The International Writers Magazine: Book Review

Cane, by Jean Toomer
Dan Schneider

I’d long known Jean Toomer as a famed poet from the 1920s Harlem Renaissance era, and found his poetry to be interesting, at best. He did not have the musical flair of Langston Hughes, nor the formal excellence of Countee Cullen, the two other titans of that scene, but his 1923 book Cane was his magnum opus, however slim. I say book because the work is not a novel, as it’s often classified, nor is it a work of pure poetry, or prose poetry, as it has alternately been classified.

It is probably not even thirty thousand words long, so a short story or novella is not what it is either. I would probably classify it a fictive symphony in which short stories, or really black out sketches, for the most part, work often antiphonally with real poems. Regardless of its classification the work is a wholly unique thing, and far more an experimental work of fiction than classically thought of as experimental works by the Beatnik authors Jack Kerouac or William Burroughs, or the South American magical realists. Its title refers to sugar cane, and the main metaphor of the book is of black people as stalks of sugar cane waiting to be cut down by the American society of the early 20th Century. Cane is also a thing that needs much refining- to be ground, its juice boiled and cooled off, before it can be used as sugar. This is an interesting, and subtle, statement Toomer makes, although much in step with the then fashionable DuBoisian ideal of a talented tenth percent of Negroes who were the cream of the crop, who needed to be cultivated to lift the whole of the race in their ascent. There is also the obvious allusion to the Biblical Cain, and his infamous mark for murdering his brother Abel. In that era it was commonplace to ascribe the suffering of blacks to their bearing the mark of Cain- meaning their dark skin.

The book is divided into three unnumbered parts. Part one is set in rural Georgia, following mainly female characters, part two is set mostly in the streets of Washington D.C., and follows discontented characters, and part three is a single long piece called Kabnis, which reads almost like a stage play, at times. Perhaps the most affecting vignette in part one is Esther, which follows a girl across almost twenty years, and her obsession with a black mystic named Barlo. In the fever of his trance like gyrations certain truths about herself and her culture are revealed. To state more, especially about so brief a piece, would be to lessen its great visceral impact, while other pieces in the section paint other cross-sections of the time which individually are like snapshots, but which when read one upon another become a sort of documentary film whose whole motion is more than each frame.

  A correspondent piece in part two is Theater, in which motion likewise entrances a character, and whose obsessions with it are even more personal. Many of the tales in this part follow characters broken by society, and warped by their own passions, yet they are more refined than the characters in part one. The sweetness of the sugar cane’s refining seems to be bubbling up. They are cut from the earth in this section, and seem the better in some ways, yet not in other ways- as if Toomer is suggesting that the essence of blacks, and mankind in general, is essentially immutable, even if the exteriors can be made to seem different. As in part one, the blacks here are also lonely and impotent in true communication.

Kabnis is about an attempted self-exorcism, in which an educated black man, a teacher, returns to Georgia, yet cannot leave his past behind, and cannot easily cope with the world he encounters. It really has to be read straight through to be enjoyed fully, for its end gleams a bit of hope in an otherwise pessimistic tale.

Yet, the whole book is a tangle of imagery, feeling, and song, and the book seems to flow from harmony, unity, and an almost mythic idyll in part one to almost bleak nihilism in part three. The earlier characters, especially the females, are almost void of individuation- they are sirens, women who never were, sex goddesses of unlimited abandon, while the men are driven by rage or lust, almost stereotypes of the savage African, again reinforcing the notion of a people that needed to be refined like the titular sugar cane. In many tales there seems to be an almost masochistic revelry that Toomer’s characters joy in, as if pain were known as part of the refining process.

Still, these are elusive things, and Toomer wisely chose his book’s darting form. A straight novel, or just a series of short stories, would have forced him into providing some straightforward answers for some characters, and his people as a whole. By not doing so he wisely invests his book with an ability to be something new every time it’s read, and in succeeding generations- to be in perpetual refinement, like the sugar cane he felt his people were.

This is not a book that is likely to be appreciated by the pabulum fed mass readership of today, because it requires emotional and intellectual engagement, and refuses to give answers, while wishing its readers to take what they need at each reading. It is also still relevant because its form’s perpetual renewal transcendsits time, even its use of outdated terms. Look at other black fiction from the era and you will see that Cane is still relevant and undated. Even compared to the later, limp, stereotyped tales of an Alice Walker or Toni Morrison this book is visionary, however focused its beam.

Some critics, over the decades, have tried to autobiographize the book, out of the necessity of their inability to relate to black art, and black culture, and Toomer’s alleged ambivalence on the subject of race and class in America because he was a light-skinned black, whom some of his black critics even doubted was black, but that is a mistake, for every work reveals something of its author, if only in his choice of subject matter. Toomer may have been any of a dozen of his characters, but that is not the point of the book. He is and isn’t those characters, but the truth is it does not matter, for all sugar cane has the same fate, and that was the point. Another thing to note is that of all the so-called jazz poems or works of ‘written’ jazz- prose or poetry, none is more true to the improvisational darting nature of that dying musical form than this book. That is why any deeper analysis of themes, motives, and characters is bound to be superfluous, at least in a mere review, because a reader will inevitably, and as Toomer wanted, see something else in this Rorschachian book. And that’s a very good thing.

© Dan Schnieder MAY 2006

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