Post written April 24th 2020
My free money from the Canadian government just came through and I feel fucking electric. Oof. Yes! Money for nothing! Ha ha ha! Why? Money isn’t free!? Hilarious! I’m riding on the ceiling, pow pow pow!
12 hours have passed and though the high (and the relief) from the news that there will be no imminent financial ruin for me has not totally receded, it has been diminished by the fact that the entire country of Canada has sold out of Nintendo Switches. So what the hell am I going to spend all this free, unearned, money on???
I’m doing a very good job of buying no new books, which is something I should have stopped doing a long, long time ago. I have over a hundred unread books.
Now that I am no longer scared of running out of money I need to ignore the eternal urge to buy more books, because I’m doing a GREAT job of reading through the unread books on my shelves. This one, Cane by Jean Toomer, was one of the last books I bought in a physical bookshop before society collapsed as a result of COVID-19.
I was drawn to it because of its striking, bright, cover art; and because it was a Penguin Classics that I’d never seen before (it was published only a few months ago). Reading the blurb, I immediately knew that Cane was something I would enjoy: an “under-read” modernist masterpiece exploring race, class, sexuality, gender and alcoholism in 1920s USA. Upon reading Cane, I discovered it was exactly what I’d hoped it would be.
Cane was released in 1923 and was the only book Jean Toomer published in his lifetime. Though Cane was received to great critical acclaim, its sales were poor, and it soon dropped out of print until the late 1960s, when its topics were (again?) back in the zeitgeist.
Toomer, in a very Gen X kinda style, viewed himself as a “post-racial American”. As the very informative introduction by George Hutchinson makes clear, Toomer (who was in his late twenties when the book was published) had spent the first decades of his life regularly being viewed as “white”, “Native American” and “black”.
Toomer was black, but he was from black aristocracy: his grandfather was the first POC US Governor, and Toomer’s early life has the same kinda bouncing around, mooching about, studying a bit, working a bit, getting bored, moving to a different city, kinda vibe that is common to middle class literary types the world over.
There was a sense of freedom and opportunity afforded to Toomer growing up as a result of his financial privilege and his ability – whether deliberate or not – to “pass” as white in certain situations.
Toomer did not believe that his race was important.
Race, Toomer of course understood, was (and remains) a big and important topic for the USA (and all the other countries too, lol) to reckon with, and in Cane he writes about it elegantly.
Toomer described himself as “an American”: for him, this was not only his nationality, but his race too.
Though there were plenty of older black people living during his youth who had spent part of their lives as enslaved people, in America’s constitution and in the more liberal parts of the US at that time, all “men” were to be considered equal.
To “believe” in America is to believe in its claims of fairness and meritocracy, and Toomer is not the only writer guilty of being shielded by class and affluence from the realities of racism (and how it affects individuals). Hutchinson’s introduction implies that the reason Toomer never published another book was his disappointment at Cane being marketed, reviewed and socially “received” as a “book by a Negro writer”.
Toomer – in his opinion – was an American writer who happened to be black. He was able to write artful and meaningful prose about the experiences of poor black men and women because he had met people like this who had treated him – because of his race and in contrast to his beliefs – as a peer.
Cane is separated into three sections, each about 60 pages long. The first two contain many short pieces that alternate between prose and poetry/lyric, while the final section is an extended prose piece.
Section One explores the life of poor, rural, black people; Section Two is about more affluent, more cosmopolitan, black families and individuals living in the middle class black neighbourhood[s] of Washington, DC. The third section combines these two viewpoints, when a young, educated, city-dwelling black man moves to rural Georgia to become a teacher. This piece, ‘Kabnis’ is about an individual (loosely based on Toomer) coming to terms with his race and the realities of discrimination and oppression that his previous life had kept him ignorant of.
Perhaps George Hutchinson is reading too much of ‘Kabnis’ into Toomer’s own life by suggesting that the author failed to heed the “lesson” of his text or, perhaps, forgot that said lesson applied to him too.
For whatever reason, though, Cane was Toomer’s last book, and whether or not he did abandon literature because of society’s inability to judge his work without reference to his race, it was a great loss, as this book is excellent.
Yes, there is often a 1920s-typical idealisation/objectification of women in Cane, but in his evocations of class and race and sexuality and – in particular – his treatment of the corrupt hypocrisies of alcohol prohibition, Toomer paints an impressive portrait of distinct people and places.
The prose is poetic and crisp: there is some formal play but it never impedes comprehension or feels overdone. There is humour as well as pathos here, and it strongly reminded me of Dubliners, as well as the more-directly influential Winesburg, Ohio.
It’s a really great modernist book; difficult to pigeonhole as a novel or a collection of short fiction and poetry, and this is its strength, really: it’s a collage-like impression of life in the USA in the early 1920s, and I highly recommend it!
If you’re going to buy it, buy it from your local independent bookshop when it’s back open!
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