Day 10Cane by Jean Toomer
"Kabnis," section 4
August 12, 2022 by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
This description of the wheelwright's shop tells us much about the space, the time, the people: its outside walls are marked by "what looks like musket-shot," suggesting its age and possible action in the Civil War. The preponderance of tools and wheel parts indicates the complexity of the trade; but the "idleness" of the wooden work blocks means Halsey's business is in a bad way—the automobile explosion in the 1920s was already beginning. Meanwhile, before any characters are on the scene, they are invoked: the chairs grouped around the hearth, the entertainments that are hosted by Halsey in "The Hole."
Several town fellows, silent unfathomable men for the most part, saunter in. Overalls. Thick tan shoes. Felt hats marvelously shaped and twisted. One asks Halsey for a cigarette. He gets it. The blacksmith, a tremendous black man, comes in from the forge. Not even a nod from him. He picks up an axle and goes out. Lewis enters. The town men look curiously at him. Suspicion and an open liking contest for possession of their faces. They are uncomfortable. One by one they drift into the street.
When Lewis arrives, the townsmen grow uncomfortable. The stone thrown through the window earlier was said to have a warning from his enemies among the black community. Might these have been among them?
I remember him. We had a talk. But what he found queer, I think, was not my opinions, but my lack of them. In half an hour he had settled everything: boll weevils, God, the World War. Weevils and wars are the pests that God sends against the sinful. People are too weak to correct themselves: the Redeemer is coming back. Get ready, ye sinners, for the advent of Our Lord. Interesting, eh, Kabnis? but not exactly what we want.
A momentary fellowship between the outsiders.
Life has already told him more than he is capable of knowing. It has given him in excess of what he can receive. I have been offered. Stuff in his stomach curdled, and he vomited me.
Lewis takes on almost a narrator's role here, giving character analyses of the other three men gathered. Told from Lewis's point of view, this description of his first meeting with Kabnis matches exactly the way it was narrated. But these oracular pronouncements on the other men's temperaments strain what could pass realistic social speech.
Layman: Might not see y again befo y leave, Mr. Lewis. I enjoys t hear y talk. Y might have been a preacher. Maybe a bishop some day.
The preacher Layman tells Lewis he might have been a preacher or a bishop, even after hearing Lewis's unvarnished disavowal of religion moments earlier. But, besides teaching, becoming a church leader would have been one of the few paths available to a black intellectual in this milieu.
Through Ramsay, the whole white South weighs down upon him. The pressure is terrific. He sweats under the arms. Chill beads run down his body. His brows concentrate upon the handle as though his own life was staked upon the perfect shaving of it. He begins to out and out botch the job.
Aside from his incompetence after a month as Halsey's apprentice, this encounter depicts how unfit Kabnis is to the situation. Ramsay's presence is larger than that of just one white man; the task of fixing the hatchet-handle becomes existential. Kabnis is not equipped for this task nor for the basic subservience required of interactions between white and black men. For all Halsey's talk of manhood during the story so far, upon Ramsay's departure he names his predicament: "They like y if y work fer them."
Their meeting is a swift sun-burst. Lewis impulsively moves towards her. His mind flashes images of her life in the southern town. He sees the nascent woman, her flesh already stiffening to cartilage, drying to bone. Her spirit-bloom, even now touched sullen, bitter. Her rich beauty fading... He wants to— He stretches forth his hands to hers. He takes them. They feel like warm cheeks against his palms. The sun-burst from her eyes floods up and haloes him. Christ-eyes, his eyes look to her. Fearlessly she loves into them. And then something happens. Her face blanches. Awkwardly she draws away.
Another intense first meeting for Lewis! No sooner has Carrie Kate arrived than she is pinned to the board as another of Toomer's specimens. Beholding the young woman, Lewis sees her stiffening into old age, withered and bitter. Carrie Kate beatifies Lewis, before withdrawing at inner commands of propriety.