“Cane” by Jean Toomer: An Analysis of the Text and of the Poems in Relation to the Stories


Through the analysis of the structure and the text and a comparison between the poems and the short stories of this masterpiece by Jean Toomer, “Cane” ( 1923)  can be formuled the thesis that this work expresses a sort of first poetical and literary declaration of a social and identity status of the Afro-Americans.

On the first hand, analyzing the whole skeleton of the novel as a first element, this statement could be tracked back simply looking at the structure that the book has. For example, the fact that the narration is fragmented in very short pieces, both poems and short stories, indicates that there is not a whole plot that can show characters and stories with personal stories and lives that are well rooted in a past. The pieces give a general idea of the conditions of the people the author narrates about, but they are like leaves that came transported by the wind and they end up by chance forming a larger pattern. Indeed, the incipit of every story is “in medias res”, and no clue is given about a time and a location. For example, in the first short story, “Karintha”, it is like this: (after just three lines of a sort of sonnet that gives a brief eulogy of the character) “ Men had always wanted her.”, that is a very general expression to describe a situation like this, without saying anything about the past of this character, in a very curt way. It could be observed that after three centuries of slavery during which black people lost their roots and the boundaries between families had been intentionally destroyed, (the common practice was, as soon as black people landed in USA from the ships, to separate sons from mothers and fathers from mothers) and after that fact that this caused an enormously deep loss of identity, the formal and more or less widely respected end of the slavery that followed the end of the Civil War opened up a kind of Pandora’s vase. After years of cruel war, suddenly black people more or less found themselves legally free, but they did not know where to start to redefine their lives. The stories of “Cane” are abruptly presented, with absolutely not introduction, as if they came out of nothing, or directly from the mind of Jean Toomer. If the readers try to imagine a visual transposition of the whole body of the work, this would be realized on an empty stage or in a totally waste land, as if after a big hurricane that swept up everything it encountered on its way. It is as if the characters move in a space completely untied from reality. So with the few words of description that Toomer gives to the audience slowly, step by step the outline of the setting starts to become evident. So it could be made a comparison between this style of writing, the way he constructed the novel and the condition in which the black Americans were after the Civil War and during the troubled period of changes, characterized by the necessity for those people to look for their identity.

Additionally, because of the troubled personal, familiar and educational story that Jean Toomer had it could be argued that it is plausible that he felt himself like he had not a solid identity to assert. In fact, his family had strong ancestors both white and black and white and he attended both schools only for white people and for black ones. So, this novel seems the only way the author had to express his inner situation, a condition to be made of very different schemes, all reflecting the situation of black people, from a black point of view but that still wait and call for an identity. Moreover, not having to propose to black people as a path to follow, he had put all his suffering in writing this work and the result is this fragmented pattern. Following this interpretation, another very interesting component of the work is the scheme that the first part develops. To explain that, we find that there is a story, then two poems: this scheme, together with the fact that the stories are really short, gives an idea of a phase displacement, like if it was not a center, not a meaning in what the author is telling. But if we look deeper at the framework of the text, we find out that this choice Toomer did was to introduce the reality of Southern America in a very offhand way, like the life in the South is, but at the same time the poems help to describe what we are going to see in the stories. As a matter of fact, the stories do not start with a deep and well organized description of the scene and of the environment that surrounds the characters. The author provides just a few sketches and brushstrokes and put the duty to give an idea of the South in the hand of the poems. It is as if the stories are creating the stage elements of a hypothetical stage of a theatrical representation, while the poems constitute the background of the scenic elements like something that could be projected on the background wall.

Sure enough, the poems in most of the cases have nature and atmospheric theme, and they also have a very preponderant sonic component, for example this is very evident in “Reapers”: “Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones. Are sharpening scythes.” We could almost hear the sound of these actions as if the people were on a stage. At the same time, the poems describe in a very disenchanted and sharp way the rural setting of the novel. As a matter of fact, the poems describe the life and the work in the fields, as for example the many description of the cotton demonstrate: to citate “Cotton Song” : “Cotton bales are the fleecy way, Weary sinner’s bare feet trod, Softly, softly to the throne of God, “We aint agwine t wait until th Judgement Day!”. In this occasion the poem puts together in a juxtaposition of ideas both the visual and the sound effect. It could be affirmed that we are in front of a sort of a “Kuleshov effect” that gives us the impression to see, thanks to the verses in which the author describes the work and the bales of cotton, alternate the verses in which the reality is described through the songs of the workers. In the mind of the readers this whole final structure is useful to create some mental images that automatically are associated with the life in the field, as the effect that has been mentioned above.

For full essay, click:
Cane by Jean Toomer: A Theory of Identity Through an Analysis and Comparison Between the Poems and Stories of the First Part of the Novel

This entry was posted in J. Beltramini, Elisa. Bookmark the permalink.

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