This week I will be reading the second volume of the Library of America’s collection of Harlem Renaissance novels. I considered the works from the 1930s earlier. The five novels in this collection are from the 1920s and begins with Jean Toomer’s brilliant novel Cane.
Cane is not a difficult novel to read, but it is impressionistic, like much of high modernist writing. Structurally, Cane mixes short vignettes drawn from subjective experiences of different people across black America, intermixed with poems. At the end of the novel is the only lengthy piece, a play about a school teacher. Many of these works were published before, and as an overall theme is either hard to find or broad, Cane can be read as short stories (and it is anthologized that way often enough). If any work contested W. E. B. Du Bois’ belief that during a time of political struggle, fiction should take on the role of propaganda, it is Cane, which sought to present life as it was lived, even down to the scents. What propaganda cannot do well is provide subjective experiences. In contrast, Toomer floods Cane with those very subjective experiences. Every small section of this novel provides the perspective of another person. Men, women, mixed race, Southern, Northern, urban, rural, middle class, poor are all represented in the short vignettes that Toomer strings together elegantly. While a work of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane is of the South. It is either set there, or haunted by the memory of the South. It reminds us that the Harlem Renaissance emerged from the dynamism that migration provides. And as with any migrants, the writers of Harlem kept one foot in their old homes. Toomer understood that he was engaged in a dialog with the the black literary establishment. In the final section of Cane, about a teacher returning to Georgia we find the teacher getting the following explanation about why he must resign from his position. “Professor Kabnis, to come straight to the point: the progress of the Negro race is jeopardized whenever the personal habits and examples set by its guides and mentors fall below the acknowledged and hard-won standard of its average member. This institution . . . was founded, and has been maintained at a cost of great labor and untold sacrifice. It purpose is to teach our youth to live better, cleaner, more noble lives. To prove to the world that the Negro race can be just like any other race.” (107) This language is not so far from that of Du Bois and other who believed that art should function to defend the image of the “New Negro.” Toomer, of course, will have none of that.
Jean Toomer himself was biracial and grew up in a white community in Washington D.C. He studied in various places, including the University of Wisconsin and the Massachusetts College of Agriculture before settling down in New York. His first marriage was to a white woman, Margery Latimer, although this was short-lived due to Latimer’s death in child-birth. Many of the stories in Cane reflect elements of his life, especially mixed race sexuality and its challenge to the color line. Toomer stated as much when defending his first marriage. “There is a new race in America. I am a member of this new race. It is neither white nor black nor in-between. It is the American race.” (846) Of course, such an effort to redefine race in American was a threat to the power structure, which sustained so much of its power by manipulating the color line for its own interests. (See the scholarship on the role of race in union busting throughout American industrial history.)
Thinking about Cane from a libertarian perspective, I was often thinking about how the form of a novel can either liberate or limit a writer’s expression. Certainly, an entire novel could have been written about “Karintha,” a young woman who is constantly desired by the older men around her. Toomer is able to condense her story into a few pages but as a reader we do not feel at all betrayed by the apparent negligence. Indeed, it is so packed with meaning that this short vignette feels like a meal. In this way, the line between the poems and the stories is not large.
There are two major transgressions documented by Toomer in Cane: interracial sex and mobility. Both of these transgressions profoundly informed the Harlem Renaissance generation and both were significant challenges to the color line. Interestingly, under slavery both of these ensured the power of the masters. Interracial sex enforced the power of white masters over black women and mobility (the domestic slave trade) remained a threat, weapon, or means of making money for masters. In the post-slavery world, mobility was a threat to land owners and employers who wanted an easily exploited and low paid labor supply in the South. Interracial sex, once a tool of control, was now a threat to the color line, enforced by legal restrictions on interracial cooperation (and even interaction). Toomer shows us through some of these stories that blacks as well as white worked to prevent these transgressions. “Becky,” a white woman with two black sons is ostracized by both sides of the color line. Yet, the world Toomer describes is still very open with many opportunities for those of will and the walls of power seem everywhere fragile. While they are there, certainly. Class is a strong theme, but we do not feel the heavy walls of the bosses bearing down the characters like in some of the more consciously class-based novels (or even compared to James Baldwin’s work, which was heavily invested in the struggle for racial equality). Toomer’s characters are not revolutionaries. They are people, often at the margins, often seizing weak points in the system. One of these weak points seems to be the dynamism of Harlem (or all those urban areas in the North). “Seventh Street is a bastard of Prohibition and the War. A crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington.” (47) Mobility grinds away at the walls of race. This helps explain why Toomer’s stories are filled with wandering preachers, teachers moving from north to South, or students entering college in whitewashed Madison. I am not certain if the mobile worker is truly more powerful, wise, or aware than anyone else, but in the American novel he is.