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Cane Paperback – 9 Feb 1994
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By far the most impressive product of the Negro Renaissance, Cane ranks with Richard Wright's Native Son and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man as a measure of the Negro novelist's highest achievement. Jean Toomer belongs to that first rank of writers who use words almost as a plastic medium, shaping new meanings from an original and highly personal style. --Robert A. Bone, The Negro Novel in America"
About the Author
Jean Toomer (1894-1967) was born in Washington, D.C., the son of educated blacks of Creole stock. Literature was his first love and he regularly contributed avant garde poetry and short stories to such magazines as Dial, Broom, Secession, Double Dealer, and Little Review. After a literary apprenticeship in New York, Toomer taught school in rural Georgia. His experiences there led to the writing of Cane. Rudolph P. Byrd (Ph.D. Yale University) is the Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts and the Department of African American Studies and the founding director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies at Emory University. He is the author and editor of ten books, including Jean Toomer's Years with Gurdjieff; Essentials by Jean Toomer with Charles Johnson; Charles Johnson's Novels: Writing the American Palimpsest; The Essential Writings of James Weldon Johnson; and with Alice Walker The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker. Among Professor Byrd's awards and fellowships are an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship at Harvard University; Visiting Scholar at the Bellagio Study and Conference Center; and the Thomas Jefferson Award from Emory University. He is a founding officer of the Alice Walker Literary Society. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Ph.D.Cambridge), is Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and American Research, Harvard University. He is the author of Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008; Black in Latin America; Tradition and the Black Atlantic: Critical Theory in the African Diaspora; Faces of America; Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self; The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Criticism; Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars; Colored People: A Memoir; The Future of Race with Cornel West; Wonders of the African World; Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man; and The Trials of Phillis Wheatley. His is also the writer, producer, and narrator of PBS documentaries Finding Your Roots; Black in Latin America; Faces of America; African American Lives 1 and 2; Looking for Lincoln; America Beyond the Color Line; and Wonders of the African World. He is the editor of African American National Biography with Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and The Dictionary of African Biography with Anthony Appiah; Encyclopedia Africana with Anthony Appiah; and The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts, as well as editor-in-chief of TheRoot.com. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Although short, "Cane" is a difficult, modernistic book that resists easy summarization. It is a mixture of poetry, short stories and vignettes, and closet-drama. The book is in three sections, with the first in third set in a rural community in northeast Georgia while the middle section is set in African American neighborhoods of Washington D.C., and in Chicago. The writing is tight, imagistic, and suggestive. The book lacks plot and linear development. The unity the book has derives from allusiveness and from related themes.
Raised by an upper-middle class Washington, D.C. African American family, Toomer was something of a wanderer and a seeker. In 1922, he received an offer to teach at a rural school in Georgia for African Americans. This experience, his first exposure to rural African American life, resulted in "Cane". The book has a strong autobiographical flavor and an intensity which results from an overwhelming experience of discovering something for the first time.
Readers may differ about the main themes of "Cane". It discusses African American life, but in a form that was changing and passing away even as Toomer wrote about it. Toomer portrays rural southern African American life while contrasting it with developing In its portrayal of women and men and the different ways they understand sexuality, the book has a strong erotic component. The book also describes lonely, isolated people of both genders and different races who show an inability to make connections with others. While there are many realistic descriptive passages in "Cane", the predominant tone is one of mysticism. (In later life, Toomer became a student of Eastern religion, a follower of the Russian spiritual teacher Gurdjieff, and a Quaker.)
The first section of the book features six short stories set in Georgia interspersed with poems which illuminate them. Each of the stories focus on a different young woman and on the nature of her sexual experiences with men. Among other things, the stories show how men and women differ in their view of physical sexuality. The stories are raw, elliptical, and absorbing.
The second section of "Cane" opens with an impressionistic description of Georgia Avenue, a major African American thoroughfare in Washington, D.C. There is another combination of poetry and short stories, which tend to be slightly more elaborate than the stories in the first part. The stories suggest that African American migration to cities came at the cost of a loss of spontaneity and zest for life. Several of the stories have themes about sexual relationships between men and women that expand upon the earlier part.
The third and most difficult part of "Cane" is a short story in the form of a closet-drama, called "Kabinis". The primary character, Ralph Kabnis, shares traits with Toomer in that he is a northern African American who takes a job teaching in an African American rural Georgia school. Kabnis has difficulty understanding his new surroundings. As the story develops, he meets local African American men, an outsider who shares some of his own traits, and a series of young women, ranging from the innocent to prostitutes. There is also a mysterious, elderly, prophetic figure. The story is highly atmospheric and descriptive as Kabnis at the end comes to a degree of understanding of himself and of the southern African American experience.
In later autobiographical writings, Toomer offered the following observations about "Cane" and about why he never wrote a successor work that I find insightful. After describing the tension even in rural Georgia between traditional life and the pull towards urbanization, Toomer wrote:
"The folk spirit was walking in to die on the modern desert. That spirit was so beautiful. Its death was so tragic. Just this seemed to sum life for me. And this was the feeling I put into Cane. Cane was a swan-song. It was a song of an end. And why no one has seen that or felt that, why people have expected me to write a second and a third and a fourth book like Cane, is one of the queer misunderstandings of my life."
"Cane" brings an immediate emotional impact to the reader, while still demanding to be read slowly and carefully and pondered. I have used a Norton Critical Edition of "Cane" which includes valuable commentaries and critical articles, including Toomer's autobiographical writing quoted above. Cane (Norton Critical Editions) The book is also available in a Library of America volume devoted to African American novels of the Harlem Renaissance.) Lovers of American literature will want to get to know Toomer's seminal work.
Very interesting form- short stories, poems, and sketches connected together in one sensitive stream.
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