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American Literature 72.2 (2000) 275-290
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Jean Toomer’s Cane:
Self as Montage and the Drive toward Integration
Joel B. Peckham
In the past decade several important preliminary studies have begun to focus on the relation between the modernist aesthetic and the thematic and formal elements of Jean Toomer’s Cane. But while scholars have done much to elucidate the fragmented, avant-garde nature of the text’s form and to pose possible unifying themes, their efforts have been hampered by critical assumptions usually applied to poetry and fiction. Critical criteria such as unity and closure, as they have been traditionally used in judging a novel’s or poem’s “success,” are not relevant to Cane. In Cane, Toomer attempts to enact a disruption of social boundaries through literary form by exploding the genre borders of fiction, lyric poetry, and drama. By forcibly bringing together the disparate elements of the text, Toomer exposes false dichotomies and separations that are both literary and social. The form of the text thus becomes its central metaphor.
Applying Peter Bürger’s conception of the montage to Toomer himself, to Cane’s thematic organization, and to Toomer’s aesthetic methods (particularly in the lyric-narrative sections of the work), I will make clear the way in which this unsettling and unsettled narrative exhibits both disjunctive and nondisjunctive tendencies, tendencies that drive the text’s disparate elements toward unification and tendencies that frustrate its movement toward integration. A study of the way in which Toomer’s radical formal transgressions reflect his radical political position should ultimately prove valuable for understanding not only Toomer’s work but also the narrative dialectic in general and the extent to which narrative mode functions as an effective tool in avant-garde expression. [End Page 275]
The Self as Montage and the Multiple Narrator
In Theory of the Avant-Garde Bürger argues that the autonomy achieved by the increasingly socially isolated aesthetic movement of the late nineteenth century made the formal experiments of the modernist period possible. The avant-garde artists, however, were critical of this dissociation and strove to reintegrate their new worldviews with society at large.1 The idea was to disrupt bourgeois conceptions of both art and reality by challenging not only conventional, institutional ideas of what art was but also ideas about how it was produced. Bürger argues that the montage, because of its ability to combine the real and the artificial, the object itself and the object represented, was the most powerful formal innovation of early-twentieth-century avant-gardism.2
Although Toomer was not a member of the European avant-gardist circle, several personal, historical, and political factors made him susceptible to the influence of a movement and a form that stressed fragmentation and reintegration while using the freedom of autonomy to challenge bourgeois worldviews and bring about social change. Toomer’s autonomy was generated less by the aesthetic revolution in Europe (though as an artist he was influenced by it) than by the ongoing social revolution in America. In the late nineteenth century the United States emerged from the aftermath of a civil war that had disrupted the dominant social order, which had prevailed for well over a century. By the turn of the century African Americans found themselves in a strange, autonomous social position—not quite slave but not nearly equal. Eroticized, romanticized, orientalized, and demonized, African American artists found themselves possessed of a paradoxical lyric and social independence that made their art possible. Because of their special position, however, African American art was largely contained by the very mystery that aroused white curiosity. The social and artistic validity of this art depended on its remaining within established borders.
Jean Toomer’s status as a multiethnic American with some African American blood arguably made his position even more isolated and unstable than that of other Harlem Renaissance writers—more isolated because Toomer could not fully accept identification with the African American community and was not really accepted by the white community, more unstable because Toomer found...