Poems as Specters: Revenant Longing for Roots in Jean Toomer’s Cane

Abstract: This article investigates the subliminal anxiety concerning African American identity and origin developed by the poems in Jean Toomer’s Cane. Drawing on Jacques Derrida’s concept of the specter, I argue that these poems act as specters in that they enact and embody the South as a harmonious African American land of origin while simultaneously negating the possibility of its present or past existence. In doing so, the poems reframe African American longing for a point of origin into a haunting, anxious but impossible desire. Predicated on absence, the longed-for South (re)emerges as a sensual experience in the Cane poems, which manifests and negates the wished-for but unattainable original condition. Thus, the longing for a point of origin as well as its object—the American South—become Derridean specters, which inescapably challenge the foundations of African American identity while simultaneously constituting its core. In this light, the absence of previous critical investigation of the Cane poems becomes telling. The analysis of the function of the Cane poems reveals what other considerations will inevitably conceal: The United States’ past has not been and cannot be able to provide a solid and anxiety-free foundation for the identity of the nation’s African American citizens.

The poems of Jean Toomer’s literary masterpiece Cane represent an unusual view on its central theme of African American identity and heritage. Published in 1923 and considered one of the main works of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane has given rise to many critical disputes due to its experimental form and structure. It is a collection of prose pieces, sketches, and poems that are very diverse in style and genre but are unified by their overarching concern with the African American experience in the South and the North. The constituting pieces themselves are difficult to categorize generically, and the entirety of Cane has never allowed a stable categorization into one genre or another (cf. Beal). The most overt reason for this, as has overwhelmingly been recognized, is that, while its parts are so different formally, Cane is still unambiguously one unified whole because of the clear connection of its parts in terms of theme.

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