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When it was published in 1923, Jean Toomer's Cane was a revolutionary work of modernist literature. Through an assortment of poems, short stories, and vignettes, Toomer plays with style and structure as he explores the African American experience. In three parts, the novel contrasts the North and South, focusing on the construction of race in the United States. Keep reading for a summary, an analysis, and more.
In 1921, on the train north from Sparta, Georgia, Jean Toomer began writing the poems and stories that make up Cane. Born in Washington, DC, in 1894, Toomer was light-skinned enough to pass for white and inhabited both all-white and all-Black spaces as a child.
In 1921, he took a temporary position as a principal for the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute in Georgia. Here, Toomer connected with his African American heritage in a new way and experienced Black culture in the Deep South for the first time.
This experience resulted in Cane, a work of modernist literature composed of poems, vignettes, and short stories exploring race and racism in the North and South. While Toomer's text is frequently referred to as a novel, Cane has no through-line of a plot, nor does it contain itself to a single genre. Instead, the individual pieces of the book share thematic and geographic similarities, with the first and third parts taking place in rural Georgia and the second part set in the cities of the Northern United States.
Cane was well-received by critics at the time of its publication but was largely forgotten by readers until it was reissued in the 1960s. Cane is now regarded as an innovative work of modernist literature and one of the first key works of the Harlem Renaissance.
Modernism was a literary movement in the first half of the 20th century. Modernist writers abandoned traditional literary conventions in favor of experimenting with form, structure, and style.
Jean Toomer resisted being associated with the Harlem Renaissance, an African American art and cultural movement of the 1920s and 30s, as well as being marketed as a Black writer. He wished to be known simply as an American writer.
Cane is not a traditional novel that follows specific characters through a continuous story. Instead, each vignette or short story presents one or more new characters.
Part one of Cane contains six pieces of prose.
Karintha is the protagonist of the first vignette. She is beautiful and widely desired but also wild and untamable. She gives birth to a child and then leaves it to die in the forest.
Becky is a white woman who has two Black sons. She isn't accepted in either the Black or white community, so she lives on the outskirts of town until she disappears.
Carma is a Black woman who lives alone while her husband, Bane, is away for work. When he returns, he becomes violent and accuses her of infidelity. Carma fakes her suicide to get away from him. Bane injures a man in his anger and is sent to work on the chain gang.
Fern is a beautiful and mysterious woman. She is widely desired, but men find her perplexing and even frightening the more they get to know her.
Esther is a woman who falls in love with Barlo, a charismatic street preacher, when she is just a girl. She nurses this passion for many years, but when she finally has a chance to seduce him, she finds him an unappealing drunk.
Louisa is a young Black woman who works as a maid for a white family. She is admired by two different men who eventually fight for her affection.
Tom Burwell is one of Louisa's suitors. He is a Black fieldworker who eventually wins her affection. However, he fights with and kills Bob Stone, Louisa's other love interest, and is then hunted down by a white mob and burned alive.
Bob Stone is the son of Louisa's white employers. He becomes angry when Louisa has feelings for Tom and starts a fight ending in his death.
Part two of Cane includes five pieces of prose.
Rhobert is a strange man with bowed legs. He wears a house on his head, slowly sinking into the mud.
Avery is a beautiful young woman who is the object of many men's desire, including the narrator of the story. However, she never softens to his romantic advances.
John is the brother of the theater manager. He watches the chorus girls dance and wonders if he could have a future with one of them, Dorris.
Dorris is a beautiful dancer. She catches the eye of John, but he quickly loses interest in her, and she is devastated.
Muriel is a lovely and successful teacher who is attracted to Dan even though she doesn't believe he is a good match for her.
Dan Moore is pushy and obnoxious in his attempts to get attention from Muriel, who he claims to be in love with.
Bona is a white girl studying to become a teacher. She is in love with Paul.
Paul goes to school with Bona. He is attracted to her but worries about what their relationship would be like if they were together.
The final part of Cane is one long text called "Kabnis."
Ralph Kabnis is a Black man from the North who comes to Georgia to work at a rural school.
Fred Halsey works as a blacksmith and becomes friends with Kabnis.
Professor Layman is a teacher and preacher who befriends Kabnis.
Hanby is the principal of the school Kabnis works for. He fires Kabnis for drinking on school property.
Lewis is another Black man from the North. He and Kabnis sometimes connect over this similarity.
Carrie K. is Fred Halsey's sister.
Father John is the deaf and blind father of Carrie K. And Fred Halsey.
Cane is divided into three parts. The first takes place in the South, the second in the North, and the third combines the North and South with a story about a Black man from the North returning to the South.
The first part of Cane contains six works of prose and ten poems, all of which are set in rural Georgia.
Most of the vignettes in this section, including "Karintha," "Becky," "Carma," "Fern," and "Esther," are named for women and tell the story of women in the rural South. In "Karintha," a beautiful Black woman captures the attention of every man in town from an early age. In "Becky," a white woman is ostracized for having two Black sons. "Carma" tells of a woman who is unfaithful to her husband while he is away for work. "Fern" is a woman with strange eyes that captivate her lovers as they try to discover her desires. "Esther" tells the story of a light-skinned Black woman who nurses a long-time obsession with a preacher named King Barlo.
The final piece of prose in part one is "Blood-Burning Moon." It tells the story of Louisa, a Black woman pursued by two men: Bob, the white son of Louisa's employers, and Tom, a Black field worker. The men end up fighting over Louisa, and Bob is seriously injured. A mob forms, burning Tom alive.
The poems in part one, including "Reapers," "November Cotton Flower," "Face," "Cotton Song," "Song of the Son," and "Georgia Dusk," deal with themes of African American life in the South. There is repeated imagery of cotton, field workers, and the Southern landscape. Many of the poems have a rhythm reminiscent of African American spirituals.
Part two of Cane includes seven pieces of prose and six poems. The pieces in this section take place in the North, generally in theaters, clubs, and city streets.
The first two pieces of part two, "Seventh Street" and "Rhobert," are more experimental, even bordering on absurd. "Seventh Street," in poetry and prose, describes a city street created by Prohibition and World War II, brimming with jazz music and flowing with black blood. In "Rhobert," a man wears a house on his head and is slowly sinking into the mud.
The next chapter, "Avery," is a more conventional short story. The narrator falls in love with a girl named Avery, but she meets his romantic advances only with friendship. The two see each other sporadically over the years, and the narrator does his best to forget about her. One night, years after they first met, they run into one another in the street. The narrator takes Avery to a park where he talks and talks to her until he realizes that she is deeply asleep.
Two poems, "Beehive" and "Storm Ending," follow "Avery," both invoking natural imagery, speaking of flowers, bees, and the sky.
The next piece of prose is a story called "Theater." It tells the story of John, the theatre manager's brother, as he watches Dorris, one of the chorus girls. He is captivated by watching her dance and begins to imagine if they could have a future together. Dorris sees him watching her and begins to wonder the same. However, John is so lost in thought that his face goes blank, and Dorris thinks he has lost interest.
"Theater" is followed by another poem, "Her Lips are Copper Wire," which describes a man and his lover.
"Calling Jesus" is a work of prose that describes a woman with a soul like a dog that always follows her but remains separated.
The next piece, "Box Seat," is a lengthier story about Muriel and Dan, two would-be lovers that are separated by class differences. At the story's beginning, Dan surprises Muriel with a visit to her home. Even though she thinks perhaps she does love Dan, she is not enthusiastic about the prospect of a relationship with him. Later, Muriel goes to the theatre with a friend and sees Dan in the crowd. When one of the performers offers Muriel a rose, Dan has an outburst and leaves.
The final two poems of part two are "Prayer" and "Harvest Song." The first describes the relationship between the speaker's body, soul, and mind, and the second the fatigue of laborers at harvest time.
"Bona and Paul" closes part two. This short story tells of the relationship between Bona, a white girl, and Paul, a Black man. The two play basketball together at school, and the game turns flirtatious. Later, they go out with friends, and Bona tells Paul she loves him. However, he cannot say it back, and he worries about what other people think when they see him and Bona together.
The final part of Cane is made up of one lengthy story called "Kabnis."
"Kabnis" is a semi-autobiographical story based on Toomer's experience coming from the North to work as a principal in rural Georgia. It is somewhere between a play and a short story, with characters' dialogue preceded by their names. The descriptions between dialogue are vaguely reminiscent of stage directions but are more lyrical and story-like.
Ralph Kabnis has come from the Northern United States to work at a school in rural Georgia. He is subsequently fired from the school for consuming alcohol on the premises, but he remains in Georgia, working at the town's blacksmith shop.
Kabnis gets to know many of the local townspeople and is often shocked by the differences between life in the South and in the North. One night, at a party, Kabnis is convinced he hears the deaf, blind, and normally mute Father John speak, but no one believes him.
The next day, the man speaks again, saying that white people sinned by making the Bible lie. Kabnis is unimpressed with this statement and returns to work in the blacksmith shop, leaving the old man and his daughter illuminated in the light of the sunrise.
The first story in Cane, "Karintha," explores the objectification of African American women.
Karintha is a woman. Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon. They will bring their money; they will die not having found it out. . . Karintha at twenty, carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down. Karintha. . .” -“Karintha”
Karintha is beautiful and widely desired throughout the small town. Her beauty is described as something she carries, like an object that is separate from her. The men attracted to her see only this beauty, not the complexity of the woman behind it.
Seventh Street is a bastard of Prohibition and the War. A crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington." -"Seventh Street"
This quote opens the second part of Cane, which takes place in the cities of the Northern United States. "Seventh Street" illustrates the contrast between the North and the South, painting a picture of the Northern city as a place bursting with life and possibility but at the same time cold and unfriendly.
He gives a tight laugh at his own good humor. Kabnis burns red. The back of his neck stings beneath his collar. He feels stifled. Through Ramsay, the whole white South weighs down upon him. The pressure is terrific. He sweats under the arms. Chill beads run down his body. His brows concentrate upon the handle as though his own life was staked upon the perfect shaving of it. He begins to out and out botch the job." -"Kabnis"
This quote comes from "Kabnis," the final story in Cane. Ralph Kabnis is a Black man who comes to rural Georgia from the North. He is often shocked and frightened by the racism and violence he encounters in the South, and he finds the way he relates to white people is beginning to change. In this example, he is tasked with repairing a white man's hatchet, but he is overwhelmed by the job and the man's presence and cannot complete the work.
Some key themes in Jean Toomer's Cane are femininity and sexuality, North versus South, and race and racism.
Many women in Cane, such as Fern, Avery, and Karintha, are beautiful but mysterious and unknowable. They captivate their lovers but ultimately frustrate and confuse them. Through these depictions of femininity and sexuality, Toomer examines how Black women are frequently sexualized, objectified, and dehumanized.
Much of Cane explores the difference in African American culture and experience in the North and South of the United States. The first part of the text is set in rural Georgia and examines life in the Deep South. The second takes place in the busy cities of the North. Many of the characters in this section are Black Southerners who have migrated north hoping to find a better life. Instead, most feel alienated and struggle to make meaningful connections with others.
Finally, the third section combines the North and South experience with a story about a Black man from the North who comes to the South.
Throughout the poems, short stories, and vignettes of Cane, Jean Toomer explores the nuances of race in the United States. Many of the stories illustrate how both Black and white people are rejected from their respective communities for crossing racial lines. For example, the title character in "Becky" has two mixed-race sons and is therefore forced to live isolated on the outskirts of town.
Other stories, such as "Kabnis," deal explicitly with violent acts of racism in the Jim Crow South. The title character of "Kabnis," a Black man from the North, is shocked and frightened by the horrific stories he hears from Black Southerners.
Cane is a text made from poems, short stories, and vignettes that explores the Black experience in the North and South of the United States.
Jean Toomer began writing the poems and stories that make up Cane in 1921.
Cane is a modernist novel that combines poetry and prose.
Jean Toomer began writing Cane in 1921, and the novel was published in 1923.
Cane was significant for its experimental modernist technique and its portrayal of African American life.
What inspired Jean Toomer to write Cane?
His time spent working at a school in Sparta, Georgia.
When was Cane published?
Cane is an example of what literary movement?
Which is NOT a key theme in Cane?
Love and family
What is NOT included in Cane?
Cane is divided into how many parts?
Which chapter of Cane is semi-autobiographical?
Where does part one of Cane take place?
Where does part two of Cane take place?
Cities in the Northern United States
Why did Jean Toomer resist being associated with the Harlem Renaissance?
Because he wanted to be known as an American writer, not just an African American writer.
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