Thursday, October 26th, 2017...7:01 amAngst Bear

The Gentle Apocalypse

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“Cane was a swan-song. it was a song of an end.” – Jean Toomer

I would describe the genre of Jean Toomer’s 1923 book Cane as a gentle apocalypse; it is the slow death of an entire way of life in the South. In it’s own right, apocalypse is defined as a change from one kind of world to another¹. Cane confronts the end in natural images such as dusk and night. References of apocalypse include the reaping scythe that harvests sugar cane, mentions of judgement day, winter, death, and departure. One of my favorite subtle departure moments comes in “Esther”, after Esther, at age twenty-seven, meets Barlo again after midnight. The streets are empty. She leaves, reconsidering her thoughts of Barlo, and in that moment, “There is no air, no street, and the town has completely disappeared.” (Toomer, 36) In this way, Esther’s change of heart had changed her perspective of the town possibly because she lost her reason to stay. Much like her, the story “Avey” features the title character moving away to New York. The decline is not always gentle. Descriptions of the dead home in “Rhobert” and the lynching in “Blood Burning Moon” provide context of a gruesome decline for black life in the South. All of these examples are a kind of apocalypse; this book is marking the ending of this chapter of the South through precise images.  It is my theory that this genre of gentle apocalypse is Toomer’s way of expressing the Great Migration North.


Cited work:

  1. Bowers, Susan. “Beloved and the New Apocalypse.” Critical Studies in Black Life and Culture, Toni Morrison’s Fiction Contemporary Criticism, Garland Publishing, 1997, pp. 209-228.



1 Comment

  •   Professor Seiler
    November 7th, 2017 at 1:39 am

    Jonah–some good observations here, and an intriguing overall connection to apocalypse… I wonder about the modifier “gentle,” though, given that _Cane_ does not flinch from depicting horrific violence (of several kinds…).

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