A not unexpected confession: I cut corners. All that makes me is human because we all cut corners; there’s no other way to get through the day.
That doesn’t mean I don’t feel guilty about doing it. So I compensate and that compensation is nowhere more evident than in how I fill in the gaps in my education. The unread backlog is huge and time is not infinite. What to read? What to omit? How to choose?
Such questions can tie one up in knots. And, circularity be damned, the best way I know to avoid knots is with shortcuts.
Here’s one shortcut I take in filling in the literary gaps: if some editor thought a work was important enough to stick in the livery of The Modern Library, the Library of America or Everyman’s Library and the price is right, I’ll pick it up. It’s the same way I approach the wine list in an expensive restaurant–someone got paid to make sure it’s tasty so I should lay aside my fears about quality and take a chance.
Jean Toomer was an African-American writer who lived and wrote in the first half of the 20th century. Cane, his first book, was published in 1923 and that, I suppose, makes him part of the Harlem Renaissance. I’m not trying to be flip with that last sentence. Aside from Zora Neal Hurston and Langston Hughes, and even there only glancingly, I’m weak on that part of American literature. I could go on for quite a while about the music of the era but somehow I missed a lot of the writing.
Toomer himself was the product of a middle-class background and had the (I’m making a big assumption here) unique experience of getting his early education in both all-black and all-white schools. While he was reared in Washington, DC and New Rochelle, NY among other places, Cane is set mostly in rural Georgia, a place where his family had roots and where Toomer taught at an industrial school.
It’s not worth talking about plot because there isn’t a lot of plot in the strictly narrative sense. In fact, pieces of narrative are interspersed with poems. So the form is anything but formal. It’s not that the individual pieces don’t cohere into a whole, they just don’t serve an overarching narrative purpose. Yet Toomer is capable of telling a fine story and many of the short story-like pieces are filled with well-defined characters and plots. Just don’t expect to be overwhelmed by them.
What there is, in compensation, ia an abundance of atmosphere: color, scent, menace, sex. I have friends and relatives who live in Georgia and have spent some time in the state. So the red earth is familiar but Toomer excels with the sky. I marvel at how many different ways purple appears as part of the skyscape, each time illuminating sky and scene in a different way.
Nor have I ever associated Georgia with sugar cane. Peanuts, sure. Cotton, yeah, especially the Sea Island variety. Peaches, most definitely. But sugar cane? He is also, most definitely, attuned to the particular place of African-Americans in the rural, and even urban, south. It’s fair to say that Toomer got through to me on this subject in a way many other writers and speakers have failed to.
That’s really a by-product of his way with language. Cane and Georgia spur Toomer on in a way that simply must be experienced. Here’s one of the poems, just to give you a sense of the beauty this man puts on the page:
Thunder blossoms gorgeously above our heads,
Great, hollow, bell-like flowers,
Rumbling in the wind,
Stertching clappers to strike our ears…
Bitten by the sun
Dripping rain like golden honey–
And the sweet earth flying from the thunder.
This may not be the most well-recognized work of the Harlem Renaissance. It may not be by an author whose name elicits knowing nods at any sort of gathering of typically educated people. But you should immerse yourself in the cane and in Cane. It will awaken you.
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