Jean Toomer Toomer, Jean (Vol. 4) - Essay

Toomer, Jean (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Toomer, Jean 1894–1967

Toomer was a Black American novelist, short story writer, and poet.

Toomer turned to mystical religion and denounced poetry and renounced race—he was certainly the best American Negro poet until the upsurge of creativity amongst Blacks after 1960. He refused to allow his poetry to be reprinted or anthologized, and as he was dying turned over his literary estate to his friend Arna Bontemps, and his one book of poems and stories, Cane, was republished with great success. (pp. 96-7)

Toomer is the first poet to unite folk culture and the elite culture of the white avant-garde, and he accomplishes this difficult task with considerable success. He is without doubt the most important Black poet, although he was practically white and easily passed, until recent years. (p. 153)

Kenneth Rexroth, in his American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1971 Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press, New York), Herder, 1971.

"Cane" also means "Cain," and it is not by accident that Toomer wanted to depict the black experience in mythic terms. [Toomer accidentally wrote Cain for Cane when referring to his novel. Later he corrected his typing "error" in his own handwriting, as may be seen in the Toomer papers at Fisk University Library, Box 32, Folder 7.] Hart Crane, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and others had been urging American artists to exploit the mythic possibilities of America's past. Here specifically was one myth ready-made for black people and already a part of American folklore; the color of the black man's skin was the mark of Cain….

Toomer uses Cain as a symbol of the African in a hostile land, tilling the soil of the earth, a slave, without enjoying her fruits. Yet strangely enough, this Cain receives another kind of nourishment from the soil, spiritual nourishment, which the owners of it are denied.

Also, the Bible states that Cain's nomadic existence leads him to found a city in the land of Nod, "east of Eden" (Genesis 4:16-17). An apocryphal legend develops from this event, for he and his descendants become known as the first city-dwellers. Toomer treats this side of the myth as part of the curse. As the blacks move into northern cities "east of Eden," they are cut off from their spiritual roots in the agrarian South; their lives grow pale like the "whitewashed wood of Washington" to which Toomer refers in "Seventh Street." But there is a fate worse than moving to the desolate northern cities; it is moving to those desolate cities inside your mind, as Kabnis does when he accepts the myth of the black Cain as a curse and not a badge of divine protection….

The second approach to a fuller understanding of Cane comes from Toomer's letter to Waldo Frank upon completion of the novel. Critics may be skeptical about finding any structure in the work, and certainly Cane may be appreciated without one, but Toomer himself apparently had a plan. "My brother!" he says to Frank on December 12, 1922:

Cane is on its way to you! For two weeks I have worked steadily at it. The book is done. 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…. Between each of the three sections, a curve. These, to vaguely indicate the design. [Toomer papers, Fisk University Library, Box 3, Folder 6.]

Toomer's outline both puzzles and informs. It puzzles because, although the novel moves from South to North to South, it does not parallel the spiritual pattern he employs. The published work begins with the Karintha section and ends with "Kabnis." The curves drawn on separate pages between the sections hint at a circular design, but the reader tends to associate them only with the South-North-South structural scheme.

The key, I think, lies in the word "pauses" ("… and ends (pauses) in Harvest Song"). Toomer is describing Cane in organic terms, and therefore it never really ends. It is simply a matter of beginning all over again with "Bona and Paul," the story that follows "Harvest Song."…

Paul has had a vision of wholeness in the Gardens, but in his excitement to explain it, to understand it, he loses it. Paul's epiphany then is ironic; the purple of the Gardens at dusk suggests a fusion of the white and black worlds, specifically of Bona and Paul, but it is a fusion whose nature, like that of dusk, is only temporary. The color purple also suggests passion; Paul's passion thins out before he has a chance to experience its fullness.

Nevertheless, Paul's dream haunts Toomer. The conflict between the world of the Crimson Gardens and the world outside, like that of art and life, is a preface to the Kabnis-Cain who believes that the real Kabnis "is a dream" and that "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 …" (p. 158).

The myth of Cain is most relevant as the lowest point on the circle. It is crucial to the understanding of Kabnis's emotional anguish. Based upon Toomer's own experience, the story documents his spiritual conflict, for Kabnis is Toomer, or one side of Toomer, a Toomer who has yet to reach the artistic and spiritual wholeness of the singer of "Harvest Song."…

The mark of Cain upon Kabnis represents, as Toomer suggests in his letter to [Waldo] Frank, the spiritual nadir of the book. It stands thematically in direct opposition to "Harvest Song," the lyric which completes the "spiritual entity" of the novel by providing an answer to Kabnis's dilemma. Also, since "Kabnis" concludes the novel, it forces a comparison with the lyrical opening ("emerging") story, "Karintha." For instance, Kabnis's spiritual alienation underscores Karintha's spiritual health….

The spiritual quest which gains momentum in the agrarian South "swings upward" in the electric beehive of Washington. The "cane-fluted" world does not die in the North. It continues to haunt the dreams and lives of those who have strayed far from their roots to dwell in the cities. Avey, for instance, is a Fern come North where the only outlet for her natural, instinctual life is that of prostitution. The story as it progresses shifts its focus to the narrator, a wandering Cain who cannot cope with Avey for the same reason that Kabnis cannot cope with Georgia: she is too immediate. He tries to romanticize her: "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" (p. 87). But her unresponsiveness convinces him that she is lazy, a "cow." Only at the end of the story does he understand her in a light which links their common humanity….

"Harvest Song" completes the cycle. The poem answers Kabnis's spiritual despair, and in its lyric simplicity it restates the thematic conclusion of "Box Seat," the peace that passes understanding. In the poem, the reaper sings of his suffering. Like Cain, he tills the soil but the bread he earns by the sweat of his brow is not enough to sustain him….

The theme of Cain suggests even broader possibilities. Americans have tended to mythologize their experience, and they found most suitable the myth of Adam. Scholars like R. W. B. Lewis (The American Adam) have persuaded us that this identification was by no means accidental; it grew out of man's contact with the New World, a garden in which the vices of Europe were unknown and in which man could return to his primal innocence. For some (Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman), the world lay before this New Adam and nothing seemed impossible; for others (Hawthorne and Melville), the world constricted around his heart to remind him that evil existed even in Eden. Thus, if the dominant culture can make sense out of its experience through the myth of Adam, I would suggest that Negroes have used the myth of Cain to explain their own uprootedness, an experience antithetical to the outer culture.

Charles W. Scruggs, "The Mark of Cain and the Redemption of Art: A Study in Theme and Structure of Jean Toomer's 'Cane'," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1972 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), May, 1972, pp. 276-91.

At the time he was writing Cane, the book that is said to have launched the Harlem Renaissance, Jean Toomer was on the road to becoming an "essentialist."… Basically, this means two things. First, it means that Toomer believed in the reality of the soul and attainment of spiritual truth through intuition….

In other words, Toomer the poetic realist was well on the way to becoming Toomer the poet/priest.

Cane is an intricately structured, incantational book. Divided into three major parts, it progresses from a highly poetic to a heavily dramatic form…. Because of its hybrid nature, Cane defies categorical classification as any single distinctive form.

Cane's structure, for example, also reflects Toomer's reading in psychoanalysis, philosophy and aesthetics. The three major divisions of Cane can be compared to the Freudian theory of personality, a Hegelian construct, or the Gurdjieffian triad [Bell is referring to George I. Gurdjieff, a Greek spiritualist]. In fact, a good case can be made that all three constitute the unifying force of the book. Part One, with its focus on the Southern past and the libido, presents the rural thesis, while Part Two, with its emphasis on the modern world and the superego, offers the urban antithesis.

Part Three, then, functions as a synthesis of the earlier sections, with Kabnis representing the Black writer whose difficulty in reconciling himself to the dilemma of being an Afro-American prevents him from tapping the creative reservoir of his soul. Unlike the appeal to logic of a Hegelian construct, Toomer attempts to overwhelm the reader with the truth of his mystical theory of life through images and symbols whose appeal is more to our power of intuition and perception than to our cognition.

For these reasons, I believe Cane can be meaningfully approached as a poetic novel. By poetic novel, I mean that the book's theme grows out of its rhetorical structure. Neither its characters nor its plot is developed sufficiently to sustain the reader's interest. The strong appeal of Cane, its haunting, illusive beauty, lies in Toomer's fascinating way with words. The meaning of the book is implicit in the arabesque pattern of imagery, the subtle movement of symbolic actions and objects, the shifting rhythm of syntax and diction, and the infrastructure of a cosmic consciousness. When analyzed as a poetic novel, the disparate elements and illusive meanings of the book coalesce into an integral whole and provide a poignant insight into the dilemma of the modern Black artist.

On the surface, Cane is a pastoral work, contrasting the values of uninhibited, unlettered Black rustics with those of the educated, class-conscious Black bourgeoisie. On this level, Toomer draws on the Afro-American tradition of music as a major structural device. The melancholic fragments of spirituals and work songs that appear throughout the sketches create a flowing rhythm and intricate pattern of Gothic images that unify the dissimilar Christian and non-Christian elements of the book. While in Georgia, Toomer was deeply moved by the beauty of the folk songs he heard and saddened by the belief that the industrialization of the South would soon make them relics of the past. Adapting the conventions of the pastoral to his subject, he therefore employs folk songs as symbols of the folk spirit of Black Americans and, by extension, of the external soul of man.

Equally important as a symbol of the rural life is sugar cane itself. Purple in color, pungently sweet in odor, mysteriously musical in sound, and deep-rooted in growth, cane represents the beauty and pain of living close to nature. It also represents the Gothic qualities of the Black American's African and southern past, especially his ambivalent attitude toward this heritage….

Although following the publication of Cane he turned his primary attention to people rather than books, Toomer did continue to write voluminously. But the bulk of these writings, which reveal the repudiation of racial classifications and the celebration of a Gurdjieffian vision of life, remains unpublished. Cane, thus, marked the death of an Afro-American poet-realist and the birth of a Gurdjieffian high priest of soul.

Bernard W. Bell, "Jean Toomer's 'Cane'," in Black World (copyright © 1974, by Bernard W. Bell; reprinted by permission of Black World and Bernard W. Bell), September, 1974, pp. 4-6, 97.