The story “Fern” by Jean Toomer, from the collection Cane, is, at a glance, a portrait of a beautiful woman nobody understands. A little deeper, and she becomes un-understandable; peel off another layer, and she is not a woman at all, but an identity, a nation, a people who do not know themselves. She is the personification of Jean Toomer’s “American race,” and she is the salvation of mankind.
A quote from Jean Toomer in the introduction to Cane gives a clear glimpse of the perspective of “race” that “Fern” is concerned with:
“From my own point of view I am naturally and inevitably an American. I have strived for a spiritual fusion analogous to the fact of racial inter-mingling. Without denying a single element in me, with no desire to subdue one or the other, I have sought to let them function as complements. I have tried to let them live in harmony. Within the last two or three years, however, my growing need for artistic expression has pulled me deeper and deeper into the Negro group. And as my powers of receptivity increased, I found myself loving it in a way that I could never love the other. It has stimulated and fertilized whatever creative talent I may contain within me. A visit to Georgia last fall was the starting point of almost everything of worth that I have done. I heard folk- songs come from the lips of negro peasants. I saw the rich dusk beauty that I had heard many false accents about, and of which til then, I was somewhat skeptical. And a deep part of my nature, a part that I had repressed, sprang suddenly to life and responded to them. Now, I cannot conceive of myself as aloof and separated. My point of view has not changed; it has deepened, it has widened.”
In his search for artistic expression, Toomer sought identification with a racial heritage, with an underlying sense of culture that he could be a part of. Fern is that heritage, and, consistent with Toomer’s own mixed descent, Fern is not an easy answer. Far from being “black” or “white,” she is a creamy, dusky colored woman with a face like a Jewish cantor singing. Toomer, as both the writer and narrator, is captivated by Fern, by the idea of Fern. She is ubiquitous, everywhere he turns she is there--”the whole world flows into her eyes.”
Just as Toomer found little in white society to satisfy his cultural and artistic needs, so Fern is ignored by the white men in her community. “They let her alone,” Toomer makes a point of telling us. Again, while the young negro stares, spellbound from the road, the white man driving by in his buggy whips him to make him get out of the way. This is not merely another instance of racial tension; in both cases it is the whites, and not the blacks, who are suffering, as they can have no part in Fern’s beauty. African-Americans, to Toomer, had an active, vibrant culture--Fern--in which the white man had no place.
Nor is that culture based solely on an identification with Africa; it is a culture born out of sorrow and persecution. It is the natural result of slavery, as real to the experience of African slaves in America as to the Hebrew experience in Egypt. To this end Fern’s Jewish descent is stressed; her face is like a Jewish Cantor singing, and the last line of the piece emphasizes her striking last name, Rosen. Fern is the soul of the downtrodden minority, and she sits comfortably in her sorrow, never seeming to find the time to remove the nail from the porch railing above her head.
Images of heritage are strong in this piece; Fern’s identification as a Jew, stresses the strong ties of the Hebrew people to the land of Israel, strong, religious ties. Toomer says much the same thing about Georgia, traditional center of slave-America:
“I felt strange, as I always do in Georgia, particularly at dusk. I felt that things unseen to men were tangibly immediate. It would not have surprised me had I had a vision. People have them in Georgia more often than you would suppose. A black woman once saw the mother of Christ and drew her in charcoal on the courthouse wall... When one is on the soil of one’s ancestors, most anything can come to one...
For a man of Toomer’s descent, “the soil of one’s ancestors” must have been a difficult thing to pin down.
Therefore, Fern is unattainable. “She did not deny them, yet the fact was that they were denied.” In that same paragraph, Fern is mystified even more, and it is said that she “became a virgin.” Toomer struggles with this idea for the rest of the piece, and reaches no clear enlightenment; the most he can come up with is a desire to do “some fine, unnamed thing” for her.
Toomer’s own uncertainties, then, become our own. “I ask you, friend (it makes no difference if you sit in the Pullman or the Jim Crow as the train crosses her road), what thoughts would come to you--” In the last line of the piece Toomer addresses the reader, and gives us her name, “Fernie May Rosen,” in case we would like the challenge of her. But Fern is as elusive as she is beautiful. In the “melting-pot” of America, and perhaps also in today’s globalization, a strong cultural identity is almost impossible to maintain. It is not about geography, it is heritage; the lines become blurred, the races mixed, the history forgotten, the train crosses over the horizon, and Fern is gone.
Only at the end of the story does Fern get a voice. Standing in the canefield, “Doesn’t it just make you mad?” she says. The narrator clarifies, “She meant the row of petty gossiping people. She meant the world.” But what did Fern actually mean by this? Perhaps the white men who ignored her made her mad. Perhaps it was the black men who thought she was easy. Perhaps it was the weather, or an outbreak of mosquitos. Perhaps it was the narrator himself, who would dissect her for his readers, without beginning to know her himself.
In the end, Fern is mystified still further, and all hope of understanding has failed. She sings, her own voice, but we cannot penetrate it. She appears to be speaking in tongues, then she faints. There is a little gossip, but it comes to nothing. “..men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand,” Toomer says. We, the readers, are given a glimpse of Fern, enough to know that she exists and she is beautiful, but nothing more. The task of understanding her, of creating an “American race,” is given to us in a challenge, by the name of Fernie May Rosen.