Jean Toomer (1894-1967)
Contributing Editor: Nellie Y. McKay
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Toomer's style is difficult, especially in view of earlier African-American literature. To a large extent, Toomer abandoned the predominant naturalistic and realistic representation of the black experience to experiment with newer modernistic techniques. When they first approach these texts, students usually feel that it is well beyond their understanding--that Toomer is engaged in abstractions that are too difficult to comprehend.
Have the students explore all the possibilities for a literal meaning of the metaphors and symbols. "Blood-Burning Moon" is less difficult for them because it has a traditional story line. In "Karintha," for instance, try to get them to see that Toomer is concerned with the sexual and economic oppression of women within their own communities where they should be safe from the former at least.
These selections lend themselves to the visual imagination. Students may find it helpful to think of the "pictures" Toomer's images present as they read and try to understand, also, the written meanings these images present.
Students respond positively to the poetic qualities of the writing, and they enjoy its visual aspects. They have difficulty interpreting the underlying themes and meanings, mainly because the language is seductive and leaves them ambivalent regarding the positive and negative qualities the writer intends to portray. It is best to lead them through one section by reading aloud in class and permitting them to use a number of methods (listening to the words, visualizing the images, etc.) to try to fathom what is going on.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
1. The significance of black women as representatives of African-American culture. What qualities do women have that are similar to those of the entire group of African-Americans--at least as Toomer saw them?
2. The nature of the richness as well as the pain in African-American culture.
3. The symbolistic aspects of the northern and southern black experience.
4. The role of the black artist--e.g., in "Song of the Son," in which the absent son returns to preserve the almost now-lost culture of his ancestors.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Toomer is writing at a crucial time in American and African-American literary history. His friends are members of the Lost Generation of writers intent on reforming American literature. His effort is to make a different kind of presentation of African-America through the art of literature. He sees the loss of some of the strongest elements of the culture in the move toward modernization and technology. For example, he captures the beauty and pathos of the experience in "Karintha"; the brutality in "Blood-Burning Moon"; and the imitation of the white culture in "Box Seat."
Cane was written for an intellectual audience who could grasp the nuances the author was interested in promoting. The book sold fewer than 500 copies in its first year, but had enthusiastic reviews from the most avant-garde literary critics. It continues to appeal to intellectuals, especially those who are interested in the ways in which language can be manipulated to express particular life situations.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Toomer's work can be compared to some of Sherwood Anderson's stories, and to Hart Crane's poetry. The three men knew each other and were friends during the 1920s. They read each other's work and advised each other. Their general thrust was that human beings were alienated from the basic "natural" qualities in themselves and needed to get back to more of the spiritual values that could be found in closer unity with nature.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
Cane was a work to celebrate the African-American experience without denying the awful pain and oppression that made the strength of the group so apparent. Paper topics that focus on the history of black America between Reconstruction and the 1920s are useful in showing what a student can learn about Jean Toomer's reasons for the perceptions he revealed in these selections.
The best source on these is the discussion (in chronological order in the book) in the McKay biography of Toomer's literary life and work. The attempt here is to explicate the individual selections in the total book.