A collection of poems and short stories/vignettes by Jean Toomer.


While reading the first section of Cane I had the overwhelming feeling of – presence. Not of something spiritual or divine, but a physical, amorphous, miasma of … something.
Cane has … texture. It has a degree of humidity … it felt to me like nothing short of a cloud of the fluids of life.

In “blood burning moon” we are exposed to the taste of cane that filled the air in town to a degree that it was pointless to chew cane stalks for the flavor. We are also exposed to the horribly organic odor of burning flesh at the end. In Esther, she becomes disillusioned with Barlo in the midst of “thick licker fumes” and when she decides to make her vision of McGregor’s shop less immaculate she adds the smell of burning tobacco from spit of the men who sit and watch. The scent of pine smoke drifts through “Karintha” and just the name “fern” conjures up the sweet not-quite-rotten vegetation smell of ferns in the summertime.

The sense of smell here is inextricably entwined with the flesh here, the pleasures and pains of it. The smells used are not light and airy but thick and full of life. They evoke the most primal human themes: fertility and death.

Are we then to assume that these are the smells of the south? and why do they seem to occur most frequently there and much less up north? To be sure physically the heat enhances smells, humidity makes them more physical – but perhaps this is also a way of conveying to the reader the connection with the deeper parts of ourselves that are embodied in the farms and towns of the south that are forgotten in the north.

In glass work and polymer clay work, as well as in the traditional clay technique called nerikome, a cane is a loaf made up of rods or layers of different colored glass or clay, so as to form a pattern. The pattern remains the same throughout the cane, and slices of the cane can be taken to use this design over and over on other objects.

Cane, by Jean Toomer (born Nathan Eugene Pinchback Toomer), was first published in 1923 by Boni & Liveright. With a first printing of only 500 copies (and commensurate sales, in spite of positive critical reception), Cane was reprinted in 1927 and in 1967, on Toomer's death. Subsequent editions have included a Harper & Row Perennial Library edition in 1969, in the midst of the Black Studies boom (as a 1968 Booklist review of the forthcoming edition noted, -I'm paraphrasing here - "everyone is scrambling for black authors now"). The 1969 edition bore a helpful introduction by Arna Bontemps, but this was superseded by Darwin T. Turner's excellent scholarly introduction to the 1975 Liveright reissue. Turner later edited a Norton Critical Edition of Cane (1988). (By this time, of course, Liveright (formerly Boni & Liveright) had been acquired by W.W. Norton.)

Liveright reissued the 1975 edition in 1993. In 1994, Random House's Modern Library issued an edition of Cane - ironically, since the Modern Library had been the mainstay of Boni & Liveright in 1923. In fact, it was the stable success of the Modern Library that allowed Horace Liveright to take chances on unproven authors like Toomer. Liveright sold the Modern Library to Bennett Cerf in the mid-20's, being in need of cash; Cerf went on to found Random House with the Modern Library as its anchor. In 2000 San Francisco's Arion Press issued 400 copies of a very lovely edition of Cane - large, hardcover, and containing woodcuts by Martin Puryear, with an Afterword by Leon F. Litwack. Most of the reprints, including the 1993 Liveright, are missing the first of the three arcs that appear before the three sections of the book (i.e., the arc that should appear before the first section), and which Toomer famously wrote to Waldo Frank were indicative of the book's structure. The Norton Critical Edition and the Arion Press edition restore it.

In 1923, Toomer was fairly new on the New York literary scene, having spent several years kicking around the Midwest and South at various schools and jobs, including agricultural school in Wisconsin and physical education school in Chicago. His first publication was "Song of the Son," published in the April 1922 issue of the NAACP's magazine Crisis. Approximately half of the pieces that appear in Cane were published in various periodicals of the period, including Liberator, Modern Review, S4N, and Broom. It is interesting to note that while Crisis was, of course, one of the key periodicals of the Harlem Renaissance, others of the magazines in which Toomer published, like Broom and Little Review, were distinctly avant-garde, containing works by famous folk like Hart Crane, Gertrude Stein, Kenneth Burke, Virginia Woolfe, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore. For this reason, many people see Toomer as occupying an interesting and liminal position between modernism and the (in Nathan I. Huggins's estimation, "provincial" - and in everyone's view, highly socially engineered) Harlem Renaissance.

Toomer met Lola Ridge, the American editor of Broom, through his publications, and it was at one of her parties that he met author Waldo Frank, with whom he later became close friends. Frank pitched Cane to his own publisher, Horace Liveright, by emphasizing multiracial Toomer's "Negro" heritage. In a time when, as Langston Hughes said, "the Negro was in vogue," Liveright played up Toomer's African-American background in advertising Cane, much to Toomer's annoyance, as Toomer thought of himself as one of the first members of "the American race." Frank and Toomer exchanged effusive letters, calling each other "brother" and whatnot, and Toomer dedicated "Kabnis," the third section of Cane, to Frank. Frank in turn wrote the introduction to the first edition of Cane, gushing that "this book is the South" - coming from a man who had to take a trip to the South in order to gather material for his novel Holiday (Boni & Liveright 1923).

Scholars seem to agree that his association with Frank led Toomer to his literary undoing, since it is through Frank that Toomer met Frank's wife, Margaret Naumberg, who in turn introduced him to the philosophies of Armenian mystic Georges Gurdjieff. Darwin Turner blandly notes that Toomer's turn to Gurdjieff "marred his writing," and he never sold another full-length work.

Sources:

Cane (?), n. [OE. cane, canne, OF. cane, F. canne, L. canna, fr. Gr. , ; prob. of Semitic origin; cf. Heb. qaneh reed. Cf. Canister, canon, 1st Cannon.]

1. Bot. (a)

A name given to several peculiar palms, species of Calamus and Daemanorops, having very long, smooth flexible stems, commonly called rattans.

(b)

Any plant with long, hard, elastic stems, as reeds and bamboos of many kinds; also, the sugar cane.

(c)

Stems of other plants are sometimes called canes; as, the canes of a raspberry.

Like light canes, that first rise big and brave. B. Jonson.

⇒ In the Southern United States great cane is the Arundinaria macrosperma, and small cane is. A. tecta.

2.

A walking stick; a staff; -- so called because originally made of one the species of cane.

Stir the fire with your master's cane. Swift.

3.

A lance or dart made of cane.

[R.]

Judgelike thou sitt'st, to praise or to arraign The flying skirmish of the darted cane. Dryden.

4.

A local European measure of length. See Canna.

Cane borer Zoo., A beetle (Oberea bimaculata) which, in the larval state, bores into pith and destroy the canes or stalks of the raspberry, blackberry, etc. -- Cane mill, a mill for grinding sugar canes, for the manufacture of sugar. -- Cane trash, the crushed stalks and other refuse of sugar cane, used for fuel, etc.

 

© Webster 1913.


Cane (?), v. t. [imp. & p. p. Caned (?); p. pr. & vb. n. Caning.]

1.

To beat with a cane.

Macaulay.

2.

To make or furnish with cane or rattan; as, to cane chairs.

 

© Webster 1913.

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