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Note: This is a slightly modified version of a review already archived elsewhere. I wrote the original December 19th, 2011 on the website LibraryThing.

Cane is a slim work of fiction that defies category, interspersing poetry with prose in a willfully modernist style that fascinates for its seeming innocence, as if Jean Toomer (1894-1967) had no idea just how strange his writing was. This, Toomer’s only published work, has puzzled critics ever since its publication in 1923. Darwin T. Turner, in his introduction to the Norton “Liveright” edition, focuses on the racial implications and quotes Toomer on the same. This view is reasonable but somewhat myopic. Toomer himself resisted classification, preferring only to be known as an American writer, not a black American writer. Examined from that angle Cane is best compared to William Faulkner, whose experiments with the limits of prose and creative interpretations of the dark legacy of the south offer much the same feel, as in the short story Barn Burning.

Toomer’s prose is invaded by poems, lyrics, and drama; most of the prose segments ignore the traditional beginning, middle and end of a “story” and function closer to prose poems or spontaneous tales. Cane is meant to be listened to. You are meant to concentrate as if in the presence of an oral storyteller.

The book is divided into three parts, bound together by focusing on the lives of black men and women; their scorched emotions juxtaposed with depictions of the landscapes around them, the latter described in a sensuous style reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence.

Part 1 is in the agrarian setting of rural Georgia. It’s grim stuff, verging on southern gothic; a world of religious obsession, fear, sudden violence and extensive bigotry. The stories focus on the lives of women; men are seen only in relation to women who’ve gone into a hibernation of feeling or sold themselves for an easier time of it. Names and phrases thread between the sketches, tying together into a cohesive look at a poor, closed off sawmill town. There are moments later when the author’s voice becomes slightly shrill in its depiction of race relations, but this first segment is universal in its portrayal of the numbness induced by suffering and deprivation. The poems are left to become the only refuge (and that rarely) of tenderness in Cane.

Part 2, written primarily to lengthen the book, takes to the north and the city. For the clearest example of the change in the writing, just compare the first lines of each segment. Part 1: Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down. Part 2: Seventh Street is a bastard of Prohibition and the War. Part 2 takes up the props and scenery of the Jazz Age, focusing attention on the lives of men, moving at a swift pace and leaning on dialogue and stream-of-consciousness. At times, Toomer experiments with the drama format to depict what the characters are thinking underneath their interactions (contemporaneously, Eugene O’Neill incorporated the technique into his play Strange Interlude which was not produced until 1928). Though the northern characters are materially better off, they still struggle to understand one another, locked so deeply in their minds that they cannot act…

Part 3 is built rather loosely in the form of a play, centering around the character of Ralph Kabnis, a northerner come to teach in Georgia, bringing Cane back to where it started. Gothic elements return with a silent old man living in a basement, the outsider Lewis who is viewed with suspicion, the memories of brutal racial murders and Kabnis’ own violence. Kabnis is a coward, too frightened to act except in the spontaneous slaughter of chickens. He hides from his demons, raving, wearing a mask of superiority and despising the quiet, watchful Lewis. This segment draws heavily on a negro dialect which is rather taxing to read but not half so incomprehensible as the Roxy-narrated chapters of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. And while the character of Kabnis is impossible to like, his story, and thus the “novel” that Cane isn’t, end on a deeply haunting note.

A quick word about the poetry, which ranges in style from the structure of gospel lyric to the unrhymed techniques typical of modernists. The poems form bridges around and between each sketch, sometimes standing alone and sometimes used to create emphasis. There are moments when one phrase will overlap with an ambivalent cut-in, as in this scene when a battered and hideous dwarf wrestler offers spectator Muriel a rose:

Words form in the eyes of the dwarf:

Do not shrink. Do not be afraid of me.
See how my eyes look at you.
the Son of God
I too was made in His image.
was once-
I give you the rose.

Muriel, tight in her revulsion, sees black, and daintily reaches for the offering. As her hand touches it, Dan springs up from his seat and shouts:

Yes, Cane is historically important as one of the earliest works of the Harlem Renaissance and as a modernist experiment, but that’s window-dressing. It is a grim and challenging work, but if you’re prepared, it’s also exceptionally rewarding. It’s a brief series of visions: sharp, unsettling and fascinating, possessing a somber sense of beauty. A book to savor.