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Cane by Jean Toomer

Cane (1923)

by Jean Toomer

Other authors: Darwin T. Turner (Introduction)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
It took me 10 days to read this short book. It includes poems, short vignettes about (fictional?) women (which annoyed me, because why?), and then 2 short stories. There does not seem to be a common setting, but it's not clear that it's more specific than "in the south". The two short stories were difficult—the dialect is unlike any I have tried to read before (for example, "y" is "you"). I think these stories would be much more effective if performed—the difficulty of the confusing dialogue stream would be made obvious, and I think the dialect is easier to understand if pronounced. I chose to read/pronounce "y" as a sort of combination of "yuh" and "yeh", but quick.

But I am done. 1001 books read #173. ( )
  Dreesie | Feb 25, 2017 |
A collection of short stories about black life in the early 20th century, written by a man who sometimes passed as white during his life! The information at the end of the book about how Toomer dealt with race was quite interesting. ( )
  mojomomma | Nov 3, 2016 |
I had never heard of Jean Toomer until my junior year of college when I took a seminar on the Harlem Renaissance. I hardly remember the book itself -- what I do remember was being struck by the sense that I was reading one of the greatest writers of all time and the peculiarity of my prior ignorance of Jean Toomer, let alone Jean Toomer as a literary genius. I feel too many lovers of the literary arts haven't read this particular classic. I need to read it again soon! ( )
  kara.shamy | Jan 9, 2014 |
A wonderful, magisterial voice - at its best, up there with Whitman - but young and unfinished. It has that explosive, tightrope feel of some early works by brilliant writers. It's known as the first important Black novel of the Harlem Renaissance, which is funny because it's not a novel and Toomer liked to insist he wasn't Black. It's hard to see which he hated and feared the most - women or himself. ( )
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
Cane is a slim work of fiction that defies category, interspersing poetry with prose in a willfully modernist style that fascinates for its seeming innocence, as if Jean Toomer had no idea just how strange his writing was. Darwin T. Turner, in his introduction to the Norton "Liveright" edition, focuses on the racial implications and quotes Toomer on the same. This view is reasonable but somewhat myopic. Toomer's prose is invaded by poems, lyrics, and drama; most of the prose ignores the traditional beginning, middle and end of a "story" and functions closer to prose poems or spontaneous tales. Cane is meant to be listened to; you are meant to concentrate as if in the presence of an oral storyteller.

The book is divided into three parts, bound together by focusing on the lives of black men and women; their scorched emotions juxtaposed with depictions of the landscapes around them, the latter described in a sensuous style reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence.

Part 1 is in the agrarian setting of rural Georgia. It's grim stuff, verging on southern gothic; a world of religious obsession, fear, sudden violence and extensive bigotry. The stories focus on the lives of women; men are seen only in relation to women who've gone into a hibernation of feeling or sold themselves for an easier time of it. Names and phrases thread between the sketches, tying together into a cohesive look at a poor, closed off sawmill town. There are moments later when the author's voice becomes slightly shrill in its depiction of race relations, but this first segment is universal in its portrayal of the numbness induced by suffering and deprivation. The poems are left to become the only refuge (and that rarely) of tenderness in Cane.

Part 2, written primarily to lengthen the book, takes to the north and the city. For the clearest example of the change in the writing, just compare the first lines of each segment. Part 1: "Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down." Part 2: "Seventh Street is a bastard of Prohibition and the War." Part 2 takes up the props and scenery of the Jazz Age, focusing attention on the lives of men, moving at a swift pace and leaning on dialogue and stream-of-consciousness. At times, Toomer experiments with the drama format to depict what the characters are thinking underneath their interactions (later on, Eugene O'Neill would incorporate that technique into his play Strange Interlude). Though the northern characters are materially better off, they still struggle to understand one another, locked so deeply in their minds that they cannot act...

Part 3 is built rather loosely in the form of a play, centering around the character of Ralph Kabnis, a northerner come to teach in Georgia, bringing Cane back to where it started. Gothic elements return with a silent old man living in a basement, the outsider Lewis who is viewed with suspicion, the memories of brutal racial murders and Kabnis' own violence. Kabnis is a coward, too frightened to act except in the spontaneous slaughter of chickens. He hides from his demons, raving, wearing a mask of superiority and despising the quiet, watchful Lewis. This segment draws heavily on dialogue and a negro dialect which is rather taxing to read but not half so incomprehensible as the Roxy-narrated chapters of Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson. And while the character of Kabnis is impossible to like, his story, and thus the "novel" that Cane isn't, end on a deeply haunting note.

A quick word about the poetry, which ranges in style from the structure of gospel lyric to the unrhymed techniques typical of modernists. The poems form bridges around and between each sketch, sometimes standing alone and sometimes used to create emphasis. There are moments when one phrase will overlap with an ambivalent cut-in:

Words form in the eyes of the dwarf:

Do not shrink. Do not be afraid of me.
See how my eyes look at you.
the Son of God
I too was made in His image.
was once-
I give you the rose.

Muriel, tight in her revulsion, sees black, and daintily reaches for the offering. As her hand touches it, Dan springs up from his seat and shouts:

Yes, Cane is historically important as one of the earliest works of the Harlem Renaissance and as a modernist experiment, but that's window-dressing. It is a grim and challenging work, but if you're prepared, it's also rewarding. It's a brief series of visions: sharp, unsettling and fascinating, possessing a somber sense of beauty. A book to savor. ( )
4 vote nymith | Dec 19, 2011 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Toomer, Jeanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Turner, Darwin T.Introductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bontemps, ArnaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Disambiguation notice
Please do not combine this LT work for Jean Toomer's original 1923 work, Cane, with the Norton Critical Edition of the same title. Norton Critical Editions are significantly different from the corresponding original works, with thorough explanatory annotations; they also need to be kept separate in order to be part of the "Norton Critical Editions" series. Thank you.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0871401517, Paperback)

"[Cane] has been reverberating in me to an astonishing degree. I love it passionately; could not possibly exist without it." —Alice Walker

A literary masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane is a powerful work of innovative fiction evoking black life in the South. The sketches, poems, and stories of black rural and urban life that make up Cane are rich in imagery. Visions of smoke, sugarcane, dusk, and flame permeate the Southern landscape: the Northern world is pictured as a harsher reality of asphalt streets. Impressionistic, sometimes surrealistic, the pieces are redolent of nature and Africa, with sensuous appeals to eye and ear.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:30 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

First published in 1923, Jean Toomer's Cane is an innovative literary work powerfully evoking black life in the South. Rich in imagery, Toomer's impressionistic, sometimes surrealistic sketches of Southern rural and urban life are permeated by visions of smoke, sugarcane, dusk, and fire; the northern world is pictured as a harsher reality of asphalt streets. This iconic work of American literature is published with a new afterword by Rudolph Byrd of Emory University and Henry Louis Gates, Jr...… (more)

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W.W. Norton

2 editions of this book were published by W.W. Norton.

Editions: 0871401517, 0871402106

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