Heavy Loads: Cane and the Burden of Discrimination
Jean Toomer, in his novel Cane, compiles issues that plague the black community of the United States through the lens of characters who struggle with conflicts that arise because of racism in both the North and the South. These issues include grappling with masculinity, femininity, and gender roles, being biracial and not fitting into one solid community, and having dreams that are out of reach due to the oppressive white power structure in America. One story in particular in Cane that exposes the deeply painful effects that racial oppression and violence have on black Americans is Toomer’s “Kabnis.” Through Kabnis, an educated black male character who feels as if he cannot reach his dreams or rise to his full potential due to racial violence in the South, Jean Toomer sheds light on the consistently oppressive white power system in the United States that does not allow black people to rise to equality, even as they become scholars and artists.
Kabnis’ dilemma provides an example to what might—in the words of Langston Hughes—happen “to a dream deferred,” as Kabnis begins to lose his wits due to his inability to explore the beauty of the world, which is his true desire. As an educated black man from the North, Kabnis faces a difficult time in the South finding beauty that he longs for in the world. Amongst lynchings and racial oppression in the South, Kabnis is tormented by his desire for beauty and knowledge. He states, “There is a radiant beauty in the night that touches and . . . tortures me . . . What’s beauty anyway but ugliness if it hurts you?” (Toomer, 114). Also, Kabnis is biracial, which means he undergoes prejudices from both whites and blacks in the South. Kabnis’ inability to fully identify with one racial group makes him an outsider, and causes him to experience both loneliness and extreme paranoia. While Kabnis is discussing racial violence in his county with two other highly educated black men, someone throws a rock in the window with a note that reads, “You northern . . . its time fer y t leave. Git along now” (124). Kabnis assumes that the note is from whites, and fears for his life. When he later finds that black people threw the stone, he is astonished and confused. Because slavery, segregation, and racial oppression at the hands of white America has created such a divide between whites and blacks, Kabnis, as a biracial man, is not wanted by whites in the South nor blacks. This dilemma caused Kabnis to feel deeply lonely and frightened.
Kabnis turns to drinking to calm his nerves due to the constant fear he lives in, and the lack of beauty in the world that he longs for and cannot reach. Because Kabnis is found drinking during the day, which is taboo in the South, Kabnis is fired from his teaching job by a black man named Hansby, who believes that the black community must uphold the highest moral standards in order to rise to equality. Hansby represents a black individual with internalized racism, as he is a character who believes that blacks must perform exquisite behavior if they are to be considered equal to whites. In “Kabnis,” however, Jean Toomer introduces a very old black man who is blind, deaf, a former slaves, and reveals a truth about sin in the United States. When the old former slave mumbles the word, “sin,” Kabnis yells back at him, “Shut up. What do you know about sin, you old black bastard,” implying that he is fed up with being confronted for committing sins such as drinking during the day (158). But the old man eventually states, “Th sin whats fixed . . . upon th white folks . . . f tellin Jesus—lies. Oh th sin th white folks’ mitted when they made the Bible lie” (159). Through the words of this old black man, Toomer exposes the hypocrisy that white people possess for using the Bible to defend slavery, and under Jesus’s name—a man whose teachings were supposedly rooted in being kind to all and loving all people—upholding slavery in the name of Christianity. Also, one might take from this old former slave’s words that no sin committed by a black man is greater than the enslavement of an entire race, and white people causing such race to live in fear and under constant oppression long after slavery is abolished. Kabnis displays an immense amount of anger and frustration to the old, deaf and blind former slave in the story. Kabnis calls the former slave a dead man, a fool, and states that he doesn’t care about the poor man’s predicament. Kabnis’ behavior can be explained by the fact that if Kabnis cannot find the beauty he desires to see in the world, expand his education, and be at peace, he might end up in the same situation as the former slave.
The reality that an educated black man from northern America feels just as trapped and broken down as a former slave displays that the white power structure in America is refusing to budge—keeping black Americans down and hindering their opportunities with segregation and brutal racial violence. Langston Hughes, in his poem “A Dream Deferred,” asks “What happens to a dream deferred?” Kabnis’ deferred dream might cause him to end up in a dark place similar to the predicament of the former slave. All of the characters in Jean Toomer’s Cane face the consequences of their deferred dreams, some festering like sores, some stinking like rotten meat, but all weighing down like heavy loads on these embattled representations of African Americans.
Toomer, Jean. Cane. 1923. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2011. Print.
Racial and Sexual Identity in Cane
Throughout the text Cane by Jean Toomer, the author creates a paradoxical depiction of women because, although he at times criticizes the metonymization of women, he also participates in it. For example, the first half of the book relies almost entirely on the mythologization of various female figures in Southern society. However, the second half of the book gives voice to the female characters, thus allowing for a critique of the male behavior. Similarly, the text expresses a deep nostalgia for the origins of the African American culture, while simultaneously acknowledging a past filled with slavery and oppression. The interaction of these two concepts throughout the text help to articulate the complex issue of racial identity in post-slavery America. An example is the comparison of women to cotton flowers. Each vignette in the text acts as a force reconciling the cognitive dissonance that comes with Toomer’s “mourning” of his problematic racial origins, while also exploring his controversial views of women and sexuality. One example where race and gender interact is in the story “Theater.”
Since the story is told through the point of view of John, the male gaze is very prevalent in the descriptions of the women‒especially in the parentheticals. Throughout the story, John’s thoughts interject the descriptions of the scene, and they are mostly of a patronizing nature. He sexualizes the dancers with comments like “Lift your skirts, Baby, and talk t papa!” (Toomer 50) and “Dance and I’ll love you!” (Toomer 52). His thoughts while viewing the rehearsal are borderline voyeuristic, as he fetishizes the women in his descriptions: “Soon the director will herd you, my full-lipped, distant beauties, and tame you, and blunt your sharp thrusts in loosely suggestive movements… Soon I… I’d like…” (Toomer 50). John’s obsession with viewing the women‒the “distant beauties” (Toomer 50)‒from afar is explicative of the text’s ‘mourning’ of racial origin because of his contradictory feelings towards them. Although he desires the women, he does not actually allow himself come close to them for various reasons. This can be seen in his streams of consciousness where he argues with himself, saying, “Touch her… Hell no. Cant be done… it can be done. Get her to herself somewhere, anywhere… Hold em bud, Cant be done. Let her go… And keep her loveliness” (Toomer 52). His obsessive fantasizing of the women, in addition to being inappropriate and borderline threatening, also is showing a clash between his desire and his inability to succumb to that desire. Ultimately, John’s internal conflict represents Toomer’s conflicts about identity on a much smaller scale.
Race and status also plays a role in creating a gap between John and the dancers. While they are all present in a historically African American space‒the Howard Theatre, where there are “black-skinned” dancers and “road-shows volley songs into the mass-heart of black people” (Toomer 50)‒there is a clear distinction that is made between John and the others. John is referred to as a “Dictie” (Toomer 51), which is a slang term for an upper-class African American person who tends to participate in more traditionally white activities. Dorris also contemplates his social status in relation to her own, when she begins thinking, “Aint I as good as him? Couldnt I have got an educated if I’d wanted one? Dont I know respectable folks… Aint I had men as good as him?” (Toomer 51). Both judge each other based on their perceptions of each other’s class, as John condescendingly thinks, “Christ, but how she’d bore you after the first five minutes” (Toomer 52). Another problematic comment by John is made when he is describing the upcoming performance and he thinks, “Soon the audience will paint your dusk faces white, and call you beautiful” (Toomer 50). This thought presents the reader with another contrast in the story, as the entire story is written to the rhythm of jazz music. As a result, the story is shameful of black culture while also taking part in it. By portraying the characters in a judgemental light, while also placing them in an upbeat proudly black setting, Toomer plays with the idea of ‘mourning’ his racial origins yet again.
Gati’s idea of the “racial specter” becomes very clear in “Theater” as Toomer is constantly contradicting himself throughout his writing. His obsession with describing the black woman and the female form clashes with his desire to partake in whiteness in this story, as the main character seems to fall outside of the black-white binary‒he is an upper-class “Dictie,” but he is also the brother of the manager of a black cabaret. John’s sexually charged descriptions of the dancer’s bodies objectify the women in the story, which ultimately makes them symbols for his desire to participate in black culture. Contrarily, his refusal to commit them show his inability to fully realize his culture and his origins. In this way, the story confronts Toomer’s complex understanding of his own racial identity.
Eden and Egyptland: The Biblical South in Toomer’s Cane and Ellison’s Invisible Man
Both Jean Toomer and Ralph Ellison allude heavily to Old Testament imagery as they illustrate the Southern American landscape in their respective novels, Cane and Invisible Man. Toomer compares, through spirituals and spiritual-derived language, slavery’s legacy in the South to the plight of the Hebrew slaves of Egypt. In this sense, he describes Christianity in the Southern U.S. as a mostly redemptive force that can, at best, lead black people out of hardship and, at worst, support the status quo of segregation. Ellison, on the other hand, depicts the Southern college at which the first part of the novel takes place as a false Eden that the narrator falls from. As the narrator’s vision of blissful ignorance unravels, Ellison continues to employ religious metaphors in critiquing the lie of progress he had been taught. So, while Toomer more evenly highlights the good and bad aspects of Southern Christianity, both authors appropriate sermonic language to argue that the palliation of injustice by religious fervor holds back the Southern Black community nearly as much as white prejudice does.
Toomer sets his scene of the Biblical South with both poetic and vernacular references to pre-Exodus Egypt and the enslaved Israelites. One of Cane’s most repeated images is the “Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile” (Georgia Dusk 17) that reflects the immaterial, ominous, and unfulfilled cry for salvation that lingers through the aftermath of slavery. Smoke is a symbol of prophecy that brings to mind sacrifice and messages to heaven, while the pyramids more directly allude to slavery in ancient Egypt. Toomer confirms this with a context-less exclamation from an unknown narrator that “God has left the Moses-people for the nigger” (Carma 14). Toomer makes a clearer connection between the enslaved followers of Moses and the poor African-Americans of the rural South, but also implies that the arrival of Moses’ God may not bring the salvation Southern Blacks hope for, as external prejudice persists with or without internal faith. Although Toomer highlights the hope-bringing capacity of gospel song in many of the spiritual poems, he casts them in more of an ironic light when he uses religion to reflect the stagnation of the Southern landscape. In one story,” the setting of a Southern church is described statically and despondently: “There was no wind. The autumn sun, the bell from Ebenezer Chruch, listless and heavy. Even the pines were stale, sticky, like the smell of food that makes you sick” (Becky 10).
Throughout Cane, wind predicts change, so its absence implies a Southern landscape devoid of real moral improvement. Furthermore, the supposed agent of change – Christianity – like spoiled food, once sustenance, is now poison. In this frame of reference, Cane’s earlier religious symbols reveal their doomed nature. In the first story, the sawmill’s “pyramidal sawdust pile smouldered” but “It is a year before one completely burns. Meanwhile the smoke curls up and hands in odd wraiths about the trees” and the sawdust’s smoke “is so heavy you tasted it in water” (Karintha 6). Toomer’s motif of religious uproar, while still born out of righteous revolt against Pharaonic bondage, is now shown to be a lingering, unhealthy influence. Transformed into a spiritual, the prophetic outcry becomes “Smoke is on the hills, O rise / And take my soul to Jesus” (Karintha 6). Yet, the song remains a solemn plea for change rather than a threat against oppressors, as Moses’ sermons were. As such, the smoke remains and the wind stops blowing, stifling the land, symbolically preventing progress away from the sorrows of discrimination. Toomer argues that, by mythologizing Southern Blacks as a helpless people in need of divine intervention, traditional narratives have become ineffectual.
Ellison expands upon much of Toomer’s critique of Southern religion by transposing the hardships of the Old Testament into one man’s life rather than into the lives of all the African-Americans of Georgia. The narrator’s journey begins in an idyllic, but isolated campus “lined with hedges and wild roses that dazzled the eyes in the summer sun” where the “moon kissed the steeple and flooded the perfumed nights” (Invisible Man 36). For all intents and purposes, the college is Eden, a paradise on Earth bounded by a “forbidden road” that “turned off to the insane asylum,” which is suggestive of the immoral, chaotic pre-Fall world (34, 35). According to the Biblical narrative of the Fall of Man, the narrator encounters sin through his exchange with Trueblood, at whose house he finds “a hard red apple stamped out of tin,” symbolizing the forbidden knowledge of evil (53). Finally, on his way out from the college, from whence he has been exiled for sharing Trueblood’s sin, the narrator recognizes ‘the tempting serpent’ as “a mocassin wiggl[ing] swiftly along the gray concrete” that produces “a feeling that [he] was heading into the unknown,” symbolizing the finality of the Fall (156).The twist from the traditional Bible story comes with the revelation that there is as much sin within Eden as without, which is what causes the narrator’s fall. When he is expelled, the narrator learns that Dr. Bledsoe, the supposed paragon of upwards mobility, would “have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where [he is]” (143). The exposed selfishness of his benefactor and the punishment he receives for doing what he is told drives the narrator out of his ‘mental Eden’ into a crueler world of hidden intentions and the sin of lying. The narrator realized this to some extent earlier when he acknowledges that “those who had set [him] here in Eden” are the hypocritical white founders “who trailed their words to [Blacks] through blood and violence and ridicule and condescension with drawling smiles, and who exhorted and threatened, intimidated with innocent words” (112). This sentiment, in response to Homer Barbee’s formulaic and insincere sermon on “humility,” comes to the narrator as a suspicion that there is deceit pervading the college’s sanctuary.
It takes Bledsoe’s reversal, however, to truly convince the narrator that his Eden was illusory. Even removed from the Fall narrative, Ellison is critical of religion’s role in “masking” African-American independence as evident in Barbee’s overwrought speech. As he inflates the Founder’s life to prophetic heroism, Barbee claims that the students’ “parents followed this remarkable man across the black sea of prejudice, safely out of the land of ignorance, through the storms of fear and anger, shouting LET MY PEOPLE GO! when it was necessary, whispering it during those times when whispering was wisest” (120). Drawing upon the same Moses parallel that Toomer also used to ironic effect, Ellison sets Barbee’s vision of the Founder as an example of a prophet whose creed, while bringing the hope to flee bondage, depreciates the social value of his followers. Within the statement that the Founder led his people out of “the land of ignorance” is the ambiguity of whether that land is the American South or Africa, which was referred to as such by proponents of slavery and by slaves such as Phillis Wheatley who were educated through Christianization. Likewise, the “black sea of prejudice” is ambiguously either an expression condemning interracial tensions or the intolerance that came from mutual misunderstandings between oppressed, uneducated blacks. Finally, Ellison implies that the god-like Founder was uncharacteristically submissive when he would whisper a message of defiance in order to avoid strife.
As symbolistic writers, Ellison and Toomer imbue every image, motif, and allusion with a different meaning, depending on context. Their use of religious language and iconography, especially, works to subvert traditional notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘progress’. Through their portrayal of a Southern landscape stifled by unanswered prayer and hollow preaching, Ralph Ellison and Jean Toomer advocate for racial equality through an upheaval of tradition.
Thematic Structures in Cane and Winesburg, Ohio
“Life is swift, and the value of life is the value of every moment.” -Waldo Frank
Out of all the readings for this class, this sentiment is expressed strongest in the works of Jean Toomer and Sherwood Anderson. Cane and Winesburg, Ohio are books of moments, and Toomer and Anderson use universal themes to weave these moments together into sums that are greater than their parts. Toomer uses a cycle of spiritual slumber and awakening, and Anderson uses simplistic narrative forms, a common setting, and a vital prologue and ending to tell parables of idealistic truths and the people that stake their identities to them. The central conflict in Cane is the struggle for spiritual identity, and the central conflict in Winesburg, Ohio is the inability to communicate and the subsequent failure to combat alienation. Both of these books are about the desire for something that is impossible to attain, and in this regard they share the same spirit.
When Jean Toomer finished Cane, he sent a manuscript to Waldo Frank. After reading it, he wrote to Toomer: “From three angles, Cane’s design is a circle…From the point of view of the spiritual entity behind the work, the curve really starts with Bona and Paul (awakening), plunges into ‘Kabnis’, emerges in ‘Karintha’ etc. swings upward into ‘Theatre’ and ‘Box Seat’, and ends (pauses) in ‘Harvest Song’.” (Afterword 214) If the form of Cane is to be understood, then the curves of this circle must be understood. The cycle of spiritual awakening, slumber, and reawakening is one of the main themes that joins the sections of this book together. Following Frank’s interpretation of this theme, it begins in “Bona and Paul.” At the end of the story, Paul awakens to the beauty and nature of his racial identity. Ironic that Cane must go to the North to discover that its roots are in the South. Paul returns to tell the doorman at Crimson Gardens that “…the Gardens are like a bed of roses would be at dusk…that white faces are petals of roses. That dark faces are petals of dusk. That I am going out and gather petals.” Much of the imagery in Cane focuses on dusk. The book starts with an image of dusk. The mixing of light and darkness symbolizes the mixing of races, Caucasian and African into something that is more beautiful than two could be separately. Paul describes it as “something beautiful is going to happen.” This is the spiritual awakening to which Frank refers, and it begins the first curve of Cane’s circle.
The next curve “plunges into ‘Kabnis’”. “Plunges into” is an interesting choice of words to describe the movement of the curve. Waldo probably used these words to describe “Kabnis” as going down into Cane’s spiritual roots. “Kabnis” is a drama/fiction about confrontation, redemption, and acceptance. The titular character confronts not just his roots, but also his fears. He runs from his responsibility much like Jonah ran from God’s commandments. He is eventually redeemed for his fear and accepts his fate, but not without entering the belly of the whale. The story ends in the basement of his redeemer, Halsey. When Kabnis loses his teaching job, Halsey gives him work in his shop. Most of the work is physical in nature, and Kabnis’ ineptitude is illustrated when he miserably fails to fit a wooden handle for a hatchet. This ineptitude dives deeper than simply woodwork; it symbolizes the alienation of the Northern African American from his Southern roots. This alienation is the ultimate source of Kabnis’ fear and frustration, something with which he must learn to cope.
The end of “Kabnis” is ambiguous as to whether he overcomes this inner conflict. Kabnis listens to Halsey when he calls him and takes the bucket of dead coals upstairs, but he does it with a sour attitude. The dead coals would be an obvious symbol for a dead spirit. However, Kabnis literally emerges from the depths of the basement, so spiritual progress is indicated here. Perhaps Kabnis revived the coals when he went upstairs. According to Frank, “Kabnis” deals with plunging into Cane’s spiritual depths. This ambiguous ending is the reason that Frank refers to it as the bottom curve of the circle because it dives downward in the beginning of the story and begins to rise upward in the end. The curve does not emerge until “Karintha”, which is the first piece of the book. “Karintha” begins the first section of the book, the section that focuses on the landscape and life of the South the most out of the three sections. It is a coming-of-age story about a young girl growing into a beautiful woman. “Karintha” begins with a chorus that repeats at the end. The first line reads: “Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon”. Toomer uses the image of dusk to describe beauty, and Karintha is a beautiful woman. Everyone wants her, but no one can have her. Karintha, the woman, represents nostalgia for a past era. The spiritual emergence in the story is apparent when men begin to recognize their desire for Karintha. “Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon.” “Karintha” may seem to be a story about physical desire, but it is an allegory for the spiritual emergence that Franks discusses. The desire for Karintha simultaneously creates this spiritual emergence and destroys the foundation on which this spiritual emergence is built. As Toomer writes, it “could be no good for her”, but the desire could not form into anything actual, it could only be actualized. The unattainable desire represents the spiritual recognition and the inability to unite with the spiritual past, which Toomer perceived to be dying when first visited the South. The spiritual past is recognized, but not before it is too late to actually reach out and unite with it. This discrepancy marks the gap between recognition and actualization, and it is the central conflict in Cane. Frank says that the spiritual identity of Cane emerges in “Karintha”, and while signs point in this direction, they are more overt in “Song of the Son”. “Song of the Son” is a celebration of Cane’s spirituality. It recognizes it, it accepts it, and it rejoices in it. It is the apex of the spiritual circle.
Out of all the works in Cane, this one feels the closest to Toomer’s true voice. When Toomer writes “Thy son, in time, I have returned to thee” one cannot help but imagine that he is referring to his tenure in the South. Cane may have shown metaphorical and symbolic signs of spiritual emergence in “Karintha”, but it is not until “Song of the Son” that it is openly recognized and embraced. Much like the Prodigal Son, the “Song of the Son” is a story of returning to one’s roots, a story of redemption. The narrator has returned to the South “before an epoch’s sun declines”. He describes the South as “thy son”, which is not just a play on the word “sun”, but also associates the spirituality of Cane with the honor of ancestry. Honoring one’s forefathers is a major component of the spirituality of Cane. Toomer pays homage to them throughout section one, but “Song of the Son” is the crescendo of the spiritual emergence to which Frank refers. This is the part of the book where the curve begins to move upwards.
According to Frank, the curve continues an upward movement in “Theatre” and “Box Seat”. However, “Theatre” and “Box Seat” seem to signal a downward movement in the circle, indicating alienation or a dark moment in the spirituality that pervades throughout Cane. Both of these stories are centered around the lives of middle class African-Americans in the North. They are set among the dance stages and to the jazz music that was popular at the time. There is a general tone of frustration and disconnection between the characters in “Theater” and “Box Seat”. In “Theater”, dancer Dorris tries to connect with John through dance but fails. Once again, desire can only be recognized, not actualized. When she looks at him for approval, she finds “a dead thing in the shadow which is his dream.” Just as men desire after Karintha, Dorris desires after John. Just as men won’t stop vying for Karintha because they do not know that “the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon, women will not stop dancing for John’s approval until they see in his face “a dead thing in the shadow which is his dream.” Whereas “Karintha” moves upward in the spiritual circle towards “Song of the Son”, “Theater” moves downward into “Box Seat”.
“Box Seat” opens on Dan Moore stumbling down a residential street, trying to sing an old spiritual. This may seem insignificant in the big picture, but it is perhaps the saddest moment in the book, for it is this moment that signifies the downward movement of Cane’s spiritual circle. The voice is considered the most sacred instrument, and songs, especially old gospel spirituals and work songs, represent a strong connection with African-American roots. The fact that Dan can’t use the most sacred instrument represents an isolation so deep it is invisible. On a subconscious level, Dan’s tenacity and aggressive behavior is a projection for his unexplainable feelings of isolation and disassociation. From this perspective, Cane’s spiritual curve appears to point downwards, not swing upwards as according to Frank. In pragmatic terms like quality of life, social class, and economic level, African-American characters that live in the North in Cane seem to fare much better than the ones in the South. However, these points are merely superficial compared to the spiritual, but this is exactly the point. The North may have good-paying jobs, nice homes and jazz, but what does it cost? According to Toomer, it costs your spirit.
The downward movement of the curve continues into “Harvest Song”. The reaper says “My pain is sweet. Sweeter than the oats or wheat or corn. It will not bring me knowledge of my hunger.” Dust cakes every stanza. The reapers are returning to the dust from which they came. He recognizes the hunger, but he is grateful to the pain for not giving him knowledge of it. Like Dan and Dorris, the reapers hunger, but they clash with the gap between recognition and actualization. They linger at the nadir of Cane’s spiritual circle. It is not until Kabnis emerges from the dusty basement that the curves begins to move upward. From there the circle continues ad infinitum. It continues forever because the nature of the spiritual journey is universal. It happens in the soul of each individual that ever lived. That is what makes Cane about more than just the South.
The stories of Winesburg, Ohio revolve around this statement from “The Book of the Groteques”: “That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thought. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.” Truth plays a central role in the formation of these stories. “The Book of the Grotesques” encapsulates all of these stories into a cogent whole. Without that prologue, Winesburg, Ohio would feel more like a collection of loosely related stories than an actual novel. It does feel like a short story collection, but the reader knows that their connections lie deeper than that. “The Book of the Grotesques” lays the framework in which the stories are set. Anderson originally intended to name Winesburg, Ohio the Book of the Grotesques. Just like the characters in these stories, the grotesque hides underneath a layer of normalcy. This is why Winesburg, Ohio is appropriate as a title and “The Book of the Grotesques” as the prologue. The prologue prepares the reader for what comes next and sets a frame of reference. These different narrative forms are painted together in broad, impressionistic strokes. Anderson achieves this through his simplistic yet distinctive prose style, the one that inspired Hemingway. Anderson’s style of prose turns these stories into parables, which form together to give the reader a glimpse into the life of early 20th century Midwestern America.
In “The Book of the Grotesques”, Anderson says “It was the truths that made the people grotesques…the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.” The clinging to truths is what makes the people of Winesburg, Ohio grotesques and thereby forms the stories into a whole book. The truths themselves do not matter as much as the tenacious grip with which the people cling to them. Throughout these stories, people try to connect with the world and fail. They try to communicate that “indefinable hunger” inside themselves but they cannot because of its nature. This inability to communicate is what makes them ultimately alone, and ironically it is the major theme that connects the stories of Winesburg, Ohio. According to James Mellard, there are “four rather distinct narrative forms. A form (1) that focuses on a central symbol, (2) that portrays a character type, (3) that delineates a quality, state or ‘truth’, and (4) that depicts a simple plot development.” (Mellard 1304) Together, these forms flesh out the world of Winesburg, Ohio into something that feels like a real small American town.
Each story is titled according to its narrative form. For instance “Paper Pills” is an example of a story focusing on a central symbol and according to Irving Howe, it is the central story of the book. Dr. Reefy can be seen as a prescriber of truths that heal the illnesses of Winesburg’s citizens. However, most drugs merely conceal symptoms and do not cure the illness itself. The reader can see how truths can be represented through pills and understand that these pills do not cure illness, but merely hide symptoms. This theme of hiding underneath a layer of normalcy is replete throughout the book.
“The Teacher” is a story that focuses on a character type, in this case Kate Swift as the teacher. In this story, Kate Swift sees in George Willard potential as a writer and takes an earnest interest in him. She makes multiple attempts to communicate to him what she perceives as truth but fails. After one of these failed attempts, the Reverend Curtis Hartman walks in on a frustrated George alone in his office and proclaims Kate Swift to be “an instrument of God bearing a message of truth.” Kate may not be “an instrument of God”, but she has a message she believes important, and try as she may, she can never successfully communicate that message.Many of the “grotesques” in Winesburg take an interest in George because they see the potential for the growth of their truths in his own life. They all try to share their truths with him, but fail due to their own shortcomings. Kate’s shortcoming is her inappropriate desire to be loved. Every time she tries to talk to George it ends in physical contact followed by frustration with her own inability to make someone else understand her truth, which in turn causes George to feel confused and frustrated. The people of Winesburg are not called “grotesques” because they are physically unattractive; on the contrary, some of them are quite beautiful. It is important to remember that they are described as “grotesques” because they cling to truths, and in their tenacity to live by them, the truths become lies. These truths are indescribable, and that is why they cannot communicate them. The frustration that stems from this inability to communicate leads them to feel utterly alone.
Truth and the inability to communicate it is the central conflict of Winesburg, Ohio. As Anderson mentions in the prologue, there are a great many truths, and loneliness is one of those truths. “Loneliness” is a story that defines this truth through the perspective of its main character. Once again, the main character tries to communicate this truth to George Willard, but fails out of frustration of his own flaw, egotism. Enoch Robinson is unique because he is one of the only residents of Winesburg to venture out into the world. He went to New York City to study art and made many friends, but grew irritated with them because of his own childish demeanor. Enoch is described multiple times as a child. Enoch is satisfied when he is alone with his imaginary friends, but feels animosity towards real people. He is frustrated because they do not see what he sees. He wants to burst out to them and explain this to them, but he decides that they would never understand.
Enoch’s biggest fear is that he cannot express himself, and that is why he is more comfortable alone in his room with imaginary companions rather than real ones. His imaginary companions have no trouble understanding him. The story becomes ironic when he meets a woman who seems to understand him, but he cannot allow her to completely understand him for fear that he would be “drowned out.” The narrator describes Enoch as a “complete egotist”, and this is the flaw that prevents him from connecting with George or anyone else. He comes close to connecting with a real person, but his egotism drives him to destroy this relationship. Despite his attempt at self-preservation, “all the life there had been in the room followed her out.” When he tells George the story of the woman, he can hardly bring himself to relive the pain. He shoos George away, but George insists that he finishes the story. He appears to makes himself understood to George, one of the only characters to do so, but in spite of the understanding, Enoch still feels loneliness.
Even when the people of Winesburg manage to communicate, they still feel isolation. The narrator states that the “story of Enoch is in fact the story of a room almost more than it is the story of a man.” The room represents Enoch’s state of mind, which is thrown into perpetual loneliness when the woman draws all of the life and his imaginary friends out of it. Even though Enoch can communicate his state of mind to others, it does not change his loneliness because he holds onto it so tightly that it prevents him from connecting with other people. According to Monica Fludernik, “The central insight in the book concerning human relationships is that each man lives according to his own “truth” and that no one can understand express that truth to someone else. Or, put another way, every human being in this world is ultimately alone.” (Fludernik 525) Every human being in this world is ultimately alone. This is the central insight of Winesburg, Ohio. The book begins with an elderly man at the end of his life who is alone, and it concludes with a young man at the beginning of his life who is alone. “Departure” marks the end of the book, and it is the most important example of Mellard’s fourth form, one that depicts a plot development. “Departure” is the story of George Willard leaving behind Winesburg for the city, presumably Chicago. Although it is simple and relatively short, it is the most important plot development in the book because it gives the reader a sense of closure and solidifies the collection of stories into a single body.
Many of the characters from the stories arrive at the train station to bid farewell to George, such as Will Henderson and Helen White, who unfortunately arrives too late to see him. The story ends with George looking out the car window. The final clause reads: “the town of Winesburg and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.” Winesburg and all its residents recede from the forefront to become indistinguishable and forgotten like all of the other small American towns. When the reader occupied the town, it felt real and unique, but after reading “Departure”, Winesburg seems like a dream. This is because its characters are not written to represent fully rounded, developing people, but static portraits of “grotesques”, people that cling to tightly to truths and lose their own humanity in the process. These “grotesques”, their desire to communicate their truths to George Willard, the different types of narrative forms and the town of Winesburg itself join together the collection of stories into a book that feels greater than a collection of loosely connected stories. Winesburg, Ohio and Cane consist of moments in time and space. The methods Anderson and Toomer use to weave these moments into cohesive books preserves them from aging into the forgotten void. They are unique in their own ways, but they both show the reader lives and worlds that can never be seen again. Cane and Winesburg, Ohio implement universal themes to build the lives and worlds inside of them, and that is why we still read them today.
Byrd, Rudolph P. and Gates, Henry Louis Jr. Afterword.
Cane. By Jean Toomer. Liveright. 2011. Print.
Fludernik, Monica. “The Divine Accident of Life: Metaphoric Structure and Meaning in Winesburg, Ohio.” Style, Vol. 22 No. 1, Narrative Theory and Criticism, Spring 1988 pp. 116-135. Penn State University Press. Web. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42945689
Howe, Irving. Introduction. Winesburg, Ohio. By Sherwood Anderson. Signet Classics. 2005.
Mellard, James. “Narrative Forms in Winesburg, Ohio.” PMLA, Vol. 83, No. 5, Oct. 1968 pp. 1304-1312. Modern Language Association. Web. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1261303
Expectations Compromise Reality
Esther endured five long years of loneliness. Her determination to prove herself and fulfill her desire left her more alone and disappointed than her initial hunger for companionship. In “Esther” by Jean Toomer, Esther’s morality and desires are shown to be degraded through several aspects. The townspeople cause the audience to realize Esther is more unhinged from years of desire than was revealed from her own point of view. Esther’s morality is shown to decay because she was so desperate to have the child she dreamed of and loved, she was willing to risk the sin of conception without marriage. The opposite descriptions of Esther and Barlo create a distinction in the reader’s mind to separate the two in more than just race and appearance. By placing her faith and future in a man she actually knew nothing about in order to pass the years, Esther’s five year long wait resulted in anticlimactic regret. In order to illustrate Esther’s descent into hopelessness, Toomer employs the townspeople’s reaction, Esther’s inner thoughts, and the juxtaposed descriptions of the two main characters to portray how Esther’s hope for her future is eventually degraded.
The townspeople’s speculation at Esther’s sense of urgency when Barlo appears back in town is not merely small talk, it reveals the outside perspective of Esther’s wait, particularly her degradation during the five years. In Esther’s eyes, she is simply living a dull life and yearning to have a human connection, specifically a baby, with King Barlo. So she waits. During the five years, her connection with the outside world dissipates and she becomes weary. Her interactions with the customers degrade from them calling her a “sweet-natured, accommodating girl,” to Esther only seeing “vague black faces”(32-33). When Barlo finally arrives, she hurriedly closes the shop, determined to get to him first, and the townspeople take notice of her, claiming “she always was a little off, a little crazy, I reckon” (34). This judgement from the townsfolk reveals how Esther is kept at a distance from them. The influence from the outside world is so present in Esther’s thoughts, it makes its way into her dream of claiming a baby: “Her joy in it changes the town folks’ jeers to harmless jealousy, and she is left alone” (32). This tidbit of her dream also encapsulates another one of her desires that is eventually degraded: the desire to be accepted in her surroundings. Esther’s loneliness without a husband at twenty-seven and no men showing interest in her translates into her extreme hope for Barlo to come back and conceive a child with her. All of her inner plans, which of course are not visible to the public shopping at her family’s store, would seem crazy to the public as well. Observing her from the outside, the townspeople’s comments at her actions remind us that Esther is not simply a lonely girl, her hopes and mentality were degraded- and it shows.
The third person narration limited to Esther reveals her degraded inner thoughts plotting her unrealistic confrontation with Barlo, as well as her crushing disappointment when he is not exactly as she remembered. When Esther realizes Barlo is no longer the man from her memory, she rushes out of the house and finds that “There is no air, no street, and the town has completely disappeared” (36). The disappearance of Esther’s surroundings is parallel with her mind: both have become completely degraded. Quite possibly, Esther’s only reason for staying in the town which held nothing for her was for the chance of seeing Barlo again. Now, since that plan has dissolved, her cause and hope for life has as well.
The polar opposite characterizations of Barlo and Esther create juxtaposition in the reader’s mind and emphasize the ridiculousness of Esther’s hope to unite with Barlo. Esther is white passing, and has had a very “safe” life managing her family’s shop and simply waiting, never experiencing the racism that Barlo likely experienced. Yet in her safe life, Esther has also never experienced the human connection that she so craves, that Barlo seems to have no trouble in obtaining. Descriptions like “a clean-muscled, magnificent, black- skinned Negro” compared to “like a little white child, starched, frilled” distinctly categorize the two characters, and separate them in the audience’s perspective. (29) The fact that Esther is the daughter of the richest colored man in town, yet passes as white, is another way Esther and Barlo differ. Barlo is a known black man. He travels, he picks cotton, and falls into his religious trances which the town knows him by. Yet for all of Esther and Barlo’s differences, they both degrade by the end: Esther is weary, desperate, and lonely. Barlo is an impaired, repulsive man, ruined by his money. The fact that Esther and Barlo both decay physically and mentally only worsens the result of Esther’s wait, because she did not expect the object of her imagination with such a robust physical state, and spiritual mental state, to decay in the similar unfortunate way that she did.
Jean Toomer’s “Esther” illustrates Esther’s descent into hopelessness as she allowed her expectations to compromise her reality. Placing all her confidence into one man based off of a few shallow impressions and expecting him to want to love her upon first sight shows Esther’s innocence and decay simultaneously. The lack of human connection throughout her years has made her so vulnerable and naive that she believes Barlo will indeed give her the child she desires. Esther’s desperation is revealed in the townspeople’s reaction, her own inner thoughts, and her and Barlow’s degradation.
The Portrayal of African Americans
Many southern writers are known for obscuring the boundaries between human and nonhuman–especially in regard to African Americans. When executed properly, authors are capable of conveying to the reader how African Americans were not typically seen as equally human as whites in both the North and the South. This particular technique is especially prevalent in Cane by Jean Toomer.
Due to the unusual combination of short stories, poems, and even a drama, the structure of Cane is quite fragmented. Additionally, the unfinished circles that appear at the beginning of each section extends this idea of incompleteness or inadequacy. When looking back after reading this book, it is quite obvious how the structure as well as the unfinished circles directly relate to how African Americans were seen as insufficient or lacking. The fact that the author claims that there are alternative starting and ending points for the book only exemplifies the fact that it doesn’t matter when in history you start looking at the treatment of African Americans because no matter where you end, they are still treated unequally to at least some degree. Due to this ununified format, the reader is unable to get to know or sympathize with the characters because there is no tangible plot. This illustrates the idea that African Americans were not worth getting to know or relating to because they weren’t important.
Particularly in the first section of the book, the imagery of the surrounding landscape and environment is vividly connected to the previously enslaved African Americans who inhabited it. While the land is well appreciated and beautiful, it will always be linked to African Americans in a way that is unsettling and unforgettable. This connection is evident in “Song of the Son” which describes how “one seed becomes an everlasting song, a singing tree, caroling softly the souls of slavery” (18). No matter how much time passes, the soft whispers of slavery will never disappear. Almost anyone can appreciate and acknowledge nature; however, these same people typically are the ones contributing to the destruction of the environment as well. This concept is similar to how whites can acknowledge that blacks exist and some even feel bad for them, but these same people don’t contribute to bettering their circumstances. Also, many of the blacks were associated with dusk, a beautiful yet unsettling part of the day; in “Fern,” the narrator explains that he feels strange at dusk and how he feels that “things unseen to men were tangibly immediate” at dusk (25). Dusk is a reminder to whites of the horrors of slavery and how these horrors continue to be commonplace throughout the south. Lastly, in “Bona and Paul” a sense of white supremacy is expressed when Paul says that “white faces are petals of roses. [And] that dark faces are petals of dusk.”(107). Page after page there are examples of using imagery of nature as a means of making African Americans seem inferior to whites.
The echoes of slavery can be seen in nature throughout this book. For example, the smoke that is repeatedly brought up is representative of how many whites viewed African Americans at this point in history. African Americans were visible to whites, but just as the wind can quickly disperse smoke into nothingness, blacks would disappear from the minds of whites almost as effortlessly as they came to mind. In other words, African Americans were not typically seen as real people deserving of more than simply following the orders of the superior race. Smoke could also be related to the myriad lynchings that took place in both the North and South; this depiction of burning bodies of lynched African Americans is portrayed in “Portrait in Georgia” when the narrator speaks of the “black flesh after flame”(38). Many of the lynchings that take place in the book are easily comparable to a crucifixion such as the one that takes place in the Bible. Smoke is also mentioned in relation to death. For instance, in “Karintha” when her baby dies, “the smoke curls up and hangs in odd wraiths about the trees, curls up, and spreads itself out over the valley” which is an example of how the possibility of death, due to numerous lynchings that took place, lingers in the minds of African Americans.
The obvious connection of this book’s title to the story of the “Mark of Cain” from the Bible relates to how many people used this story to justify slavery. God’s arbitrary preference for dark-skinned people to be slaves destined African Americans to be seen as less than human. White supremacy is a dominant theme in this book, and there are constant references as to how being black or even being associated with blacks makes one inferior. For example, in “Becky” even though she was a white woman, the fact that she had two black sons automatically made her an outcast in the community. Many whites held prejudices against blacks because they believed that African Americans were inherently worse and almost primitive in nature since essentially all they were good for was slave labor. Unexpectedly, Louisa from “Blood Burning Moon” views Tom and Bob, her love interests, as equals regardless of their differing races. It is interesting that from the eyes of Louisa, a black woman, race is totally irrelevant; however, Bob, the white man in this love triangle, describes being “embarrassed” and found the “contrast [of their skin] repulsive” (44). This intermingling of the races is confusing to the reader due to the prevailing thoughts of whites being the dominant race. Bob’s conflicting feelings about Louisa due to the color of her skin only confirms the predominant perceptions of African Americans as the inadequate or lesser race.
In “Prayer” the narrator has “confused the body with the soul”(92). This ties into how confusing and degrading it must have been for African Americans to think about their bodies in the context of an intolerant, bigoted America. African Americans were never able to feel a sense of belonging in their bodies; it is almost as if their bodies were cursed. This loss of identity is seen throughout the book, especially in regard to the women, because many of the characters are portrayed as being empty. For example, in “Fern” everyone desires her, yet she “sought nothing”(21). While African Americans were legally free, their version of freedom was quite different from the freedom whites experienced. This concept is illustrated when Bono explains how white men “tied his feet to chains. They led him t th coast, they led him t th sea, they led him across the ocean an they didn’t set him free. The old coast didnt miss him, an th new coast wasnt free…” (30). Despite blacks technical freedom from slavery after the Civil War, they were, in a sense, still enslaved by their past. This unfortunate feeling of not belonging and wanting to escape reality is demonstrated in “Beehive” when the narrator says that he wishes “[he] might fly out past the moon and curl forever in some far-off farmyard flower”(65). This quote insinuates that African Americans don’t necessarily wish that they could change who they are or what they look like; instead, they wish they could escape somewhere that they would be truly accepted for who they are as people instead of only being recognized and defined by the color of their skin.
The body is also linked to how many African Americans were raped, beaten, or killed before as well as after the Civil war when Jim Crow Laws were in place. Another connection to the body is how the women in the book served as empty, sexualized shells for men to indulge themselves. This idea is seen over and over again in stories such as “Karintha” in which “men had always wanted her” (3) or in “Fern” where men would look at her “spellbound”(23). This shallow connection that both black and white men have to the female body coexists alongside racism creating a confusing interracial relationship between men and women. African American women arguably were treated the worst because they were not only seen as inferior due to their race, but also due to the fact that they were women. Unfortunately, the women that appear throughout the book seem to only serve the purpose of satisfying the male gaze and their sexual desires–which leaves them feeling essentially purposeless.
By confusing the boundaries between African Americans and inanimate objects, as seen in Cane, authors are able to indirectly convey the prevailing sentiments in America in this post-war time period. Ideas such as white supremacy, misogyny, and racism were pervasive in this era. This technique is quite unsettling once the reader realizes what is actually happening. Using this strategy to categorize an entire group of people based on race as less than human opens the readers’ eyes to the realities of African Americans after the Civil war as well as the unfortunate realities of today. Despite the fact that feelings of white supremacy and racism exist today, there is no doubt that the circumstances of African Americans have significantly improved. Cane gives the reader a new perspective on how life really was during this time in history. Rather than always telling the reader exactly what people were thinking and feeling about one another, Toomer vaguely, yet repeatedly, suggests that the majority of people viewed African Americans as less than human and undeserving of equal treatment. He successfully gives the reader a glimpse of the realities of the time through this unique method of dehumanizing the African American race.
The Absence of Female Voices and Perspectives in Jean Toomer’s ‘Cane’
In his biographical introduction to Cane, Darwin Turner quotes William Stanley Braithwaite as saying, “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 the compromise of the author’s vision.” This claim of primacy is both lofty and inaccurate, as it completely overlooks the works of previous black authors such as Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, and Frederick Douglass, to name a few obvious contenders. After reading and rereading Toomer’s stories and poems, I could find no reason to hail the author as “the first artist of the race” who could “write about the Negro without the surrender or compromise of the author’s vision.” The most prominent issue in Cane is the overt absence of a female voice. There are numerous female characters and several stories named after them, but the women are presented more as objects for observation than as fully-formed characters. This is a bitter irony: Jean Toomer is celebrated as a literary voice for African American people, yet he does not permit the female half of those people to speak.
The first title character we meet is Karintha, a young girl “carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.” Each paragraph in this brief story shows Karintha at a different age, but we never hear her voice. She is described through her relationships and interactions with men. It is through her mock-sexual actions at a young age with a “small boy who was not afraid to do her bidding” that we are first introduced to her. We are told that she has been “married many times” and that all the young men “want to bring her money”—a possible hint at prostitution. All the same, each of these pieces of information defines Karintha by her relation to men around her—either as wife or as paid lover.
The second female character to entitle her own story is Becky, “the white woman who had two Negro sons.” We are informed by a local man of how Becky was turned out by white and black society alike, and how her sons were hard, cold, and dangerous. The only sound Becky makes is a possible moan from underneath the ruins of her chimney at the end of the story, but even that is conjecture. Of course, Toomer is relating here the effects of miscegenation and the shunning inflicted by both racial groups; this would be a poignant moment, were Becky not one in a long line of silent women. By itself, “Becky” serves a purpose, but in a book already lacking a legitimate female presence, it just adds to the silence.
The final story named for the main female character it contains is “Avey.” We hear nothing from the title character; instead, she is revealed to us through the musings of a young man who feel he is in love with her. By the end of the story, the two of them have kissed once, and she is lying asleep in the grass as he watches over her protectively. We never hear what Avey wants; we never see her outside of the lens that the narrator provides. She, like the others, is a literary object that shows no personal volition.
Toomer’s poems are no exception to this female absence. Again, when he does give us a glimpse of a female character, it is only as a physical object via physical description. In “Face,” the female character is revealed through descriptions of her hair, brows, eyes, and muscles; in “Evening Song,” Cloine is an object to be observed as she “sleeps” and “dreams,” her “lips pressed against [the narrator’s] heart;” and in “Portrait in Georgia,” a description of hair, eyes, lips, breath, and body is all we have of the female character.
One cannot help but to take issue with the lack of a genuine female presence in Cane. As a person of biracial heritage—a term I hate to use because it suggests an inherent differentness based on skin color—Jean Toomer was able to walk in both the black and the white circles. He would have had first-hand knowledge of the prejudices and struggles associated with each, and he would have been subject to ridicule from both sides. This idea makes his omission an even graver literary folly. Was Jean Toomer was a misogynist? No. His portrayal of women is favorable throughout the book, but only in the way that an artist paints his subjects in a favorable light without showing the blemishes and scars. The portrayal is not real, and this lack of truth in the piece is an injustice that cannot be overlooked. If, as Braithwaite suggests, Jean Toomer is the first African American writer to write about the lives of people of color without losing his vision, then it could easily be postulated that Toomer’s vision is no inherently problematic. He seemingly places his female characters on a pedestal, but only to make them easier to objectify.