1923 a new vision and artistic expression of the African-American people was born with the publication of Jean Toomer’s experimental novel, Cane. A year earlier, Claude Mckay’s volume of poetry, Harlem Shadows, was among the first works by a black writer to be published in mainstream media. With the emergence of Cane Toomer offered a new quest for composite identities, ontological harmony and self-realization by the African-American within a fast changing socio-cultural and economic environment. Cane not only symbolically reflected this quest but in many ways appeared as a testimony of Toomer’s own personal quest for spiritual fulfilment as a ‘new American.’ Toomer’s craft as an artful and imaginative writer and the vision informing his quest as portrayed in Cane “found in symbolism a means of breaching the narrow constraints of conventional language” and by combining mysticism and literary naturalism, he sought to portray “human continuity” with “organic nature” (Huggins 180). In this light Cane could be appreciated as a harbinger of the Renaissance and an avant-garde aesthetic which first perceptively illuminated significant psychological and ethical values soon to dominate much of African-American writings of the 1920s and beyond. Unlike earlier writers, notably Countee Cullen, who advocated for racial unity by seeking a connection to Africa, Jean Toomer created a new idiom which allowed him to express the more immediate and intricate complexities of the African-American experience. Rejecting the ‘primitivist’ and ‘atavistic’ motifs of Cullen, he resorted to a kind of existentialist approach, writing about “man as the centre of his own destiny” (Dorris 122). Thus Cane could also be appreciated as an “experiment in self-revelation, the expression of a quest for identity which does not shrink from facing the chaos at the bottom of the human soul” (Gysin 39).
Cane comprises poems, sketches, episodic stories and dramatic passages. Is it a novel? Does it reflect the tradition of cohesive thematic and structural unity? What kind of historic conditions inspired its construction? A clearer perception of these issues calls for, first, an appreciation of Toomer’s life and career.1
To characterize and categorize the writer is just as elusive as to categorize the text within the current conventional literary genre and traditions. Toomer’s life is enigmatic and reflects an eclectic spiritual quest for a harmonious ontology and self-fulfilment Born Nathan Eugene Toomer on Dec. 26th 1894, he later became known merely as Jean Toomer in literary circles. Son of Nathan Toomer, “the illegitimate Mulatto son of a wealthy, white North Carolina landholder”, he glamorized his father whom he scarcely knew as an elegant wealthy plantation owner in Georgia (Lewis 60). His mother, Nina, was the daughter of an African-American civil rights crusader, Pickney B. S. Pinchback, who once served as acting governor of Louisiana before moving from New Orleans to Washington D.C. in 1890. Nina married the older Toomer against her father’s wishes as the husband hoped the wife could finance his extravagances. On realizing that Nina’s family fortunes were controlled by her father Nathan deserted her, leaving her with a lot of debts -an allegation which Jean Toomer was later to spiritedly contest.
Nina returned with the year old son, Jean, to stay with her parents in a relatively affluent neighbourhood. Blaming his grandfather for his father’s disappearance, Toomer derived comfort from his maternal Uncle Bismarck - the latter he often perhaps subconsciously substituted for a father. Nina married Coombs in 1905 and moved with the young Toomer to Brooklyn. After an unsuccessful effort to live with his stepfather whom he heartily despised the eleven year old Toomer returned to Washington to live with his uncle Bismarck. Four years after her re-marriage, Nina died from complications following an appendectomy. With a depleting savings account, the Pinchback family moved into an African-American neighborhood in Washington’s U Street where the young Toomer’s complex racial awakenings began.
Toomer joined Dunbar high -a school for the children of elite African-Americans but fifteen years later would deny strongly his identification with this race, claiming that his grandfather had been a white man who feigned African ancestry for political expediencies in Louisiana during the Reconstruction. After sailing through high school where he spent three and a half years with no hitches except an “avalanche of sexual indulgences in his second year that undermined his health,” Toomer became disgusted with himself feeling more and more isolated and nurturing an innate mysticism (62). In 1914 he joined the University of Wisconsin to study agriculture. During this time, he formulated most of his views concerning his racial composition and attitudes. He was later to write:
In my body were many bloods, some dark blood, all blended in the fire of six or more generations. I was, then, either a new type of man or the very oldest. In any case, I was inescapably myself… fourteen years of my life. I had lived in the white group, four years I had lived in the colored group. In my experience there had been no main difference between the two. (qtd in Turner 125)
He was soon repelled by agriculture studies and left at the close of the fall term. Attempts to register at the Massachusetts College of Agriculture were dropped as he decided to concentrate on his athletic abilities and body building, consequently enrolling in the American college of Physical Training in Chicago. Soon dissatisfied with prospects of being a mere gym instructor, in the fall of 1916, he registered for biology courses at the University of Chicago to prepare for a career in medicine. At this time, his attention was drawn to and he wholeheartedly embraced socialism which, in his own words, “evoked and promised to satisfy all in me that had been groping for form amid the disorder and chaos of my personal experience” (126). Inspired by Clarence Darrow’s lecture whose atheism shattered Toomer’s former concept of a religious universe, he managed soon to secure a room at his college where he gave evening lectures on socialism, evolution, Victor Hugo, the intelligence of women etc. The lectures on the intelligence of women ended because his concepts offended female listeners. He had sought to emphasize the importance of liberating women from restrictions imposed by society. His thesis stated that “Woman is heart and intuition whereas Man is mind and logic. An appropriate relationship of man and woman therefore fuses the separate entities into a functioning totality” (127). Some of these ideas were later to be expressed in some of his literary pieces contained in Cane.
Returning to Washington after getting dissatisfied with studies in Chicago, Toomer soon convinced himself that a doctorate degree was a prerequisite for scholarly life. He therefore, enrolled for Sociology in 1917 at the New York University and almost immediately found the course dull. He enrolled for History classes instead at the City College of New York. Disillusioned by the slow comprehension of his less mature classmates he speculated studying Psychology but dropped this in order to serve during World War 1. Rejected because of an athletic injury, Toomer settled for selling Ford automobiles in Chicago and next conducted instructions on physical education in Milwaukee, finally settling in New York in 1918 with Acher, Merrall and Conduit Company. During this time he practiced writing literary articles, then believing music to be a more natural form of expression he indulged in its study. He broke down after intensive work serving also as an instructor in physical education at the University settlement. While recuperating in 1918 he developed a mania for writing. After a hectic period marked by, among other things, abortive efforts to teach socialism to shipyard workers, and being introduced into Waldo Frank’s literary circle, he eventually returned to Washington in 1920 to settle on a writing career.
Jean Toomer studied the literature of Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson, Robert Frost, etc. He also embraced Buddhist philosophy, Eastern teachings, Christian scriptures and Occultism. He wrote a number of essays, article and poems most of which he never submitted for publication. When in late summer 1921 he was invited to serve temporarily as head of an industrial and agricultural school in Sparta, Georgia, (later to have parallels with “Kabnis”) Toomer began to immerse himself in African-American consciousness more deeply that ever before. In a letter to “The Liberator” he was to write:
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 the other, I have sought to let them function as complements. I have tried to let them live in harmony…my growing need for a artistic expression has pulled me deeper and deeper into the Negro group…It has stimulated and fertilized whatever creative talent I may contain within me… Now I cannot conceive of myself as aloof and separated. (128-129)
While on a train to Washington Toomer began writing sketches on his Georgia experiences and sent the articles to number of magazines and journals. These were later to form the bigger part of Cane. After a consultation with Waldo Frank Toomer proposed a book for his work:
Now I wanted a book published… because it would be a substantial statement of my achievement and also because I felt that it would lead me… into the world of writers and literature” (Turner 129). Along a similar vein, Toomer intimated, “But I had not enough for a book…. It seemed that I had said all I had to say about it (Georgia). So, what then? I’d fill out. The middle section of Cane was thus manufactured. (129)
This therefore raises certain problems of literary scholarship for Jean Toomer. Is Cane a novel? Is there unity? If the writer had thus ‘filled out’ the middle section for publication requirements, what is the significance and status of that section in realizing the total effect of the text?3
Before delving further into the above issues, it is imperative to point out that Toomer visited France after publishing Cane, was involved in and deeply influenced by Gurdjieff Institute, and married a member of his Chicago group, Margery Latimer, in 1931 while conducting courses on communal living and spiritual growth in Portage, Wisconsin. Margery died in 1932 during childbirth and Toomer married Marjorie Content -his life long wife until his death on March 30th 1967. Toomer also published collections of literary articles such as “Blue Meridian” and “Winter on Earth” before abandoning fiction and drama in 1940 to restrict himself to poetry, reviews and autobiographies. He continued to write philosophical essays throughout his life and “continued to search for harmony and self-realization in East Indian religions, in the Friends Society and in psychoanalysis” (Turner 138). Hence while Toomer, the writer, spent most of his life in quest of a harmonious ontology, his text Cane, from a symbolic and avant-gardist point of view, reflects the quest of an ontological harmony in an artistic sense.
There is a definite triadic ontology in the construction of Cane. This expresses itself in a number of ways ranging from the setting, thematic concerns, character development to structural and stylistic construction. Conflicts and tensions develop between oppositions in quest of a kind of synthesis and harmony. Thematically, this expresses itself in such oppositions as sensuality and robotism, primitivism and modernism, sensation and perception etc. Synthesis is developed as a kind of quest for spiritual awakening. Structurally this is enhanced by a quest for a cyclical unity, a merging of two arcs, a quest for viable lyrical expressions within ‘artificially’ constructed linguistic conventions and artistic forms. These provide the movement of the text as Toomer offers no clear-cut solutions but suggests a degree of awakening consciousness for the new individual emerging from the merging of Africa and America. The world of Cane moves from southern Georgia setting to the north in Washington D.C. and Chicago and back again to the south. This, itself, is suggestive of the quest for triadic ontology, which “brought his scattered parts together” (Mckay 331)
The text is divided into three main sections. The first section comprises six ‘vignettes’ about rural life in the south interspersed with short lyric poems. This section constitutes what Dorris calls “the female cycle” (30). Focus is principally on women heroines. There is a definite missing link (incompleteness) in every sketch which is suggestive of the tensions apparent in two opposing worlds in quest for ontological harmony.
“Karintha”, described as “carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down,” is the object of attraction for both young and old men. Her soul is “a growing thing ripened too soon.” Here is a story of a premature sexual awakening and debasement of innocence -victim of the threatening world of her male admirers with their capitalistic abundance. The conflict here is between innocent spiritually set against the materialistic avarice of a capitalistic system which threatens to turn that innocence into a commodity. The other level of conflict is realized in the worlds of the young and that of the old men in quest for possession of Karintha’s love. Humanism is set against a faceless materialistic instinct. It is pertinent to note that this latter world manages to a certain degree to contaminate and corrupt the former without overwhelming it completely.
Conflicting paradigms revolving around a central trope is also apparent in “Carma,” “Fern” and “Blood-Burning Moon.” The quest for triadic ontology in “Carma” operates at the level of conflict between the individual freedom set against societal marital values and laws. Like Karinthia, Carma, is the object of desire. She indulges in adultery thereby going against the norms of her society symbolized here by her husband. The husband kills a man in a fit of anger and humiliation ending up in prison. He pays the price of being the upholder of ‘abstract’ repressive values of the society. The quest, in this instance, is realized in the conflict between social conventions set against the individual freedom of choice. Carma, like Karintha, operates symbolically as the third vital arc within the triadic quest. “Esther” is as sensuous as Carma and, like her, also required to repress her personal individual desires and freedom. Society has conspired against her deeply felt longings for Barlo. Incompleteness remains her fate. One would point out the levels of conflict here as represented by Esther set against “whatever people might say” (Cane 25). Fundamentally, the conflict operates at the level of human sensual feelings; human passion set against ‘artificially’ constructed super-personal forces and norms.
Conflict between two worlds and failure of the attempts to synchronize them seems to be the defining principle not only in the three sketches pointed out but also in “Becky.” Becky’s is a world set in between two other racially constructed worlds of white and black folks. The white folks view her as a “Good-forsaken, insane white shameless wench,” while the black world sees her as a “poor Catholic, poor crazy woman” for bearing a black son (7). Both worlds consider miscegenation, the greatest outrage. Becky ends up being cast out of the two worlds, but it is significant that in spite of her action, individuals from the two worlds secretly bring her foodstuffs in her exclusion. Here then lies another level of conflict -that between society and individual norms and values. And here lies Toomer’s comment on ‘race’ and ‘racism’ as a social construction which ideally only helps to repress the individual persons’ freedom. Becky ends up being buried in her cabin. Incompleteness or failure to bridge the gap between the two worlds is realized. Like Carma and Karintha, Becky is the third arc within this triadic structure -a metaphor suggestive of Toomer’s vision of the new American as a blending of the old races.
The quest for ontological harmony in “Blood-Burning Moon” is symbolically expressed in the worlds of Bob Stone and Tom Burwel. Again, there is comment on race and racism. Both White and black worlds are set against each other with Louisa acting as the metaphor -the object of desire. Attempts to handle and bring the two worlds into agreement are unsuccessful as her black lover ends up being burnt at a stake in the cotton factory. A similar situation obtains in “Fern” where Fernie -a product of a Jewish father and black mother is the centre of attraction for the men of her town and the narrator who comes in from another town. These are three worlds of the triadic structure. Fern eventually faints when the narrator attempts to break through her world. Again there is an attempt and failure suggestive of the quest for unity and harmony as is the case in the other sketches.
It is significant that Toomer employs women characters in this section. First, what links them is their being seen as objects of desire and sexual gratification. Their worlds represent and is characterized by human passion, sensual feelings, and it is a world set against that of men who fail to recognize their humanity and, instead, perceive them merely from a lustful perspective. Hence the world of human feelings and passion is set against a materialistic mined world devoid of human feelings.
Secondly, by making his heroines and what they represent stand out as the fulcrum of the sketches, Jean Toomer gives precedence to human passion as opposed to the robotic and materialistic considerations which are, in the main, inconsequential to the ontological harmony of the being of being human. His statement of the primacy of the individual human freedom and choice stands out against societal norms and conventions.
The fate of the six southern women, in a nutshell, reflects Toomer’s concerns with socially defined caste systems, repression of the individual sensual feelings and freedom of choice. Emphasis on the fate of the women and their sexuality is a deliberate design by which Toomer is able to comment on the significance of women as custodians of life-giving forces and, therefore, the locus of a new rebirth, a new hope for spiritual fulfilment and ontological harmony of the individual person.
The sketches of the section are interwoven with short lyric poems, two after every sketch. These poems as cohesive devices and create particular moods -which reinforce the haunting, religious pathos. There is evident quest for wholeness, for harmony and fruition. The feminine lives, though potentially productive, are limited, condemned to silence by external forces which regard their procreative powers as articles of trade and sexual exploitation.
Toomer’s characters are set against a backdrop of potentially productive natural space which is under the threat of ‘darkness.’ Nature is under the looming threat of mechanized human activity based on profit motive. It is the twilight of a beautiful lady, pine trees stand like monuments and the inorganic saw-mill turns them saw-dust. Pine trees here are symbolic of the women and their world. The saw-mill, on the other hand, represents the world of the men in quest of regenerative agencies.
The general mood is one of pessimism suggested by ‘dusk’-the principal leitmotif of the section. As Catherine Innes observes, “dusk represents a moment of fusion of dark and light, of past and future, a mingling of colors -the moment when it is neither day nor night but both” (154). There is the “sound of steel on stones” as reapers sharpen their scythes. This suggests preparations for harnessing the natural world for economic profit motives. There is the “November Cotton Flower” under the threat of the boll-weevil. ‘November’ suggests the nearness of an end, the closing of a year, and the twilight of beauty of the women. This is the same image conjured in “Evening song” -a suggestion of impending gloom. “Dusk” is the metaphor for the connecting principle between, the natural, humane, sensual world of the woman and the artificial, mechanized and sterile world on the verge of devastating it. “Dusk” is also the connecting symbol between section one and two of Cane. As Gysin notes, in the case of Toomer, “imagery performs the function that the plot performs in a novel of a play, it connects the various incidents, in the case of Cane, the poems, sketches, and episodes” (38-39).
If Section One is the feminine world, then the second section is the masculine world. Toomer shifts the setting from the South to North in Washington D.C. and Chicago. This section focuses on spiritually destructive modern industrial complexes which have been shown as a threat in the first section. The sensual atmosphere of the previous gives way to sterility and quest for a humanizing agency. As Huggins observes, “the threat to humanity here is in people’s attachment to inorganic objects and property…. Inanimate symbols command most of these stories” (184).
The individual solos of the South are not heard here. This is a world of “Cadillacs, whizzing down the street-car-tracks,” a world where “money burns the pocket” (Cane 41). The artificiality of this world is suggested by the name “Rhobert” which suggests ‘robot’ humans drained of all feelings. The same sterility is evident in both “Theater” and “Box Seat” whose very titles, as the stories they relate, reflect socially constructed norms and pretensions. At a theater, normally, there is action which only reflects the truth but is not truthful. Human beings are reduced to mere actors and pretenders by an artificial world that has destroyed their true humane feelings. There is no hope for a harmonious ontology of being human since in this world, people behave as if they are without a soul. In “Calling Jesus” -a comment on the need for redemption- a character’s soul is compared to a whimpering dog calling for attention while following its owner. Authentic individual freedom is betrayed both in “Avey” where the heroine Avey is denied her need for expression, as well as in “Bona and Paul” where the southern white girl, Bona betrays her actual authentic desire for Paul -a Mulatto student.
The ‘arc’ preceding the section symbolises the quest for completeness just as in the first section. Doris observes that the curve of Cane in part one “constitutes the female cycle and part two constitutes the male cycle” (71). Whereas both sections reflect the quest for spiritual harmony, there is so much hope in Section Two where Toomer seems more concerned with the mechanical urban setting which churns out robots instead of human beings. Emphasis is on the spiritually destructive urban values where individuality and a sense of self as a complete and composite entity are denied. There is the quest for spiritual agencies to humanize the mechanical structures. There is the quest for flesh and blood for the skeletal robots hence the arc’s failure or incompleteness to make a full circle. There is need for the empty, sterile and uprooted souls to seek flesh and blood in the ‘soil’ in the south. This is the quest for reawakening which informs the last section of Cane.
The semi-dramatic story of Kabnis -a northern Mulatto who goes to teach in rural Georgia- is a symbolic re-establishment of contact between the North and the South. The “stifled spirit” of the north is set against the “lyrical beauty” of the south. The character of Kabnis not only serves as the metaphor for the quest for ontological harmony found in the humanising agencies of the south, but also reflects the very triadic structure and symbolic positions of the woman of the first section. Like Karintha, Becky, Carma etc, Kabnis is the pivotal centre seeking to join two worlds standing in opposition to each other. Again, it is symbolic that Kabnis is a male Southerner whose life in the North has cut him from his roots. Kabnis is, therefore, the very symbol of the quest for spiritual nurturance of the robot-like North. Kabnis is Toomer’s statement on the need for spiritual regeneration of the artless male world of the first and second sections. As Doris comments:
This part of Toomer’s work sketches a search for identity and a spirit of play as an essential part of man’s experience. Etched between the converging patterns of celebration and sorrow, man becomes fully himself, ascending the stairways of dawn to stand before the rising sun. “Kabnis” is a reestablishment of contact and communion of man with his roots, the achievement of a new sense of life and creativity, and resurrection from the death that overwhelms the spirit. (96)
In a series of episodes Kabnis is portrayed as drifting with no sense of self, culminating in his being thrown into an underground cellar where he derives emotional support from prostitutes.4 Here also sits Father John (representing the old attachment to roots) an old blind and deaf man served by a young girl, Carrie Kate. Meeting Father John is symbolic as Kabnis comes face to face with his historical and cultural roots. But the fact that Father John is blind and deaf also points to Toomer’s vision of the disappearing glorious past. Redemption is through Kate and Lewis who acknowledge and accept the old man. In them lies the promise where “the new generation may find roots and sustenance, vitality and manhood” (Huggins 186).
It is significant that Kate assists Kabnis out of the basement and that this rise from the cellar the next morning “coincides with the ‘birth-song’ that the early morning sun sends through the branches of the trees into the streets of the sleeping town” (McKay 333). Coming to the South as a ‘teacher’ is turned upside as Kabnis becomes the student who “learns the collective history of African-Americans…and discovers his place in that history.” (McKay 333). The novel then ends on an optimistic note as the “sun arises…shadows of pines are dreams… (like) gold-glowing child, it steps into the sky and sends a birth-song…” (Cane 117).
The quest for African-American identity, according to Toomer therefore, lies in one’s roots in the homeland in the South. It is to look into the past without fear without shame and accept the past. It is precisely to accept a relationship to the “black, gnarled, ugly, brutalized slave” that is Father John (Huggins 186). Toomer is quoted as having said, “from my own point of view, I am naturally inevitably an American. I have strived for a spiritual fusion analogous to the fact of racial intermingling” (quoted in Turner 128). This is reflected in the kind of fusion, the kind of insight Kabnis attains. And indeed, Kabnis is Toomer himself for “if anything comes up now, pure Negro, it will be a swan-song…Kabnis is me” (Cane 51). Structurally, “Kabnis” suggests the quest for fusion between the emotional and intellectual, between the south and North, between parts one and two of Cane. According to Frank, “Color, spiritual penetration, counterpoint of human wills, the intuition… are harmonic of a Unit…all here, but not the final art…Kabnis is however, very near to its state of fusing” (159). This explains the symbolic nature of the two arcs preceding “Kabnis” and further suggests the quest and hope for ontological harmony suggested by Toomer. For harmony to be attained, for the circle to be complete, “there must be a welding into one personality of Kabnis and Lewis: the great emotionalism of the race guided and directed by a great purpose and super-intelligence” (Gregory 168). Perhaps it is in this sense that Toomer’s avant-garde aesthetic of the Harlem Renaissance was later to influence other subsequent writers from Langston Hughes through Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed. Jean Toomer therefore represents an ontological harmony through the acceptance of roots however ugly, a realization of the self as the ultimate abode of composite spiritual identities and redemptive nurturance. As Braithwaite observes:
in Jean Toomer, we come upon the very first artist of the race, who with all an artist’s passion and sympathy for life, its hurts, its sympathies, its desire, its defeats and strange yearnings, can write about the Negro without the surrender or compromise of the artist’s vision…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. (44)
1 For an appreciation of Toomer’s life and career we have relied largely upon information contained in Darwin Turner’s introduction to the 1975 edition of Cane.
2 The spiritual quest of Toomer is akin to the quest informing Cane. The text reflects in a symbolic way, the writer’s own quest and vision with regard to race, culture and freedom of the individual. Hence, we feel called upon to survey, however, extraneous, certain highlights of Toomer’s own life.
3 Whether the text is a novel or not does not so much concern us as the focus on the ontological quest which is perceived as the cohesive strand giving the work its unity.
4 Regeneration and vision attained from “symbolic space” (where one is invisible) is a motif which runs through many African-American writing ‘influenced’ by Toomer, e.g. Invisible Man, Native Son, Beloved, Mumbo-Jumbo, etc.
Braithwaite, William Stanley. “The Negro in American Literature.” The New Negro: Voices of Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Alain Locke. New York: Atheneum, 1992. Print.
Dorris, Ronald. “The Bacchae of Jean Toomer.” Emory University, Atlanta, 1979. Dissertation.
Gregory, Fritz. The Montgomery, “Self-Expression in ‘Cane’ “Cane. Ed. Darwin T. Turner. New York: W. W. Norton and Co. 1988. Print.
Gysin, Fritz. The Grotesque in American Negro Fiction: Toomer, Wright and Ellison. Basel: Francke Verlag Bein, 1975. Print.
Innes, Catherine L. “The Unity of Jean Toomer’s Cane.” Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Therman O’Daniel. Washington, D.C.: Howard UP., 1988. Print.
Lewis, David Levering., When Harlem was in Vogue. New York: Oxford UP., 1979. Print.
McKay, Nellie Y. “Jean Toomer.” African-American Writers. Eds. Valerie Smith, Lea Baechler and A. Walton Litz. New York: Macmillan 1991, 1993. Print.
Toomer, Jean. Cane. Edition 1975. Ed. Darwin Turner. New York: Norton and Co. 1988. Print.
Turner, T. Darwin, ed. “Introduction.” Cane. Edition 1975. Ed. Darwin Turner. New York: Norton and Co. 1988. Print.
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