Thursday, October 26th, 2017...3:47 pmwatsono

The Thematic Novel: Jean Toomer’s Cane

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Jean Toomer’s Cane experiments with various forms of prose, poetry, and song in its unique composition. Yet the publication history of Cane and Toomer’s own commentary of his work illustrates that he wanted his text to be cohesive and intact rather than divided into sections, published separately. Though his poetry, for example, could stand alone in another publication, there is an intentional, meaningful method of organization to Cane that is lost when the poems or prose are detached.

Thus, I think Toomer’s text fits the genre of the novel – not in a traditional, structural sense but rather a thematic one. I imagine this text as a snowball rolling down a hill and accumulating more snow, building on what has come before it.  Toomer is using different genres to create a wider perspective of cultural life and particularly African American disadvantage and mistreatment within this cultural system. Each snippet of writing, whether it is a poem or prose narrative or song or dialogue, offers variety and unique insight into experiences that cannot be told by one singular narrative. They build on and encompass one another.



  • Great post! I really liked the metaphor of the snowball, I agree (as I said in my post) that movement is definitely a main component of the novel, both thematically and formally. I also like your attention to how the stories and poems are purposefully put together, though they seem like they could be read separately. Do you think the idea of the stories building on each other relates to folklore, storytelling, and the idea that the characters in urban areas of America are formed from those in Georgia, and that the black experience in America at this time is incredibly diverse while also stemming from the same root of displacement and injustice?

  • Olivia,
    I love your snowball metaphor and think it aptly captures the spirit of a novel in a way that argues for Cane to be defined as one more strongly than as a collection of short stories/poems where, while unity may be observed, does not have as potent a vision of unity as novels generally do.

    I do wonder if you see Cane as linear, however, in the way a novel is (and the way your metaphor indicates). Do you think Cane’s organization is as important? Could we begin with section 3 and have the same vision of snowball-rolling as we do as it is?

  •   Professor Seiler
    November 7th, 2017 at 1:47 am

    Olivia–I’m with Kaila and Noah in loving your snowball metaphor–in part because a snowball would seem to be impossible in most of the climes of _Cane_! Your strong post puts me in mind of the fact that there really isn’t The Novel, there’s rather a vision of the conventional novel constructed (e.g., Watt’s _The Rise of the Novel_) long after that form of (English) novel had lapsed…

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