The Resurrecting Writer Series: Jean Toomer


The writing prompt for this week’s participants in the Literary Blog Hop over at the Blue Bookcase website is what is the most difficult literary work you’ve ever read? What made it so difficult? The question immediately to mind the book I’m currently reading, Cane by Jean Toomer – and the problems I’m having finishing it. 

I have tried; sincerely, honestly tried. To be honest, it’s not because the book is unreadable or because I don’t like it. I do like it and it is readable. However, I’m finding it difficult to read Cane like a regular novel. There are no main characters and/or narrators. Perhaps I’m being too linear but it seems as if the only thing holding the diverse set of characters together is Sparta, the early twentieth-century rural Georgia town they all inhabit. Toomer wrote the town in such a way that it seems hell bent on being the stage on which the stories and poems are presented and he did so with a clear mastery of language. Cane is undeniably visual and therein lies the reason I find it difficult to read it continuously. The short prose pieces are so packed with imagery I think of them more as vignettes; literary vignettes I can put down, ponder over and return to.

As I end part one, I find myself putting it down to ponder some of the characters, particularly Karintha. On the surface, the two page chapter on Karintha appears to deal with what today would be called pedophilia:

Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child. Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down. Old men rode her hobby-horse upon their knees. Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with their grown-up girls. God grant us youth, secretly prayed the old men. The young fellows counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them. This interest of the male, who wishes to ripe a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her.

I found myself curious as to why Toomer, a Harlem Renaissance writer, would choose to start Cane with such a topic. Why have the opening gambit be a tale about how a young girl in the process of growing up became the town prostitute? In fact, the majority of the stories in the section I’ve read so far focus on women. So much so, that I found myself noticing similarities with some of Toomer’s literary descendants; particularly Alice Walker (setting) and Ntozake Shange (language).

I know Alice Walker read Toomer. In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, she wrote the following:

A few of us will realize that Cane was not only his finest work but that it is also in part based on the essence of stories told to Toomer by his grandmother, she of the ‘dark blood’ to whom the book is dedicated, and that many of the women in Cane are modled on the tragic indecisiveness and weakness of his mother’s life. I also wondered if he received flack for writing about the abuse some black women experience as Walker and Shange did. Cane was for Toomer a double ‘swan song.’ He meant it to memorialize a culture he thought was dying, whose folk spirit he considered beautiful, but he was also saying good-bye to the ‘Negro’ he felt dying in himself. Cane then is a parting gift, and no less precious because of that. I think Jean Toomer would want us to keep its beauty, but let him go.

Well, as I said in the beginning, I am letting go of the book for now. What I term Cane’s vignette style, in my opinion, doesn’t support a straight through to the end type of reading. Nonetheless it is still highly valued literature for its written-with-love and extremely lyrical depictions of life in the town of Sparta, Georgia and I will definitely complete it.

~ by Tichaona Munhamo on November 16, 2010.

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