"Always Your Heart": The "Great Design" of Toomer's Cane

By Dow, William | MELUS, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

"Always Your Heart": The "Great Design" of Toomer's Cane


Dow, William, MELUS


"I want great art. This means I want great design." Jean Toomer, "Open Letter to Gorham Munson"

Given the present emphasis on issues surrounding identity politics and the representational logic of cultural studies, it is perhaps not surprising that in the reams of criticism on Jean Toomer's Cane there is remarkably little concerning the issues of direct address and narrative authority. Yet in Cane, Toomer's use of direct address, going against interpretations that marginalize his representations for being insufficiently "folk" or "racial," is crucial in evoking a relationship of sympathy and identification in the reader while creating a distinctly modernist form of storytelling. Cane's narrator, (1) a teller in a social community, adopts a narrative design that shows us how a self-reflective storyteller (2) can "essentialize" and "spiritualize" experience. At the same time, Toomer undertakes a rhetorical project of positioning his readers in a variety of identifications, which serve to illustrate his repudiating of essentialist notions of race. By forcefully bringing together the narrator and reader and/or the narrator and implied reader, Toomer reveals false categories and separations that are both literary and social. The relationship between the narrator and his addressees thus becomes Cane's plot.

Part of Toomer's "great design" in Cane is that his text, like any written text and paralleling any oral performance, is by someone and to someone. It is, then, a social transaction that does not present what is said to the exclusion of who says it to whom and for what purpose (see Ricoeur). Although Cane's characters receive relatively brief treatment, the identity of the novel's narrator is presented in more fully developed terms, both as a process of consciousness and unconsciousness and as a subject impinged on and affected by interactions with his characters and narratee. The narrator renders his "individuality" through a socialized interdependence based on forms of direct address and a creative negotiation of narrative authority. Toomer's radically new formal transgressions, which follow his radical positions on race and culture, speak to the need to understand Cane in terms of both stylistic function and thematic expression.

My purpose here is to trace Toomer's self-reflective narrators in the three sections of Cane in order to show how Toomer raises the issue of "social transaction" implied by the choice of narrative method and by the identification of narrator, narratee, and reader. In effect, Toomer does not assert cognitive authority but concentrates instead on articulating modes of narrative authority and patterns of feeling that directly modify not how we understand the world so much as how we engage it. He suggests that there are modes other than "race" that afford significant ways of resisting the dominant cultural emphases on difference. I want to show how these concepts and modes are inflected by the geographical movements of the book, what shifts in the identification of narrator and narratee are implied by shifts in the nature of the communal experience in Cane's three sections, and how the subjectivities of characters, narrators, and real and implied readers have been shaped by different communal experiences. Cane is a productive rewriting of "race," allowing for the recognition of multiple authentic African American voices, identifications complicated by class, gender, and geography, and greatly enriched by the significant modulations in narrative address that Toomer undertakes.

Moreover, I want to consider how each of Cane's three sections records an emergence of a special racial ethos of modern life. Part One involves the narrator building a foundation of restoring "race" to a metaphorical position equal to, even identical with, the "soul" while at the same time he expresses the impossibility of sustaining such a creation. …

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