Postmodern Approaches to the Short Story

By Farhat Iftekharrudin; Joseph Boyden et al. | Go to book overview

8
JeanToomer's Cane

Donald Petesch

In my book A Spy in the Enemy's Country I suggested that Cane is many books. To begin with, it is a young man's book, whose women tend to be dreamvisions, mythic rather than naturalistic; it is a philippic against the city, that place of locks, bolts, houses, grime, straight lines, the look of the other; it is an evocation of roots, of place, of home; it is an experimental work; and it is a study in ambivalence.1

While I believe that Cane is all of these, for the purposes of this chapter I will focus on the tensions created by Toomer's placing various elements in opposition. The first and third Georgia sections clearly contrast with the middle Washington, D.C./Chicago section, but the tendency can also be found at both the level of the sentence and the paragraph. To illustrate: Fern (from the first Georgia section) is imagined in an incongruous setting: [picture if you can, this cream-colored solitary girl sitting at a tenement window looking down on the indifferent throngs of Harlem. Better that she listen to folk songs at dusk in Georgia, you would say, and so would I.]2 From [Calling Jesus] (in the second Washington, D.C./Chicago section): [Her breath comes sweet as honeysuckle whose pistils bear the life of coming song. And her eyes carry to where builders find no need for vestibules, for swinging on iron hinges, storm doors] (58). And, finally, from the third—]Kabnis]—section, set in rural Georgia. Kabnis is speaking: [Dear Jesus do not chain me to myself and set these hills and valleys, heaving with folk-songs; so close to me that I cannot reach them. There is a radiant beauty in the night that touches and … tortures me. Ugh. Hell. Get up, you damn fool. Look around. Whats (sic) beautiful there? Hog pens and chicken yard. Dirty red mud. Stinking outhouse. Whats [sic] beauty anyway but ugliness if it hurts you?] (85)

-91-

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