Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down. Old men rode her hobby-horse upon their knees. Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with their grown-up girls. God grant us youth, secretly prayed the old men. The young fellows counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them. This interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her. (p. 5, Library of America edition)
One of the earliest novels of the Harlem Renaissance was a book written by a man of multiethnic descent, Nathan Jean Toomer, who was loathe to identify himself as black or white. This book, Cane, originally published in 1923, created some controversy and few initial sales as it did not kowtow to either white or black expectations. Yet for those critics and readers who did read this book, Cane left indelible impressions. After re-reading it recently, it is one of those fictions that has to be experienced in toto for it to be understood fully; it defies simple, pat descriptions.
Cane is neither beast nor fowl; it moves smoothly and assuredly between poem, short story vignette, and drama. Toomer himself conceptualized it as being a sort of thematic circle, going from simple to complex, moving from South to North and back South again. Yet within these intricately woven passages, Toomer narrates the rhythms of black Southern life and the upheavals as some moved north during the Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s. Characters, such as Karintha (initial passage quoted above), appear prominently in one vignette, later to disappear and reappear, sometimes in a slight disguise, in another. And through it all, there are poems narrating life, such as this one, “November Cotton Flower”:
Boll-weevil’s coming, and the winter’s cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take
All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground –
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
Significance. Superstition saw
Something it had never seen before:
Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
Beauty so sudden for that time of year. (p. 9)
This poem was of particular interest to me for its combination of traditional couplets (minus two lines, which use alliteration instead to carry the rhythm through to the next couplet) with some daring imagery. Toomer’s writing, whether it be prose or poesy, is often very impressionistic, with descriptors creating vivid, sharp images from text that is often pared down in order to pack more punch per line. Cane is as much a Modernist novel as anything that Joyce or Woolf produced and this poem of death and beauty and something else, something a bit daring when “brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear” is parsed a certain way, this poem captures several things eloquently in fourteen lines.
Toomer’s gift for depicting life extends to his prose passages. Here is one section taken from “Esther,” concerning another major character in his cycle:
Esther begins to dream. The low evening sun sets the windows of McGregor’s notion shop aflame. Esther makes believe that they really are aflame. The town fire department rushes madly down the road. It ruthlessly shoves back and white idlers to one side. It whoops. It clangs. It rescues from the second-story window a dimpled infant which she claims for her own. How had she come by it? She thinks of it immaculately. It is a sin to think of it immaculately. She must dream no more. She must repent her sin. Another dream comes. There is no fire department. There are no heroic men. The fire starts. The loafers on the corner form a circle, chew their tobacco faster, and squirt juice just as fast as they can chew. Gallons on top of gallons they squirt upon the flames. The air reeks with the stench of scorched tobacco juice. Women, fat chunky Negro women, lean scrawny white women, pull their skirts up above their heads and display the most ludicrous underclothes. The women scoot in all directions from the danger zone. She alone is left to take the baby in her arms. But what a baby! Black, singed, woolly, tobacco-juice baby – ugly as sin. Once held to her breast, miraculous thing: its breath is sweet and its lips can nibble. She loves it frantically. Her joy in it changes the town folks’ jeers to harmless jealousy, and she is left alone. (p. 29)
There is a lot to unpack here. The dream imagery is remarkable for how deftly Toomer utilizes repetition of phrases to cast and recast descriptions of people and a fire. There is a rebellion present, yet the reader has to integrate this with other passages to see it clearly. This dream sequence certainly has a surreal quality to it, with the juxtapositions of the mundane and the “ludicrous.” But even more so, there is a racial element to it, one that speaks on the divide between white and black perceptions of beauty. The baby rejected as “ugly as sin,” is transformed through the woman’s love, changing the others’ “jeers to harmless jealousy.”
As the narrative of lives unfolds and revelations made beforehand become more prominent, Cain still sticks to its circle of life motif, exploring, through uneven yet frequently brilliant passages and poems, just what is driving folks to move from South to North, from rural to urban regions. Toomer does an excellent job in capturing these changes, with very few passages that fail to capture at least a fleeting impression of these peripatetic lives. Excellent as many individual passages and poems are, it is when this work is considered as a whole that Toomer’s design can be seen in all its glory. Cane is not just one of the earliest and best works of the Harlem Renaissance, it is also one of the best 20th century Modernist works ever written. Even 92 years later, it possesses a power to move readers. It simply is a remarkable masterpiece.
It was late in the day, when the greatest number of persons were thought to be present, that Currer and her daughters were brought forward to the place of sale. Currer was first ordered to ascend the auction stand, which she did with a trembling step. The slave mother was sold to a trader. Althesa, the youngest, and who was scarcely less beautiful than her sister, was sold to the same trader for one thousand dollars. Clotel was the last, and, as was expected, commanded a higher price than any that had been offered for sale that day. The appearance of Clotel on the auction block created a deep sensation amongst the crowd. There she stood, with a complexion as white as most of those who were waiting with a wish to become her purchasers; her features as finely defined as any of her sex of pure Anglo–Saxon; her long black wavy hair done up in the neatest manner; her form tall and graceful, and her whole appearance indicating one superior to her position. The auctioneer commenced by saying, that “Miss Clotel had been reserved for the last, because she was the most valuable. How much gentlemen? Real Albino, fit for a fancy girl for any one. She enjoys good health, and has a sweet temper. How much do you say?” “Five hundred dollars.” “Only five hundred for such a girl as this? Gentlemen, she is worth a deal more than that sum; you certainly don’t know the value of the article you are bidding upon. Here, gentlemen, I hold in my hand a paper certifying that she has a good moral character.” “Seven hundred.” “Ah, gentlemen, that is something like. This paper also states that she is very intelligent.” “Eight hundred.” “She is a devoted Christian, and perfectly trustworthy.” “Nine hundred.” “Nine fifty.” “Ten.” “Eleven.” “Twelve hundred.” Here the sale came to a dead stand. The auctioneer stopped, looked around, and began in a rough manner to relate some anecdotes relative to the sale of slaves, which, he said, had come under his own observation. At this juncture the scene was indeed strange. Laughing, joking, swearing, smoking, spitting, and talking kept up a continual hum and noise amongst the crowd; while the slave–girl stood with tears in her eyes, at one time looking towards her mother and sister, and at another towards the young man whom she hoped would become her purchaser. “The chastity of this girl is pure; she has never been from under her mother’s care, she is a virtuous creature.” “Thirteen.” “Fourteen.” “Fifteen.” “Fifteen hundred dollars,” cried the auctioneer, and the maiden was struck for that sum. This was a Southern auction, at which the bones, muscles, sinews, blood, and nerves of a young lady of sixteen were sold for five hundred dollars; her moral character for two hundred; her improved intellect for one hundred; her Christianity for three hundred; and her chastity and virtue for four hundred dollars more. And this, too, in a city thronged with churches, whose tall spires look like so many signals pointing to heaven, and whose ministers preach that slavery is a God–ordained institution!
What words can tell the inhumanity, the atrocity, and the immorality of that doctrine which, from exalted office, commends such a crime to the favour of enlightened and Christian people? What indignation from all the world is not due to the government and people who put forth all their strength and power to keep in existence such an institution? Nature abhors it; the age repels it; and Christianity needs all her meekness to forgive it.
Clotel was sold for fifteen hundred dollars, but her purchaser was Horatio Green. Thus closed a negro sale, at which two daughters of Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the presidents of the great republic, were disposed of to the highest bidder! (pp. 67-68, Library of America edition)
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is the best-known of the antislavery novels published during the antebellum period, but there was another, relatively obscure novel that perhaps is even better at getting to the heart of the pernicious evils of chattel slavery. This novel, William Wells Brown’s Clotel, or the President’s Daughter, was first published in Great Britain by a former slave fleeing from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Clotel is a remarkable novel for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it is the first known novel published by an African American writer. Yet for nearly 125 years after the end of the Civil War it languished in obscurity, more a curiosity than anything actively taught or studied by historians or literature professors. Some of this lack of attention may be due to the end of slavery and the desire to forget, even when it concerns antislavery literature, the particulars of that sordid business, but this does not explain the continued popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There are two competing reasons remaining: either Clotel‘s narrative style was not appealing to later generations of readers or there was a growing prejudice against reading works by black writers. There likely is an element of truth to both of this, but then what explains the recent rise in interest in Brown’s writings? It may be that as a historical artifact, Clotel is a superior example of not just antislavery literature but also that it captures the espirit du temps of the 1850s even better than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even if much of its initial impact was not in the United States but across the Atlantic Ocean.
One of the more striking features of Clotel is its didactic tone. Early 21st century novels very rarely are polemical in nature, so it can be a bit jarring at first to read a novel whose very first lines lays out for the reader the bleak, horrid setting:
With the growing population of slaves in the Southern States of America, there is a fearful increase of half whites, most of whose fathers are slaveowners, and their mothers slaves. Society does not frown upon the man who sits with his mulatto child upon his knee, whilst its mother stands a slave behind his chair. The late Henry Clay, some years since, predicted that the abolition of negro slavery would be brought about by the amalgamation of the races. John Randolph, a distinguished slaveholder of Virginia, and a prominent statesman, said in a speech in the legislature of his native state, that “the blood of the first American statesmen coursed through the veins of the slave of the South.” In all the cities and towns of the slave states, the real negro, or clear black, does not amount to more than one in every four of the slave population. This fact is, of itself, the best evidence of the degraded and immoral condition of the relation of master and slave in the United States of America. (p. 61)
Clotel and her family do not appear until a few pages into the narrative; Brown is more concerned with establishing for his mostly-white audience (at least for this original edition; he extensively edited it later, changing some details, for a more mixed-race American audience in later editions) in Great Britain just how horrible American chattel slavery truly was. In a sense, Clotel and her family are not as much original characters as they are emblems for what millions of enslaved Americans suffered in the mid-19th century. It is best to keep this in mind, as some of the narrative elements otherwise might seem too melodramatic.
Clotel’s ancestry is based on the then-rumors about Thomas Jefferson’s children with Sally Hemings but more so than that, it is meant to establish just how deep racial prejudices ran, so that while some fathers of biracial children might dandle a child on his knee, he would be just as likely to whip them or sell them down the river to New Orleans. Although the fictional Currer, Clotel’s mother, was not the property of Jefferson but instead lent out to him, she and her daughters were sold off with nary a mention of Jefferson himself afterward. It is a brutal, effective way of establishing the dehumanizing experiences that Clotel and her relatives experience throughout the novel.
Clotel is bought for $1500 (roughly $30,000 in today’s money, or the cost of a well-equipped new car or truck, to put it in the perspective of those who equated African-descended people with labor machines) by Horatio Green, who was earlier struck by her beauty and who desired her as a concubine. Although Brown does not explicitly label this as rape, showing some reciprocal feelings on the part of Clotel, there is enough to be read between the lines to indicate that there is some level of coercion involved; after all, Clotel is Green’s property. Yet regardless of whatever attachments, real or feigned, that might have developed between them, according to Virginia law, no slave could marry a white person. This plays a role years later, when Green enters into a marriage agreement and his new wife forces him to sell Clotel and their daughter, Mary.
Meanwhile, the lives of Currer and Clotel’s sister, Althesa, are little better. Currer is sold to a preacher and dies of yellow fever before his daughter is able to emancipate her. Althesa and her new owner also enter into a common-law marriage, as Althesa is able to pass for white, but she and her master, Morton, also die, leaving their daughters to be sold into slavery (one, Ellen, chooses to commit suicide, and the other, Jane, dies of heartbreak). Their stories, which are permutations of Clotel and her daughter’s experiences, are told with a detached yet highly charged emotion similar to those passionate tales which were the forerunners of late-19th century sensational novel. Although at times the individual reactions border on the melodramatic, for contemporary audiences it had the effect of a series of blows to the gut.
Clotel has at this point been sold to a planter in Vicksburg, Mississippi. There she meets and falls in love with another slave, William, and they plan their escape, with Clotel passing as William’s master. Their escape, based heavily upon the remarkable 1849 escape of Ellen and William Craft, succeeds, and William goes forward into Canada, while Clotel returns in disguise to Richmond in order to attempt the rescue of her daughter. However, things go awry and forced to choose between death by drowning or a return to slavery, Clotel chooses the former. Although the novel could have ended effectively at this point, Brown extends it over another ten years, showing how Mary manages to gain both her freedom and a lover she thought she was forced to leave behind. It is a touching, tenuously hopeful conclusion to a novel that repeatedly batters its readers with its blunt, horrific descriptions of the degradations that Clotel and her family had to experience.
Taking into consideration the differences between mid-19th and early-21st century literary conventions, Clotel is a very evocative novel, one that gains its narrative power not so much from the force of its individual characters but from the polemical nature of the third-person narrator. There are very few wasted passages; Brown knows exactly what effect he seeks to effect and for the most part, he manages to execute this very well. The characters themselves, while perhaps not as immediately memorable as a Simon Legree or an Uncle Tom, are also effective in presenting humanity in the midst of degradation; love surviving callous brutality; hope enduring while surrounded by hatred and despair. While some of the scenes might seem a bit too flashy or sensationalist for modern readers, on the whole they are rendered vividly, leaving a lasting impression in readers’ minds. Today, Clotel should be remembered not just as the first known African American novel, but also as one of the classics of mid-19th century American literature. Over 160 years after its initial publication, it still possesses a power to move the hearts and souls of its readers.