Jean Toomer, “Cane”

1923

A series of short narratives with poetic interludes, Cane is one of the earliest texts of the Harlem Renaissance. It consists of the following pieces (narratives are italicized, poems are not):

Karintha – a young black woman desired by older men who wish “to ripen a growing thing too soon.”
Reapers
November Cotton Flower
Becky – an ostracized white woman with two black sons who lives in a small stone house with the railway.
Face
Cotton Song
Carma – a strong woman whose husband becomes involved in shady business.
Song of the Son
Georgia Dusk
Fern – A Northern black man attempts to woo a southern black woman, with strange results.
Nullo
Evening Song
Esther – a young woman who works in a drug store ages and pines for the wandering preacher Barlo, eventually seeking him out, only to be jeered at when he smiles hideously at her and she runs away.
Conversion
Portrait in Georgia
Blood-Burning Moon – black man Tom Burwell and white man Bob Stone each pursue the young Louisa, resulting in a violent encounter and a tragic climax.

(section 2: half moon mark)

Seventh Street – Brief vignette about a street which is “a bastard of Prohibition and the War.
Rhobert – about a solitary man
Avey – A young college student pursues a lazy girl named Avey, but cannot figure out why.
Beehive
Storm Ending
Theater – A dancer named Dorris seeks the approval and adoration of a patron named John.
Her Lips are Copper Wire
Calling Jesus
Box Seat – Dan Moore lusts after a reluctant Muriel, and follows her to a dwarf fight, where he starts a scene.
Prayer
Harvest Song – “I am a reaper whose muscles set at sundown. All my oats are cradled… I fear knowledge of my hunger… My pain is sweet. Sweeter than the oats or wheat or corn. It will not bring me knowledge of my hunger.”
Bona & Paul – A story of indifferent love.

(section 3: full moon mark)

Kabnis – Essentially a short play about a Northern black schoolteacher’s experiences in the south, returning to his roots – bizarre ending of preacher’s violence?

Langston Hughes wrote in “The Negro & the Racial Mountain” that Cane challenged what both blacks & whites wanted to read about black life: it fit neither the white model of the “Old Negro” nor the white craving for Harlem scandal, nor did it please blacks who wanted black life portrayed as “respectable.”

It’s worth considering how many of the vignettes center around the lives of women. Beginning with Karintha’s bold, sexualized narrative of childhood and ending with the woman on her knees before the priest in “Kabnis” seems to suggest some kind of dialogue with Joyce – the world of tight-knit communities, but revised so that childhood is neither purely male nor innocent, nor is it urban, like Dublin.

The title of the work seems to suggest both the sweetness of sugarcane as well as the history of slave and sharecropping labor associated with plantations, not to mention the transformation of the sugarcane into an instrument of violence. All the stories focus on the growth, harvesting, death, and labor around the fields and small towns of Georgia. The narratives are tangentially related, but mainly by associated ideas and tones, not actual characters or plots.

It would be interesting to teach this either with Stein’s Three Lives and/or Tender Buttons for discussing narrative voice, community, and thematic interrelation among narratives. One could also teach this with Dubliners and/or Winesburg, Ohio for the same reasons, addressing differences between Irish, American, and Black modernisms. You could also put it in dialogue with some other poems of the Harlem Renaissance and/or Banjo to discuss jazz/ variations on a theme.

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