging the mind over the body, and he finally repudiates the implications of her physical art. John's own body is physically inert, and though he finds a certain amount of freedom in his dreams, even in his dreams his sensuality is intellectualized. For example, in the midst of his final erotic daydream of Dorris, he “reaches for a manuscript of his, and reads” (99). What does he read? He reads the Dorris of his creation, the Dorris in his text. Dorris's reality, like Avey's, is unacceptable. John's repudiation of Dorris, finally, signals his repudiation of the past she signifies. The implications of this rejection is, as in the case between Avey and her narrator, a relationship between Dorris and John that is sterile, the result of John's paralysis of will.

In both “Box Seat” and “Bona & Paul,” men and women fail to come together in a meaningful, productive relationship because at least one part of the couple is trapped in a “divers helmet” of social convention and restriction. In this sense, the African-American body is oppressed by the internalization of white or middle-class values that privilege intellect and conformity over passion and spontaneity, glee clubs over jazz bands and spirituals. Oppression of the body in Part II takes the form of repression of physical desires and passions. The oppression is effected narratively through disembodiment, by the nearly complete suppression of concrete physical descriptions of particular characters.4 Rhobert's physical description suffices for all the characters suffering his malady; the internal reality is more real than the external signs. Whereas the bodies of the women in Part I are abstracted out of being by some outside consciousness, the bodies of characters in Part II, both male and female, most often disappear in the act of self repudiation.

Part III redefines the African-American body completely. The African-American body that is privileged is not the physical body, which is alien and irrelevant, but the art that develops out of the black experience. The physical body in Part III, then, becomes the mediating form between the art and the experience.

Kabnis [in “Kabnis”] as the would-be artist must interpret his experience and shape it into a coherent form, a body of art. However, like John in “Theater,” Kabnis is impotent, afraid to act. As Part III opens, Kabnis attempts to read himself to sleep. When that fails, he resorts to masturbation (Moore 34). Although this masturbation in the face of an imaginary sweetheart is a physically sterile and passionless act, it does point the way to the resolution of Kabnis's dilemma and of the impasse reached in the final scene:

Ralph Kabnis is a dream. And dreams are faces with large eyes and weak chins and broad brows that get smashed by the fists of square faces. The body of the world is bull-necked. A dream is a soft face that fits uncertainly upon it … God, if I could develop that in words. Give what I know a bull-neck and a heaving body, all would go well with me, wouldnt it, sweetheart? … If I, the dream (not what is weak and afraid in me) could become the face of the South. How my lips would sing for it, my songs being the lips of the soul.


Kabnis negates his own body, calling it a dream. He wishes to recreate it, to embody his experience and knowledge in words.

Kabnis's experiences in the South are determined not only by his relations with his black neighbors, but also by the bodies that are absent: the bodies of white men. The bodies most notably missing from Cane as a whole are the bodies of white people. Moore argues that

Toomer signals a change in the third part of the novel in the level of effect of the white man on black society. Although the white man has loomed significantly in the background of the other two sections, shaping the lives of the black people presented, he has seldom dominated the immediate action as he does now. … In Part Three, through Kabnis's fear and the stories of Halsey and Layman, the white man moves to the foreground, weakening the South as a place where passion and the black woman, both identified with the South in Part One, can deliver the black man.


In fact, white men do not appear bodily any more often in Part III than Parts I or II. But their influence is more significant not only because their effect on the black community is foregrounded, but also because their violence against and mutilation of the African-American body has rendered it meaningless by negating differences between and among individuals. The physical presence of the white man is not necessary as long as the stories generate the fear desired. In this way, oppression of, or control of, African-Americans is effected by the African-Americans themselves.

Halsey and Layman, having lived with the reality of lynchings and murders, tacitly reinforce the negation of themselves through acquiescence. They tell Kabnis vivid stories of the violence suffered by their neighbors, but they punctuate their stories with laughs. They recognize the acts as powerful symbolic acts to frighten the black community into obeisance and silence. Halsey and Layman clearly accept these acts as symbolic, not personal, attacks: “Layman: Nigger's a nigger down this away, Professor. An only two dividins: good an bad. An even they aint permanent categories. They sometimes mixes um up when it comes t lynchin” (172). And when Layman tells the story of “Mame Lamkins,” his “voice is uniformly low and soothing. A Canebrake, murmuring the tale to its neighbor-road would be more passionate” (178). Layman, in fact, survives despite his knowledge because he is silent, and Halsey accepts, and is satisfied with, his lot as a wheelwright as long as he has work. Kabnis, however, panics and becomes paranoid because he fails to understand the acts as symbolism and believes them to be personal.

In the face of the utter symbolic negation by the white man, we may find ironic the detailed physical descriptions of characters that occur in Part III. Toomer asserts the individuality of bodies in a setting or context that most denies that individuality. The shadows and types of the earlier sections are transformed into representative characters more in line with traditional realist fiction. In contrast to the techniques used in the first two parts of the novel, the dramatic technique used here, mixed with third-person interludes, assures that no character is monolithically silenced or interpreted by a narrator or another character. These individuals are the material, the subject of art, since they are the individuals that shape Kabnis's experience in the South.

At the opening of Part III, however, his experiences are intellectualized as he lives alienated from the community, physically and spiritually. Before he can embody himself and his experiences in words, he paradoxically must regain control of his body and connect himself to his neighbors. Like John or the narrator of “Avey,” he has repudiated his racial heritage in favor of intellectualism. In addition, his fear of the white man's violence has so emasculated him that he suffers a paralysis of the will: “Kabnis wants to rise and put both Halsey and Hanby in their places. He vaguely knows that he must do this, else the power of direction will completely slip from him to those outside” (189). Kabnis, unfortunately, cannot speak, much less put the others in their places. Later, Kabnis is completely feminized when he dresses in an ill-fitting long robe, which, ironically, he wears during the “seduction” of Cora and Stella.

Whether or not he completely recovers from his “degradation” is uncertain. He does remove the robe and resign himself to the manual labor awaiting him, settling at least one conflict, but the final bodies we see are those of Carrie K. united with Father John, an impotent reminder of the past emasculation of African-American men.5 In any case, Kabnis, “bereft of illusion” (Moore 38), does force himself out of “The Hole,” the infirmary, suggesting in his rising the rising of the sun, the “Gold-glowing child … [that] steps into the sky and sends a birth-song slanting down gray dust streets and sleepy windows of the southern town” (239). The southern town is transformed into a blank slate waiting to be populated by the bodies of the artist. Unlike “Seventh Street,” this street is full of possibility, not self-destruction.

Toomer was dissatisfied with the results of Cane because “he had not found personal liberation and unity in its meaning and could not accept, for himself, the identity that had caused him to write it” (McKay 5). While Kabnis's integration may be questionable (is he, indeed, the narrator of Cane?), we are still left with one body that speaks: the work itself, which embodies a search for a unified self. And while the dichotomies of the text may not be fully mediated, if such mediation is ever possible, or the contradictions not fully settled, Cane remains a remarkable artistic object—not because it is the “well-wrought urn,” but because it reflects, at a particular historical moment, the developing consciousness of a race with a rich history, and it engages directly some of the aesthetic problems faced by African-Americans struggling for artistic self-representation. It powerfully represents the tragedy of being a slave to the definition of others and celebrates the freedom that comes with speaking one's own voice.


  1. For an analysis of the way the legal system redefined and separated the concept of race from color at the turn of the nineteenth century, especially in Plessy v. Ferguson, see Michaels's “Souls of White Folk.”

  2. The two metaphors most often associated with women in this section are woman-as-song and woman-as-land. Kolodny has traced the development of the woman-as-land metaphor in American writing.

  3. Scarry argues that one's pain is itself indescribable to others, but the sign of the object that causes pain may express the pain more forcefully. “Portrait in Georgia,” then, is a powerful imagistic expression of African-Americans' pain.

  4. The two exceptions to this generalization occur in “Avey” and “Box Seat,” respectively. Avey is described as having a “pale” face and heavy eyes. “She did not have the gray crimson-splashed beauty of the dawn” (88). I read this description as further evidence of the narrator's negation of her at the end of the sketch. In “Box Seat” women are associated with the houses. At first, the houses contain possibility: “Houses are shy girls whose eyes shine reticently upon the dusky body of the street” (104). But at the end after Dan Moore's disillusionment with Muriel, the houses/women from which he is significantly barred are transformed into objects of constraint and limitations: “Eyes of houses, soft girl-eyes, glow reticently upon the hubbub and blink out” (130). Muriel is described in detail, but this description occurs when Dan is still hopeful of redeeming her. It may also point to the wasted life of her that hides inside the houses. (“Her face is fleshy. It would tend to coarseness but for the fresh fragrant something which is the life of it. Her hair like an Indian's. But more curly and bushed and vagrant. Her nostrils flare. The flushed ginger of her cheeks is touched orange by the shower of color from the lamp” [108-109].)

  5. See also Blake, who describes the union of the “immobile old man and a passive young virgin” as sterile (211).

Works Cited

Baker, Jr., Houston A. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Blake, Susan L. “The Spectatorial Artist and the Structure of Cane.” In Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Therman B. O'Daniel. Washington, D.C.: Howard UP, 1988.

Clark, J. Michael. “Frustrated Redemption: Jean Toomer's Women in Cane, Part One.” In Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Therman B. O'Daniel. Washington, D.C.: Howard UP, 1988.

Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1975.

Lieber, Todd. “Design and Movement in Cane.” In Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Therman B. O'Daniel. Washington, D.C.: Howard UP, 1988.

McKay, Nellie Y. Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984.

Michaels, Walter Benn. “The Souls of White Folk.” In Literature and the Body: Essays on Populations and Persons. Ed. Elaine Scarry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988.

Moore, Lewis D. “Kabnis and the Reality of Hope: Jean Toomer's Cane.North Dakota Quarterly 54.1 (1986): 30-39.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Toomer, Jean. Cane. 1923. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.

Barbara Foley (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Jean Toomer's Sparta,” in American Literature, Vol. 67, No. 4, December, 1995, pp. 747-75.

[In the following essay, Foley locates one of the actual settings for Cane as the town of Sparta, Georgia, and assesses the impact the place had on Toomer's work and life.]

Students of Cane have long been aware that the “Sempter” of Toomer's text is Sparta, seat of Hancock County in central Georgia. Toomer himself freely acknowledged his text's close connection with the locale where he had lived for three months in the fall of 1921 while serving as substitute principal for the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute. In 1922 Toomer wrote to Sherwood Anderson, “My seed was planted in the cane- and cotton-fields, and in the souls of black and white people in the small southern town. My seed was planted in myself down there.” In a 1923 letter to the Liberator, Toomer remarked, “A visit to Georgia last fall was the starting-point of almost everything of worth that I have done.” To Waldo Frank, Toomer explicitly identified the site of his inspiration when he complained in July of 1922 that “[t]he impluse [sic] which sprung from Sparta, Georgia last fall has just about fulfilled and spent itself.” In his letters to Frank, Toomer particularly stressed the autobiographical basis of Cane's final section, noting in April of 1922 that “Kabnis” was “the direct result of a trip I made down into Georgia this past fall” and that he wished it “to remain as an immediate record of my first contact with Southern life.” Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston's decision during a Southern trip to “visi[t] the academy where Jean Toomer had taught for a short period and received much of the inspiration for Cane” indicates that for many years Cane enthusiasts have been aware of the text's geographical referent. Subsequent critics have taken as axiomatic the profound impression made on Toomer by his visit to rural Georgia, where he discovered a black peasant life that unleashed his poetic imagination and inspired one of the classic texts of modern African American letters.1

Despite this widespread recognition of Cane's grounding in the Sparta environs, critics have not adequately explored Toomer's representation of Sparta in his text. Sparta is routinely treated as little more than a backdrop to the soul-searching undergone by a light-skinned, middle-class artist suddenly landed among black rural and small-town folk; the actual procedures by which Toomer transformed Sparta into Sempter have received little attention. The result of this neglect has been not only to dehistoricize the category of “identity,” rendering it a subjective rather than social phenomenon, but also to downplay the nature and extent of Cane's specific historical reference. Many critics treat the South of Cane as a mythic realm defying the incursions of history. But even critics who acknowledge the historical particularity of Toomer's Sempter—its racial violence, economic exploitation, tangled religiosity, and intra-racial color prejudice—see these features of Georgia life more as providing a vivid physical and sociological landscape than as supplying a knowledge essential to the project of decoding the hermeneutics of Cane.2

Elsewhere I have examined Cane's relationship to the economy of Hancock County and to certain episodes of racial violence contemporaneous with Toomer's visit—in particular, to the naacp's antilynching campaign of the early 1920s and to the case of the notorious Monticello, Georgia, “Death Farm,” where eleven black debt peons were murdered by a white plantation owner a mere six months before Toomer's arrival in nearby Sparta. I have argued that, despite his tendency to fetishize labor processes and romanticize the relation of black agricultural workers to the land, Toomer engages with the actualities of Southern racism in Cane far more concretely than is often supposed. In this essay I propose to trace the political subtext accompanying Toomer's fictional treatment of a series of actual Sparta inhabitants, both white and black. As his biographers note, Toomer had acquired from his grandfather a “penchant for creating names to suit the person, occasion, and mood”; in Cane close attention to names—both those alluding to contemporaneous people and places and those playing upon past historical referents—offers important insight into Toomer's transposition of context into text. Through nomenclature, Toomer gave rein to impulses ranging from the satirical to the insurrectionary; an examination of the relation of historical features of Sparta to fictional features of Sempter reveals Toomer's pronounced antipathy to controlling elites, both black and white, as well as a strong (if somewhat veiled) sympathy with rebels against the dominant hierarchy. Toomer may have written in a densely symbolistic modernist idiom, but he did not substitute myth for history.3


“Toomer does not impress me as one who knows his Georgia,” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1923, “but he does know human beings.” Du Bois's “impression” was largely inaccurate: Toomer's insight into human behavior did not preclude close attention to his Georgia setting. Many of Cane's represented localities are portrayed with considerable historical verisimilitude. The “dull silver … tower” that Kabnis sees across the valley between the school and Sempter belongs to the high-towered Victorian-era courthouse that to this day dominates the hilly center of Sparta. Broad Street, the site of Fred Halsey's wheelwright business, Esther's phantasmagoric wanderings, and Tom Burwell's capture by a lynch mob, was and is the main artery through town. The well which serves as a gathering place in “Blood-Burning Moon” is one of three that were situated along Broad Street in 1920s Sparta. Halsey's wheelwright's shop is, moreover, a close replica of the “Old Rock Shop,” a former stagecoach stop and smithy that stood right off Broad Street from 1819 to 1927 and was, according to one local historian, “of much interest to visitors.” A traveler to Sparta in the early 1920s described the “Old Rock Shop” as having walls “of plaster blackened by many smokes and perhaps a fire or two …, speedily falling to decay, but underneath show[ing] the bare red granite, sturdy and ageless.” The panes and windows were “broken in many places,” and “[l]eaning against the sides of the building [were] numerous old wagon wheels, ancient as the shop itself.” This account corresponds in many particulars with Toomer's description of Halsey's shop: “The walls to within a few feet of the ground are of an age-worn cement mixture. … Inside, the plaster has fallen away in great chunks, leaving the laths, grayed and cobwebbed, exposed. … The shop is filled with old wheels and parts of wheels, broken shafts, and wooden litter. … A window with as many panes broken as whole, throws light on the bench.”4

Toomer's descriptions of the immediate environs of Sempter also would have been recognizable to anyone familiar with the Sparta area. The schoolhouse where Kabnis teaches—a “large frame house, squatting on brick pillars”—replicates the building featured in the brochure for the 1921-1922 school year at the Sparta A and I. At the time of Toomer's visit, there existed on the western end of Sparta a black community called Dixie, originally “a colony composed of superannuated slaves,” which became “quite a populous village” after the Civil War. Dixie was reached by a road called the Dixie Pike, which appears in Cane as the thoroughfare “grown from a goat path in Africa” where Carma drives her wagon. The Sparta A and I was located west and slightly south of Dixie, just outside Sparta, and Toomer probably regularly traveled along the Dixie Pike on his way into town—as is suggested by the narrator's comment in “Fern” that “[i]f you walked up the Dixie Pike most any time of day, you'd be most like to see [Fern] resting listless-like on the railing of her porch.”5

The Ebenezer church mentioned several times in Cane corresponds with the Ebenezer church of which the prominent Sparta-born Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) churchman Lucius Holsey was an early pastor. Erected in 1879 and demolished shortly after Toomer's 1921 visit, the Ebenezer church was located in the Powelton Road area northeast of the town center. It was adjacent to both the road and the railroad line leading out of the east end of Sparta. The road to Pulverton along which the narrator and Barlo travel in “Becky” is similar to the actual road to Culverton, where the railroad and the road still run closely parallel for several hundred yards. On trips to Culverton Toomer himself must have seen the “narrow strip of land between the railroad and the road” on which he located Becky's publicly exposed shack; from this spot he could have heard the tolling of the bell of nearby Ebenezer church.6

Finally, the fictional “factory town” that furnishes the site of Tom Burwell's lynching in “Blood-Burning Moon” corresponds closely with the Montour village, a pre-Civil War cotton mill community, also known as the “Old Factory,” which was originally within the Sparta city limits. In the early 1920s the forty-acre Montour factory grounds were frequently used for agricultural fairs and political rallies; the factory building itself, however, had not been used for many years and stood in a state of disrepair, full of rotting floorboards like those used to build the bonfire in which Burwell is burned alive. In his descriptions of both Sempter and its immediate environs, Toomer was clearly drawing in detail upon his memories of Sparta and inviting knowledgeable readers to recognize familiar terrain.7

Toomer also assigned to several of Cane's white characters the names of actual Sparta inhabitants. Although some of these names are given to minor characters mentioned only in passing, a number of Toomer's references suggest a common satiric intent. In “Esther,” for instance, two white characters are assigned names associated with prominent Sparta families. “Old Limp Underwood,” who is said to have “hated niggers” but who, as a consequence of Barlo's preaching, “woke up next morning to find that he held a black man in his arms,” presumably belongs to the Underwood family, whose landmark house had stood in Sparta since the mid-nineteenth century and was at the time of Toomer's visit inhabited by the aged Carrie Underwood. Banker Warply, who parks his car to “await the prophet's voice” (21), may take his name from the Atlanta-based banking firm Robinson and Humphrey Wardlaw, which transferred bonds to a nearby Davisboro bank during the Sparta sinking fund scandal. This scandal, a notorious affair involving adultery, embezzlement, and suicide, resulted in a 1921 trial that was, according to the Atlanta Constitution, “one of the most important [cases] to be tried in Hancock County in many years.” Reaching its termination just around the time Toomer arrived in Sparta, this newsworthy trial could not have escaped his notice. The writer's possible play upon “Wardlaw” (protector of the law) and “Warply” (distorter of the law) can be taken as a glancing allusion to this scandal.8

Such historical references take on resonance in the context of the tale's commentary on race relations. In “Esther” the preacher Barlo offers one of Cane's most explicit denunciations of slavery—namely, Barlo's sermon about the “big an black an powerful” man who had his feet “tied … to chains” by “little white-ant biddies” who took him to a “new coast [that] wasnt free.” The “new coast” is still not free, since Barlo's magnetic display of black pride prompts the sheriff to “swea[r] in three deputies” and “white and black preachers [to] confer as to how best to rid themselves of the vagrant, usurping fellow.” Toomer's assigning the names of Sparta's white elite to spellbound members of Barlo's fictional audience implies a continuity between the slavetraders who kidnapped Barlo's folk hero and the “little white-ant biddies” who police and control this hero's descendants.9

Toomer's critique of the white elite's pretensions to superiority is furthered by his choice of the name Stone for a father-son pair appearing in two different sketches. In “Becky” it is John Stone who secretly furnishes the bricks and lumber out of which Becky's ramshackle house is built. In “Blood-Burning Moon,” Tom Burwell works for “ole Stone.” Moreover, John Stone's son, Northern-educated Bob Stone, is drawn to Louisa as man to woman rather than master to servant—“Why nigger? Why not, just gal?”—but regrets the “sneaking that he had to go through” and reflects that his “friends up North” would be “incredible, repulsed” by his behavior. He consoles himself for historical loss—“His family had lost ground”—with a reminder of continuing hegemony: “Hell no, his family still owned the niggers, practically.” Both father and son end up destroying the rural poor whose lives they touch. Becky is buried beneath John Stone's bricks when her chimney collapses. Bob Stone, himself a victim of Burwell's jealous rage, precipitates Burwell's lynching by a group of “white men … rush[ing] about … like ants upon a forage.” “[W]hite-ant biddies” are once again associated with the suppression—here, the murder—of a powerful black male.10

Readers familiar with the Hancock County of the early twentieth century would readily recognize John and Bob Stone as members of the Stone family based in Linton, a small town about ten miles south of Sparta. The Stones were a four-generational family of doctors whose male founder, Dr. John Stone, had moved south from Vermont, building in 1837 the “elegant and romantic” house that was one of Hancock County's architectural landmarks at the time of Toomer's visit. John Stone's son, Dr. Robert Glenn Stone—a country doctor who is said to have “kept the oath of Hippocrates” for “rich and poor alike”—had two sons who both became doctors: John Julian (b. 1874) and Robert Glenn Jr. (b. 1881). John Julian, the probable prototype for Toomer's John Stone, performed “untiring … service during the influenza epidemic of 1917-1918” and took as his motto the dictum, “One's masterpiece could be painted even in a cabin.” Robert Glenn Stone Jr. practiced first with his brother and then with his father in Georgia but moved back north after World War I. Toomer altered the Stone genealogy by making his Bob Stone the son rather than the brother of John Stone. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Stones of Hancock County, with their historical links to both North and South and their careers of social service, furnished Toomer with appropriate targets for his commentary on the inevitably destructive effects of race and class privilege.11

Cane's most resonant echo of the name of a prominent white Spartan, however, is his choice of the name “Burwell” for Toomer's black hero in “Blood-Burning Moon.” William Hix Burwell, described by Hancock County historian Forrest Shivers as a “windbag politician,” defeated the infamous Populist Tom Watson in an election to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1918 and was serving as Speaker of the House when Toomer visited Sparta in 1921. He was, moreover, a wealthy Sparta businessman who had formed the Sparta Telephone Company in 1902 and built a neo-Georgian house on a Sparta street named after his family. Most significantly for our purposes here, in 1900 Burwell had attempted unsuccessfully to raise capital to rebuild the Montour textile mill. William H. Burwell had thus aspired to be the owner of a renovated factory on the site of the antebellum cotton mill where Tom Burwell is lynched in Toomer's text.12

Critics have both praised and faulted “Blood-Burning Moon” for its mythic treatment of Tom Burwell's lynching. Alain Solard argues that the story is only incidentally about a lynching: as the narrative unfolds, the “outline of reality gives way to the haunting presence of a visionary world.” Donald Gibson agrees that an aura of supernatural necessity surrounds the omnipresent image of the moon but complains of its reactionary effects: “[T]he orientation of the tale is unworldly since its events point away from the natural world toward forces outside time and history. … The tale's supernatural referent can only give the impression that the two vying males are acting out roles determined in a context far larger than either knows.” Despite their differing assessments of the implications of Toomer's mythic fatalism, both Solard and Gibson hold that the tale's articulation of causality is essentially ahistorical.13

Toomer's decision to name his black hero after one of Georgia's best-known white politicians, however, makes it difficult to read “Blood-Burning Moon” as wholly removed from contemporaneous personalities and events. At the very least, Toomer's play with the name of Burwell—like his use of the names Underwood, Wardlaw, and Stone—signals the writer's thumbing of his nose at the “white ant-biddies” in Sparta's local elite. It also conveys Toomer's sympathetic identification with the descendants of Sparta's slaves. Unlike some other Hancock County families that had formerly owned slaves, the Burwells did not have an elite mixed-race branch in Sparta. Hence any black Burwells that Toomer might have encountered during his stay in Sparta would have been, like Tom Burwell, dark-skinned—and probably field laborers as well. Tom Burwell is, then, not merely a black man who has a quarrel with a white man over a woman but an instrument of revenge against the enslavers of his forebears. The situation of Tom's lynching in the ruins of an antebellum factory that a descendant of those enslavers had hoped to bring back into operation only reinforces this point and, above all, connects past and present exploitation. While Gibson may be right that Tom and Bob act out their roles “in a context far larger than either knows,” this larger context has less to do with fatalistic lunar omens than with the controlling hierarchy of class and race. In this connection, the tale's recurrent motif—

Red nigger moon. Sinner!
Blood-burning moon. Sinner!
Come out that fact'ry door—

is susceptible to a historically specific reading. Is the “Sinner” bidden to come out of the factory any person—black or white—who ignores the fatalistic omen of the red moon, as both Solard and Gibson argue? Or is the “Sinner” a member of the historical Burwell clan, burdened with “Blood-burning” crimes, who is being called to account at the gates of his domain? As Nellie McKay comments, when Tom Burwell dies, “the rotting floorboards of the crumbling edifice of white power are being destroyed with him.”14

Cane's multiple references to Sparta's prominent white families reveal that—at least for readers able to pick up his clues—Toomer is offering a pointed commentary on racial and class inequalities, past and present. Indeed, once one recognizes Toomer's veiled historical allusions, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to read Cane as an abstractly lyrical representation of Southern life: historicity molds interpretation. But we have as yet examined only the tip of the historical iceberg in Cane. Toomer's social critique is significantly deepened and extended by his allusions to a number of important Sparta-area blacks, both contemporaneous and earlier. Although Toomer was clearly loath to declare open partisanship, his veiled references to these figures convey unambiguous admiration for the black insurgent and antipathy to the Uncle Tom. Members of the white elite do not furnish the only targets for Toomer's satire.

The single most important play upon names in Cane is contained in the book's title. Various critics have ruminated over possible word-plays. Charles Scruggs has suggested a connection between cane the plant and cane the walking stick. Moreover, he and others have discerned a pun on Cain, the fugitive son of Adam and Eve, who, in proslavery biblical interpretation, is said to have founded the “race” of slaves. African Americans of Toomer's generation used the expression “working like Cain” to denote hard labor. Alain Locke, playing on a motif of vengeance commonly associated with the biblical Cain, wrote to Toomer in 1922, “I cannot resist the wretched pun that I hope the book will raise Cane.” Scholars familiar with Toomer's idiosyncratic spelling have also noted the oddity of his repeatedly calling his book Cain in autobiographical writings composed almost a decade later. In a note to one such misspelling in Toomer's unpublished autobiography, for example, Darwin Turner remarks, “I cannot explain the reason for this interesting spelling error in the typed manuscript. The reference obviously is to Cane.15

Turner and other Cane critics have apparently been unaware of an incident in local Hancock County history that Toomer, through his contacts with Sparta's black community, may well have heard spoken of during his 1921 visit—namely, an 1863 slave rebellion largely masterminded by one John Cain, a slave subsequently executed for his leadership role. Cain, a painter by trade, served as lieutenant in the group of thirty-four insurgents. In newspaper coverage of the rebels' trial, he was reported to have declared that “they ought to be free and that the company would have to fight for their freedom. His plan was to ‘fight their way through’ to Sparta, into ‘private houses’ and take arms and ammunition, then ‘fire’ Sparta and head for the Yankee troops.” When the insurrection failed, Georgia historian Kent Leslie notes, “all four of the ringleaders [Dick Shaw, Spencer Beasley, Mack Simmons, and Cain] were tried in the Superior Court of Hancock County—and convicted of attempting to incite an insurrection and sentenced to hang.” In sentencing the four, the presiding judge emphasized that he was enforcing laws enacted “for no other purpose, but keeping the slave in subordination.”16

We cannot be certain that Toomer heard of the 1863 rebellion during his Sparta sojourn. If the garrulous characters Layman and Halsey in “Kabnis” correspond at all closely to actual people Toomer met, however, it is likely that Toomer's informants on local history would have spoken of the rebellion. Moreover, Toomer may have inquired into this facet of Sparta history, since he had been reading about slavery before his trip to Sparta and, in his Cane-era journal, voiced a clear-sighted appreciation of the suffering that had generated the slave songs: “The Negro slave, ill-housed and fed, driven relentlessly to an unrewarded labor, beaten, maimed and killed, separated from his loved ones, and denied even the vestiges of justice and liberty, gave to the world, in exchange for its bitterness, a song.” In this journal he also expressed openly anticapitalist sentiments, noting that “[i]f the workers could bellow, ‘We want Power,’ the walls of capitalism would collapse.” He viewed himself as a spy in enemy territory: “It is evidence of weakness that men like myself are not forced into the service of the governing class, or exiled, or murdered.” Whether we view such statements as serious expressions of revolutionary sympathy or as sophomoric experiments with revolutionary rhetoric, it is clear that the Toomer who traveled south in 1921 was prepared to view John Cain as a hero.17

To argue that Toomer may have titled Cane with John Cain in mind is not to argue that he did not also wish to invoke the sensuous motif of boiling cane that suffuses the text—or, for that matter, walking sticks or a son of Adam and Eve. As I have argued elsewhere, Toomer's grasp of economics was somewhat shallow, and during his harvest-season sojourn he was entranced by the image of unalienated peasants extracting use values from the Georgia soil, as is evidenced by the omnipresent figure of David Georgia. But the text's allusion to Sparta's most famous antiracist fighter requires us to readjust the lenses of both race and gender through which we read the text's pastoral. Male characters like Barlo and Tom Burwell assume a new centrality in the opening Georgia section of the text. Instead of being exceptional characters in a landscape dominated by largely passive earth mothers, they stand forth as inheritors of a historic—and, for Toomer, largely male-identified—mantle of resistance. In the light of a possible allusion to John Cain in the text's title, it becomes increasingly difficult to argue, as Lawrence Hogue does, that Cane is “silent on the hate, the rebellious young blacks,” of the 1920s South. Even as Toomer aestheticizes rural poverty, history insistently erupts onto the scene. With John Cain a looming presence behind the motif of cane, any reading of the text as a nostalgic evocation of a people “caroling softly songs of slavery” is deeply problematized.18

If the allusion to John Cain summons up a heroic past, the text's references to certain contemporaneous black Spartans limn a less than heroic present. Two figures appearing in the “Kabnis” section of Cane, the school principal Hanby and the wheelwright Halsey, are of particular importance in signaling Toomer's critical assessment of Sparta's black elite.

Toomer's vituperative portrait of Hanby—boot-licking with wealthy whites, authoritarian with subordinate blacks—anticipates Ralph Ellison's caricature of the Southern black educator, Dr. A. Hebert Bledsoe, in Invisible Man. Toomer did not have to rely entirely on his imagination for this satiric sketch. The real-life prototype of Cane's Hanby was, in part, Linton Stephens Ingraham, the founder and principal of Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute, who in 1921 hired Toomer to replace him while he journeyed to New England to raise funds for his school. Born a slave to Linton Stephens, one of Sparta's most intransigent white supremacists, Ingraham (whose name was sometimes spelled “Ingram”) set up the Institute in 1910 and persuaded Sparta's white citzenry to incorporate it into the city's school system in 1914. “Ingraham proceeded with due circumspection,” comments Shivers, and “never forgot the necessity of maintaining good relations with the white community while struggling to maintain and improve his school.”19

That Ingraham worked hard to further the cause of black education in a situation of extreme duress is undeniable. A report on one of Ingraham's talks during his 1921 New England fund-raising trip noted that the visiting principal “spoke of the increasing demand for education, and of the obstacles in the way, such as poverty, the employment of children in the fields, of the failure of the crops through the boll-weevil, drought, etc., and of the non-enforcement of the compulsory school laws.” Ingraham raised thirty-four dollars on this occasion. While cutbacks in public funds from the collapse of the cotton market necessitated the early closing of all Sparta schools, both black and white in the spring of 1921, the racial inequities in public education were nonetheless stark. W. E. B. Du Bois, writing about Georgia education in 1926, when the immediate economic crisis had been somewhat alleviated, noted that in Sparta “expenditures for white and colored are entirely disproportionate.” White teachers earned an average annual salary of $7,549.78; black teachers earned $702.00. Although blacks constituted 69٪ of school-age children, nothing was spent on equipment in their schools, whereas $993.87 was spent on equipment in white schools; nothing was spent on black students' supplies, whereas $833.26 was spent on whites'. Clearly Ingraham had to curry the favor of philanthropists and travel out of state to raise funds if he wanted his school to survive.20

In order to carry out his mission, however, Ingraham seems to have been compelled to play the role of an Uncle Tom. He was a popular figure with the opinion makers on the Sparta Ishmaelite, who noted on the principal's return from his trip north that “[t]he white and colored people of this city and county should be proud of the work that he is doing to educate and elevate his people.” Moreover, in response to the horrific Williams “Death Farm” trial in nearby Newton County some six months before, Ingraham had joined with two other prominent Sparta blacks—D. W. Ingram of the solidly middle-class Ingram family and Professor N. G. Barnes of the Sparta A and I—to write a sycophantic letter to the Ishmaelite:

We fully realize that we are passing through the most crucial period in our county's history.

The crime wave seems to be abroad in the land. We have many things to be thankful for here in our county, chiefly among them are the peaceable relations between the two races. …

We fully realize that no county can prosper where it's [sic] citizens do not, as a whole, cooperate. As citizens we wish to assure the law-abiding white citizens that we stand for law and order and our every interest is for the uplift of our county.

It bears noting that the murders on the Williams farm—euphemistically referred to here as a “crime wave”—had occurred because some black workers imprisoned there had been suspected of testifying to federal investigators about debt peonage. At a time when racial terror was peaking in central Georgia, Ingraham and his cohorts were praising the elite of Hancock County for their forbearance and assuring them that Sparta's blacks would “cooperate”—meaning, presumably, not testify if asked.21

While in Georgia, Toomer no doubt felt it necessary to suppress his skepticism in dealing with Ingraham, who not only was his employer but also had made it possible for Toomer to find temporarily “a way out of the cul-de-sac” of living with his aged and ailing grandparents. Moreover, according to Nellie McKay, Ingraham was a friend of Toomer's grandfather, Reconstruction-era Louisiana Acting Governor P. B. S. Pinchback. Toomer was nursing his dying grandfather during the composition of “Kabnis”; emotional delicacy may have prevented him from more explicitly labeling the target of his satire. In Cane's fictional portrait of the “cockroach Hanby,” nonetheless, Toomer's venom overflowed:

He is a well-dressed, smooth, rich, black-skinned Negro who thinks there is no one quite so suave and polished as himself. To members of his own race, he affects the manners of a wealthy white planter. Or, when he is up North, he lets it be known that his ideas are those of the best New England tradition. To white men he bows, without ever completely humbling himself. Tradesman in the town tolerate him because he spends his money with them. He delivers his words with a full consciousness of his moral superiority.22

Hanby is an unambiguous exemplar of the Booker T. Washington position in the early-twentieth-century debate over black education and civil rights waged between the Tuskegee educator and Du Bois. Hanby's chastisement of the dissolute Kabnis is couched in recognizably Washingtonian rhetoric:

[T]he progress of the Negro race is jeopardized whenever the personal habits and examples set by its guides and mentors fall below the acknowledged and hard-won standard of its average member. This institution, of which I am the humble president, was founded, and has been maintained at a cost of great labor and untold sacrifice. Its purpose is to teach our youth to live better, cleaner, more noble lives. To prove to the world that the Negro race can be just like any other race.

This formulation comes directly, of course, from Up From Slavery, where Washington advocated self-help, humility, and moral purity as the prerequisites for black progress. Du Bois, contending that Washington's position “has tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro's shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators,” urged that the (white) South “do her full duty to the race she has cruelly wronged and is still wronging.” Toomer's satiric caricature of Washington in Hanby suggests the young writer's ideological alignment with Du Bois in this important debate among black intellectuals.23

That Toomer identified himself with Du Bois is indicated, furthermore, by an implied parallel between the autobiographical Kabnis and the radical educator. In Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois had written movingly of his experiences as a teacher of black sharecroppers living in “cabins and farmhouses … [s]prinkled over hill and dale” near the “blue and yellow mountains” of backwoods Tennessee. But he concluded that the South was “an armed camp for intimidating black folk” and lamented the persistence of Jim Crow institutions breeding “an ignorant, turbulent proletariat.” Despite his resolve to live in Atlanta, Du Bois could never shed his detestation of the “hot red soil” of Georgia, the “Land of the Color Line” where he “could not lay … in the ground” the body of his dead first-born. Kabnis, with his fading idealism, his tortured sensitivity to the “serene loveliness of the Georgian autumn moonlight,” and his antipathy to the “powdery faded red dust … of slavefields,” articulates a Du Boisian ambivalence toward the project of Southern pedagogy. This ambivalence was all the more pronounced, we may speculate, because Toomer, as substitute principal at the Sparta A and I, inherited Ingraham's mantle of authority and “was required to visit homes, businesses, and churches” as the school's institutional representative. To be placed in the position of administering a school founded on Washingtonian principles of accommodation must have been difficult indeed for the young writer. Significantly, Toomer's fictional counterpart in Kabnis is only a teacher, vulnerable to his boss's every whim. Toomer was probably making oblique reference to his problematic position as substitute principal when he wrote to Locke from Sparta that “there is poetry here—and drama, but the atmosphere for one in my position is almost prohibitory.” As bearer of Ingraham's mantle, Toomer may well have wondered whether he, like the statue of the Founder in Invisible Man, was lifting the veil from the face of the kneeling slave or lowering it more firmly in place. Cane's vituperative portrait of Hanby, I suggest, cannot be fully understood without reference to its creator's complex reactions to his assigned task of standing in Ingraham's shoes.24

If Ingraham was the historical source for Toomer's portrait of the black educator in Hanby, the CME Bishop Lucius Henry Holsey provides the locus for much of Toomer's critical commentary on organized religion in Cane. Where Ingraham has a fairly direct fictional analogue in Hanby, however, Holsey is alluded to more obliquely in the text. Lucius Holsey (1848-1920), the son of a planter named James Holsey and a woman “of pure African descent … [and] of fascinating appearance and comely parts” named Louisa, was the “driving force” behind the CME church in the post-Reconstruction South. An advocate of white paternalism and an early opponent of black self-determination, Holsey called upon whites to fulfill their obligations to their former slaves and upon blacks to trust in the superior judgment of their former masters. Holsey lived in Sparta during his youth and early adulthood, helping to found the Sparta CME Ebenezer church in 1879 with a land grant from his white friend and ally, Bishop George Foster Pierce of the Methodist Church, South. Holsey later moved to Augusta to found Paine College (originally Paine Institute), the star in the system of Methodist-affiliated schools for blacks.25

Even within the context of Southern religious institutions, the CME church was conservative. Unlike the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, which had its antebellum roots in the abolitionist Free African Societies and maintained a degree of antiracist activism, the CME made no attempt to intervene in political affairs. Indeed, its continuing economic dependency on the white Methodist Episcopal Church, South, entailed that “[a]s a condition of transferring ownership of church property to the new denomination, political activity of any sort in the recipient churches was strictly prohibited.” Moreover, the CME was strongly affected by intraracial color prejudice. During a 1910 election for bishop, the dark complexion of one of the contenders was an issue, since the church took pride in the fact that “[o]n the bench of the bishops … there is now but one of the dark hue, all the others being mulattoes, quadroons, or octoroons.” This prejudice apparently extended to the congregations, as is illustrated by the following anecdote set in Sparta's Ebenezer CME church of the 1880s:

[On] a Sunday morning long past … a heavyset, dark-skinned woman wearing a bandanna around her head, an apron, and generally shabby clothing supposedly rushed into the service at the Ebenezer church and positioned herself in a front-row pew, interrupting Bishop Holsey's sermon. Her color, her unpolished manner, and her dress immediately told the more affluent and lighter-skinned parishioners, decked out in their finest attire, that she was neither a member nor an invited guest. The woman fanned herself, gasped for breath, and tried to recover from her exertions while the minister and church members stared in stunned silence following her unexpected intrusion. Then, slowly, a solemn hymn reportedly swelled around the visitor as the congregation began to sing:

None but the yellow,

None but the yellow,

None but the yellow … shall see God.

Even if the story is “apocryphal,” as Adele Alexander suspects, it was circulated among the black aristocracy themselves “in a spirit of self-mockery, laced with a discomforting undercurrent of truth.”26

Both Holsey and his prize project, the Paine Institute, were highly controversial. Holsey detailed his views on slavery and race in his Autobiography:

The training that I received in the narrow house of slavery has been a minister of correction and mercy to me in all these years of struggle, trial, labor, and anxiety. I have no complaint against American slavery. It was a blessing in disguise to me and to many. It has made the negro race what it could not have been in its native land. Slavery was but a circumstance or a link in the transitions of humanity, and must have its greatest bearing upon the future.

Southern whites, according to Holsey, “taught, practiced, and preached to the Negroes” a religion that “directed them to be the friends of the ex-slaves. … I saw from the first no reasons for any feelings of hate or revenge, either on the part of the one or the other.” Construing the antebellum master-slave bond as a “reciprocal” one, he insisted that interdependency continued to characterize black-white relations after the abolition of slavery: “God placed us among you in this broad land. Your home is our home; your interests are our interests; and whatever may effect [sic] the one must in a large degree effect [sic] the other.”27

Holsey's critics and admirers alike note that institutions like Paine were among the few sites where Southern blacks and whites could interact on anything resembling a collegial basis. Paine was, to its credit, one of very few educational institutions in the entire country in which black and white faculty taught side by side. To Holsey's regret, however, Paine—and the paternalistic “Paine Idea” on which it was based—met with considerable hostility in the black community:

[F]ew of the colored people approved of [the Paine Institute], and the men of my own “faith and order” were more against it than those on the outside. … They fought it because they thought that other Negro organizations would reproach us for being under the Southern sentiment and bowing to the verdict of pure prejudice upon the race question. Already all the colored churches had branded us as “Democrats,” “bootlicks,” and “white folks' niggers,” whose only aim was ultimately to remand the freedman back to abject bondage.

In the seventies and eighties, Holsey later reflected, “I was very much slandered, persecuted, and rejected by my own race and people.” While Holsey insisted that Paine enjoyed unruffled racial harmony, this harmony seems to have been based largely on uncontested white dominance. One historian notes that “[a]t Paine the racial situation was often tense, for there southern white presidents and faculty—usually ministers and missionaries—often adopted a patronizing, if not racist, attitude toward their black students and colleagues.” A white faculty member at Paine noted in 1887 that “[s]ocial equality is an expression never heard within the walls of the Institute. My observation is that the more cultured our pupils become the more averse to the idea they get to be; excellence within their own sphere seems to be their hope.” While this pedagogue's formulation may be a bit suspect—he resigned from Paine when the first black faculty member was hired—his perception cannot have been entirely inaccurate. “[B]lacks disliked the Paine Idea so much,” concludes Glenn Eskew, “that in order to get students Holsey had to pay them to attend class.” Holsey's decision to enroll his own daughter Katie in Paine's first graduating class was doubtless an embattled one.28

My argument that Lucius Holsey is an absent presence in Cane does not hinge upon the contention that Toomer ever met the CME churchman. Holsey died in 1920, the year before Toomer's Southern visit, and in any event had not lived in Sparta for many years. Toomer may have read the famous churchman's 1898 Autobiography, however. Moreover, Toomer may well have known of Holsey through the network of personal connections among the aristocracy of color amidst whom he had spent his youth in the Washington, D.C., home of his grandfather. Furthermore, on his way back north Toomer visited in Augusta with people to whom he had been introduced by mutual acquaintances in Sparta. Holsey's son, the Reverend C. Wesley Holsey, was the CME presiding elder in Augusta. Since Augusta's privileged black elite formed a closely knit group, and since activist members of Sparta's Ebenezer congregation doubtless had ties with the Trinity CME church in Augusta, it is possible that through his Augusta contacts Toomer learned something of Holsey and, in particular, of Paine College.29

The principal evidence that Toomer was interested in Holsey, however, exists within the pages of Cane. As we have noted, Ebenezer church is mentioned several times in the text. The tolling of its bell accompanies the collapse of Becky's house and Barlo's callous tossing of his Bible on the rubble. While Barlo is heroic in his opposition to the “white-ant biddies” in “Esther,” this “African Guardian of Souls” is also, in the poem “Conversion” that immediately follows the sketch, said to have “[y]ield[ed] to new words and a weak palabra / Of a white-faced sardonic god.” Toomer thus clearly associates Ebenezer Church with Barlo's hypocritical participation in Becky's ostracism—an ostracism that, moreover, unites the otherwise rebellious Barlo with his antagonists along the lines of gender. Furthermore, the church with the “squat tower” next to Halsey's house is a “forlorn, box-like, whitewashed frame” structure—a description corresponding with one historian's notation that the Ebenezer church of 1921 Sparta was a “neat frame building painted white.” Not passing up an opportunity for satiric remark, Toomer places above his church “a spiral of buzzards reach[ing] far into the heavens. An ironic comment upon the path that leads into the Christian land.” By juxtaposing Layman's and Halsey's gruesome tales about lynching with the “high-pitched and hysterical” singing emanating from Ebenezer, Toomer implies the futility of religious escapism in the face of racial terror. Moreover, Kabnis's wry comment about preacherly corruption—“the preacher's hands are in the white man's pockets”—specifically calls to mind the economic arrangements existing between the Colored Methodist Episcopal and the Methodist Episcopal, South, churches. Sempter's Ebenezer church, modeled upon the historical Ebenezer CME church founded by Lucius Holsey, is associated, in short, with a hypocritical and oppressive religiosity.30

Holsey's most direct imprint upon Cane is felt, however, through the character of Fred Halsey. Toomer's prototype for Halsey was the blacksmith William Henry (“Bubba”) Ingram Jr., who was the proprietor of the Old Rock Shop at the time of Toomer's visit. A man of mixed heritage also known popularly as “Old Rock,” “Bubba” Ingram—no relation to L. S. Ingraham—was a 1916 graduate of Paine Institute. It is through Halsey's confessional remarks to Lewis that Toomer articulates a vituperative attack on Paine Institute and the “Paine Idea”:

Y know, Lewis, I went t school once. Ya. In Augusta. But it wasnt a regular school. Na. It was a pussy Sunday-school masqueradin under a regular name. Some goody-goody teachers from th North had come down t teach th niggers. If you was nearly white, they liked y. If you was black, they didnt. But it wasnt that—I was all right, y see. I couldnt stand em messin an pawin over my business like I was a child. So I cussed em out an left.

The school's strong religious emphasis, the “goody-goody” Northern teachers, the intraracial color prejudice, the paternalistic authoritarianism—these traits unambiguously link the site of Halsey's Augusta miseducation with the Paine Institute and the “Paine Idea.” At the time when Halsey was a boy, Paine was the only church-affiliated school for blacks in Augusta. Toomer could readily assume that any reader familiar with Southern black education would immediately recognize the target of his wheelwright's ire. Toomer's decision to assign his wheelwright a name closely resembling that of Paine's founder thus takes on ironic import, especially when we consider that “Halsey” was a spelling chosen by some of the black members of the Holsey family. If Fred Halsey figures as a putative relation of Lucius Holsey in Cane, then, he is a rebellious and dissatisfied heir to the churchman's accommodationist ideological estate. The Jean Toomer who took delight in teaching the Old Testament-bred students at the Sparta A and I about “polytheism and deity evolution” clearly identified with his wheelwright's rejection of CME religious and social doctrine.31

In the context of Halsey's frontal assault on the legacy of Lucius Holsey, the roles of certain minor characters in Cane bear reinterpretation. We will recall that Louisa, the name of Holsey's reputedly handsome dark mother, is also the name of the beautiful young woman “the color of oak leaves on young trees in fall” who is desired by both Bob Stone and Tom Burwell in “Blood-Burning Moon.” On his way to see Louisa, Bob imagines himself in the historical role of slavemaster: “He passed the house with its huge open hearth which, in the days of slavery, was the plantation cookery. He saw Louisa bent over that hearth. He went in as a master should and took her. Direct, honest, bold. None of this sneaking that he had to go through now.”32 Through his daydream, Bob is linked with a historical slavemaster, James Holsey, who did in fact “take” a woman named Louisa as his prerogative—and fathered Lucius Holsey as a result. The interracial relationship in Cane that most explicitly reflects the continuing legacy of slavery is thus doubly grounded in Hancock County history, not only through the references to Stones and Burwells noted earlier but also through an allusion to the mother of Sparta's most noteworthy black scion. But Lucius Holsey, we will recall, held that the “narrow house of slavery” had been a “blessing in disguise to me and to many” and that the continuing reciprocity of black-white relations entailed “no reasons for any feelings of hate or revenge, either on the part of the one or the other.” The tragic fates of Tom, Bob, and Louisa in “Blood-Burning Moon” ironize Holsey's faith in the benevolence of the white elite and reveal the enduring destructiveness of slavery's sexual and racial bequest to Georgia society.

Two additional characters in Cane invite reinterpretation in light of Toomer's critique of Lucius Holsey—namely, Carrie Kate Halsey (usually called “Carrie K.”), Fred Halsey's winsome teenage sister, and Father John, the prophetic old man inhabiting Halsey's basement. Noteworthy in “Kabnis” for her suppressed attraction to the magnetic Lewis and for her unstinting devotion to Father John, Carrie Kate is usually read as signifying a black womanhood committed to a nunlike guardianship of the past. This character's first name suggests that she may be based in part on Carrie Ingram, a younger cousin of “Bubba,” whose father Durock occasionally worked in the Old Rock Shop and whom Toomer may have met during his Sparta trip. Carrie Kate's second name, however, suggests a possible connection with Kate Holsey—in which case the nature of Carrie Kate's guardianship becomes open to question. For Kate Holsey was the daughter of Lucius Holsey; she had gone to Paine at her father's behest and after her divorce chose to live with and care for the old man in his declining years. But where Father John denounces the slaveholders' distortion of the Bible—“th sin th white folks ‘mitted when they made th Bible lie”—Lucius Holsey, by his own account, was accused by other blacks of “bowing to the verdict of pure prejudice upon the race question” and “aim[ing] to remand the freedman back to abject bondage.” If Carrie Kate keeps alive a religious legacy from the slavery era, then, it is very different from the one nurtured by her historical prototype. Like her brother Fred, she is a dissident within the clan from which she takes her name.33

Similarly, Father John himself gains in coherence when read in the context of Toomer's critique of the CME church. I am not arguing that Father John has a “real-life” analogue in 1920s Hancock County; critics have been correct to interpret him as a largely mythic figure, symbolizing—if barely articulating—the almost inexpressible burden of the slave past. Nor am I arguing that the old man is the father (or grandfather) of Fred and Carrie Kate, and thus an ironic double of Lucius Holsey himself. While Fred and his sister tend to the old man's needs, they evince no familial closeness to him; the term “Father” is clearly an honorific religious designation. But Father John's somewhat murky message about sin is nonetheless illuminated by Cane's references to Lucius Holsey and the CME church. The old man's message can be interpreted as referring to a specific distortion of biblical doctrine. Charles Scruggs makes a good case that the “lie” in question is the biblical myth of Cain, which, like that of Ham, was reworked as a justification of slavery.34 Read more generally as a comment on the power of white elites to shore up their hegemony by defining the religious doctrine that will guide blacks, however, Father John's babbling coheres with other elements in Cane's discourse about religion: the Ebenezer bell tolling as Barlo tosses his Bible onto Becky's collapsed shack; the buzzards circling above the hysterical chanting of the Ebenezer congregation; Fred Halsey's invective against the Paine Institute. That this warning is uttered by an old man cared for by a young woman named Kate only reinforces the subversiveness of Toomer's veiled commentary on Southern religious institutions. Father John's discourse, obscure as it is, functions in “Kabnis” as Toomer's refutation of the “Paine Idea.”


Cane is not a straightforward work of social protest that wears its politics on its sleeve; Toomer couched his satiric commentary in a densely symbolistic and psychologistic idiom that requires considerable decoding. Toomer's mimetic impulses were disciplined within the regime that we have come to associate with high modernism; as he wrote to Gorham Munson, “Mystery cannot hope but accompany a deep, clear-cut image. … I desire the profound image saturated in its own lyricism.” No doubt Toomer agreed with his soulmate Waldo Frank, who, in praising an early draft of Cane, remarked that “the vile current realistic novel has spoiled all minds for the essential and pure lines of aesthetic form.” Moreover, the sly manner in which Toomer slips in many of his historical allusions suggests that the writer was reluctant to undertake a frontal critique of Sparta's white and black ruling elites. About the full reasons for this reluctance we can only speculate.35

What I hope to have demonstrated here is that the common critical supposition that a modernist preoccupation with psychological interiority and symbolistic discourse entails mythic ahistoricity has led Cane scholars to ignore a number of the text's buried but by no means inaccessible references to contemporaneous Georgia history and social institutions. The Toomer who went South in 1921 and rediscovered his roots looked upon himself as not just a poet but also a radical. Writing to Boni and Liveright right after the completion of Cane, he remarked that his next major work would be about “this whole black and brown world heaving upward against, here and there mixing with the white. The mixture, however, is insufficient to absorb the heaving, hence it but accelerates and fires it. This upward heaving is to be symbolic of the proletariat or world upheaval. And it is likewise to be symbolic of the subconscious penetration of the conscious mind.” While Toomer wrote to Munson in praise of saturated imagery, he also stipulated, “I still demand extra-artistic consciousness in works of art.” Toomer has been done a disservice by critics who, reading his subsequent commitment to Gurdjieffian mysticism and psychotherapy back into his earlier literary efforts, have minimized, even excluded, his quite progressive social and political views. A participant in an undifferentiated Bohemian radicalism that saw no contradiction between Marx and Freud, Toomer embraced a “heaving upward” in both the historical arena and the individual psyche. Cane is just as much “about” Sparta as it is “about” a black artist's search for his subject and his self. Indeed, to invoke W. H. Auden, another modernist who claimed kinship with both Marx and Freud, the “rich interiors” of both subject and self are denuded of many crucial dimensions—philosophical, psychological, and aesthetic, as well as historical and political—as long as Sempter's relation to Sparta remains “still unexplored.”36


  1. Jean Toomer, A Jean Toomer Reader: Selected Unpublished Writings, ed. Frederik L. Rusch (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), 17, 16, 14; Toomer to Frank, 26 April 1922, Waldo Frank Papers, Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania, Box 23, Part 1; Robert E. Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1977), 106.

  2. For mythic readings of Cane, see Catherine Innes, “The Unity of Jean Toomer's Cane,” in Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation, ed. Therman B. O'Daniel (Washington: Howard Univ. Press, 1988), 153-67; Alain Solard, “Myth and Narrative Fiction in Cane,Callaloo 8 (fall 1985): 551-62; and Bonnie Barthold, Black Time: Fiction of Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981). For historical readings, see Trudier Harris, Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1984); Wahneema Lubiano, “Messing with the Machine: Four Afro-American Novels,” Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1988; and John Reilly, “The Search for Black Redemption: Jean Toomer's Cane,Studies in the Novel 2 (fall 1970): 312-24.

  3. Barbara Foley, “Georgia on My Mind: Economics and History in Jean Toomer's Cane,” forthcoming; Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge, The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1987), 28.

  4. W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Younger Literary Movement,” Crisis (1923): 162; Jean Toomer, Cane (1923; reprint, New York: Boni and Liveright, 1975), 83, 97; William Gaissert, “Down the Road,” Sparta Ishmaelite, 13 December 1979, 5; Elizabeth Wiley Smith, The History of Hancock County, Georgia, 2 vols. (Washington, Ga.: Wilkes, 1974), 1: 55. The Du Bois review is part of a Crisis article attributed to both Du Bois and Alain Locke. In a letter to Locke clearly dated between September 1922 and January 1923, however, Jessie Fauset made it clear that the section on Toomer was written by Du Bois (Fauset to Locke, n.d., Locke Papers [henceforth LP], Moorland-Spingarn Research Institute, Howard University, Box 164-28, Folder 40).

  5. Cane, 83, 10, 15; photograph in Toomer Papers (henceforth TP), Box 66, Folder 1506; E. W. Smith, 1: 57.

  6. Cane, 5; George Gardiner to author, 8 February 1994; Harrell Lawson to author, 14 January 1994; Gertrina Nelson, “Ebenezer-Holsey Memorial C. M. E. Church, Sparta, Georgia, July 21-27, 1952,” Souvenir Booklet; Gertrude B. Lewis to author, 4 September 1993.

  7. E. W. Smith, 1: 101; Forrest Shivers, The Land Between: A History of Hancock County, Georgia, to 1940 (Spartanberg, S.C.: Reprint Co., 1990), 210-11.

  8. Cane, 21; Shivers, The Land Between, 132, 314; Atlanta Constitution, 30 September 1921, 3.

  9. Cane, 20-21. In January 1921 Toomer began studying the history of U.S. slavery with the Washington, D.C., writers group to which he belonged. He wrote to Locke that one member had reported on T. R. R. Cobb's “An Historical Sketch of Slavery,” that another had summarized material from Wells (presumably H. G. Wells), and that he himself was tackling Captain Theodore Canot's “Twenty Years an African Slaver” (Toomer to Locke, 26 January 1921, LP, Box 164-90, Folder 12). Actually titled Adventures of an African Slaver, Canot's account of his travels, which frequently mentions “juju” and “gree-gree,” seems to have exerted considerable influence on Toomer's conception of Africa (1854; reprint, New York: Dover, 1969). That Barlo's preaching inspires a woman to draw “a portrait of a black madonna on the courthouse wall” (21) suggests an association of Barlo with Marcus Garvey, since the figure of the black madonna was important in Garveyite iconography. See Tony Martin, Literary Garveyism: Garveyism, Black Arts, and the Harlem Renaissance (Dover, Mass.: Majority Press, 1983). “Barlo” also echoes “Balo,” the mystical hero of Toomer's 1922 play of that name, and even perhaps “Babo,” Melville's black insurgent in “Benito Cereno.”

  10. Cane, 31-34.

  11. Shivers, The Land Between, 133; E. W. Smith, 2: 161.

  12. Shivers, conversation with author, April 1993; Shivers, The Land Between, 210-11. Toomer's own life was more closely interwined with that of William Hix Burwell than he may have known. In 1898 and 1899, Jean Toomer's father, Nathan Toomer, who had business dealings in the Sparta area, was continually trying to get out of Burwell $155.08 that he claimed Burwell owed him. See Virginia Kent Anderson Leslie and Willard B. Gatewood Jr., “‘This Father of Mine … a Sort of Mystery’: Jean Toomer's Georgia Heritage,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 77 (winter 1993): 802-05.

  13. Solard, 552; Donald B. Gibson, The Politics of Literary Expression: A Study of Major Black Writers (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981), 164.

  14. Shivers to author, April 1993; Cane, 29, 31, 35; Nellie Y. McKay, Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984), 177. Antebellum cotton mills were often operated by slave labor. See Broadus Mitchell, The Rise of Cotton Mills in the South (1921; reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1966), 25. Toomer's decision to root the lynching in “Blood-Burning Moon” in Bob Stone's pursuit of Louisa, rather than in any charge that Tom Burwell sexually approached a white woman, accords with a crucial 1919 finding of the naacp: contrary to the popular view, the preponderance of Southern lynchings were not the consequence of alleged sexual harassment or abuse of white women by black men. Most lynched black males were killed for standing up for their rights. See Frank Morton, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States 1889-1918 (1919; reprint, New York: Arno and The New York Times, 1969). The phrase “blood-burning moon,” with its clear reference to the Book of Revelation, variously echoes the spiritual lines “When the sun refuse to shine, when the moon goes down in blood” and “And de moon will turn to blood in dat day” (Clyde Taylor, “The Second Coming of Jean Toomer,” Obsidian 1 [1975]: 45). Sterling Brown suggests that this “old spiritual … got [a] new meanin[g]” as songs about “freedom not only from sin … but from physical bondage … spr[ang] up … [i]n the wake of the Union army and in the contraband camps” (“Negro Folk Expression: Spirituals, Seculars, Ballads and Work Songs,” Phylon 14 [1953]: 48-49).

  15. Charles W. Scruggs, “The Mark of Cain and the Redemption of Art: A Study in Theme and Structure of Jean Toomer's Cane,American Literature 44 (May 1972): 276-91; Nathaniel Mackey, “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol,” Callaloo 10 (winter 1987): 29-54; Maria Caldeira, “Jean Toomer's Cane: The Anxiety of the Modern Artist,” Callaloo 8 (fall 1985): 544-50; Locke to Toomer, 4 January 1922, TP, Box 5, Folder 46; Darwin Turner, ed., The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer (Washington: Howard Univ. Press, 1980), 127, 129, 132, 127 n. Charles Larson suggests that Toomer's idiosyncratic spelling of Cane reflects “what the book finally became for him”—that is, the burden of black identification (Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen [Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1993], 23). On the colloquial use of “Cain,” cf. Arthur P. Fauset to Alain Locke: “I've worked like Cain down here” (25 July 1922, LP, Box 164-28, Folder 29).

  16. Virginia Kent Anderson Leslie, “Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege: Amanda America Dickson, 1849-1893,” Ph.D. diss., Emory University, 1990, 102-03; Adele Alexander, Ambiguous Lives: Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, 1789-1879 (Fayetteville: Univ. of Arkansas Press, 1991), 133. Alexander comments that the abortive Cain rebellion “rocked Hancock County in 1863.” As given in the court record, however, the testimony of the slave rebels countered the newspaper report of intended mass murder. Alexander concludes of the insurgents, “They probably did hope to escape to the Union lines—an understandable aspiration—but did not intend to murder the local people or to ‘fire Sparta’” (133-34). One of John Cain's descendants, Oliver Cain, was a businessman in Sparta in the early 1920s (Lawson). Possibly Toomer disguised him as John Crane, merchant father of Esther Crane in “Esther.”

  17. TP, Box 60, Folder 1411. Toomer scholars and biographers are fond of citing Toomer's somewhat sophomoric frustration at his unsuccessful attempt to talk radical politics for ten days with New Jersey shipyard workers, who, he found, were more interested in “playing craps and sleeping with women.” Kerman and Eldridge, for example, conclude that this experience “cure[d] [Toomer] of ideas about life as a laborer and of his dream of socialism” (71). Toomer clearly had no close personal identification with the working class, and soon after his New Jersey experience he wrote to Georgia Douglas Johnson that “poverty and privation … dwarf the soul, weaken the body, dull the mind, and prohibit fruitful activity” (Johnson Papers, Moorland-Spingarn Research Institute, Howard Univ., 4 June 1920, Box 162-2, Folder 9). Nonetheless, it is inaccurate to assert that Toomer lost all interest in left-wing politics.

  18. Foley, “Georgia on My Mind”; Lawrence W. Hogue, Discourse and the Other: The Production of the Afro-American Text (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1986), 38. Willard Gatewood remarks that the term “dictie”—used by Barlo's companions to refer to Esther—was given widespread currency by Marcus Garvey, who “sometimes referred to upper-class blacks as ‘aristocrats’ or as ‘upper tens’ but usually preferred ‘dicties’ or ‘dickties,’ a term that had become popular by 1920” (321). The association of “dictie” with Garvey may suggest a further linking of Barlo with the renowned black nationalist.

  19. Shivers, The Land Between, 277.

  20. “Lend a Hand,” leaflet, TP, Box 66, Folder 1506; Sparta Ishmaelite, 13 May 1921, 1; Du Bois, “The Negro Common School in Georgia,” in W. E. B. Du Bois: A Reader, ed. Meyer Weinberg (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 134-35.

  21. Sparta Ishmaelite, 4 November 1921, 3; Sparta Ishmaelite, 29 April 1921, 5. For more on the Williams “Death Farm,” see Foley, “Georgia on My Mind.” The Ku Klux Klan grew rapidly in the South in the early 1920s after its revival in 1915. John Dittmer estimates that until 1920 the Klan had less strength in Atlanta than did the B'nai B'rith (Black Georgia in the Progressive Era 1900-1920 [Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1977], 185). But on 23 September 1921—a few days after Toomer's arrival in Sparta eighty miles away—there was a rally of two thousand robed Klansmen in Atlanta (Atlanta Constitution, 24 September 1921, 1).

  22. Kerman and Eldrige, 75; McKay, 45; Cane, 93.

  23. Cane, 93; Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903; reprint, Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1961), 53. Throughout his youth Toomer must have been immersed in the Washington-Du Bois debate. His high school, the elite M Street School (later named Dunbar High School), had many vocal supporters of Du Bois on its faculty. Toomer's grandfather Pinchback, however, was close to Washington and routinely put him up during the educator's trips to the capital. Moreover, one of the members of the writers' study group in which Toomer participated before his trip to Sparta was Clarissa Scott, daughter of Emmett J. Scott, Howard University administrator and author (with Lyman Beecher Stowe) of the hagiographic biography, Booker T. Washington: Builder of a Civilization (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Page, 1917). Toomer had certainly been thoroughly exposed to the controversy over the relative merits of the two educators' visions of black education. For more on the Washington study group, see George B. Hutchinson, “Jean Toomer and the ‘New Negroes’ of Washington,” American Literature 63 (December 1991): 683-92; Ronald M. Johnson, “Those Who Stayed: Washington Black Writers of the 1920s,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 50 (1980): 484-99; and Barbara Foley, “Jean Toomer's Washington: From ‘Blue Veins’ to Seventh-Street Rebels,” forthcoming, Modern Fiction Studies.

  24. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 56, 85, 153, 155, 82, 81; Charles T. Davis, “Jean Toomer and the South: Region and Race as Elements Within a Literary Imagination,” in The Harlem Renaissance Re-examined, ed. Victor A. Kramer (New York: AMS Press, 1987), 190; Kerman and Eldridge, 81; Toomer to Locke, 8 November 1921, LP, Box 164-90, Folder 12. Eric Sundquist remarks that the Du Bois who taught school in the South is “an avatar of Jean Toomer's character Ralph Kabnis in Cane” (To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993], 466). Elsewhere I argue that Lewis is an naacp investigator into local lynchings and is possibly based specifically on Walter White, who probed various 1918 Georgia lynchings and was at least once driven out of town (Foley, “Georgia on My Mind”). If this is the case, and if Hanby is based at least in part on Ingraham—who publicly involved himself in the “Death Farm” affair—then there is a logic to Lewis's otherwise cryptic remark that the story of his own embattled presence in Sempter “might involve present company. (He laughs pleasantly and gestures vaguely in the direction of Hanby)” (Cane, 95).

  25. Bishop L. H. Holsey, D. D., Autobiography and Sermons, Addresses, and Essays (Atlanta: Franklin, 1898), 9; Othal Hawthorne Lakey, The History of the CME Church (Memphis, Tenn.: CME Publishing House, 1985), 33. Around the turn of the century, Holsey, in despair at the continuing subordination of blacks and “disenchanted with Bourbon democracy,” briefly supported the People's party and announced his support for “‘separation and segregation’ of the races with the goal of establishing a black state where as ‘governor, legislator and judge,’ the African American ‘could be a man among men.’” Holsey subsequently grew “frustrated with his failed efforts at black nationalism … [and] increasingly pessimistic” (Glenn T. Eskew, “Black Elitism and the Failure of Paternalism in Postbellum Georgia: The Case of Bishop Lucius Henry Holsey,” Journal of Southern History 58 [November 1992]: 655, 658, 662). According to James C. Bonner, Bishop George Foster Pierce owned eighteen slaves and nine hundred acres of land; see “Profile of a Late Antebellum Community,” in Plantation, Town and County: Essays on the Local History of American Slave Society, ed. Elinor Miller and Eugene D. Genovese (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1974), 40. Pierce “viewed blacks as inferior and their efforts to achieve equality as committing ‘violence contrary to the ordination of nature’” (Eskew, 649). Holsey married Harriet, a young slave in Pierce's household.

  26. C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the Afro-American Experience (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1990), 62; Gatewood, 152; Alexander, 162.

  27. Holsey, 10, 23; quoted in Lakey, 443.

  28. Eskew, 651; Lakey, 448; George Esmond Clary Jr., “The Founding of Paine College—A Unique Venture in Inter-Racial Cooperation in the New South, 1882-1969,” Ed.D. diss., University of Georgia, 1965; Holsey, 25; Holsey quoted in Eskew, 646; Dittmer, 160-61; Clary, 81.

  29. Eskew, 648 n; Gatewood, 90-91. C. Wesley Holsey “failed in his attempt to be chosen bishop in 1922” (Eskew, 648 n). Toomer appears to have visited in Augusta with some women by the names of Mary Alice and Emma Lue, to whom a letter of introduction on Toomer's behalf was written by one Evelyn living in Sparta: “This is Mr. Toomer who has been with us for the past two months, but is now leaving us, which we are very sorry [sic]. He is on his way to Washington and is stopping in Augusta for a day. Will you and Mary Alice make it pleasant for him” (TP, 25 November 1921, Unidentified E-H, Box 9, Folder 287). Toomer's Augusta contacts may have spoken of the presiding elder's ambitions during Toomer's visit on the way home in November 1921.

  30. Cane, 26, 86, 88; Alexander, 159.

  31. Katherine Bray to author, n.d. (October 1993); John Rozier to author, n.d. (October 1993) and 17 November 1993; Gardiner; William Gaissert, “Down the Road,” Sparta Ishmaelite, 13 December 1979; Shivers to author, n.d. (April 1993); Gerald Smith to author, 9 February 1994; Cane, 108; Toomer to Locke, 8 November 1921, LP, Box 164-90, Folder 12. The identification of Fred Halsey as a member of the Ingram family is supported by Toomer's location of Halsey's house near the Ebenezer church in the Hunt's Hill section of Sparta. The Ingrams lived in Hunt's Hill, where the residents, while said to be “‘not what you'd call wealthy,’” were “light-skinned [and] comfortably situated” (Lawson; Alexander, 157). Several members of the Ingram family attended Paine Institute, which was rechartered as Paine College in 1903 (Gardiner; Carleton Morse, telephone conversation with author, 4 April 1994; Clary, 11). Professor Gerald Smith of Paine College asserts that Toomer was “referring to Paine College” in the statement by Halsey. “The Sunday-School reference is a shot at the church-relatedness of Paine College. … The goody-goody teachers refers to the Home Mission Board of the Methodist Church which sent deaconesses to serve as teachers. How goody-goody they were, I don't know, but they were tough academics who tolerated no nonsense. … About the nearly white business: Bishop Holsey was a mulatto, with red hair and light skin. In Augusta of the time, the ‘near whites’ formed what might be called a Negro aristocracy, socially speaking. Trinity CME Church [of Augusta] was notorious for its light-skinned constituency” (G. Smith to author, 4 October 1993). While the Ingrams were not related to the Ingrahams, Toomer may have been preserving the close resemblance in the two families' nomenclature by giving Halsey and Hanby quite similar names.

  32. Cane, 31.

  33. Gardiner; Eskew 648 n; Cane, 115.

  34. Scruggs; Caldeira, 545.

  35. Toomer to Gorham Munson, 31 October 1922, TP, Box, 6, Folder 183; Frank to Toomer, n.d., TP, Box 3, Folder 84.

  36. Toomer to Horace Liveright, 9 March 1923, TP, Box 1, Folder 16; Toomer to Munson, 8 October 1922, Toomer Papers, Box 6, Folder 183.

The following have provided invaluable help in my research for this essay: Katherine Bray; Professor Carleton Morse of Fort Valley State College, Fort Valley, Georgia; George Gardiner; Harrell Lawson; Professor Kent Leslie of Oglethorpe University; Gertrude Lewis; John Rozier; Forrest Shivers; Professor Gerald Smith of Paine College; the Sparta Ishmaelite; the Hancock County Public Library.

Kathryne V. Lindberg (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Raising Cane on the Theoretical Plane: Jean Toomer's Racial Personae,” in Cultural Difference & the Literary Text: Pluralism & the Limits of Authenticity in North American Literatures, edited by Winfried Siemerling & Katrin Schwenk, University of Iowa Press, 1996, pp. 49-74.

[In the following essay, Lindberg discusses Toomer's theories of racial and national identity.]

At least as early as 1924, when Alain Locke was constructing the New Negro and putting together his anthology, Jean Toomer, already burned by his debut as a “Negro writer,” had a counter-definition—more properly a refusal of definition—of the possibilities for the Negro in America. By making conscious the conditions of his or her history and current predicament of objectification, Toomer's Negro is not to be fixed as “New” or even as reconstructed. Rather, just like the “individual” by Emersonian and Whitmanian lights, Toomer's Negro is projective and radically skeptical in rejecting all “arbitrary figures” presented as representative of race or nation. According to Toomer, Locke had simply stolen excerpts for The New Negro. Toomer had offered him an essay for the collection; Locke, however, wanted a piece of Cane. It is both tempting and reasonable to surmise that what Toomer had offered was the long unpublished essay, “The Negro Emergent,” which a later editor has so titled for Toomer's notion of the Negro emerging into a state for which the old nomenclature of race and nation proves inadequate.

Toomer's essay interestingly answers the call to a New Negro identity with a set of ethical and aesthetic questions. It refuses to accept or reproduce images that, in answering racist assumptions, perpetuate a losing game based on racial binarism or fixed on the distinction of black or (white) American nationalism. Instead, Toomer sketches a strategy or theory of race redefinition as ironic personae, including Kabnis in Cane:

The Negro says: I am. What I am, I am searching to find out. Also, what I may become. … By this act all racial factors: black, white, birth, slavery, inferior, superior, prejudice, bitterness, resentment, hatred, aggression and submission, equal, reactions, patronage, self-consciousness, false shame and false pride—gravitate to conscious placements. The crisis of race becomes a fact within a general problem. Hitherto, the Negro has been utilized by this crisis for its purposes. The question is, How may he use it for his own?

… Should there be set up an arbitrary figure of a Negro, composed of what another would have him be like, and the assertion made that he should model himself after it, this figure, though prompted by the highest interest, would nevertheless share the false and constricting nature of all superimposed images.

(Reader 92-93; my emphasis)

Toomer was only reluctantly and temporarily a race poet and never simply a representative or “race man.” Rather, he was a habitué of downtown salons and a member of informal writer-journalist-publisher circles of Greenwich Village bohemia, which he somewhat mistakenly saw as the site of a writerly community outside the bounds of race and gender. This was at the time when Horace and Otto Liveright, literary agent and publisher siblings, were also representing and publishing Sherwood Anderson, Van Wyck Brooks, Carl Van Vechten, Hart Crane, Waldo Frank, and the cream of a new American writing and criticism that, as we shall see, operated as a mutually supportive brotherhood.1 To this frequently regrouping group Toomer was something of a foster brother because—and only while—he delivered “authentic Negro” writing. Cane was published by Boni and Liveright, introduced by Frank, and reviewed by Anderson and Gorham Munson.

Not accidentally, then, most of Toomer's critical statements, and his complex though undisguised anger at being tagged a Negro writer, were directed at that group of experimental writers and critics who were soon to become the custodians of a canonical American culture still vital enough to be the legacy of the liberal establishment variously targeted or eulogized by the current generation of national(ist) cultural critics. The group to which Toomer never quite belonged variously purveyed and achieved its program in the literary pages of such magazines as Seven Arts, New Republic, Nation, and Secession and on occasion less orthodox publications like New Masses and, later, Pagany and Partisan Review. There are, of course, as many accounts as partisans; still, Waldo Frank gives a useful list of players and moves in an appendix to The Re-Discovery of America, tellingly titled “Note on American Cultural Criticism Since 1909,” which sums up the aims of his own Seven Arts as “a national programme after Whitman, by which America shall become a creative force in the modern world.”2 That mission underwrote Our America, the book that lays out Frank's qualified version of an amalgamated yet regionally folkish national culture. This essay will consider Frank's racial and regional mapping, in Our America and Holiday, as background to Toomer's statements about his own vexed racial identification and his representative literary persona, Kabnis.3

It is noteworthy that Toomer is nowhere, except in his own literary sketches and cultural studies, placed in Frank's inner circle of writers and critics. Instead, he is mentioned in a preface, “Between Ourselves,” and again enlisted to authenticate Frank's special regional and racial knowledge:

When at last this book was written, I was weary. It was as if I had crossed a continent unblazed, hacking my way. … Then, America came to my weariness: the America of beauty and splendor. The shafts of dream impermanent and electric, that are the buildings of my New York. … The negro South, where with my friend Jean Toomer I had lived within the Veil, drinking the warm life that rises and blows in the cane. And the other South, bled white, maimed of limb, palsied of head, the stiff eyed, loveable South of the “masters.” … Mid-America I had wandered and learned to own with Sherwood Anderson.

(Frank, Re-Discovery 3-4; my emphasis)4

Toomer was supposed to represent, or at least to open a vista upon, an unspoiled or natural man, an authentic blackness that could get his writing buddy “within [Du Bois's?] Veil.” Whether or not Toomer fully recognized his own legitimating function, he was of particular interest to Frank and the project they shared with others, presuming to re-discover—nay, to “own”—America.

Toomer was not only implicated in this countercanonical and liberal humanist project of completing American literary nationalism by sublating regionalism and pluralism, he was also deeply committed to literalizing its metaphors of an expansive and renewed heterogeneous—if homogenizing—America or Whitmanian Self-hood. This was the same hybrid American individualism that justified manifest destiny, by which the white West had subdued continents of Others. Toomer also presumed to share with his unambiguously white mentors and collaborators the poetic and critical license(s) to decide for himself who he was—racially as well as personally. He says of Cane, “Now I wanted a book published. … I saw it as my passport to this world” (Turner 124). The lines of influence and force perhaps became clearer to Toomer when, upon receiving drafts of Cane, Sherwood Anderson felt qualified, even credentialed, to judge it authentically Negro. In December 1922, he wrote Toomer that “Your work is of special significance to me because it is the first negro work I have seen that strikes me as being really negro” (Cane 160).

Nevertheless, and with increasing fervor and as his literary and Negro career(s) progressively floundered, Toomer formulated his Americanness precisely in terms of ownership and self-creation. At the same time, he refused membership in an invisibility or “whiteness” that would have erased the differences that defeat his claim to the whole of America:

I have lived as an American, which I am. …

While I lived in it, each group became mine—which means that in a spiritual sense the total world of America has become mine. This identification with the entire country is most untypical—and I have had to pay for it. …

I have been called a negro. I have been accused of passing. Pimples of men have alleged that I “quit the flock.” I have been called white.

(Reader 99)

If Cane has provided ample justification for charges that Toomer ironically had to deflect after its publication (especially the accusation of aspiring to whiteness), Frank's related claim to “own” America by means of travel and his acquaintances with regional authors is undercut by the very title of the book he wrote during his three-month journey to Washington, D.C., and, more importantly, to Spartanburg, South Carolina, with Toomer. Holiday does seem apt both for its author's masterfully quick study of, and his distancing from, the hatefully repressive lynching South. In contrast to Cane,Holiday is a biblical and psychologized or Freudian allegorical tale of race hatred along clearly drawn color lines that inevitably climaxes with the lynching/crucifixion of a black man, John Cloud, who provides but one focus of the bisexual fantasies of a white girl named Virginia as she takes a holiday from work and whiteness.

Brief comparison of how Toomer and Frank treat their different sexual motifs and the narratively obligatory scenes of interracial violence shows that, while Frank wishes to convey the full guilty horror of Southern bigotry, he can only approach his topic indirectly and as an epitome of forbidden “beauty and splendor.” Not unlike Toomer, he attempts something of a mixture of lyric poetry and expressive prose, even including Negro dialect. Yet Frank's allusion-freighted tableaux of the arrival of the ship Psyche in Niggertown, the gorgeous natural landscape, the white town of Nazareth, and the patient black Mary who gives herself both to black John and white Virginia exclude any authorial or narrative reflection. Ironically, this absence casts doubt on what is supposed to be objective reportage with a virtually omniscient narrative perspective. Frank's novel, interesting as it might prove to a study in the displacement or pathology of various American Dreams of purity and self-possession, repeats a series of racial, sexual, and literary stereotypes that it might have analyzed. By highlighting both the homoerotic aura surrounding John Cloud and the toll exacted because, to the strains of “Deep River” and presuming to love and travel freely over “Our Land” (23), he had “de white look in yo' nigger eyes!” (129), one might gather incriminating evidence about Frank's attitude toward Negroes, including and especially Toomer.

What is more interesting, though, is how Toomer encodes or encrypts himself in both Cane and his explications of that text's autobiographical and sociological subtext. As against Holiday's clear demarcation between Southern blacks and whites (and the implicit psychosexual boundaries crossed at the Mason-Dixon line, whose transgression, except on writers' working holidays, ends in tragedy or death), Cane presents an array of interracial and cross-class scenarios—most of which are neither fatal nor simply mythologized. Within and among separate sketches, a complexly perspectival meditation on difference motivates the sparse action and layers the internal monologues of narrative and lyric personae or characters. Cane bodies forth a creolized and heterodox America peopled by transient as well as rooted souls, albeit often both tragic and mulatto. These characters range from Becky, “the white woman who had two Negro sons” (Cane 7), to Paul, “an autumn leaf” (Cane 72) whose white college chums unself-consciously announce their racism in malicious chatter about miscegenation and passing, even as they allege friendship: “Dark blood: moony. Doesnt [sic] get anywhere unless you boost it. … could stick up for him if he'd only come out, one way or another and tell a feller” (Cane 74, 77). There is also the less cryptically autobiographical Ralph Kabnis, “a promise of a soil-soaked beauty; up-rooted, thinning out” (Cane 98).

Reflecting Toomer's own venues, Cane's settings change from the outskirts of subsistence corn and cane fields in the Black Belt to fine houses and clubs in Washington, D.C., and university environs in Chicago. Its title notwithstanding, a title Toomer sometimes misspelled or punned as “Cain,” this book is hardly devoted solely to an expedition for the recovery of regional beauty and horror uncharted by poets and literary historians. More than once, Toomer ironically erases regional differences by referring to a color line at once indelible and revisionary. In “Bona and Paul,” for instance, Paul soliloquizes: “From the South. What does that mean, precisely, except that you'll love or hate a nigger? Thats [sic] a lot. What does it mean except that in Chicago you'll have the courage to neither love nor hate. A priori. But it would seem that you have” (Cane 77-78). Such passages might well exemplify what Hughes had in mind when he said that Cane is “truly racial”; that is, equally inimical to Negro uplift and white liberalism (Hughes 693). But such is not the Cane praised by Toomer's literary friends, who were working hard to construct and reproduce Americanists. Which is to say that they were both nationalist and formalist—and, again, silently or naturally white—in the patronage of their new poet, a general term of approbation that might also encode what Anderson's Chicago publisher, John McClure, called “that African urge” toward “lyrical rhapsody” (Cane 161).

Therefore, Frank's influential, if vexed, foreword to the 1923 edition advertises Cane as the awaited literary, if not literal, South:

This book is the South. I do not mean that Cane covers the South or is the South's full voice. Merely this: a poet has arisen among our American youth who has known how to turn the essences and materials of his Southland into the essences and materials of literature. A poet has arisen in that land who writes, not as a Southerner, not as a rebel against Southerners, not as a Negro, not as an apologist or priest or critic: who writes as a poet.

… The very looseness and unexpected waves of the book's parts make Cane still more South, still more of an aesthetic equivalent of the land.

What a land it is! What an æschylean beauty to its fateful problem!

(Cane 138-140)

As another piece in the jigsaw map of America, Toomer, like Anderson, promises Frank his own local color, if you will. Of the alchemical process by which blood and soil become national then universal poetry, Frank asserts the very categorical strictures this process would transmute. Because Toomer's book is “his Southland,” by virtue of what in Frank's hand becomes a legitimating nativity and experience, the poet has to represent even as he overcomes his negritude and region. Frank's Aeschylean—tragic, if not mulatto—Toomer has to become “self-immolating, the artist who is not interested in races, whose domain is Life” (Cane 140). It is in his prodigious literary transcendence of boundaries that Toomer's racial otherness is confirmed. There, without saying it in so many words, Frank makes Toomer his Negro writer.

Against this, Toomer claims that Frank witnessed and heard his ideas and experience of a race that belie that epithet. After staying with Toomer and his grandparents, where Toomer “took this opportunity to convey to him my position in America, I read to him ‘The First American,’” Frank returned to write the offending foreword, apparently taking his Negro friend's racial autobiography as theory, hope, illusion, or “vision.” This is Toomer's account:

We went South. We came back. Frank returned to New York. In several of his letters he referred to what he called my “vision,” and seemed to feel that it “protected” me. Perhaps it did. … I was mainly concerned with whether or not he understood that it was not a vision, but an actuality. Once or twice I suspected that he, like my colored friend, felt it was words, fine words to be sure, but unrelated to reality. But I argued myself out of the suspicion by reminding myself that Waldo Frank was the author of Our America.

(Cane 143)

Frank's foreword, while not faithful to Toomer's ideas, entertains no small part of the wonder and good intentions that pervade and pervert Our America. That book, Frank's assault on the growing Anglo-Saxonness of American culture and cultural criticism, attempts to recover the dignity and lessons of the cultural practices nearly obliterated by American expansion and progress.5 It is still a dicey business to make—or imagine—another culture as instrument for self-improvement. Nevertheless, it is easy to see, in light of some of the same moves in Cane, what Toomer found useful and sympathetic in Our America. In a letter to Anderson, written just after his visit to New Mexico, Frank lays out the agenda shared for a time by Anderson, Toomer, and their larger brotherhood. Not only for its attempt to avoid the errors he will repeat but also for its multiculturalism, Frank's letter is informative:

It is uncanny how thoroughly one has to unlearn all one has learned in the schools and in the forums of life, and how hard it is, and how the old lies cling one by one. I am certainly no gullible ass when it comes to the false doctrines of our so-called civilizations: yet, unconsciously, to this extent I had accepted the official ruling about the Indians. … Behind the sneers and the worse sentimentality of the white about the noble red man—God what hypocrisy and sullen complacency in that term—the real Indian, whose very name is an illiterate misnomer, has hidden away and kept his soul marvelous pure.

As Toomer implies and this letter indicates, Frank talked a better heterogeneous or multicultural America than he delivered. Most clearly in his treatment of New Mexican Native American culture, Frank displays the romantic racism he hoped to correct, and he quite innocently projects his own ideals and desires in a way that we must find startling in the wake of poststructuralist critiques of anthropology. As with the Negro South, he murders a culture to dissect it (even as he draws upon the unspoiled primitive goodness of the Indian) in his chapter “The Land of Buried Cultures,” which shares the aims and metaphors he, if not Toomer, brought to Cane:

The Indian's art is classic, if any art is classic. Its dynamics are reserved for the inward meaning. … The uncorrupted Indian knows no individual poverty or wealth. All of his tribe is either rich or poor. He has no politics. He has no dynastic or industrial intrigue—although of course personal and fraternal intrigue does exist. His physical world is fixed. …

The Indian is dying and is doomed. There can be no question of this. There need be no sentimentality. It may seem unjust that a spiritual culture so fine as his should be blotted out before the iron march of the Caucasian.

(Frank, Our America 114-115)6

In this vein, in the foreword he wrote for Toomer, Frank treats “Kabnis,” the long dramatic third section of Cane, as something of a problem play that exposes its author—and Frank as well—in a complex mise-en-scène: “Georgia again. … the invasion into this black womb of the ferment seed: the neurotic, educated, spiritually stirring Negro” (Cane 139). Setting aside this momentary disclosure of the very complexity and alienation so prized in existential novels and American Romance, yet forbidden the Negro, Frank conflates Cane's historical past and present into a fixed racial difference, a color line that cordons off slave and emergent artist into the same eternity of poignant oppression: “the ancient black man, mute, inaccessible, and yet so mystically close to the new tumultuous members of his race, the simple slave Past, the shredding Negro Present, the iridescent passionate dream of the To-morrow” (Cane 140).

In the same letter in which Toomer claims “Kabnis is me,” he insists that differences, distance, and the passage of time intervene between living men and the Negro of art—including his. No less than Frank and Anderson, if for different reasons, he needs to kill off the pure primitive: “If anything comes up now, pure Negro, it will be a swansong. Dont [sic] let us fool ourselves, brother: the Negro of the folk-song has all but passed away: … A hundred years from now those Negroes, if they exist at all will live in art” (Cane 151).

For the central character of Kabnis, as for Toomer, there is not one frozen Difference, but differences and change. This too, however, in the terms of the story, might be a vision, an aporia that can be remarked but not overcome. Thus, Ralph Kabnis, in interior monologue or dream sequence, thinks: “Ralph Kabnis is a dream. … I came South to face it. If I, the dream (not what is weak and afraid in me) could become the face of the South” (Cane 84). An exchange between Kabnis and Lewis (the latter, a participant observer much closer to Frank than to Toomer, despite the identification made in the Norton Critical Edition [Cane 97]) stages in starker terms the differential relationships among white Northern outsider, not-quite-so-outside outsider, and Father John, a nearly phantasmagoric griot and remnant of the folk South:

Lewis: The old man as symbol, flesh, and spirit of the past, what do you think he would say if he could see you? You look at him, Kabnis.

Kabnis: Just like any done-up preacher he looks t me. … An besides, he aint my past. My ancestors were Southern blue-bloods—

Lewis: And black.

Kabnis: Aint much difference between blue an black.

Lewis: Enough to draw a denial from you. Cant hold them, can you? Master; slave. Soil; and the overarching heavens. Dusk; dawn. They fight and bastardize you.

(Cane 108-109)

Kabnis is brought up short by the realization that to white Southerners all blacks—an arbitrary category, but strictly policed in drops of blood—are of a piece and must be kept in line, even to the point of putting a mixed-race interloper under threat of the rope. He remains incredulous before the central premises of race relations against which Toomer himself incessantly fought—and not blindly, not without laughter. When the Northern teacher and writer (city-boy Kabnis, who came, presumably, from the pen, not the unconscious, of Toomer) first mentions his elite Northern family, he attempts at once to identify with and measure his distance from the locals. The ensuing exchange is a version of the still current joke, “what do they call a black man with a Ph.D.”:

Kabnis: … My family were southerners y'know. From Georgia, in fact—

Layman: Nothin t feel proud about, Professor. Neither your folks nor mine. …

Kabnis: But they wouldnt touch a gentleman—fellows, men like us three here—

Layman: Nigger's a nigger down this away, Professor. An only two dividins: good an bad. An even they aint permanent categories. They sometimes mixes um up when it comes t lynching. I've seen um do it.

(Cane 89)

If, in claiming both individuality or self-creation and aristocratic origins (blue, not black), Kabnis is the butt of more than one joke, he also bears witness to the heterogeneity of the Black Belt, which Frank and Toomer's other literary friends see as monochromatic and monolithic. If Toomer's protests to the contrary are not immediately obvious in Cane, the literary critical and personal context surrounding it adumbrate the race theories he would develop later. Moreover, before publishing Cane, he made no secret of either his family history or his refusal of the category Negro (writer). Then, in a 1923 letter to Horace Liveright, Toomer announced his right to a sort of radical (i.e., racial) self-determination: “My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine.” He further addressed his corrections of racial and other misidentifications to the (white) “literary art world, in which I expected to be really understood” (Cane 144), since presumably Negroes and (other) Others would have known better—or at least differently.

In line with this focus, it was not to editors of principally black magazines or to Locke, but to the Liberator, after Claude McKay's forced resignation but before the appearance of Cane as such, that Toomer first articulated his refusal to be identified or “volunteered” as a Negro.7 Answering simple questions for an author's bio-blurb, he confesses a good deal about the autobiographical “ambiguities”—more than ambivalence—that subtly motored Cane and Toomer's subsequent and more literally unread, mostly unpublished, writings. Worth an even longer look, I quote at some length this early statement of this practical and theoretical inter-, mixed-, or transracial identification of himself and “America,” which seems so precisely to forecast the ways he and his later work became anathema to America's increasingly racialized, and otherwise categorically narrow, literary and political nationalism:

Whenever the desire to know something about myself comes from a sincere source, I am always glad to meet it. For in telling other folks I invariably tell my own self something. My family is from the South. My mother's father, P. B. S. Pinchback, … utilized the Negro's vote and won offices for himself, the highest being that of lieutenant, and then acting governor of Louisiana. When his hey-day was over, he … came to Washington. Here, I was born. … Racially, I seem to have (who knows for sure) seven blood mixtures: French, Dutch, Welsh, Negro, German, Jewish, and Indian. Because of these, my position in America has been a curious one. I have lived equally amid the two race groups. Now white, now colored. From my own point of view I am naturally and inevitably an American. … I have worked, it seems to me at everything: selling papers, delivery boy, soda jerk, salesman, shipyard worker, librarian-assistant, physical director, school teacher, grocery clerk, and God knows what all. … Just how I finally found my stride in writing, is difficult to lay hold of. It has been pushing through for the past four years. For two years, now, I have been in solitude here in Washington. It may be begging hunger to say that I am staking my living on my work. So be it. The mould is cast, and I cannot turn back even if I would.

(Reader 15-16)

Except that he enters the dangerous territory where race intersects with nationalism to the marked disadvantage of the inevitably fixed marginalization of the Other, Toomer's shifts of identity and vocation resonate perfectly with the New Republic program for American literature and liberalism as brilliantly eulogized by Irving Howe. Of course, perhaps because unspoken in the following, race (not to mention class, gender, and patrimonial cultural transmission) conditions self and social constructions in ways that Toomer's marginalization makes readable. Howe begins genealogically to map the white Western male prerogative of self-re-creation, which remains a canonical attribute of America's consensual literal and literary policing of difference:

Liberalism in its heroic phase constitutes one of the two or three greatest revolutionary phases in human history. … Emerson and his friends, in what amounted to a restatement of an old Christian heresy, raised the I to a quasi-divine status. … All this was very stirring and served our literature wonderfully well. Not only did it stimulate Whitman to his vision of democratic man as one who exalts in the glories of the autonomous self while, out of sheer exuberance, smuggling in a supply of replaceable selves, it also provoked Hawthorne and Melville to their various embodying of dissent. … Even as the Emersonian view of man was released by the creation of a liberal polity, it is also a view that in crucial respects diverges from the assumptions of that polity.

(Literature xii)

It should be remembered that liberalism, notwithstanding Howe's rhapsody over what he calls its “heroic” and “revolutionary” phase, perhaps more than revisionary programs that rely on stable or totalizing and totalitarian relations between state and individual citizen or subjects, needs people—a “polity,” an Other, a lesser outsider, the masses—against whom to measure, or prove the incommensurability of, that quasi-divine I. Before and after Howe, a long history of definitions of Americanness, definitions that depend on the internal colonization or objectification of African Americans and other ethnic and racial groups, indicates that Toomer presented a personal, and his works a theoretical, challenge to the rights and privileges of (white) self-creation.

For example, in “On Being an American” Toomer records his response, at a reading of his work in Wisconsin, to a black fan who insisted that Toomer was white. Outlining his “New Race” that defines both America's racial “problems” and racial passing, Toomer says, “They never understood that the real factors operating in the United States … are creating a new people in this world, a people to whom all Americans, without exception belong. … At one time they would live in the colored world, at another in the white world. They were under the compulsion to be this or that. They could have been self-determined to be this and that” (Kerman and Eldridge 80-81).

Because the writer of Cane is identified, however differently, as Negro by both African Americans and white Americans, Toomer himself could never succeed either in passing between or in being both “this and that.” Bending the irony Fanon uses against rich Antilleans and Toomer's ambivalence about Ralph Kabnis, one must ask whether Toomer could possibly have believed that above a certain financial—or color or bio-bibliographic—level even he could choose or construct a race in his own image?8 Neither his aim nor his position is singular. Quite the contrary, Toomer's racial theories and position—which he called his “reality”—were overdetermined, not only by his own celebrity but also by current race theory and his family history. The former, anyway, appears boldly in his post-Cane writings and in the very publications, especially Opportunity, from which literary critics excerpt the more useable parts of the Harlem Renaissance. But one has first to deal with Toomer's notorious grandfather, who is currently undergoing something of a renovation.9

Against all odds, in the face of a well-known Washington family decidedly part of Negro high society, Toomer began revising his genealogy as preface to gathering his own liberal store of selves. As early as 1922 Toomer suggested (to the Liberator, as we have seen) that his grandfather P. B. S. Pinchback—a famous figure in Black Reconstruction, whose heroic exploits as gambler, investor, newspaper publisher, and political interventionist were recorded by, among others, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, La