I had read some of Jean Toomer’s stories and poetry in a graduate course on cultures and modernism in the 20th century. The pieces were included in The New Negro, a key anthology that catalyzed the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s in the United States. I was intrigued by his work at the time and meant to read more at some point. Well, three years later here I am having just finished Toomer’s Cane. I am not quite sure what Cane is given that it includes both poetry and short stories (although some of the stories are more like vignettes or sketches than anything else). Perhaps, we can consider it a landscape of sorts. An attempt to document a place in a deep and meaningful way.
That place happens to be the United States’ South. Most of the stories are set in Georgia while some of the poems are more akin to folk songs than anything else. Toomer captures the deep-rooted racist tensions in the state as the black characters struggle against the lingering effects of slavery while trying to make their way. But this collection is not all misery and woe. There are some amazing moments when Toomer gets at intimate moments of beauty, of awe, and of wonder. In the story “Fern,” Toomer has some amazing lines describing her beauty. He writes:
“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 sign, if he has touched you and made you 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” (14)
Toomer is very poetic in such moments and I revelled in these long, sinuous sentences. At the same time, J would despise this kind of stuff because it gets away from the meat of the stories themselves. I actually found myself struggling to get through some of Toomer’s headier moments because the prose moved away from narrative towards poetry. Yet when I gave Cane time, it really rewarded the work of reading it.
“Kabnis,” the final story of the collection and the longest, comes close to being a novella. It concerns Kabnis, a school teacher who loses his job because he is caught drinking in his cabin, and is attempt to feel at home in Georgia. The story moves from cultural politics to bawdy drunkenness, from southern Gospel praise to gossipy hen-pecking. Yet the story ends with this amazing moment of transcendence when Kabnis, hung over and forced to go back to work on Sunday, looks back into the basement he has left and sees two figures in a religious light. I was amazed at Toomer’s ability to move between a rich southern Gospel tone and drunken, coarse entertainment. This story alone is worth picking up Cane.
I would highly recommend this book to those interested in American literature and, particularly, African-American writers.
Toomer, Jean. Cane. 1923. New York, Liveright, 1975. Print.