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"In the Land of Cotton": Economics and Violence in Jean Toomer's 'Cane.' (African-American Woman Author)

By Foley, Barbara | African American Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

"In the Land of Cotton": Economics and Violence in Jean Toomer's 'Cane.' (African-American Woman Author)


Foley, Barbara, African American Review


Critics of Jean Toomer's Cane disagree about the text's relation to the economic and social realities confronting rural and small-town Georgia blacks in the early 1920s. Some scholars read the novel as a nostalgic celebration of a vanishing peasant existence close to the earth. If the text acknowledges the harshness of racism and poverty, it subordinates social protest to lyricism, the representation of the here and now to the search for prophetic truths beyond the limits of history. Bonnie Barthold, for example, noting that the text eschews "linear development," argues that "the achievement of Cane" is its "mythic portrayal of a mythic truth on the verge of destruction" (159). Bowie Duncan, reading the text as an "oracular" articulation of post-Einsteinian notions of space and time, remarks that "the meaning of [Cane's] oracle is its multiplicity and uncertainty of meaning" (329). Alain Solard reads "Blood-Burning Moon" as only incidentally the story of a lynching: As the narrative unfolds, the "outline of reality gives way to the haunting presence of a visionary world" (552). Catherine Innes stresses the influence upon Toomer of P. D. Ouspensky's idealist view of "a living universe in which the hidden meaning of all things will be realized and felt, and the unity of all things understood" (155); in this context, Innes reads the Lewis of the text's "Kabnis" section as "a man capable of the cosmic vision, of penetrating the world of appearances, and of fusing together past and present, anguish and joy, 'soil and the overarching heavens'" (163).

All the critics who read Cane as subsuming history under myth do not necessarily applaud the political implications of its idealism. Robert Jones notes that "Toomer's reification of thought is evident in the way he consistently proposed idealism as the solution to racism and social problems, yet without the praxis of social activism" (17). Maria Caldeira chides Toomer for his "belief that he would be able to transcend or solve his conflicts with reality through Art" and charges that he "substituted mysticism for his craving for equality and harmony among people" (548). Edward Margolies contends that Cane achieves a specious unity by "celebrating the passions and instincts of folk persons close to the soil, as opposed to the corruption of their spirit and vitality in the cities." Even the text's representations of violence reflect Toomer's "primitivism" and "neoromantic attitudes": "Is Toomer unconsciously saying that beauty resides in the pain and suffering of black men? . . . Are passivity and withdrawal from life ultimate fulfillment?" (Margolies 39-40). Donald Gibson argues that, by "locating historical causation outside of time and space," Cane offers not "a revelation of the essence of black life" but a "politics of denial" (163, 155). Susan Blake observes that "the central conflict in Cane is the struggle of the spectatorial artist to involve himself in his material"; never fully resolving this conflict, the text "advocate[s] . . . [al retreat into mysticism" (196, 211). To these critics, Toomer's mythic ahistoricity does not enable transcendence of historical tragedy, but instead constitutes an ideological accession and accommodation to that tragedy.

While many Toomer scholars stress Cane's efforts - successful or unsuccessful - to transcend concrete historicity, a number read the book as an intense engagement with the actualities of 1920s Georgia life. Arthur P. Davis, in an early appreciation of Cane, observed that "[u]nderneath all of [the] elusive meanings, . . . one finds a profound knowledge of the Southern scene. . . . There is no overt protest here, but Toomer was always aware of the South's cruelty" (49). Nellie McKay remarks that Cane is about not only "the intrinsic worth of black culture" but also "the pain and struggle wrung from the soul of a people" and the author's own "confrontation with the meaning of that awful reality" (177). Discussing the role played by music in Cane, Nathaniel Mackey notes that Toomer "celebrates and incorporates song but not without looking at the grim conditions which give it birth, not without acknowledging its outcast, compensatory character" (36).

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