Gary Lehmann - Author

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Cane, Jean Toomer’s Modern Voyage of Discovery

Every human ever born has struggled to some degree with personal identity issues. Buddha struggled with being born too rich. Almost anyone born poor has asked “Why me?” Sometimes questions of identity can consume an entire lifetime.

For Nathan Eugene “Jean” Toomer the issue was racial identity. Toomer was born in 1894 in Washington, D.C. His grandfather, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, was the son of a black slave and the white reconstruction governor of Louisiana. After Toomer’s parents divorced, he moved in with his grandfather in 1909.

He had trouble settling down. After enrolling at six different schools, he went to study law at the University of Wisconsin. Pretty soon he gave that up and moved to New York to enroll in City College. When he got tired of that, he returned to Washington to manage the Howard Theater.

Then in 1922, something happened that changed his life. He took a temporary job in Georgia as a principal for an agricultural and industrial academy. There he learned a great deal from his students about the Black South and the environment of slavery that informed the common heritage of nearly all Black Americans. He became fascinated with the beauty and the harshness of the life he encountered there and fell in love with Negro spirituals and folklore.

Although he never became completely comfortable with his own racial identity, he found he had a great deal in common with Southern Blacks. His skin was so light that he could, and sometimes did, pass for White, but it bothered him that race should have to be the first thing people had to decide about him.

He once said, “I am of no particular race. I am of the human race, a man at large in the human world, preparing a new race.”

In 1922 he described himself this way. “Racially, I seem to have (who knows for sure) seven blood mixtures: French, Dutch, Welsh, Negro, German, Jewish, and Indian. One half of my family is definitely colored.... And, I alone, as far as I know, have striven for a spiritual fusion analogous to the fact of racial intermingling.”

During his four months in Sparta, Georgia, he came to realize the richness of Black African culture, but he also realized the impossibility of continuing rural Southern agricultural ways. The Black man was tortured in one way down South by the vestiges of slavery and tortured in another completely different way up North by the grinding economic forces of free-wheeling capitalism.

Cane was the book that resulted from these realizations. It is a multi-genre effort combining essays, short stories, and poetry into a pastiche of personal portraits. Lauded as a masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance, the equal of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Jean Toomer’s montage was an effort to try to resolve the conflicting racial tensions he felt within himself.

While certain Georgia clansmen were still lynching Blacks in 1922, Toomer was reaching for a new definition of race relations. The slaves were set free over 50 years earlier and yet the condition of Blacks both in the South and North was deplorable. Toomer had seen both, and his book cried out against all the various kinds of oppression Blacks experienced at that time.

Southern Blacks were still chained to hard labor in the cane fields. Their nights were still dominated by smoke filled skies of burning cane. The North was sometimes even harsher, nothing but asphalt and tears. Toomer writes personalized stories of tragedy and endurance in vivid imagery.

In a way, Toomer was attempting to define the current state of Black citizenship, a nether world that made up Black identity at the time. In so doing, he was also defining his own identity crisis. He felt like a man trapped between cultures, a stranger in all lands.

The three parts of the work are largely set in Georgia, but they bespeak the culture of Blacks who have migrated North to the big cities where jobs were alleged to exist. His style is experimental and sometimes maddeningly abstract. In Part One, the narrator observes rural Southern Black life and finds it merely a transmuted form of slavery. In Part Two, he expresses the struggles of Northern urban Blacks.

Finally, in Part Three he tells the story of Kabnis who returns South late in life to try to resolve the tensions that have dominated him. Instead, he finds a return to Georgia hauntingly unsatisfying. He feels even more alienated than ever.
Here are some examples of his poetry from the book.

Portrait in Georgia
Jean Toomer

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.

Jean Toomer

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.

Song of the Son
Jean Toomer

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.

From Cane by Jean Toomer. Copyright © 1923

The critic K.R.Graham has said, “It is impossible to discuss all of the tangled threads that weave CANE into the powerfully moving and unorthodox novel of Toomer's voyage of self-discovery. It is often incoherent, filled with evocative recurrent images, and powerful character sketches that leave the reader unfulfilled, confused, and hungry for more. Perhaps it is Toomer's own hunger, expressed in his writing, that the reader picks up.”

Bob Newman adds “The characters appear in pale colors, dressed in weariness and often verging on madness. Blue saxophone tones amidst the fogs of prejudice and blind hatred for all intelligent behavior by a despised minority. What more could a gentle man, human and tender, make of such craziness? Poetry, broken images that pass slowly, pale by smoke, pale by moonlight, whisper of yellow globes, and decline of that distant hope that someday ‘they’ would learn.”

Toomer’s influences included William Blake and Walt Whitman. Toomer also admired the broken, yet oddly direct styling of James Joyce. He identified with Black writers such as James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. In 1922, the Howard University Players attempted to perform Toomer’s play, Balo, based on the sketches in Cane, but it was not well received, and the next year, he failed to find a producer for his play Kabnis.

Later on in life, Toomer followed the preachings of a Russian mystic named Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff whose spell took Toomer away from literary work for a long while. His religious quest took him into Yoga and other Eastern beliefs.

Although he continued writing, his literary career was pretty much at an end. He went into an extended depression after his wife, the novelist Marjorie Latimer, died giving birth in 1932. He died in 1967, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he withdrew to observe the tenets of Quakerism. His works most obviously influenced Alice Walker, but his influence is much wider than that. He is by no means alone in searching for a new sense of Black identity. Especially in these multi-cultural days, Cane is finding a new audience. Although it is a hard work to read, its modernist approach to race in America is increasingly popular.

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