Friday, April 19, 2019

A note on Jean Toomer's Cane and a correction of a big error

Oh no, look at this error I made about how much F. Scott Fitzgerald earned from his short stories.  I wrote that he was making $3,000 per story from the Saturday Evening Post, when the correct figure – early in his career is $900.  This is Fitzgerald’s own record of earnings from 1920, which I found in Before Gatsby: The First Twenty-Six Stories, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli, University of South Carolina Press, 2001, p. xxi:

I had just looked at – but was not at the moment looking at – this page when I wrote that bit, so I had moved some numbers around.  The $3,000 is attached to “Option on my output” from Hollywood.  The idea I was trying to get at was that This Side of Paradise moved Fitzgerald almost instantly from a minimal income to a big pile of money, $18,850, or almost $250,000 in today’s money.

Not that everything he wrote sold, or that everything he wrote was good, but in the 1920s, good American writers – prestige writers – could get rich in a way that was not available before.  That Hollywood cash was part of the story, but this was also the beginning of the great Middlebrowing of the American reading public, a subject I want to return to next week.

There was also avant-garde literature and unpaid literature – the American poetry of the time had plenty of both.  I read one work of fiction in this recent batch that was genuinely far out, commercially hopeless for a number of reasons but pushing hard on what American fiction could do.  That was Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923).

The first third of Cane is a mix of poems and stories set in a small Georgia town in the sugar-growing region, thus the cane of the title.  It makes for a strange landscape.  The stories are all named after women except for the last, “Blood-Burning Moon,” which ends with a lynching, described with as much brutality as the times would allow.  Possibly a bit more – Toomer may have expanded what was allowed.

In the second third there are more poems and stories featuring people from Georgia who have moved to the city, to Washington, D.C., and Chicago, which they find alienating.  In the final third, which is a single story written like a play, educated black men return to Georgia, to teach or reform, and find a different sort of alienation.  This is another of the many, many books inspired in some way by Winesburg, Ohio.  Sherwood Anderson was even a kind of mentor.  I had no idea there were so many.

Nothing I thought about quoting is quite working for me.  The prose moves around too much.  How about a poem, the one just before the story with the lynching.

Portrait in Georgia
Hair – braided chestnut,
            coiled like a lyncher’s rope,
Eyes – fagots,
Lips – old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath – the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
           of black flesh after flame.

This was something new.


  1. I don't want to over-emphasize the subject matter, since Toomer's expression was so individual, but the whole package is pretty out there - style and content.

  2. Well this just shot up pretty high on my list of books to be read.

  3. Cane is barely over a hundred pages. (Not that it just zips along, oh no). No idea why I had not read it long ago. No good reason.

  4. It is *wonderful*! "Wind is in the cane; come along..."

  5. I did find the "play" to be tedious. Even the psychological insights worked at a more intellectual or theoretical level.

  6. The poem is amazing, and immediately reminded me of Christopher Okigbo, whose collection Labyrinths blew me away when I encountered it forty years ago; compare his poem “The Passage”:

    SILENT FACES at crossroads:
    festivity in black…
    Faces of black like long black
    column of ants,

    behind the bell tower,
    into the hot garden
    where all roads meet:
    festivity in black…

    or "Watermaid":

    with the armpit-dazzle of a lioness,
    she answers,

    wearing white light about her [...]

    Okigbo is too little known (he died appallingly young in 1967), and I highly recommend him to anyone who finds those excerpts appealing. And now I want to read Toomer.

  7. Okigbo, thanks. I had not read him. I have hardly read any Nigerian literature, come to think of it.

  8. From Parny's Chansons madécasses, 1787:

    Mon fils a péri dans le combat

    My son was killed in battle ... O my friends! cry for the son of your chief. Take his body to the house where the dead dwell. A high wall protects it, and on the wall there are rows of menacing horned skulls . Fear the abode of the dead, for their wrath is terrible, and their revenge is cruel. Cry for my son.
    The blood of enemies will no more redden his arms.
    His lips will never kiss other lips.
    Fruits will not anymore grow red for him.
    He will no longer press his hands over soft, burning breasts.
    He will sing no more lying under the branches.
    He will not whisper again into the ears of his mistress: Let's do it one more time, my love!

  9. I have read "Cane" a number of times but not in a long time. Fell in love with it as a young woman...

    Thanks for the Banaphool recommendation! Just read the Asymptote story and will look further.

  10. I am not sure how the Parny thing is related. How is it related?

    It is from a discussion on another website, but the Banaphool story mentioned is here. It is good. I read a Banaphool collection recently and wish I had something to say about it, but I do not, not really.

  11. Thank you for asking. I was struck by a common pattern of death and fruit topics. According to Gerald Moore's The Imagery of Death in African Poetry, the concept of the dead as offerings (hence their relation to fruit) is recurrent in African lit, as is the concept of the dead being the seed from which the fruit of the living will arise. For example in "The Road. Here Soyinka's vision of road-deaths as sacrifices to Ogun, god of iron and war becomes the major theme". Or J. P. Clark's poem about the recently deceased, the Abiku: Night, and Abiku sucks the oil/ From lamps. Mothers! I'll be the/ Suppliant snake coiled on the doorstep/ Yours the killing cry. // The ripest fruit was the saddest; / Where I crept, the warmth was cloying.

    Or a funeral song from Abeokuta, in Nigeria "I saw the king of the river and the king of the sun./ There in that country I saw palm trees/ So weighed down with fruit,/ That the trees bent under the fruit,/ And the fruit killed them. And of course that Strange Fruit song made famous by Billy Holliday.

  12. Ah, thanks. How interesting. And then to find the theme in such an old French poem from Réunion - that is a lot of distance to cross.