RHC 2017: Cane by Jean Toomer

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.

I recently rediscovered poetry as a civilian (as opposed to as an English major). There was something exhilarating about reading a poem without needing to construct an essay around it. I could just like the way something sounded or the way it made me feel. There was something a little rebelliously anti-intellectual going on, I admit, but it was/is fun to just walk up to a poem and ring its doorbell with no plan whatsoever in mind.

However, reading Cane by Jean Toomer reminded me that there is also value to studying literature and to having a knowledgeable guide to a difficult text. I could have used some help with this one. This was the only book I read for this challenge where I kept finding myself looking at words on a page without getting much meaning out of them. This isn’t a critique of the book; it’s a critique of my own lack of internal resources for really engaging with the work. I definitely looked at the whole thing, but I’m not sure that I really read it.

Cane is a collection of short sketches, poetry, and something resembling a one-act play that add up into a portrait of the Jim Crow South. Overall, There’s no unifying narrative thread beyond the imagery of Georgia’s cane fields, and the whole thing adds up to an impressionistic something that I have a hard time putting my finger on (I haven’t read Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – I know just enough about it to know that it might be relevant here, but that’s it). The first section focuses on rural lives and landscapes, the second urban, and the third consists of one piece, “Kabnis.” “Kabnis” is written nominally as a drama, though the levels of psychological and symbolic detail in the stage descriptions would be practically impossible to stage – it’s a neat formal experiment. Its protagonist Kabnis has moved to rural Georgia from the North to teach (this is also a line from Jean Toomer’s own biography). Kabnis finds himself profoundly alienated from both white and black Southerners as a black Northerner, and the show wraps up in a hallucinatory drunken identity crisis (I think?).

But even this relatively more straightforward section of the work was tough going for me. I felt really frustrated reading this. It’s been a long time since I got the sense that I was being thoroughly outfoxed by a text. It’s good for me and builds character, I suppose, but it made me oddly homesick for academia.

I wish I had more I could write about this, but I would welcome insight from anyone else!

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