Academic journal article East-West Connections

"[L]ike Dusk on the Eastern Horizon": Reading Cane through Chinese Culture

Academic journal article East-West Connections

"[L]ike Dusk on the Eastern Horizon": Reading Cane through Chinese Culture

Article excerpt


Since it was first published in 1923, Jean Toomer's Cane has been much discussed. Some critics think that it is the most promising book of Afro-American literature in Toomer's time, and its unique form is "one of the distinguished achievements in the writings of Americans" (Turner 208). Many critics have interpreted the work in terms of its aesthetics or have applied a kind of aesthetic criticism to it. Robert Bone says, "No paraphrase can properly convey the aesthetic pleasure derived from a sensitive reading of Cane" (quoted in Turner 207).

Montgomery Gregory suggests that we think of Cane as a piece of art work and Toomer as its sculptor. Cane reveals its aesthetics through its use of language and structure, but most importantly through image and color. If the figure of a circle acts as the external structural frame to unify Cane, the creation and depiction of images function as the internal threads that link together its sketches, stories, and poems.

In this paper, I will give attention to the aesthetic quality of Cane by considering Toomer's use of the images of dusk and the color purple. I will also offer an interpretation of how these images, understood through Chinese aesthetics, result in a different appreciation for the text than might be had by a Western reader.


Dusk as an image in Cane

In Cane, dusk symbolizes the dark-skinned Afro-Americans and embodies the moment of mystery and their depth of feeling. Dusk is an integral feature of Karintha's appearance and is used throughout the rural scenes of Georgia to describe the mystery and depth of experience with which Toomer infuses Cane. The initial passage and the opening and closing poems associate Karintha with dusk. Toomer says, "Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon," Karintha "carrying beauty, perfect as the dusk when the sun goes down" (Toomer 4). The reference to dusk most obviously describes the color of her skin, but the duskiness also relates to the entire dark beauty that stills the experience of the "dusky cane-lipped throng" (Toomer 15).

Although Karintha is dark, her beauty is irresistible. Though she has been married many times and "men will bring their money" to her, she is not a prostitute. Toomer says, "Karintha is a woman ..., carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down" (Toomer 4).

Dusk, as a label for her skin, actually manifests her elusive beauty and soul. This image ties her whole life up like a string. Darwin Turner summarizes Karintha's life as:

   Karintha at twelve--beautiful, matured to sexual knowledge,
   no longer permitting herself to be dandled on the knees of old
   men. Karintha at twenty--often mated, perfect as dusk, supported
   by men, mother of a child who died unwanted on the pine needles
   beneath the smoke curling from the sawmill. Karintha--"Men do not
   know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon.
   They will bring their money; they will die not having found it
   out." (Turner 20)

He writes that out of the concealment of darkness darts Karintha, "a bit of vivid color, like a black bird that fl ashes in light." Karintha's voice is at this moment the corollary to the image of the black bird: "her voice, high pitched, shrill, would put one's ears to itching" (Toomer 3). The contrast between the quiet of the day-night and the sheer force of her liveliness establishes her appeal, for Karintha is part of that dusk only as it reveals her fleeting appearance. Toomer states that she carries her beauty in action. She is active and elusive, inescapably captivating. So, without the stasis of dusk, Karintha could not be known.

Dusk also suggests the hiatus in people's lives between the activities of day and night, the moment of reflective pause "during the hush just after the sawmill had closed down, and before any women had started their supper-getting--ready songs . …

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