"When the Sun Goes Down": The Ghetto Pastoral Mode in Jean Toomer's Cane

By Shaffer, Donald M., Jr. | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview
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"When the Sun Goes Down": The Ghetto Pastoral Mode in Jean Toomer's Cane


Shaffer, Donald M., Jr., The Southern Literary Journal


Darwin Turner once wrote of Jean Toomer's literary masterpiece, Cane, that "[Cane] inspires critical rhapsodies rather than analysis" (In a Minor Chord 207). Turner's observation is suggestive of the critical challenges that Cane poses. While there is no consensus regarding Cane's formal structure, critics have often described it in thematic terms as a pastoral work. Bernard Bell's reading of Cane as "a pastoral work, contrasting the values of uninhibited, unlettered Black rustics with those of the educated, class consciousness Black bourgeoisie," privileges the lyrical elements of the novel and its indebtedness to a "Afro American tradition of music as a major structural device" ("Portrait of an Artist" 13). Yet his analysis here only extends to the poetic pieces that intersperse Cane without comparing them to the prose narratives that provide a thematic and structural counter-point to them. Lucinda MacKethan also offers a reading of the novel as a pastoral narrative, arguing that Toomer "mold[ed] [Cane] into a version of Southern pastoral perceived with the black man's double vision of deep belonging and forced alienation" ("A Pastoral Problem" 425). MacKethan's description of Toomer's "ironic pastoral vision" in Cane does not adequately attend to the rural and urban conflict that frames the novel's portrayal of culturally displaced blacks in the North. In this essay, I will argue that Cane is best understood as what Michael Denning has described as a ghetto pastoral, a variant of the complex pastoral form that emphasizes the unique racial and ethnic conflicts associated with stories of deracinated (im)migrant peoples. Thus, my reading of the novel as a ghetto pastoral examines the racial and cultural tensions that necessarily shape Toomer's aesthetic vision in the novel.

In The Cultural Front, Denning calls the ghetto pastoral as a "yoking of naturalism and the pastoral," stories that dialectically represent urban experience as an "allegorical cityscape composed in a pidgin of American slang and ghetto dialect, with traces of old country tongues" (231). According to Denning, these stories sought to provide a more accurate portrayal of ethnic working class experience. In contrast to traditional pastoral narratives, which privileged a transcendent pastoral ideal in response to the alienating aspects of modern society, the ghetto pastoral narrative revealed the ways in which ethnic and racial categories "mapped" the experience of working class immigrants in the city. These are stories about how displaced immigrants in the city attempt to reimagine themselves in relation to a pastoral landscape "back home," but they are also stories about how race and ethnicity complicate that transformative ideal. As Denning writes, "Ethnicity and race had become the modality through which working class peoples experienced their lives and mapped their communities" (239). Denning offers as examples of the ghetto pastoral mode the work of authors such as Mike Gold, Claude McKay and Anzia Yezierska, novelists whose works arose out of the proletarian moment of the 1920s and 1930s. As Denning points out, ghetto pastoral novels such as McKay's Home to Harlem and Mike Gold's Jews Without Money revealed the ways in which race and ethnicity challenged the transcendent ideal of a green landscape that was at the core of conventional pastoral narratives. Instead, these ghetto pastoral narratives portrayed a contested urban landscape composed of the old and the new, past and present--at once bringing together the symbolic elements of ethnic folk culture and the harsh material realities of urban life. Rather than the boundless potential expressed in traditional pastoral narratives, ghetto pastorals were stories that revealed how racial and ethnic boundaries delimited the lives of displaced (im)migrants. At the same time, these stories expressed the ways in which migrants pushed on these boundaries to create liminal spaces of existence, spaces formed at the interstices between the pastoral dream of transcendence and the urban realities of "working class tenements, sweatshop and factory labor, and cheap mass entertainments" (239).

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