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Applied Perspective Creating Racial Identity: A Mythology of the Black South in Jean Toomer's Cane

Updated on August 20, 2014


In the abstract, nonlinear, and superb collection of poems and short stories that is Jean Toomer’s Cane, the author creates a mythological atmosphere through poetic descriptions of the setting, idealized characters who perform original and absurd acts, and the application of the author’s own idealized perspective of life for African Americans in the South. He crafted the work with a mythos in mind because, as a lifelong seeker, he wanted to fill gaps in his perception of his own identity, and the identity of African Americans in general. The structure itself lends to this mythic quality, the shuffled vignettes and visceral poems conveying a dreamlike quality to the work.

The mythological atmosphere of Cane is peopled by tragic heroes, heroines, and a man who talks to God, which gives the reader a sense of the true story of the South from the African American perspective. In Cane, Toomer created a new genre in pursuit of an adequate representation of the Southern African American experience by combining numerous forms and an array of narratives in a mosaic of words, a kind of written sculpture. The pieces of this mosaic include poetry, drama, short fiction, and elements of Greek tragedy, each of which blends into the others at times. This essay will show how Toomer crafted this new genre, why he created it, and the purpose it served, both for him and for all African Americans.

When Cane was written, there were few creative interpretations of black life in the South (hereafter B.L.I.S. - irony intended) available, and none with such poetic language and evocative drama. Each story and poem in the collection follows the life of a southern black person, giving readers a swath of ‘experiences’ that goes far towards creating a story of the time that, though fictional, feels true. This book of stories is one of the first attempts to creatively document the brilliance, chaos and tragedy of African American life in the South through a spectrum of vignettes, symbols, imagery, and a mixed-genre structure that mirrored the fragmentation of the environment.

This documentation synthesized the African American experience into the greater mythology of America. Thus Cane was a powerful factor in the creation of the nascent African American racial identity at the beginning of the twentieth century. But the confused masterpiece didn’t start out as a thing for many, but as Toomer’s alone, and it was the quest for his own identity that drove Toomer to write it.

Before examining how Cane accomplished its synthesis of B.L.I.S., however, it is important to investigate the life of the man who wrote it and understand him as the seeker he was.

Jean Toomer: The Seeker

Why did Jean Toomer write Cane? What was he seeking to portray, if not the fabric of B.L.I.S.? That this life was something he barely knew from a few years in Georgia, a life mostly imagined and romanticized by Toomer, did not prevent him from trying to describe it. The critical acclaim Cane has continued to receive is, perhaps, a measure of his success in creatively imagining B.L.I.S. in a way that resonates with readers’ own interpretations of the time, place, and people. Perhaps this success was his ultimate goal in writing Cane. But one might also believe Toomer needed to create Cane, because a part of his personality that constantly sought self-knowledge needed an understanding of the African American piece of his heritage, and sought it in a creative understanding of B.L.I.S. Toomer was a seeker throughout his life, and Cane was part of that process.

Nathan Eugene Toomer was born December 26th, 1894 in Washington D.C. to Nathan Toomer and Nina Pinchback. His father abandoned his mother and him, and he was raised in the house of his grandfather, P.B.S. Pinchback, who was a Union officer in the Civil War and the first African American to become governor of a U.S. state. Of mixed racial descent, Toomer and his family could pass for either black or white, an ambiguity that saw Toomer in both all-white and all-black segregated schools during his childhood. This ambiguity of racial identity and affluent, intellectually rich upbringing would later lead Toomer to investigate the southern African American part of his heritage in his quest for personal identity.

But first, this quest for knowledge took him to college. And not just one college or course of study, but six different institutions of higher learning between 1914 and 1917, for almost as many different subjects. He went to the University of Wisconsin, the Massachusetts College of Agriculture, the American College of Physical Training in Chicago, the University of Chicago, New York University, and the City College of New York studying agriculture, fitness, biology, sociology, and history, but he never completed a degree. This indecisiveness could be perceived as a symptom of his fragmented identity, or as a facet of his ongoing search for knowledge. Regardless, Toomer drifted between disciplines and identities for much of his early life. This trend, one will see, carried over into his creative life.

After college Toomer took a job as a principal in Sparta, Georgia, where he experienced harsh racism and segregation firsthand. It was his introduction to B.L.I.S. He also studied Eastern philosophy at the time. He wrote some short stories, and then in 1923 he published Cane. His incubation of the truths of the lives of African Americans in the South, perceived from his well-educated and eloquent vantage point and stated with the righteous conviction of his race’s common humanity, was received with great critical acclaim. A 1925 essay by William Stanley Braithwaite concluded:

“In Jean Toomer, the author of Cane, we come upon the very first artist of the race, who with all an artist’s passion and sympathy for life, its hurts, its sympathies, its desires, its joys, its defeats and strange yearnings, can write about the Negro without the surrender or compromise of the author’s vision…Cane is a book of gold and bronze, of dusk and flame, of ecstasy and pain, and Jean Toomer is a bright morning star of a new day of the race in literature.” (Braithwaite 209)

Though the critical acclaim Cane received was generally exuberant, Toomer would find it increasingly difficult to publish through the 1930’s and in 1940 moved to the town of Doyleville, Pennsylvania. There he joined the Society of Friends, stopped writing in 1950, and died in 1967.

Jean Toomer’s life was one of double identities, multiple yearnings, unfinished endeavors and unpublished writings, yet the single work, Cane, has changed the way the African American experience in the South is understood. Through attempting to divine the nature of his own heritage and create an “eternal south” (Ramsey 74) of mythic black existence, Toomer gained literary immortality and maybe even the piece of his own identity he was seeking.

Nevertheless, the depiction of life in the South Toomer did achieve is drenched in his own romanticism, idealization, and poetic, lurid language, transforming the humdrum, often tragic lives of his fictional characters into powerfully evocative vignettes. He remade the South – really a shattered, post-war, post-slavery region full of tension, poverty, and abuse – into a “romantic/gothic” (Lamothe 54) epic based on his own fragmented perception. He went through the process of understanding B.L.I.S. and documenting his understanding as much for himself as for any other motive. This can be seen through the passionate subjectivity that underlies the entire work. Toomer’s love of B.L.I.S., a love based on heritage and slightly removed from reality, is what transformed Cane into a mythological piece, and his own confused identity as a mulatto in America, confusion reflected in the reality of B.L.I.S., found expression in the multi-genre/new-genre structure of the work.

This work, as an expression of a historical reality through symbolic structure and varied, poetic content, represents what could be called poetic historicism, rendered as much as an object of art as a creative social history. The result has proven powerful enough to endure – informing numerous works which came after it. Thus one man’s mission to understand his own heritage became part of his entire race’s same quest.

The definition of the Jungian archetype of the seeker is one who, like Percival, looks for truth, love, beauty, and understanding. This is the quest that defined Toomer’s life, and the product of his quest, “Cane”, has defined his memory to posterity.

The Content of Cane

It could be argued that “Cane” is as much a sculpture as a work of literature, since the structure of the book serves to impart facts of B.L.I.S. to the reader all by itself. The series of short stories, poems, and plays, unrelated but carrying a common tone and themes, create a jumbled, vibrant mass that imitates the nature of B.L.I.S. at the time – a confusion of mixed identity, dead and rising symbols, and new found, hard-lived “freedom” that feels like anything but.

This “collage aesthetic” (Farebrother 506) is purposeful in that Toomer perceived the elements of black southern life and translated them through the filter of his own fragmented personality. Toomer trying to understand the South and Toomer trying to understand himself were the same goal. The author and his work, similarly scattered, were both a collection of pieces of identity. This pieced-together nature represents both the true expression of Toomer and B.L.I.S. as well as the driving force behind the need for Toomer to define himself and his people. Toomer was trying to find himself and his race, and what he ended up finding was as mixed as he himself was. This fact is exhibited in the mixed-genre nature of Cane.

Now let us examine the works within Cane. First comes “Karintha”, a story of men making a woman “ripen too soon.” (Cane 1) It describes the easy, meaningless life of the girl, brought to her by her beauty. From a young age until she reaches adulthood, men forgive her anything and eventually “bring her money” (2) as a way to curry her favor. Only two pages in length, the story begins the collection with a meditation on a normal subject with intensely abstract, symbolic language: “Pine needles are smooth and sweet. They are elastic to the feet of rabbits…a sawmill was nearby.” (2) This seemingly random collection of sensations and facts contextualizing the woman Karintha’s stunted spiritual growth initiates the dreamlike quality of the entire book, and could be said to give it one of its themes – that of individuals and a whole race “stunted’ by the wrong kind of attention.

The second piece in Cane is a short poem titled ‘Reapers’. Eight lines of lyrical language describe black reapers sharpening their scythes and whilst reaping, killing a field rat that happened to be in the field. The dead rat and the “blade, blood-stained”(3) are the first of many dark images that lend Cane its Gothic undertones. ‘Reapers’ is also the first of a series of poems that, interspersed amongst the stories, act as a kind of chorus, reiterating a certain somberness and majesty to the setting through their subject matter and their rhythm. This could be seen as Toomer’s attempt to rank his poetic historicism of B.L.I.S. with the poetic historicism of the ancient Greeks, by adding the choral element of Greek tragedy. This fits nicely with the concept that Toomer was trying to craft an identity that made sense of the madness of B.L.I.S. and his own identity, by co-opting elements of other traditions and adding features to Cane which turn it into a part of a continuing human narrative, part of a literary tradition.

‘November Cotton Flower’, the next piece and a poem as well, adds a rustic tinge to the overall mood, while also giving the book its first sense of hope. For in the poem, a landscape is described of dead plants and dried rivers and dead birds in the bottoms of wells. Into this landscape blooms a cotton flower, and its blooming “assumed significance” (4). Thus far, Toomer has given us a single story and two poems, creating already a remarkably dimensional picture of the South, full of spent innocence, stunted growth, the rhythmic motions of agriculture, death, and reborn hope.

The fourth piece is ‘Becky’, a story describing the life of a “white woman who had two Negro sons.” (5). She is marginalized by white society and forced to live between the railroad tracks and the road, “pushed up where a blue-sheen God with listless eyes could look at it” (5), where her sons grow up mean and identity-less. Being neither white nor black, they are shunned by both sides, and throughout the story a strange chorus repeats, “the pines whispered to Jesus.” (5) Becky’s sons kill two men and leave town. Eventually, Becky’s house, shaken by the passage of the train, collapses on her.

The repeating chorus gives the entire story a feeling of inevitability, a feeling that the trees themselves beg god to forgive humanity, which is destined to mistreat itself, and the moral it conveys is clear: miscegenation in the South was akin to social exile. As a part of Toomer’s creative expression of the South, this story is a striking critique of the injustice of the social norms prevalent in the time he wrote it. Of particular relevance to Toomer, who was a mulatto, this story is part of his fictional double investigation of both B.L.I.S. and himself.

Next we have ‘Face’, a poetic meditation on the stoic face and work-hardened muscles of a hard working black woman, described as having “cluster grapes of sorrow” in her muscles and “brows (like) recurved canoes quivered by the ripples blown by pain.” (8) The poem, briefly, conveys a sense of a long life of labor and hardship, and nothing else. It is a poem of sadness and suffering, pithily poignant.

Contrasting it is the next poem, ‘Cotton Song’, which reads like more of a song than a poem and conveys an optimistic attitude toward working, claiming “Can’t blame god if we don’t roll,” (9). This piece and ‘Face’ maintain balance between lightness and darkness in “Cane” but add dimensionality, with Toomer imagining a worn out woman and an enthusiastic young man as additional figures in his mythic South. A landscape of hardscrabble farmers and singing cotton balers, rhythm and innocence lost has begun to take shape in the reader’s mind, the kind of landscape where miracles and tragedies can occur. These pieces of his created mythos allowed Toomer to imagine the kinds of people who’d been his ancestors while simultaneously depicting B.L.I.S.

The next piece, ‘Carma’, describes a woman driven hard by life, driven to masculinity by the hardness of her reality. The story also adds much to the setting with intense stream of consciousness writing:

“The sun is hammered to a band of gold. Pine-needles, like Mazda, are brilliantly aglow. No rain has come to take the rustle from the fallen sweet-gum leaves. Over in the forest, across the swamp, a sawmill blows its closing whistle. Smoke curls up. Marvelous web spun by the spider sawdust pile. Curls up and spreads itself pine-high above the branch, a single silver band along the eastern valley...A girl in the yard of a whitewashed shack not much larger than the stack of worn ties before it, sings. Her voice is loud. Echoes, like rain, sweep the valley. Dusk takes the polish from the rails.” (10)

As one can see, Toomer elucidated an incredibly effective setting which permeates the rest of the book, in the above paragraph. The mythic qualities of the scene are hard to miss; smoke curling up, workers heading home, a song drifting out over the valley – a beautiful song sung by a woman who seems poor of property but rich in spirit. The scene is surreally peaceful. Again, this mythical, poetically beautiful setting contrasts starkly with the plot of the story, in which Carma ends up driving her husband crazy, who then knives a man and ends up in the “gang” (11). Another two page story full of sadness and grief, ‘Carma’ adds its weight to the mythos of Toomer’s South, another piece of accumulated hardship for the identity he is building for himself and his race.

Next come two poems, ‘Song of the Son’ and ‘Georgia Dusk’, which speak to a last chance at salvation of the black soul through the “soil” and to the ancient African heritage of the blacks in the South, respectively. These give the reader a social context for the people of Toomer’s stories. With the emergence of hope for identity after slavery, Toomer shows black salvation as “though late, it is not too late yet.”(12) This reflects the changing position of blacks in the South, depicting the hope that was prevalent after slavery was abolished.

Along with this evolving social position came the quest for black identity, which Toomer symbolizes in ‘Georgia Dusk’ as “Race memories of king and caravan, High priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,”(13). Here again, we find the author’s own intentions in creatively exploring the African American experience in the South, in search of his own identity, superimposed onto his characters.

Next is ‘Fern’, a story of a woman who uses men and has the easy luxury of beauty to pave her way, much like Karintha. When she grows up, Fern retroactively “becomes” a virgin. Fern ensnares the narrator of the story, a northern black, who becomes obsessed with her. It seems here Toomer was coming to terms with his own obsession with the southern black heritage; his romanticism and idealization taking the form of the character Fern. That she becomes a virgin has implications – perhaps Toomer was using her as a symbol of the black race itself, given a chance to form its own identity after centuries of being told what it was.

As the third story with such a female protagonist, the reader begins to see one of Toomer’s overlying themes: that of the innocent woman transformed by the social climate, turning to masculinity either in self or in men.

Next come two more poems, ‘Nullo’ and ‘Evening Song’, the first a snapshot of a moment in a southern forest, rich with imagery such as “dipped in western horizon gold”(18), and the second a kind of love poem to a woman named Cloine, and radiating a sense of peace and harmony with the universe:

“Full moon rising on the waters of my heart, Lakes and moons and fires,

Cloine tires, Holding her lips apart.

Promises of slumber leaving shore to charm the moon,

Miracle made vesper keeps, Cloine sleeps,

And I’ll be sleeping soon.

Cloine, curled like the sleepy waters where the moon waves start,

Radiant, resplendently she gleams, Cloine dreams,

Lips pressed against my heart.” (19)

These two poems, parts of the larger chorus, again give us a glimpse of Toomer’s real intention: the creation of a South and of black life there, equally as full of romance and beauty as of hardship and ugliness – first for himself and then for his race. This creative process, as has been shown, required a mixture of genres. Though Toomer recognized and hated the inequalities of the South, he sought to flesh out the fullness of African American life there, to reveal its humanity rather than simply describe its pain. To this mission he applied his pen with works of tragedy as well as sublime beauty.

Next, ‘Esther’ is the story of another young girl, one who has little spirit until she is awoken by a black man named Bardo who has a mystical experience of God before her eyes. She goes on to fall in love with the idea of him, which is eventually crushed when she forces a confrontation with him when he is drunk, seeing him for what he really is. She waits years for the confrontation, and thus lives unfulfilled and remains so after becoming disillusioned. It is a story of longing and hope based on ideas rather than reality and as such it defines a pertinent aspect of the post-Civil War black experience – where much was expected but little was forthcoming. The descriptive language shines in this story, as when Toomer describes a soda bottle as being “five fingers full of shine.”(20).

Two more poetic verses of the chorus follow, ‘Conversion’ and ‘Portrait of Georgia’, are further elaborations of the social climate in which the book is set. ‘Conversion’ is a farcical account of the “African guardian of souls”(26), drunk and ‘feasting on a strange cassava,’(26), adopting the “new words” of the white god. It seems to relay an underlying message of the loss of the original African traditions of the slaves, and could be viewed as reflecting Toomer’s own sense of lost or confused identity. Thus we have Toomer’s depiction of the religious context of African American life in the South added to the mix of his mythical world. At this point, the reader can see that Toomer was able to add facets to the identity he was crafting only because he chose to use a variety of forms: for broad themes he needed poetry and for vignettes he needed fiction.

In ‘Portrait of Georgia’ Toomer describes the state of Georgia as a woman with hair coiled “like a lyncher’s rope”(27) and a body “white as the ash of black flesh after flame”(27) defining the state with details that carry heavy historical undertones. By crafting the poem to make features of the place shaped by violence towards blacks, Toomer gives the reader atmosphere and emotion that sustain the tone and mythology he is creating. This addition to the milieu of Cane grounds the work in the harsh realities of racism and again adds his own poetic interpretation of the South to his growing depiction of it. One gets the impression that while Toomer never experienced the true horrors of B.L.I.S., he knew it to be an important part of the poetic history he was crafting for himself and his race.

In ‘Blood burning Moon’ Louisa dallies with both a black man and a white man. The black man confronts and kills the white man, and is subsequently caught and burned alive because of it. This piece is central to the concept of Toomer’s work, as it depicts the confusion of the South as embodied in Louisa’s experience. Caught between love and status, her own culture and that of the higher social class, she can’t decide between them and ends up losing them both. That her indecision ends in tragedy is one of the morals of Toomer’s mythos of the South: mixed or incomplete identity, he seems to be saying, gets no succor from any sector unless it clarifies itself. This was, after all, Toomer’s own life-long mission and his specific goal in crafting Cane.

With that, the first part of the book is finished, and Toomer jumps north and away from the focus of this essay, which is his mythologizing of black life in the South to create a racial identity for himself. Provided below is a brief overview of these ‘northern’ pieces, without thorough analysis.

‘Seventh Street’ is a snapshot of a jazz age music venue; ‘Rhobert’ is the story of a man who “wears his house on his body”(40); ‘Avey’ is a story of juvenile love; ‘Beehive’ and ‘Storm Ending’ are symbolic poems of deliverance; ‘Theatre’ is a story of a black man’s wrestling match with his own perception of himself; ‘Her Lips Are Copper Wire’ is a poem describing a beautiful black woman; ‘Calling Jesus’ describes a woman whose soul ‘is a little thrust-tailed dog that follows her, whimpering’(55); ‘Box Seat’ describes the social difficulties of a relationship between black Dan and white Muriel, full of strong stream of consciousness writing.

The totality of these works finds the author revisiting themes he’d already established in the first section of the book, such as the struggle of the emerging black identity and self-esteem in the face of harsh social realities, the idolization of black women, and the difficulty of interracial relationships, all interspersed with tales of normalcy. Toomer shows a talent for balancing the mythological-type stories and poems with the occasional tale of the normal life of blacks, as he does with ‘Avey.’ The attempt at balancing the many confusing elements of African American identity is displayed in Toomer’s balancing of different genres within Cane.

This balancing act accomplishes two things: on the one hand, the epic nature of his mythic stories give blacks agency and narrative power of biblical proportions, making vibrant characters out of them, characters who control their own destinies; while on the other hand his tales of the normalcy of black life describe a life not much different from that of ‘white’ America, lives which could be synthesized into mainstream American life without much problem, lives full of humanity. Added to these elements, the chorus of poetry refreshes and deepens the setting, almost like background action in a painting, making the subjects of the stories more believable as their context becomes ever clearer. The overall effect the combination of genres has on the reader is akin to that which can be achieved by reading a selection of different materials on a specific time and place to try to develop a feeling of what it was like then and there. The difference is that Cane is one work by one author, trying to achieve the same ultimate feeling of authenticity.

In ‘Harvest Song’, Toomer gives voice to the tireless black laborer, returning to the South with an epic, melodic poem that describes a reaper “whose muscles set at sundown.”(69). This piece adds to the mythological nature of the book by depicting the archetypal field hand in poetic verse. The reaper in ‘Harvest Song’ is a good example of the kind of proportions Toomer gave his characters in Cane, men and women defined by their society and their work but full of passion and pent-up faith – normal men and women living extraordinary lives because of the social context of those lives. Toomer returns to the rhythm of the South with this poem seemingly effortlessly after his foray in the north. Then, for the remainder of Cane, Toomer tries to combine the two, northern black and southern black, into single characters - with interesting results. It is here the reader finds the trials of synthesis B.L.I.S. must undergo in reimagining its identity with its newfound freedom to do so. The reader will remember these are the same trials Toomer is undergoing in his creative exploration of the South in seeking the foundations of his own heritage and a fuller picture of who he is.

‘Bona and Paul’ is a story of the confrontation between the rural black and the northern white within one man, Paul, who “sees art, curiously” (73), seeing that “art is a purple fluid, carbon-charged, that effervesces beside him.”(73). Paul seems to be in conflict over the nature of society, and when he reaches his conclusion that “white faces are petals of roses. Black faces are petals of dusk”(78) it is too late, and his date has left him. This moment in Cane reemphasizes the need to clarify one’s identity before anything else – a theme visited earlier in the work and the mission of both Toomer’s life and his Cane. But Paul has reconnected to his roots while remaining in the new society of integration, illustrated when Toomer has him gaze out of his window in Chicago all the way to a pine hill in Georgia, and thus the reader gets the sense that he is on his way to integration.

In his eloquent description of the events around him, Paul becomes a figure meant to portray the educated black perspective that was possible for all blacks, a figure that empowered diverse readers. Paul’s character could be seen to symbolize what Toomer hoped to achieve in his own search for an understanding of his multifaceted identity, in that he recognized where he came from while also adapting to the place he was in.

With ‘Bona and Paul’ the second piece of Cane ends and the third and final piece begins. This third segment is made up of a single long story, titled ‘Kabnis.’ It is the tale of a black intellectual striving for an original voice with which to convey his identity, his learning, and the powers of his race. It is the story of a black man searching for his identity, and that of his race. It is the story of Toomer himself, transplanted to Georgia and finding he doesn’t know himself - and the part that’s most mysterious to him, the southern blackness, is the one that’s oppressed all around him.

Kabnis has mystical experiences (83), and states that “god is a profligate red-nosed man about town.”(82). His frustration at being bereft a voice and identity seems to come out when he rushes outside to kill the chicken that was keeping him awake. Then he focuses on the cabin of a black family; “Peace. Negroes within it are content. They farm. They sing. They love. They sleep. Kabnis wonders if perhaps they can feel him. If perhaps he gives them bad dreams.”(84). His alienation from B.L.I.S., depicted in this passage, is complete. He is neither white nor black, but something in between that is searching for a place. Toomer looked at himself much the same way, and while his own confused identity and the confusion of B.L.I.S. were slightly different jumbles of influences and pieces of identity, they shared the overarching theme of confusion. And Toomer wanted them clarified.

Kabnis wonders about the nature of god, beauty and ugliness, and his own sanity; talks with others about the difference between northern and southern blacks(86), church differences between the two African American demographics(87); and is distraught by the shouting devout of the church when he attends. While at church, a stone is thrown through the window with the message “Northern nigger leave.” Kabnis becomes paranoid thinking the note is aimed at him, holes up in the basement of his friend’s shop, where a surreal character, a blind old man who never moves or eats, resides. They have a party out of desperation, and when Kabnis wakes the black man speaks to him, saying “The white folks made the bible lie.” (115)

The symbolism of the blind old man in the basement is profound. He is the forgotten one who knows the truth, but to whom none will listen and whom many have forgotten. He is the key to understanding B.L.I.S. and Toomer’s quest for individual and racial identity. He is the ultimate symbol of the black heritage which Toomer sought through writing Cane, and his pivotal moment is his statement about the racist, white interpretation of the bible that served as justification of social evil.

In sum, Cane is a ride through one man’s perception of the South, replete with the romanticism, idealization, tragedy, and rhythm Toomer superimposed upon the lives he witnessed while residing in Georgia. The work is full of the things Toomer noticed about the South, the beauty, ugliness, hardship and joy; religion, love, death, and seekers searching for meaning and identity. In Cane, Toomer uses his beautiful descriptive language to romanticize and idealize the South and its inhabitants, focusing on the black population in an attempt to create a working mythology for himself and other African Americans. Toomer did this because he was a seeker, as he exhibited throughout his life, and coming from a mixed heritage made him seek the B.L.I.S. part of his identity. The work he crafted in pursuit of this would serve as a foundational element of the African-American racial identity.

Through the construction of his characters and their plotlines, Toomer succeeded in building a vision of black life in the South at once admirable and pitiable, full of beauty and pain, a true mythos. By creating a new genre of mixed forms to display B.L.I.S., he paid homage to the confusion of elements which made up the social reality of B.L.I.S. and his own identity.

So why did Toomer write Cane the way he did? As the reader has seen, Toomer, a mulatto from the north, was a seeker throughout his life – a product of his own mixed heritage and fragmented identity. In searching to define his identity and particularly the B.L.I.S. fraction of his heritage, Toomer crafted Cane. As an effort to create a mythology of B.L.I.S. which could stand amongst the great poetic historicism of the past while also relating the truths of the southern African American experience, Cane took the form of a new genre which incorporated poetry, prose, and drama, each when it was most suitable to expressing the feature of B.L.I.S. being represented. This turned the book into a work of art as much as a creative history, a new genre to describe a newly-freed people in a recently reunited land; a genre which, like the status of B.L.I.S., leaves as many questions as answers. By crafting Cane in such a way, Toomer insured it would become included in the long line of creative social histories through which human history is not merely understood, but is felt - by anyone, anytime.

Toomer wrote Cane to learn about himself and where his blood had come from, and it went on to teach many African Americans about where and how their people had began their American experience. That he created a new genre of poetic historicism to adequately express the truths of B.L.I.S. is one of the lucky high points of 20th century American literature.

Suggested Reading

Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance, editors Michael Feith and Genevieve Fabre. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Turner, Darwin T. "Introduction." Cane by Jean Toomer (New York: Liveright, 1993). ix-xxv.

Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge, The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987).

Kent Anderson Leslie and Willard B. Gatewood Jr. "'This Father of Mine ... a Sort of Mystery': Jean Toomer's Georgia Heritage," Georgia Historical Quarterly 77 (winter 1993).

Nellie Y. McKay, Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

Barbara Foley, "Jean Toomer's Sparta," American Literature 67 (December 1995).

Barbara Foley, "'In the Land of Cotton': Economics and Violence in Jean Toomer's Cane," African American Review 32 (summer 1998).

Toomer's Works

Cane (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923)

Problems of Civilization, by Ellsworth Huntington, Whiting Williams, Jean Toomer and others, (New York: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1929)

Essentials: Definitions and Aphorisms (Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1931)

An Interpretation of Friends Worship (Philadelphia: Committee on Religious Education of Friends General Conference, 1947)

The Flavor of Man (Philadelphia: Young Friends Movement of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1949)

The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988)


Braithwaite, Williams Stanley. ‘The Negro in Literature’, Crisis 28, 1924: 209

Farebrother, Rachel. “Adventuring through the Pieces of a Still Unorganized Mosaic': Reading Jean Toomer's Collage Aesthetic in “Cane”.” Journal of American Studies, 2006 Dec; 40 (3): 503-21.

Ickstadt, Heinz. “The (Re)Construction of an American Cultural Identity in Literary Modernism”. Negotiations of America's National Identity, II. Tübingen, Germany: 2000. pp. 206-28

Lamothe, Daphne. “Cane: Jean Toomer's Gothic Black Modernism”. IN: Anolik and Howard, The Gothic Other: Racial and Social Constructions in the Literary Imagination. Jefferson, NC: McFarland; 2004. pp. 54-71

Ramsey, William M. “Jean Toomer's Eternal South”. Southern Literary Journal, 2003 Fall; 36 (1): 74-89.

Toomer, Jean. “Cane”. Liveright Publishing New York, 1993.


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