Day 4Cane by Jean Toomer
"Seventh Street" to "Storm Ending"
August 6, 2022 by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts, Bootleggers in silken shirts, Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs, Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks.
With this verse we are thrust into the second section of the book. We have made a sudden leap. The language moves at the speed of the street, it sets the scene and sets the pace. It is a Great Migration, out of the South, out of gospel into jazz.
a bastard of Prohibition and the War
It is interesting to think of Toomer making this keen observation in the early 1920s—when the social forces he names were so recently unleashed. There is Prohibition of alcohol that led to bootlegging and a culture of underground entertainment (often but not exclusively concentrating in black neighborhoods). Meanwhile, World War I and its aftermath led to shifting racial consciousness, the beginning of black northern migration just before and during the war; the return of black soldiers, newly empowered by having fought in the name of democracy. How did this look at street level? Maybe like this...
Stale soggy wood
Though we are now removed from the pines and the cane-brakes, Toomer is still painting landscapes. Here he invokes Washington's damp atmosphere, and elsewhere in this vignette, so much mud…
who set you flowing?
The movement of blood can be seen to originate in the preceding chapter, with a violent lynching of the sort that was often a catalyst or contributing factor for northward migrations.
The blood is also a figure of the people themselves: Toomer's use of the n-word here doesn't seem like an attempt at reclamation or in-group usage. (And knowing what we know about Toomer's relationship to blackness makes this more complicated.) There is a derision, a bitter irony in the word as it appears here "N----r life", "a N----r god?" This tells us a lot about who is speaking.
The scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin (with whom I had a formative experience with Cane as an undergraduate) took this refrain "who set you flowing" as the title for her 1995 monograph on black migration narratives.
God is a Red Cross man with a dredge and a respiration-pump who’s waiting for you at the opposite periphery.
Another mad scene, though unlike the others, we don't witness cause, only effect. Madness is the given state of things. When re-reading this, I wondered if Rhobert might be a returning veteran suffering from shell shock? (Think of Woolf's Septimus Smith from Mrs. Dalloway, published a few years after Cane.) God imagined as a "Red Cross man" might support this notion.
But it's possible that the architecture of the world as it sits on Rhobert's mind isn't distorted by the aftereffects of war, but by other forces. In the essay "Harlem Is Nowhere," Ralph Ellison called this "slum-shocked." Forgive me for quoting Ellison at length:
In relation to their Southern background, the cultural history of Negroes in the North reads like the legend of some tragic people out of mythology, a people which aspired to escape from its own unhappy homeland to the apparent peace of a distant mountain; but which, in migrating, made some fatal error of judgement and fell into a great chasm of mazelike passages that promise ever to lead to the mountain but end ever against a wall. Not that a Negro is worse off in the North than in the South, but that in the North he surrenders and does not replace certain important aspects to his personality. He leaves a relatively static social order in which, having experienced its brutality for hundreds of years—indeed, having been formed within it and by it—he has developed those techniques of survival to which Faulkner refers as "endurance,"... He surrenders the protection of his peasant cynicism—his refusal to hope for the fulfillment of hopeless hopes—and his sense of being "at home in the world" gained from confronting and accepting (for day-today living, at least) the obscene absurdity of his predicament.
futile something like the dead house
The image of the "dead house" is hard to parse. What weighs him down is a symbol of domesticity, indeed, he "cares not two straws as to whether or not he will ever see his wife and children again." This could attach to the image of a man at war, or simply one who is a casualty of the daily war of trying to be a provider—head of household—in a degrading society.
Lets build a monument and set it in the ooze where he goes down. A monument of hewn oak, carved in nigger-heads.
The impermanent nature of such a monument, it would sink, as he does. The striking image of a monument carved in "n----r-heads" brings to mind a kind of sacrifice. There is also the historical reference to the practice of punishing leaders of slave rebellions by death and then fixing their heads to pikes along main roads, to warn others (see the 1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina and the 1811 German Coast Slave Revolt in Louisiana; a "N----r Head Road" in North Carolina is named after such a display when a slave was decapitated for planning a revolt inspired by Nat Turner).
This traditional spiritual was popularized by a 1917 arrangement by black composer Henry Thacker Burleigh. It was a signature piece of the tenor Roland Hayes.
The young trees had not outgrown their boxes then.
The city is new and young; a way of telling time.
I like to feel that something deep in me responded to the trees, the young trees that whinnied like colts impatient to be let free...
How to find nature in this urban landscape—young street trees planted in boxes.
He dilated on the emotional needs of girls. Said they werent much different from men in that respect. And concluded with the solemn avowal: “It does em good.”
This conversation between the men about Avey's prospects, and the desires of women, is an elaboration of the theme we've seen throughout: "the emotional needs of girls,"
She’d smile appreciation, but it was an impersonal smile, never for me.
Again, the flat affect of a women unmoved by a man's desire...
Ned was along. He treated her until his money gave out. She went with another feller. Ned got sore. One by one the boys’ money gave out. She left them. And they got sore. Every one of them but me got sore.
Men as a means of survival and resources… the variety of freedom that is available to her.
I had been told that she was in New York. As I had no money, I hiked and bummed my way there. I got work in a ship-yard and walked the streets at night, hoping to meet her. Failing in this, I saved enough to pay my fare back home.
It's so interesting to have New York appear here in passing, not a destination with a scene of its own or a site of his ambition. It's just a way to get to Avey. And he fails in finding her there… or rather, she succeeds in not being found.
And when the wind is from the South, soil of my homeland falls like a fertile shower upon the lean streets of the city.
This is a migrant's view: the actual dust of the South is blanketing the city.
We know that Toomer spent time in Wisconsin, where he briefly attended university.
Let it get stained, she said, for where it came from there are others.
This is the only thing Avey says in the story... and it is rendered as indirect speech. Her non-attachment—to men, to material goods.
A band in one of the buildings a fair distance off was playing a march. I wished they would stop. Their playing was like a tin spoon in one’s mouth. I wanted the Howard Glee Club to sing “Deep River,” from the road. To sing “Deep River, Deep River,” from the road... Other than the first comments, Avey had been silent. I started to hum a folk-tune.
The values being communicated by this choice of music: the narrator wishes for his orchestrated love scene with Avey to be accompanied by strains of the popularized spiritual "Deep River"; lacking that, he hums folk-tunes. This is in opposition to the jazz march that is playing from the building nearby. An idolization of a folk-purity, a purity of origins, against the "tin spoon" of urban modernism.
My passion died. I was afraid to move lest I disturb her. Hours and hours, I guess it was, she lay there. My body grew numb. I shivered. I coughed. I wanted to get up and whittle at the boxes of young trees. I withdrew my hand. I raised her head to waken her. She did not stir.
Not only does she not love him; his talk, his "promise-song" puts her to sleep.