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Cane (1923)

by Jean Toomer

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,1861011,435 (3.76)41
First published in 1923, Jean Toomer's Cane is an innovative literary work--part drama, part poetry, part fiction--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. of Harvard University, who provide groundbreaking biographical information on Toomer, place his writing within the context of American modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, and examine his shifting claims about his own race and his pioneering critique of race as a scientific or biological concept.… (more)

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» See also 41 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
Well, this was different. The Library of America calls this a novel and maybe under some definition of a modernist novel, it may qualify. I don't read the modernists (or I do very rarely anyway) and I need my novels to have a structure or at least a plot. Although after having read that, I realize that if a structure is enough, then this indeed may be a novel. But that will also be true for linked stories collections. Or maybe I should stop trying to find a box to fit it under and just talk about the book.

The book is a mix of poems, stories, vignettes and even a mix of a play and a story at the very end. All the pieces have the same main topic - the life of African Americans in a world designed and ran by the whites. And Toomer takes a circular route into the topic - he starts with the South (Georgia), moves north (Washington) and then sends a northern man south to close the circle back in rural Georgia. And while this cycle ties the different texts together, it also highlighted the difference between the different parts.

The first one, the one set in the South reads like one of those stories that evolve around a fireplace - a mix of poetry and small stories and portraits of people and places, with repetitions inside of the same story and between stories. It sounds like a sing-song, even the parts that are obviously prose. Not all of those stories are nice, most of them are not but they all work as a whole and paints an image of a land steeped in legends and superstitions.

And as lyrical as that first part is, the second one pulls you out and throws you into the emerging jazz era of the big city. The same mix of prose and poetry reads very very differently and it loses the magic of the legends. It was intentional I think - it was supposed to show the new world but for some reason it sounded more crude and disjointed than a real counterpart of the first part.

And then comes the (almost) play, "Kabnis". A Northern black teacher moves to Georgia to teach and finds a community in the middle of a change. The lyrical language of the first part is back but now mixed with something else. The start is rough in the same way the very beginning of the novel is but once you get used to the dialect and the rhythm of the play/story, it slowly turns into the best part of the whole book. It is not just a play, there are parts of it which cannot be set on stage but using the play format allows the author not to look for scene transitions and connections and to set the acts he wants to.

Tradition meets jazz (and the new world), racism meets love and women meеt men -- most of the pieces deal with at least one of these pairs; the ones that do not deal with just one side of a pair. And somewhere under all these diverse stories and poems emerges a portrait of a time, told by a voice of someone who belongs to the Jazz era but lives outside of it.

At the end I liked this more than I expected to. I came into it with very low expectations - modernist fiction rarely works for me. And it took awhile for me to warm up to it. I still do not find the style appealing but I am happy I read this one. ( )
1 vote AnnieMod | Jun 22, 2020 |
741.5
  OakGrove-KFA | Mar 29, 2020 |
dust jacket
  Sheila01 | Jul 27, 2019 |
If you have heard a Jewish cantor sing, if he has touched you and made your own sorrow seem trivial when compared with his, you will know my feeling when I follow the curves of her profile, like mobile rivers, to their common delta.

I find it impossible this morning to attempt comment on a lynching or a literary reflection thereof. Despite my tone deaf groaning as of late about dialect, the final parable in this tome touched me. Earnest. Cane is a modernist mélange of prose and verse. A Biblical air is present but the motivations are Freudian.

This book was recommended to me about 10 years ago by a childhood friend. That friend was entitled to his own weary blues. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
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 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Toomer, Jeanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bontemps, ArnaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Turner, Darwin T.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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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W.W. Norton

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

Editions: 0871401517, 0871402106

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