Friday, February 27, 2009

The Pillowman

I find jokes funny that are meant to be offensive because I know that they are meant to be that way to get a laugh. I can appreciate that in most cases, however I felt certain parts of "The Pillowman" took the offensiveness a little far. The play was advertised as a dark comedy, and it certainly was. I could appreciate many of the jokes that were meant to be outside political correctness, or of social norms i.e., when a child or even a priest cusses, which was used several times in the play. I found the play dark, but pretty entertaining for the most part. However, the scene that really seemed unnecessary for me was the "Little Jesus" story. It was obviously meant to be sacreligious, and I try to maintain as objective of a viewpoint of possible for the sake of humor value when in plays like this, but I did not see the point of the "Little Jesus" skit. I discussed it briefly with Dr. Rosenberg, and he said that it is important to question the reason the writer put it in the play. As I mentioned earlier, I can appreciate humor meant to unexpected and offensive, however I don't see the necessity for such an intense mockery of such an important event. Even if I try to look at this scene objectively, a little girl (who claimed to be Jesus) was beaten, whipped, mockingly crucified, and then buried alive. I don't really see the point, or find this particular scene funny. This scene mocks the importance and sacredness of religion (Christianity in particular) which was a statement by the writers, or they would have found other ways of creating humor. I feel the only other reason for the writers to add this in was to reach a climax of offensive humor, which to me, does not seem worth it.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Action vs. Inaction

There are many binaries in Jean Toomer's Theater. The binary that popped out to me was action vs. inaction. It can be found between Dorris and John, and then Dorris herself. Dorris starts out on the stage dancing, while John is stationary and is watching the girls dance. All John does is watch the girls and make derogatory comments about them.

Even Dorris is not set in 'action.' She fights internally whether "he can love. Hell, he cant love" (54). She is not sure what to do, whether she should give him all she has because he may not be able to love her back like she wants him to. In the end the dominant binary ends up being John's stillness and inaction. He shows his lack of emotion and love for Dorris through his silence.

Appearance vs. Reality in Theater

My chosen binary for exploration and deconstruction is that between appearance and reality. In the initial setting it appears that greater privilege is given to appearance. This can be seen in the character John. “Light streaks down upon him from a window high above… Life of the house and of the slowly awakening stage swirls to the body of John, and thrills it” (Toomer, 52). Pictured in this light John is immediately the hero of the scene. We learn, however, that the reality of his personality is the stronger actor.
The appearances of the beautiful Dorris, also, at first are more privileged than her actual characteristics: “Above the staleness, one dancer throws herself into it. Dorris… Her own glowing is too rich a thing…” (53). Dorris dances, Dorris dances, Dorris dances. Her physicality is apparently a very strong actor in the scene.
By all appearances these are two solid characters. To the viewers of this setting in the Howard Theater, appearances are given privilege over reality. But to the reader just the opposite is the case. For underneath these appearances, reality is the greater actor in the story.
It is clear that “John’s body is separate from the thoughts that pack his mind” (52). Because of this, he is able to realize that the same is true of Dorris. He observes her subtle indications, “The leading lady fits loosely in the front. Lack-life, monotonous” (53), and sees that “Her suspicion would be greater than her passion.” Behind Dorris’ apparent physical passion, the real thoughts in her mind reveal what really is going on: “[I] can’t win him to respect [me]…” (55). Her physical passion is just a face.
The weight of this reality holds the greater privilege over appearance in this classic binary. An old proverb (that I'm sure exists) comes to mind: "The heart of a man is the man."

Inactivity vs. Activity in Toomer's "Theatre"

There are multiple binaries in Jean Toomer’s short story Theatre. The binary that I found the most interesting and thought-provoking in this specific story was that of motion vs. stillness or action vs. inaction. There is a strong contrast within the story between the characters. Dorris is up on the stage, performing the dance routine with the other female directors. John, the manager’s brother, is sitting motionless watching and judging the women as they dance. It is important to note from the footnotes provided in the book that Toomer believed that “individuals could express their emotions and their souls through dancing” (Theatre, pp. 54). Dorris then, through her dancing, is trying to suggest to John who she is. Toomer writes, “Dorris dances. She forgets her tricks. She dances. Glorious songs are the muscles of her limb” (Theatre, pp. 55). Dorris shows her interest in John by letting loose during her dance. She shows him how wild and sexual she can be with the gyrating of her hips in dance moves.
However, it is John’s stillness that ends up being the dominant binary in this story. Although the movements of Dorris’ dancing draw John’s glare and attention, he is not moved enough to act on his inner lust for her. Instead, he sits motionless and dreams about what it might be like to have Dorris for himself. Toomer writes that Dorris “searches for her dance in it [John’s face]. She finds it a dead thing in the shadow which is his dream’ (Theatre, pp. 56). John does not need the action of being intimate with Dorris, because she has let him do it inside of his head. Through his inactivity, he is still able to be with Dorris in his dream.
This is an interesting take on the binary of activity vs. inactivity. In a lot of media, it is the one who wishes and dreams that is left unfulfilled. The person that acts, in contrast, is usually seen as a hero.

Black and White

The black and white dichotomy – an important binary in modern literature – is used extensively in Jean Toomer’s “Theater”. On the surface, this binary signifies the differences between races, but there is also a deeper significance based in what these colors represent for Toomer.

There is no doubt that the black/white binary is symbolic of racial difference in “Theater”. The story is set in a predominately African-American part of Washington D.C. in the early 20th century. All of Toomer’s characters in the story are black, defined against the metaphorical white walls that surround them. Toomer writes that the black people “dance and shout above the tick and trill of white-walled buildings.” This is an important distinction for Toomer: the passion and energy of the African-Americans in the theater suggests an important aspect of his self-definition against another race. He continues to use this interpretation of the binary in a sarcastic manner as he writes of John’s view of the “full-lipped, distant beauties” on stage. John reflects on how white is considered beautiful by the audience and how fake this definition of beauty is. Although white is usually considered dominant in a white/black binary, John’s definition mocks this white over black dichotomy.

Another interpretation of this black/white binary deals with love in the story. When the characters are shrouded in the blackness of the shadows, reason triumphs over love. On the contrary, the white light that illuminates John serves as a metaphor for feelings of love and passion. As the white light rises in the theater, so do John’s feelings of attraction and sexuality. Similarly, when Dorris is masked by the darkness of the stage, she does not realize her infatuation for John. When the spotlight shines on her, however, her feelings of lust overcome her. This white light implies a challenge to the rational thought of the characters in the story.

Among the different binaries in Toomer’s story, the black over white dichotomy is one of the clearest and most important. Toomer challenges the traditional view of white’s dominance over black – for him, blackness signifies beauty and rationality; whiteness is a representation of oppression and foolish lust.

Light/Dark Binary

The light/dark binary is a dominant dichotomy within Jean Toomer’s “Theatre.” A structuralist reading of the text would suggest that light transcends dark and is therefore the better of the binary. However, it seems apparent to me that Toomer defies this logic by favoring the “dark” aspects of people in “Theatre.” For instance, Toomer dispels the fact that light triumphs over dark/shadow when he first introduces the character John. “One half of his face is orange in it. One half his face is in shadow,” (Toomer 52). Here, Toomer is describing John’s face as it is depicted with two forms of light. Each of these forms of light is an indication of his intellect and his desire. The orange light could be considered the white light or favorable light in this case. However, what is interesting is that Toomer doesn’t favor the light or the shadow; they both have equal hold over John, indicating that dark is equal to light. The next antithesis to the light/dark binary I discovered happens at the end of the story when John’s face is completely covered in shadow. This is an interesting turn of events because the light/dark binary indicates that light always triumphs over the dark, but in this instance the dark has triumphed over the light. The revelation is so shocking that it causes Dorris to run away in horror, and in a way, the situation is ironic because it appeared that Dorris was going to liberate John of his intellect and open him up to his desire. Yet, the opposite happened, and John’s intellect hides his desire. The climax of the story demonstrates that light does not always dominate dark; in fact, it was the dark that overtook the light.

Binaries acting upon each other

In the short-story “Theater”, Jean Toomer uses an abundance of binaries that help construct relationships. The binaries present in the story don’t work completely independent of each other. Throughout the story there are two actions, or one lack thereof, which causes these seemingly, disconnected binaries to work off each other; causing one of the binaries to become disrupted due to the others influence. The two binaries in the story that I feel work off each other are male/female, and motion/stationary.
As the story progresses, so does the readers understanding of John’s (the protagonist) persona. The story first introduces John “seated at the center of the theater, just before [dance] rehearsals” (52). Based off this brief introduction of John and his position in the cabaret, one can presume that he enjoys gazing upon beautiful woman. Throughout the story, the female role seems to conform to the idea of an enticer. Because all the females in the story are dancers, it can be assumed that they use their bodies to entice men into certain things: giving money, sexual fantasies. This specific binary seems to be rather concrete in its role in the story.
In the story there are specific roles that each particular gender seems to cohere to. These specific gender roles seem like they can be understood as common gender stereotypes among certain cultures. As a product of these common stereotypes of men as a gazer, and the woman as an enticer, spawns the reversal of another set of particular gender stereotypes. A common stereotype for a male is that they more actively pursue a potential mate. This isn’t saying that women don’t possess this sex drive, but it is more commonly associated with men. The second binary in this story is that of motion/stationary. This particular binary disrupts the preconceived notions we had about the commonalities of gender stereotypes.
Understood from the aforementioned stereotypes, is that men are more commonly the aggressor when it comes to sex. Throughout the story “Theater, Jean Toomer develops a male character who has these sexual urges, but is reluctant to act upon them. This lack of action causes a reversal in the understood stereotypes of males and females. Throughout the story John never leaves his stationary position in the cabaret; while Dorris is constantly dancing to convey her desire for him sexually. Because of this reversal of actions the male becomes the stationary (less aggressive) gender, while the female assumes the motion (more aggressive) role.
As a result of the influence of another binary, a once seemingly concrete binary becomes disrupted. With an abundance of binaries present in the story, it is inevitable that they will begin to influence another.

White/Black Binary in "Theater"

The white/black binary in Jean Toomer's "Theater" is interesting because the favored binary can be reversed throughout the course of the story.  We are given the color black right at the beginning with the description of lifestyle around Howard Theater.  Everything in this opening paragraph is colored black until John enters the theater.  At this point light enters.  From then on there is a constant shift in descriptions of the white pillar of light that describes John and the dark shadow that describes Dorris.  With so much description and use of white vs black or light vs shadow it is difficult to tell what is favored in the binary.  Ultimately black/shadow is favored, but the challenge that white/light gives the former is interesting because it gives a different definition of domination than what is culturally favored--white over black.

Structurally black is favored over white because the reader is presented with many different descriptions that use black within the first paragraph.  Toomer creates a world that is shrowded in darks and blacks.  This establishment seems to function like clockwork until white comes into the picture.  White is usually seen as a sign of purity, thus the reason many use it as the color of their wedding dresses.  Toomer plays with this meaning by having white signify impurity because whenever John is thinking of Dorris sexually he is being spotlighted by a white pillar of light.  This makes white subordinate to black within the story because this light has negative effects on Dorris and the production of the play.  The white light is even, if you will, defeated by darkness and shadow when the keyboard clanks.  Ultimately, it is the shadow and black that finishes the story when Toomer shroudes his characters in shadows in the last paragraph.  

Even though black seems to be favored as the favored piece of the binary, it is challenged by white.  First off, the idea of white, or a ray of light, coming into and invading and all black establishmnent is, in itself, a challenge to the black domination.  Toomer even has his characters challenge the fact that they are black.  The director tells Mame and Dorris to focus on the dance and Mame lashes back with her line, "Go to Hell, you black bastard."  Mame, does not refer to the director with respect, but instead insults him by calling him a bastard.  She goes a step further by coupling her insult with the description of black.  It can probably be assumed that Mame is black since she is working as a dancer at the Howard Theater, so it is interesting how she decides to disrespect the director with her reference to his skin color.  Besides this white/light challenges dark/shadow during the dream sequence at the end of the story.  Dorris is described as wearing a "loose black gown" and John is described as wearing a "collar and tie colorful and flaring."  The bright colors take advantage and dominate black in the sense that Dorris gets manipulated by John during this section.

Looking at these few examples, and understanding that black is favored over white in "Theater," one receives a different definition of the white/black binary.  Toomer's story challenges the cultural favor of white over black.  He establishes black as the status quo in his world by describing everything with black or shadow.  By using white to challenge black, the story gives insight into how the African-American community feel about the imposed laws, culture, living spaces, etc. that are given to African-Americans from the "white" or culturally dominant ethnicity.

Audience and the Performer: a Swirling Binary

            Jean Toomer explores the dichotomy between the audience and the performer in “Theater.”  Toomer introduces the concept quite literally: John is seated in the seats, watching the rehearsal, and the girls dance upon the stage.  In keeping with the paradigmatic “master/slave” binary, the reader can examine the power structure within the audience/performer juxtaposition.  In most situations, it would seem that the performer has the hierarchical precedence, the ability to act while the performer can only react.  Toomer, however, posits that, as post-structuralists would argue with nearly all binaries, the binary relation between the two is not as clearly favorable towards the performer as one might first expect. Within a binary, one facet cannot exist without the existence of the other.  In the master/slave binary, for example, if the master has no slave to control, then his power is weakened.  Likewise, since the slave gives the master his identity, the hierarchy is subverted, and power can be redistributed to the supposedly weaker party. 

            While John is the reactive observer, he has power in his ability to criticize from a relatively safe position.  He refers to the chorus girls as “dancing ponies,” connoting that they are objectified—animals to be trained.  Toomer also twists the relation between audience and performer in that here, Dorris is aware of her audience.  The interaction becomes personal, and John’s reactions influence Dorris’ actions and vice versa.  Just as John judges Dorris, observing her physical appearance (“Her lips are curiously full, and very red…”), Dorris, in turn, critiques John: “Hell, he can’t love…his lips are too skinny.” 

The seemingly divisive schism between the two characters is inverted and reverted to the point that Toomer seems to be showing that the binary is not as stable as once assumed.  While John sitting in the audience implies passivity, he actively judges Dorris.  Dorris, who is the dancing performer, is an audience member of John’s internal debate between mind and body, and she reacts, weeping, to his inaction.  Dorris dances of her own free will in reality, and dances like a “dancing pony” in John’s daydream, losing the power of performer.  The performer has no purpose if no audience sits to watch, just as the audience has nothing to witness if there is no performer.  Toomer seems to be exploring the idea that it is the presence of both of these facets of the binary that gives the other meaning, and that their roles are not as concrete as one might originally assume.  

Motion vs. Stillness

In Jean Toomer’s “Theater” there are many different binaries that can be analyzed but I am going to focus on Motion vs. Stillness. In the first paragraph Toomer uses the motion vs. stillness to personify the walls as being asleep then waking up and being alive when rehearsal would start. ”Afternoons, the house was dark, and the walls are sleeping singers until rehearsal begins.” (52). Then the more common motion vs. stillness binary is seen between Dorris dancing and John sitting and watching. John is introduced as a motionless character. “He is seated at the center of the theater…” (52). The only actions that John has are his thoughts that help drive the story and gives the readers more information. Then there is Dorris who is one of the dancers. Her part binary is motions. She dances to express her emotions. (Dorris dances. Se forgets her tricks. She dances. Glorious songs are the muscles of her limbs.” (55). Just because motion is stated first in the binary does not mean that stillness has any lesser of a meaning. One of the unique characteristics of the structure of the story is how the readers are able to read what is on John’s mind with out him doing anything yet we are also able to read this and see his point of view. To contrast Dorris who is physically displaying her emotions though dance.

Control in "Theater"

There are superficial roles of power and control in Toomer's "Theater," like the manager or the manager's brother (scout) versus the performers on stage. This is a binary of control v. controlled. John appears to be a dominant power in the theater as the manager's brother who is looking for outstanding performers. Dorris tries to cater to what John wants to see, and she feels like John is in control of her destiny as the middle man between her and Broadway. However, we know that what John was thinking in his head was the opposite. John was very attracted to Dorris, and was almost entranced by her for a short time, before he made a grab for control over himself again. He had to control himself from becoming too attracted to Dorris, so that he would not get too involved and give her too much effect on him. Both Dorris and John find themselves intensely attracted to eachother, which gives each one power over the other.

Another catch on the binary of control v. controlled is at the end. Dorris wants to impress John, I believe partially because she believes John is her key to making it to the next level (Broadway). In the end, I believe the image of John still sitting in the shadows means that John is not really in control either. So again the appearance of control v. controlled falls through, as John (the control) is under the control of other forces of control (race, social status, etc.).

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Purity and Corruption in "Theater"

Doing a close reading of Jean Toomer’s Theater allows us to see the binary of purity and corruption. This binary is a good signifier of the purity of emotions versus the corruption of the intellect.

In context, this piece gives privilege and importance to the need for emotions to not get clouded by the mind and intellect. John the ‘dictie’ and educated man can be seen struggling with his emotions and how freeing they are to his spirit inside. John fights to keep himself under control and works to allow his mind which has been expanded due to his education, to take the reins. There is a conflict between emotional purity along with raw feelings with intellectual corruption. Another way that purity and corruption can be seen here is in Dorris’ feelings towards John. Dorris’ feelings are pure and show such energy in contrast to John’s restraint. The purity seen in her thoughts, not clouded by ulterior motives, can also be contrasted to John’s corruption of lust for her. Dorris also struggles with her acceptance of John, purity and corruption a strong binary for her when one looks at her dancing versus her thinking.

This piece seems to favor purity over corruption due to its focus on raw emotions and feelings instead of having a base in logic and rationality of intellect. Theater takes the binary of purity and corruption and focuses them in the two main characters. The privilege of purity over corruption can be seen easily and in this time of social upheaval and change for African-Americans, purity was needed. Emotion’s purity filled the theater and the mind’s corruption fought against it in one man’s mind. Though the intellect won out in the end for John, Dorris looked to the purity of his dream until it was too late. Though she couldn’t have him, her purity and energy helped her obtain at least some small part of his inner self against the corruption of his mind and intellect.

Examining Binaries in Jean Toomer's "Theater"

Jean Toomer's "Theater" is full of binaries throughout. The one I would like to focus on is motion/stillness. Throughout the entirety of the story, Dorris uses her dancing as a movement to display affection. It is very important to understand that Toomer considered "that individuals could express their emotions and their souls through dancing" (54). Motion dominates the majority of the story. The walls are permeable and the motion of the dancers allows them to display their sexuality: "Dorris dances. She forgets her tricks. She dances. Glorious songs are the muscles of her limbs" (55). Light shines upon those on the dance floor, and Dorris uses this to her advantage, using motion to garner the attention of the man she desires: John. Although movement seems to dominate the story, it actually turns out to be the less dominate of the two binaries. John sits in stillness. A very introverted character, John takes in the entire scene from sitting back in his chair. John internalizes the dancers and "His mind, contained above desires of his body, singles the girls out, and tries to trace origins and plot destinies" (52). With his mind and stillness taking precedent over his own body, John crushes Dorris' hopes of love and affection through his inaction.

Motion vs. Stillness

Toomer’s Theater presents a binary between motion and stillness. Motion is privileged because it drives the action of the story and causes John and Dorris to develop affections for each other. Dance is a major catalyst for the action in Theater. John comes to witness a dance rehearsal and Dorris attempt to communicate her attraction to John through dance. As Toomer describes the action he remarks, “[John] is seated in the center of the theater [to watch] rehearsal…chorus girls drift in …listening to them singing he wants to stamp his feet and shout” (52). John is motivated to attend the rehearsal because of the dancing women. While remaining still he does not have thoughts about the girls unless they are moving and presenting their dance skills. Dorris uses dance to communicate her feelings for John. When she dances it prompts both her and John to think about each other, continuing the action of the story and privileging motion over stillness. Toomer states, “ Dorris dances…[her] eyes burn across the space of seats to [John] …The walls press in…they press close to John and Dorris John’s heart beats against her dancing body”(54-55). This explains that Dorris uses dance to communicate her feelings for John. Her dancing creates physical reactions in John that cause him to desire her more. Even though motion initiates much of the action of Theater, stillness asserts dominance in the binary as well. As a result of social norms both John and Dorris are reluctant to initiate a relationship, remaining still in their efforts.

Appearance vs. Reality

Jean Toomer’s “Theater” is a story full of binary, from the oppositions of light and dark, to love and hate. Appearance and reality, however, remains a very dominant theme, and sets the tone for all other binaries within this work. On the surface, “Theater” displays an average show hall, complete with dancers, performers, and directors. In reality, however, a subtle love story erupts between John and Dorris. This too, however, is another depiction of the dichotomy between appearance vs. reality, as there is no real love distributed between the two.
There are several moments of borderline intimacy, as John begins to become enraptured by Dorris’ efforts. His face turns autumn, and his body becomes soft and warm. This outward appearance, however, is a cover for the harsh reality of the cold nature the man possesses. Dorris’ dance is solely for the capture of John’s heart, and after a few brief moments of possible hope, she only “finds it a dead thing in the shadow which is his dream” (Toomer 56). He is a living lie, a brother of a director who has no real power, a race-challenged man, who is a living paradox between appearance and reality.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Light and Shadow in Theater: A Post-structuralist Analysis

A close reading of Toomer's Theater reveals a use of theater language to demonstrate the romantic conflict between John and Dorris. The use of light and shadow is extremely useful as a signifier of John's conflict (his desire versus his intellect).  However, viewing the text through a deconstructionist lens offers the possibility of several other signifieds besides the ones mentioned above. 

Theater can be seen in a historical light. Many of the references, such as the setting (the African-American section's Howard Theater), John's allusion to "beautiful" black women who resemble white women, and the term dictie all indicate a socially charged time in history. If the text is seen in this manner, then the signs of light and shadow become much less clear. Perhaps John, although clearly a black man in the story, is a metaphor of the white race, forced to face accepting the black race (i.e., Dorris). Perhaps the light and shadow mark a conflict of acceptance and rejection. The light, on the one hand, portrays the average white man, tempted to accept African Americans. It is his desire. His intellect, however, as portrayed by the shadow, could opposed to this desire, reminding the man that social constructs of the time would frown upon his decision. 

And the conflict within Dorris, to accept John, could be seen as the black community reaching out to the white community, but, seeing a perceived arrogance, draws back in fear.

In addition, the logocentrism of the story suggests that light, or desire, is favored. Perhaps in the case of a white and black communities, this is true. But what about instances where this may not be true? What if, in the close reading of the story, the privilege should be given to the shadow? Perhaps the intellect, the decision to reject the other, was the correct one. After all, decisison based entirely on passion are sloppy and unreasonable. Perhaps the intellect acted as an impediment to a potentially regrettable decision.

There are many other parallels that can be drawn, but the signs of light and shadow cannot so easily be deduced, or so the deconstructionist would say. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What's in a Name

Royce Gregerson’s article questions the literary nature of Wabash College’s curriculum, asking “where did all the great books go?” He furthers his complaint by pondering “"who even knows who Susan Gubar, Derek Walcott, Nabokov, Szymborska, and Murakami are? Who could possibly say that these represent some of the greatest books ever written?" These are very prominent authors, albeit recent ones. This dramatically argues, what is a classic?
To me, a classic is a timeless book, which I can read at any moment and feel the same spark as the first time I ever read it. Granted, there are many books written by the old masters (Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Thoreau), that I do not enjoy upon a second reading, yet these still retain their “classic” status. Based on a historic value, these authors must be “classic,” as their writing signifies a hallmark of literature in terms of literary tropes, content, and manipulation of form. The problem with this is the counter-question: does a “classic” only refer to an old book, written by someone long passed? Can there be no new classic books? There must be, as several of the “new” authors on the list above are heralded as revolutionary, and have garnered many awards. Besides, how is an author to gain the notoriety and elevated status as the Shakespeare’s of yesteryear, without being compared to them? For a class that revolves around various degrees of prominent literature, the reading list should consist of several different authors and genres, so as to get a broad spectrum of what the term “classic” really means.

“tis the good reader that makes the good book”

In the January 29th, 2009 edition of Wabash College's Bachelor, columnist Royce Gregerson takes a critical look at the college's literary corpus and raises the question, "where did all the great books go?" The point behind his rant is that "it's time to skip the academic jargon and high-strung language without semblance of point, message, or direction." While this statement is agreeable, it is when Gregerson supports his argument with statements such as "who even knows who Susan Gubar, Derek Walcott, Nabokov, Szymborska, and Murakami are? Who could possibly say that these represent some of the greatest books ever written?" Derek Walcott won the Nobel Prize for literature. Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita is #4 on the list of the Modern Library's 100 best novels of the 20th century. The authors Gregerson criticizes seem to be praised in the literary world. While Gregerson mentions other great authors (Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Thoreau), it seems that Gregerson considers a great book to be written by a long deceased white male. This is not consistent with the liberal arts, and certainly not what makes a great book. Personally, the books I have found to be great were not written by deceased authors. My favorite book, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, presents an author exactly the opposite of Gregerson's standard. And it would be hard for Gregerson to deny The Color Purple as a "great" novel; it received the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award.

The question really is not where did the great books go, but what makes a great book? In the student's perspective, the great books seem to be a predetermined list that repeatedly appears on course syllabi. However, it is important to note that there was a time when no one had read these books, and the first readers that determined the success of the novel. It is the reader that has the ability to bring life to the page; the reader decides what the author said and how well it was said. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his essay "Success", "tis the good reader that makes the good book."

Monday, February 9, 2009

Great books

What is a great book? Well, what do you want to read about? What are you’re interests? What style of writing do you like? Are you looking for form or content? Great books should be left up to the reader to decide whether or not they are “great “ or not. Suggestions always help but that does not mean that the two readers will agree. Carrying the title of a “Great Book” is completely based on ones opinion. Just because a scholar enjoys a book does not mean that everyone else will. Even other scholars will disagree. In the article what was published in the newspaper that we read in class the writer believed that great books are those that have lived on throughout time such as Shakespeare, for one example. On the other hand he was not open minded to other writers what the course was covering. This is a liberal arts college. What do we pride our selves on so much here? The ability to be well rounded in every area of academia. Why can’t this writer keep his mind open to newer writers. This way he will be able to expand his views sense they are so closed. Also, if these are great books and authors that are popular and everyone has read, why would you want to reread it and discuss thoughts and themes that I’m sure have been brought up in another class. He should what to expand his book collection and discuss new book and others where there are going to be new and different themes that might open his eyes to the world. Going over information and texts that professors already have vast amount of knowledge on is helpful in some ways but its so much more fun to watch them learn as we , the students, learn along side of them. This way you can get a first hand view of how to read critically.

Poor Mr. Gregerson

Upon reading Mr. Gregerson’s column about the lack of “great literature” in Wabash College curriculum, I was appalled at the arguments Gregerson uses to support his opinion. And it seems that I am not alone: the response to this column – both from students and faculty – has been overwhelmingly negative. Several letters to the editor in the subsequent issue of The Bachelor rebuke Gregerson for his ignorance of the Senior Colloquium Course and modern literature as a legitimate genre.

Although I am no doubt inclined to side with the students and faculty (regardless of their status in the hierarchy of tenure) who are actually involved in the course, I cannot responsibly judge the value of the corpus that Gregerson describes. In all honesty, I am among those who have never heard of such modern authors as Gubar, Nabokov, and Murakami. I do not dare to comment on the literary merit of these authors; by doing so, I risk developing my own, self-professed ignorance into arrogance and pompousness.

However, I feel it necessary to comment on the way in which Gregerson develops his argument. His opinion is legitimate and he is certainly entitled to it. Unfortunately, he employs irrelevant and erroneous arguments about religion and instructor ability to a topic that has little to do with either of these. Instead, he should have focused on what constitutes great literature. Although undoubtedly important, a work’s popularity and longevity are not the sole bases upon which literature is canonized. Gregerson fails to acknowledge the importance of universal themes and characters that inspire generations of readers. Further, greatness is a product of personal opinion and connection with a piece of literature. Had Gregerson more fully developed a legitimate argument about great literature, he may not have received the poison pen backlash from his peers.

Barring all pretension...

The question of canonicity as it relates to Wabash is multi-dimensional. The question of what qualifies a work as “great” and worthy of joining the coveted and highly esteemed Great Books List, is separate from the secondary question of which of these supposed great texts should be included in upper level senior Colloquium curriculum. Neither of these questions provides straightforward answers.
The first question should be assessed through blind eyes. Never in the equation should enter race, gender, or any other social construct. The debate of great literature, I believe, should have nothing to do with authorship. In the best sense of things, the fact that the majority of canonized works are written by white males should be a mere coincidence (although whether or not this is the case is legitimately debatable).
A piece of literature is canon-quality if it, well, is canon-quality, and if it reserves this mark over the test of time. If over time its applause fades and its quality turns debatable, its qualification for canonization should obviously be put in dire limbo. The test of time and hot debate among literary elite, a group in which I would include many Ph. D. professors at Wabash, ensures the integrity of the great works canon and keeps it from becoming painfully stagnant in changing times.
It’s a different conversation that surrounds the debate of what canonized works should be included in the senior Colloquium curriculum. This discussion should also have nothing to do with authorship, but rather with which canonized works are most worth the worn-out senior’s careful reading through and studying. By the time the spring semester of their senior year comes around, many students might agree that they have close-read enough random books and put up with enough random discussion through their previous seven semesters, that if their senior seminar proves no different, they, like the author of this Bachelor article, would not be very excited about it at all. However, it shows a remarkable lack of insight to think that this is all senior seminar amounts to and reflects a pretentious ignorance that is, in fact, enraging to many Colloquium professors.
I, too, might not like the thought of professors picking out for me the books that they think I should read, especially in my senior Great Works Colloquium, unless I have first learned the value in surrendering my childish arrogance. If I consistently believe that I have somehow attained the rare ability to pick through the annals of time and genres of all sorts and know the essence of a great work when I see one, and have the enlightened insight to know which of these texts are most worthy of my honored position as a pompous second-semester senior, something along my education track has gone terribly wrong.
Hopefully by the end of my college career I will have come to appreciate more fully the knowledge and insight of my Ph. D. professors. This is, at least, the hope.

Contemporary Books Are Just as "Great"

I think there comes a time when many students become frustrated with the types of books they are reading. Considering the time we all live in this is understandable; why read crappy or uninteresting books when I could be doing something else worth my time? But the issue that I take with the article, “Where Did All of the Great Books Go?” is that the columnist needs the approval of literature heirarchs to tell him what the great books are. And there is something flawed with this reasoning: why would you have somebody tell you which books are “great” as opposed to books that are not “great?” It seems absurd to me that there has to be some authority that dictates which books are the great ones. In reality, I think the individual is the only authority that determines whether a book can be great or not, and the individual becomes an authority is if he/she actually reads the text. I find it humorous that the columnists willingly accepts the sagacious and authoritative views of “great books” but scoffs at the idea of Derek Walcott and Takashi Murakami when he probably didn’t read either author.
The columnist’s arguments seems even more flawed because his view is antithetical to the liberal arts education, which, in my mind, demands that the student observe, entertain, and respect the varying, different, and diverse opinions and texts of the world. And all of this is done so the student can grow and expand as a person and as an academic. Therefore it seems ridiculous that the columnist matches the literary cannon versus a class curriculum to determine if what is being studied is worth his time. It is very conceded to believe that contemporary works are not worth anyone’s time, and I think any person is doing themselves a disservice if they ardently follow the literary canon today. Canon is helpful in the fact that they provide us with classical texts that are enriching, but I don’t think we should obsessively consult them to make sure we know everything about the past. If we do that, then we fail to see what is right in front us. Canons suggest what we should take from the past, but the contemporary works shows us what we need to know today.

!!!!!The Great Books Keep on Coming!!!!!

Recently there has been an article written that questions what characterizes what a great book is. After reading this article several questions of mine arise. The first question, what makes a great book? In this article the author seems to imply that a great book needs to hold a pertinent historical significance. This I feel is a good representation of a good book, but in order to become a great book shouldn’t there be more to it? The last characteristic of a great book described by the author (Mr. Gregerson) insinuates that only great authors can create great books. In this rather narrow-minded assumption by the author, the validity of his argument is drastically weakened.
As a result of the questionable things said about what makes a great book, several responses have been made in a contradictory fashion. The main arguments made by these opposing positions are comparable with my own. In the initial argument by Mr. Gregerson he speaks about how a great book needs to be written by a great writer. An opposing professor from Mr. Gregerson’s institution responded to this claim by stating, “there is no reason to assume that people stopped writing worthwhile books in the 1850’s” (Professor Tucker). Reiterating the words of Professor Tucker was a fellow peer of Mr. Gregerson. He also supported the notion that books written in what we understand as modern society can eventually lead to great books. If great books must hold a cultural significance, then books developed now days shall be insightful to the generations and centuries to come. Mr. Gregerson’s frustration with what some academics consider great books doesn’t coincide with his own personal understanding of what a great book is. Based on the information presented, the author was more focused on attempting to prove a point, than to present worthwhile knowledge.
However, one thing that can be positively contributed to Mr. Gregerson’s article is the controversy it stirred up. As avid reader of books, I believe that I was neglecting to understand myself what it takes to consider a book great. As a world I believe that we take what is predetermined by academics to be truth. Which I feel is important in order to grasp a firm understanding of literature. However, as I began to understand what I feel constitutes a great book. I often myself coinciding with the academics have previously suggested. Although I do not feel that I have came up with a concrete enough understanding of what constitutes a great book; but with the influence of the class colliquim (A class at my institution that directs all it’s focus on variety great novels from past to modern societies) I intend on coming out with my personal beliefs. If you can praise a negative article, then that’s what I intend on doing; even though I disagree with a lot of what Mr. Gregerson has stated, he still stirred up my curiosity to begin to establish what I deem as a “Great Book”.

In Defense of the Genre

I'm going to play Devil's Advocate here, but I think it would in good taste to bring another viewpoint into the discussion. It seems the entire class is disagreeing with Mr. Gregerson, and I admit his words seem overly harsh. But, thought his words are harsh, they aren't entirely untrue. What most people are forgetting is that this is an opinion, and he is entitled to his, just as we all are entitled to ours.

If one would read the entire article, there would be a few more things the reader would understand about the rest of article. In the beginning of the article, Mr. Gregerson discusses how many great Christian works, namely St. Augustine's Confessions, have been neglected and left off the Colloquium reading list. In fact, this book, considered by many as a great book, is not on the reading list. Royce goes on to discuss how it seems like a problem that Wabash is leaving more and more Christianity-related works out of the courses here at Wabash. Now, most of the people are probably thinking that I'm going to start to rant about how Christianity is a superior religion and how all people who write on Christian topics are better writers and their works are "great books." I'm not going to, but I'm simply going to say that Western Culture, which has been fueled by the Christian tradition for over 2,000 years, has produced some quality literature.

Royce states that Wabash is removing the Christian tradition from the public square. But, some may say this is necessary for "advancement." But the greatest problem that I see from all of this is that Wabash may be injuring our education by this change. The push to put works from non-Dead White Male authors in the classroom may go too far at some point. the dead white male(dwm) literature isn't "opressing" anyone, nor is it a sign of "elitism," it is merely literature that has been found and tested as "great." Not that other authors aren't seen as great, but just because they aren't dwm's doesn't mean that they should be read in class over something that is written by a dwm. It is not "advancing" our culture at all to include lack-luster works just because they may help 'diversify' the student. I don't believe the works listed in Gregerson's article are lack-luster, but I am saying that if books written by ethnic or female authors are the only books on the Colloquium reading list, a great unjustice would have been done to the authors that happen to be dead white males.


For the purposes of academic analysis and education, a class could use any form of literature from a newspaper article to Shakespeare. The purpose of a canon, however, is to celebrate the classic elite of literature. It would be ignorant to think that only dead white men could be capable of writing works of enough quality to be canonized. However, I also believe that works by other nationalities or genders should not be canonized solely based on their gender or race. This would be just as ignorant to the other extreme. On the other hand there are some authors, who because of their race or gender in the time they were alive, are more impressive in their writing. For example, I believe that Frederick Douglass should be canonized based on the eloquence and skill of his writing alone, but it is even more impressive that he was capable of writing such masterpieces as a man who was enlaved for a large part of his life in one of the cruelest slavery systems in the history of the world. We all have our own preferences and styles. In the end, think that those who are included in a canon will always be so on the basis of subjective reasoning. People decide for themselves what should be canonized and what should not. In the end it does not really matter anyway, because the point of reading literature is to be able to analyze and think for one's self to determine the meaning and moral of a work. A student can do this with any literary work. I do not believe that a student will learn how to think significantly better by reading one author over another as long as they are pushing themselves to learn and interpret for themselves.

The canon?

After reading this article from The Bachelor, I feel that the question, “Where Did All the Great Books Go?” can only be answered with, “They have been here, and will be here.” Colloquium is a forum for discussion of great works of literature, both old and new. To say that the list, “… devolves into authors with hardly a shred of historical significance” (The Bachelor 5) is presumptuous. Going from these well-known authors to these up and coming ones is only natural. Not only have these men of the past given us wonderful works to ponder and read, but these new voices must be heard. We students do not determine the canon, but we try and put our trust in our professors to choose works that will help us become better people and make us think, for that is our mission. It is naïve to think that only dead white men are worthy of praise. These authors, Gubar, Walcott, Nabokov, Szymborska, and Murakami are praise-worthy and great writers not because of awards, but of the heart and understanding they have put into their books, poems, stories, etc. Diversification of the canon is key to bringing greater exposure of ideas, backgrounds, and lives to the world stage. We are becoming so much more connected every day and arguing that these writers are not worthy of note is rather short-sighted. Because of these authors, I feel that my life has been and will be enriched by exposure to their writings. Many people will never hear of these authors but they must still be remembered for perhaps one day they will be read around the world, and all it takes is one person to distribute their name. Who determines what makes a classic? If it pulls at me and brings me joy, then let these names be brought forth and my ignorance of them be dashed on the rocks. The canon is a living thing and not to stay stagnant through time.

Collecting A Western Canon

The article written in The Bachelor regarding the selection of literature for Senior Colloquium is hard not to argue with. He asks in his title: “Where Did All the Great Books Go?” I think it is hard to discern what really the great books of Western culture are. It is easy to say that Shakespeare, Hemingway, Chaucer, Milton, etc. are great writers and have produced some amazing, long lasting works. However, it is harder to say who some of the more modern day classic authors are and who belongs in the Western canon. It is a question of perspective. I think it is important for the great professors and administrators at Wabash to guide us to find these books. I, personally, had never heard of Nabokov or Marukami before reading the article in the Bachelor. I would trust, however, that the professors who assigned and picked the reading list would know what they are talking about. It is their job to help mold and shape us into learned gentleman of culture and class. A couple of my favorite authors are Dr. Seuss and Gary Paulson, both of whom have written their books towards youths. These might not be on the list of great Western authors, but they have been influential in my life. I think that there is no definitive collection of works that could be appropriately titled as the Western Canon. Each person has their favorite authors and authors that they think are important. We must bring our ideas together to make the most complete list. However, there will always still be some disagreements.

When I'm a Dead White Male, I Hope You Read Ellison

The author of the article in the Bachelor has embodied the probable opinion of many students who look at the reading list for senior colloquium.  For example: “I don’t know who these authors are!” or “Why should I read these guys’ work? I’ll never be able to impress people by quoting someone they’ve never heard of!” To say that a piece of art is not great because you were unaware of its existence it is like saying that couscous is not a food because you have not eaten it and it doesn't sound "American." In other words, widespread public ignorance of certain novels does not indicate that those novels are unworthy of recognition and reverence.  Yes, generally critics and academics do notice and spread awareness of works that are outstanding in literary quality, but just because I have not heard of Baudelaire, like the young man who wrote the article, does not mean that Baudelaire’s work has failed as art.  Maybe I have failed as someone who calls himself a lover of literature. 

It seems obvious that someone like myself or the author of the article in the Bachelor does not determine the canon, although we have both grown up hearing of the “greats” of the Western canon (James Joyce, William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, etc.).  If I do not determine the canon, who does? Who are the group of people who claim to have the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff? How can one objectively judge a piece of work as universally exceptional when reading is such a subjective experience?  It is an interesting conundrum, being forced to judge a work of art.  The world is so filled with contrasting cultures, peoples, and ideas that to say that only a handful of “dead, white males” are qualified to represent the limitless experiences that life presents is naïve.  In determining the western canon, especially in a time when technology has reduced the earth to the size of a laptop with a Wi-Fi connection, I suppose the best option would be to select works that best represent all the possibilities and viewpoints the world has to offer.  Had a white male written Jean Toomer’s Cane, would the impact be the same? Could a white male have created art so engrained with the psyche of a minority, so heartfelt and inventive?  I doubt it.  If I limit myself to reading works only by people that reflect the majority of white males, then I not only perpetuate oppression, I also deny myself the opportunity to broaden my knowledge.  I wouldn't have read anything by Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, authors whose works influenced the way I view the world.  I would argue that, logically, a knowledge of monotony (only reading works by dead white males) necessitates an ignorance of diversity.  

The Western Canon

While reflecting on the article written in The Bachelor, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the columnist. The columnist clearly did not hold high regard for established modern authors, some of which are Nobel Laureates. Instead, the article focuses primarily on the support of elite white, European male authors. Saying that these works are "the greatest works of literature" is a pretty valid point. Indeed Shakespeare was a fantastic playwright, however, who reserves the right to say that Derek Walcott's literature, or any author for that matter, is not a great piece of work that should be taught?

I believe that the Colloquium course being referred to in the article is a fantastic example of what our College exemplifies. Having a course on great works of literature, and focusing primarily on dead white European males is a disservice to the Liberal Arts education. It goes against everything that our College stands for. By reading a diverse crop of literature, we as students are able to learn more about the world through the lens of different races, cultures, and genders. However, the biggest criticism I have with the article, (the same criticism can be applied to the Canons), is who possesses the power to choose the works of literature worth teaching to students, and those which should not be taught?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Canonicity: Who Has the Power?

In reference to the article read in class, I have been forced to think over the topic at hand, and come to little conclusion. Instead, I have only come up with more questions.

As to the article itself, my opinion is inconsequential. The writer is not even in the class he is criticizing, and as to the authors he criticizes, several are Nobel Laureates. Also among those writers is Derek Walcott, who we have seen to be a brilliant writer, regardless of the canonicity of his works.

But I really do have to question who develops canons. In English, we have several that are well known, such as Shakespeare, Pope, Locke, etc. After that, the list becomes smaller. Should it? Are those people who I mentioned the authors of classics or of popular works? Who decides what each of those things is? What's the difference between them? Everyone knows the names J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien. Did both write classics? I argue that the latter did. Did the former? Or were her works merely popular? Not to say that the Harry Potter books aren't brilliant; but are they classics? One could argue about earlier writers: when Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, did he create a classic or a popular work? I would argue that Julius Caesar is a far superior play of the Bard's and that it offers more to the literary world. But it is lesser known. 

Why are some authors' names dropped in classes, but their works never read? Who, apart from an English major in college, will ever read Paradise Lost? Is it not a classic. though, more so than Shakespeare's plays? But yet most students will surely have heard the name of Milton. What about Chaucer? I have heard his name in world history classes, but what high schooler will read any of his Canterbury Tales? If not for my English 300 class, I would never have read his Book of the Duchess or Parliament of the Fowles, both excellent poems. And Spenser...what beautiful poetry. What amazing sonnets in his Amoretti. And his Faerie Queene.... Edmund Spenser was undoubtedly Milton's precursor, as Milton attested to himself; yet Spenser's name may one day fade further into obscurity. 

The list could go on. Even in the world of playrights, Ben Jonson's name should arise. This question could even be viewed through a religious lens: The Book of Judith is a wonderful tale. But it is not found in the Protestant Bible....and that is simply something I do not understand. 

Now, to Wabash's credit, many of these authors hitherto mentioned are read here in different classes. But apart from a liberal arts education, it could be very difficult to do so. I guess where I differ from the author of the newspaper column is that I do not mourn classics that dropped from the canon. I mourn the works that were never canonized. 

As to that matter, I am afraid I don't how to fix this. How can everyone agree on such a system? But I suppose I would take a census on how widely it was read, and after a certain period of time (say a century) see this work was still widely used, or used in a way that other works were not. There would have to be agreement that something about the work (its allegory, its length, its brevity, etc.) would have to stand out from its peers. Then, after that century, it could be voted (perhaps by a society formed for this purpose) into a form of classic. Say, for instance, a neophyte classic. After so much longer, it could be voted into another classic. Essentially, I would call for a system that singled out the classics, not just the popular works. 


Jean Toomer’s short story Karintha presents the development of Karintha as she matures from a young girl into a woman in a community that reveres her for her beauty. Karintha’s beauty brings her male attention at an early age and influences her to ‘grow up too fast’. Toomer’s uses the motif of dusk to describe Karintha’s beauty and partially dark skin tone. He remarks “Men had always wanted Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down…Her skin is like the dusk when the sun goes down” (3-4). This emphasizes that men in Karintha’s community both young and old are captivated by Karintha’s beauty. “Perfect dusk” alludes to a state between day and night or black and white in which each aspect is equally expressed. By describing Karintha’s complexion as “like dusk” Toomer uses a simile to point out that Karintha is a girl of mixed heritage. Toomer describes Karintha’s mixed heritage as the standard of beauty most desirable in Karintha’s community when he refers to it as “perfect”. Later in the short story, Toomer foreshadows that Karintha will mature too quickly as a result of so much attention from males. He states, “This interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her” (3). This explains that Karintha’s beauty brings her a lot of male attention. However, such attention causes her to mature too quickly and lose the innocence of her childhood. Karintha grows up too fast and enters into relationships that cause her grief latter in life. Toomer observes, “Karintha is a woman, and has had a child…She has been married many times…Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon…She has contempt for them” (4). Karintha becomes a woman through practicing adult behavior while still young. Reflecting on this latter in life, Karintha has disdain for the men in her past that influenced her engage in adult activities and mature too soon.

A Poem for Barack Obama

Walcott’s A Poem for Barack Obama uses literary techniques such as punctuation, imagery, and oxymoron to present a theme of blacks’ perseverance through adversity encompassing the success of President Obama. The poet uses the character of a “young Negro” to embody the negative experiences of blacks in the United States that stem from slavery and institutionalized racism. Walcott states, “Out of the turmoil emerges one emblem, an engraving of a young Negro…, an emblem of impossible prophecy, a crowd dividing like the furrow which a mule has ploughed, parting for their president”. In the first line Walcott uses commas to illuminate the image of the ‘young Negro’ that personifies the accomplishments of blacks and President Obama, despite the adverse circumstances that they have faced. The diction Walcott uses, such as ‘turmoil’ and ‘one emblem”, emphasize that the Young Negro embodies the tumultuous past and progressive future for blacks. The oxymoron, “impossible prophecy” points toward the selection of a black president in America and how the racial status quo of America’s history caused many to doubt the possibility of such a phenomena. Prophecy denotes that an event will come to pass. To refer to a prophecy as impossible emphasizes that America’s laws and social norms worked to keep such an event as the selection of a black president from occurring, but despite such desperate social conduct President Obama becomes the first black president. The simile, “a crowd dividing like the furrow which a mule has ploughed, parting for their president” alludes to America’s history of slavery and disenfranchising of blacks and then refers to contemporary times that hold the possibilities for blacks to attain any position despite the racial hierarchy of America. Walcott’s poem presents America’s history of slavery and its present of opportunity at the same time through the “Young Negro”. The poem presents the experiences of those traditionally marginalized and makes it clear that much has changed in America as a result of individuals’ continual quest for equity despite the obstacles in their path.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Too Beautiful...

Jean Toomer’s “Karintha” is a unique piece of literature; he blends poetry and prose into a single story. By using this unconventional form, Toomer is able to relate Karintha’s ethereal beauty to an audience that has never witnessed such a person. The piece flows like a song – even the narrative prose sections of “Karintha” flow with a lyrical beauty that lends a poetic perspective to the story.

From the first line, the audience is given a sense of the natural splendor that Karintha embodies. Toomer makes it clear that his subject is African-American, likening her skin to the peaceful tranquility of the eastern horizon during sunset. He probes the audience to see her evident beauty: “O cant you see it, o cant you see it…” These first four lines of poetry provide a sort of refrain that is repeated twice more in the story. However, each time the refrain is repeated, it carries a significantly different meaning to those men, young and old, who worship Karintha, as well as the audience viewing Karintha’s story from an outside perspective.

The first section of prose opens the narrative description. Toomer tells us that Karintha is a young girl that possesses a type of unimaginable beauty: “even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.” Again, the idea of a sunset, one of nature’s most glorious phenomena, serves to remind the audience of the smooth, lyrical beauty that accompanies the young girl. She is described as “vivid color,” full of life and ageless brilliance. Both old and young men recognize her beauty, but regard it in an almost animalistic sense. The old men pray for youth while the young men lust over the girl who is too young “to mate with them.” The word mate even suggests this shallow ardor. They spoil her with money and promises of shallow happiness.

After another refrain, Toomer relates the story of Karintha as an adult woman. She now recognizes her physical beauty and uses it as a powerful tool over the lustful men that surround her. She realizes that the men want her for her physical beauty and “she has contempt for them.” Still, as the words “at dusk” remind us, she retains her ageless beauty and power over men. Unknowingly, the men have spoiled Karintha as a woman: she retains her external beauty, but, as foreshadowed by the first section of prose, “the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon.” As the final section of prose comes to a close, Toomer once more repeats the refrain that we now understand to be somewhat misleading. The last line of the story is an important one. “Goes down…” says the narrator, leaving the audience wondering if all the attention and praise given to Karintha leads to her unhappiness and ultimate downfall.

Karintha and the use of Poem and Prose

This poem is mysterious. Toomer uses her literary skills to carefully portray Karintha as the beautiful person she is in great detail, but obscure the actions she has done. Toomer uses short verses within the longer prose to iterate points and also transfer the African-American village feeling to the reader. The first verse simply describes Karintha's appearance. She describes Karintha's color as the "dusk on the eastern horizon/ When the sun goes down." This is dark, rich, and deep. Her color is not light, as many portray beauty with a lighter complexion, but rather much darker than the reader my first expect. The sun sets in the west, and the east is neglected of its light. Just so, Karintha is neglected of emotional love by the men in her village, for she is the object of their physical attraction. The second verse in the prose is a reiteration of the first, though it is more abbreviated. This brief repeat allows for the transition into the description of how Karintha has changed. She is still beautiful, but she's different. The third verse is different than the first two, shorter as well. This is a short song describing the smoke in the village and how it rises up in the air. The smoke, as it lofts towards Heaven, is incited to take a soul of to Jesus. This casts more light onto what Karintha has done, possibly leaving her child to die in the woods or killing it in the burning sawdust. The final verse is a repeat of the first verse, making the story come full circle. This shows that despite what Karintha has done, she is still beautiful and seen as beautiful. With her beauty comes the darkness, mirroring her guilty conscience. The last poem fades off with a reiteration of the last words, "Goes down..." This somberly closes the poem, as the sun "goes down" in the horizon, so do Toomer's words and Karintha's innocence.


Karintha is a very interesting short story because of how it plays with certain themes, particularly age.  The short story is littered with different descriptions of age.  Throughout the first paragraph, the words old and young are constantly being placed together.  "Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with their grown-up.  God grand us youth, secretly prayed the old mend."  These adjectives are constantly reocurring throughouth the entire story.  By constantly bombarding the reader with this constant description, one is drawn into believing Karintha has some sense of a vulnerable innocence about her when dealing with these pursuing men.  It is interesting to note that this innocence that the reader feels is actually reinforced despite Karintha's behavior.  "She stoned the cows, and beat her dog, and fought the other children...Even the preacher, who caught her at mischief, told himself that she was as innocently loved as a November cotton flower."  Why would the preacher believe she was innocent especially when the next sentence describes some rumors about Karintha?  These rumors deal with sexual interactions, and later, prostitution.  I think it is incredibly interesting how Karintha, no matter how much she prostitutes, is still respected as something beatiful.  The last image of the story is the same beautiful image that was presented at the beginning.  Karintha is beautiful, but why have this respect for her when she does not have the innocence that the voice of the story portrays?  I believe the answer can be found by looking at the age descriptions through the story.  The people who she indulges "when she is in the mood" are the men who gave described her with this so-called innocence, yet the younger men are the ones working to pay for her.  Karintha is beautiful, and this beauty definitely helps her, yet does nothing for her besides make her money.  

Toomer's Georga Dusk

To add to John’s blog, the imagery within the poem sets a picture in the readers mind like they could be at the barbecue with the narrator. I would like to address the mood in the first stanza. At the end of it I have this happy feeling before I know that there is going to be a party as a reader I feel as though there is some sort of electricity in the air. It is because the twilight is like the time before a party. You really want the party to start but it feels like every second is a minute and the anticipation is too much. When I read lines 2 and 3 “The setting sun, too indolent to hold/ A lengthened tournament for flashing gold” is when I feel like there is some sort of anticipation in the narrator’s voice then in line 4 we (the readers) find out that there is a barbecue that all of this is leading up too. Now the readers understand the emotions that we feel.
In stanza two John brings up how “cane-lipped scented mouth” might refer to the title of the book but I think that it could mean the sugar cane moon shine that is popularly made in the south and this would also explain line 8 “Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds”. This could mean that the people there are under the influence of alcohol and with the party like atmosphere they are singing and dancing and having a good ‘ol time. This also has some relevance to the 6th stanza. The men are singing and the “pine trees are like guitars” amplifying the sound of their voices. In line 23 “Their voices rise.. the chorus of the cane” the cane in this line could also allude to the sugar cane moon shine that “scented mouths” in line 7 and its is actually that moon shine singing and taking over the men.


Jean Toomer’s poem, Reapers is rich with images that develop a unique emotion to the reader. In this poem the use of intense, passionate, and dark images combines with form to leave the reader in anticipation. As noticed throughout the poem, the use of the word “reaper” to define a laborer seems to insinuate a negative connotation. Although the words in this poem develop the theme, the structure is what leaves the reader in anticipation.
When reading Reapers, it is hard to pull yourself from the intense imagery of “[reapers] sharpening his scythe”, or “black horse [driving] a mower through the weeds” (2, 5). However, in order to understand the path, motion, and future of the poem we, as a reader must understand the importance of form.
In this poem Jean Toomer uses a single octave, developed with a couplet rhyme (aabbccdd) to form a sonnet. Although these specific features of the poem are important, I tend to focus around the two periods placed throughout the poem. In the poem each period concludes four lines, or two sets of couplets. When understanding this poem it is noticeable the shift in how labor is completed: these shifts are transitioned by the use of a period. These first two lines of the poem focus around the actual “reaper” (human) as the source of labor: “Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones / Are sharpening scythes /… / And start their silent swinging, one by one” (1-4). After the fourth line of the poem concludes with a period, the next line picks up with an innovation of physical labor: a mower. The last four lines develop the use of a mower as an alternative way to cut weeds: “Black horses drive a mower through the weeds” (5). Among these four lines, there is a gruesome encounter between a mower and a field rat. The last line of the poem concludes with a period, thus symbolizing an innovation in physical labor. However, unlike the first four lines of the poem, you (the reader) are left in anticipation of what comes next.
Jean Toomer’s use of poetic structure as a way to tell, without directly saying, an innovation in how manual labor was completed. Although the poem ends with a period, that doesn’t mean that the reader does.


Karintha is a desirable person, her skin like dusk. Even when she was a girl, she was wanted by the males around her. This piece likens her to a piece of fruit, the men wanting her to ripen instead of letting her mature normally. The old and young men want her sexually, Toomer using the word "mate" even to not even liken her to another human being but perhaps like a mere animal. As Karintha grows, she becomes even more desirable and admired for her beauty. The next paragraph describes Karintha at the age of twelve. She is described as a "wild flash" and likened to, "... a bit of vivid color, like a black bird that flashes in light" (Toomer, 3). The part of the day used here is significant, with the sunset used to help give imagery of Karintha darting away in the light. The dust is described as two-inches thick, with Karintha speeding off with the dust spiraling behind her. Karintha is unstoppable and like the dusk, impermanent and flighty. Adding to the bird imagery, the next line describing her high-pitched, shrill voice, goes on to make one feel that she is able to do whatever it is she wishes, and it is so. No matter if she causes trouble for the animals and children, the preacher thinks her cute and innocent with, "... she was as innocently lovely as a November cotton flower" (Toomer, 3). The usage of the term, "November cotton flower" is significant in that flowers, like beauty, will not last, especially outer beauty.

The next section deals with Karintha's sexualization, where this girl follows her parents example and has sex early on. It was stated that, "... to follow them was the way of God" (Toomer, 4). Karintha is now capable of sex and uses it. The young men return in this section, waiting and counting time for her. Again, her dusky beauty is repeated and soon enough, Karintha is now a young woman. She is still beautiful but still sexual, indulging the old men's wants but on her terms. The men do many things for her and still count time, but Karintha's the one in control. She will not be just a woman to have sex with and so defies her place with the birth of a stillborn child, birthed away from society and amongst the wilderness of the forest. Karintha returns later, her child's soul taken on the smoke up to heaven from the sawdust pile nearby once those in the know knew what she had done. Karintha's soul had grown up too quickly, the men left in the dark regarding this fact. Karintha at age twenty is a woman, still of dusky beauty, but at the end, the dusk of the eastern horizon. This horizon is dark with the sun gone down, Karintha going down also perhaps to Hell, but with a vague uncertain end.

"Reapers" by Jean Toomer

It has a simple rhyme scheme: a, a, b, b, c, c, d, d. I love the alliteration in the first line with "black reapers with the sound of steel on stones are sharpening scythes" (line 1-2). In line 4, "start their silent swinging" also shows the repetition of "s" to demonstrate to the ear the constant swinging of the scythe, sort of like a slow and steady sound (like a horror movie with the simple, yet repetitive music that is scary and suspenseful). The theme of death and the reaper's apathy pervade this poem. In line 1, "black reapers with the sound of steel on stones" and, on line 4, "their silent swinging" show the reaper's cold yet apathetic feelings toward his job. He sees it as a simple, yet unemotional job to sharpen his scythe and swing it carelessly. On line 6, the reaper cuts a "field rat, startled, squealing bleeds." The reaper does not care that it harms anything else. It just "continue[s] cutting weeds and shade" (line 8). Death does not show favoritism; it cuts down whoever and whatever is in its way.

Reapers: So Much Death

Jean Toomer’s Reapers utilizes the dual definition of the title word as a metaphor for death and destruction. A reaper is farm tool used to cut down and mow fields, yet Toomer plays off of this instrument to help personify Death, or the “Grim Reaper.” In the poem, the reapers are black, with “the sound of steel on stones.” This dark imagery helps create an image of evil destroyers, coming to rip the land to shreds as they ride their black horses. With these apocalyptic allusions, Toomer is stating that mankind is bringing forth the end of the earth, literally hacking its way through nature. The sound of their sharpening is a warning, a foreshadowing of the blood to come, yet the reapers are quiet, taking life without recourse.

The blades are always sharp, or within reach of being sharp, as the reapers keep their hones within hip pockets. This suggests that mankind is ready to destroy at any moment, silently and swiftly. Furthermore, man does not care who or what gets in his way, as the field rat meets his end via blade. To further illustrate the rat’s lack of importance to man, we do not actually see its’ death (save for the squealing), just the aftermath from it. Either its’ death is too pitiful, or more likely, Toomer is stressing the importance of the unimportant. . Oddly, the reapers cause a cycle, as they end a harvest that will happen again within a year’s time. The rat, however, is caught in a foil, as its death is the end with no possible hope of being resurrected.

Georgia Dusk: A Plethora of Imagery

This is a very rich poem in terms of its imagery. To begin with, a very simple conception, that of the sunset, is complicated in the first stanza as almost a contest between the sky and the sun. The sky "lazily disdaining to pursue" suggests the slow shift between daylight and the night, an almost reluctant passage of time, which compels the reader to appreciate the passage of time, a resource that, once deplenished, can never be regained. The "indolent" sun, which is simply too lazy to host that "lengthened tournament of flashing gold" allows the "barbecue" of night to consume the remaining twilight. How powerful! It forces the reader to consider time, which is taken for granted, as a precious resource, and it reveals so much beauty in the sunset, an event we see hundreds of times throughout our lives. This first stanza could function as poem in its own right.
I'd also like to look at form. It is written in iambic pentameter, and has a rhyme scheme of a, b, b, a for each stanza. The stanzas are each composed of four lines, and there are seven stanzas total, giving the poem a very logical and methodical feel.
In the second stanza, we see a "feast of moon and men and barking hounds/An orgy for som genius of the South." This is a very unorthodox way to represent a feast, unless such feasts in Georgia truly involved orgies. As to the "genius of the South," I venture no guess. I am truly stumped. What is interesting is that the people present have "cane-lipped scented mouth," an allusion to the title of the entire work, and that the feast-goers are "Surprised in making folk songs from soul sounds." Is this perhaps foreshadowing of a way of life changing?
The third stanza almost confirms this suspicion. The sawmill imagery suggests a great deal of industrialization, very dissimilar to the rustic image of traditional Georgia. And then the fourth stanza brings this point home with further sawmill imagery. Indeed, "only chips and stumps are left to show/The solid proof of former domicile."
However, the fifth stanza has a tone of rejection and rebellion, as men "with vestiges of pomp/Race memories of king and caravan" perhaps to stem the tide of newer ways of life. The sixth stanza continues this imagery, carrying a very Romantic air, with much imagery of nature, and a call for help, after a fashion: "...the chorus of the cane/Is caroling a vesper to the stars."
The last stanza completely befuddles me. Is it a request from the narrator to join in on the tradionalist movement? As for "Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs," I will say only that there is a heavily religious overtone; on that matter, I can say no more.

How Images Create a Woman in Jean Toomer's "Karintha"

In Jean Toomer’s Cane, the most provocative elements are Toomer’s images of the South. Smoky, grimy, dusty, and cloudy, Toomer’s South is a paradox in that the image of the South and its people are clear and unclear simultaneously. Therefore, Toomer uses these “dirty” images to enhance the ambiguity of the culture and people of the South as foreign and separate from the North. This is best exemplified with Toomer’s approach to women, and in particular, the woman Karintha.

Toomer’s “Karintha” establishes many “dark” images to capture the essence of the woman that cannot really be grasped in the first place. Old men and young men objectify her; old men wish to be younger so they can be with her, and young “count down the clock” until they can “mate” with her. By objectifying Karintha, the men of the South have made her existence as a human being superficial. Karintha is literally just an image, a phantom because they never see her as a person. In this way, the images that Toomer uses to associate with Karintha are important because the hint at a person that is there, but is not really there. Hence the images of “a black bird that flashes in the light” and “Her running was a whir. It has the sound of red dust,” (Toomer p.3).

The most important image that Toomer uses to describe Karintha is that of the setting sun. The setting sun image is the only prevalent image through out the short piece, and the story emphasizes the image with a poem. The image, “Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon” is the primary “dusk” image used to describe Karintha, and it is important because it points to the east rather than the west during a sunset. This image suggests that darkness is Karintha's prime characteristic. Not only does the image contrast light and dark, but it contrasts life and death because the phases of the sun are a common metaphor for the progression of life. The setting sun usually means death. This is the case when Toomer says that Karintha “carries beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down” when she has become a woman. It is the only image that describes Karintha when she is twenty. This image changes from the lively images of Karintha when she was twelve and “was a bit of vivid color.” The tone shift, indicated by the image—“carries beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down”--is foreboding for Karintha.

The last image that Toomer leaves us is the image of the sun setting--“goes down”--which to me meant the death of Karintha, either literally or as a woman. This makes the story come full circle because Toomer is using culturally-specific images to demonstrate how a society, particularly the patriarchy of the South, created a woman that could only be their object. Thus, the men de-humanized her as a person and as a woman. As Toomer put it quite elegantly: “Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon,” (Toomer p.4). Men created Karintha, and in a way, they killed her.

Reapers: An industrial statement?

Jean Toomer’s poem Reapers in the novel Cane is full of dark imagery. The title of the poem: Reapers has a connotation of death and evil, such as the Grim Reaper, whose very touch will kill. We see death as a direct, striking image in the poem when “a field rat, startled, squealing, bleeds” (Reapers, line 6). A mower has run him over and slit him with its blade. The darkness of the poem is brought out literally in its words. Toomer starts out with the image of “Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones” (Reapers, line 1). This image of darkness is repeated later in the poem with “Black horses drive a mower through the weeds” (Reapers, line 5). The contrast between the “Black reapers” and the “Black horses” seems to be a shift in the poem from a time that is more reliant on field workers to a time that is more dependant on technology. The “Black reapers” in this view can be seen as slaves or workers harvesting out in the field. We get a sense of the monotony and physicality of their work when Toomer write “silent swinging, one by one.” (Reapers, line 4). However, when the horse drawn mower is introduced, we get the image of a “startled, squealing [rat that] bleeds” (Reapers, line 6). Instead of silence, the speaker focuses on the sound of the slashed rat. I think that Toomer is making a statement about the change that industrialization made on farms through these images. Farmers have less of a connection to their fields and their work now than they did when they had more physical labor throughout planting and harvesting.

Grim "Reapers"

Jean Toomer’s “Reapers,” despite its terse length, shadows the reader under an ominous atmosphere by utilizing careful diction, sinister-sounding alliteration, and an universally foreboding theme.  As part of a the novel CANE, it is interesting to consider where Toomer places “Reapers.” Immediately following “Karintha,” an examination of one woman’s beauty, the contrast of the thematic material between radiant “Karintha” and the oppressing “Reapers” is stark.  Starting with the title, Toomer deftly utilizes the interplay between the connotation and denotation of the word “reaper” to create a sense of tension and fear in the reader’s mind.  While the dictionary definition innocuously refers to a reaper as “one who harvests a crop,” the connotation in American culture is related to that of Death incarnate. By utilizing words and themes that connote death (“black reapers,” “black horses,” “shade), Toomer seems to be exploring the uneasiness commonly associated with darkness and possibly how that fear informs the unfair treatment of people with darker skin. The poem, therefore, can be read with either the denotation or connotation of “black reapers” in mind—or both.  Either way, it is a mesmerizing examination of life and death.

“Reapers” could be about the everyday labor involved in thrashing out weeds, but the way in which the poem is presented supports the interpretation of the unceasing approach of an indifferent Death.  The alliteration, the persistent use of the “s” sound, informs the poet’s intent.  The consonants use in phrases such as “sound of steel on stone,” the “sharpening scythes,” and “silent swinging” seems to audibly echo the sounds of metal on stone and of a scythe swinging through weeds and tall grass, supplementing the already-intimidating description of the “black reapers.”  Toomer paints the shadowy, black figures as indifferent--even mechanical: “a field rat…squealing bleeds” as “the blade continue[s] cutting weeds and shade.”  The black reapers, using their black horses, do not seem to notice or do not care.  Toomer’s word choice lends the poem a menacing air (“scythes,” “reapers,” and “blades”).  Particularly of note is the curious use of “shade” as the last word.  How can one cut “shade”?  It seems that “shade” is another reference to darkness, possibly alluding to the Hades of Greek mythology, also referred to as “the Shades.”  Adding to the intimidating nature of the figures, the poem does not signify that they will ever stop.  The blood-stained blade “continue[s] cutting weeds and shade.”  Toomer has here crafted a fascinating exploration of humankind’s apprehension towards Death, and, like death itself, we do not know much about these black reapers other than they are mysterious, indifferent, and unceasing. 

"Reapers" : Two Stories in One

In my close reading of "Reapers", I seen two stories in one. The first half of the poem, which refers to slaves as "Black reapers" depicts slaves working the fields. The second half of the poem depicts "Black Horses", which I believe signifies a movement towards industrial agriculture.

Each individual story begins with the word "Black". In the first half of the poem we are introduced to slaves that are sharpening their scythes themselves, as that is the acceptable thing to do. After they finish sharpening them, they "place the hones/ In their hip-pockets as a thing that's done". This is just an acceptable act, in which they will carry their hones around while performing manual labor. The word that stood out to me in this first half of the poem that would contrast the second portion of the poem, is "start their silent swinging". This notion of silence and peace in manual labor is differs from the second portion of the poem.

The second portion of the poem, which I believe is a metaphor for industrial agriculture is less peaceful. Black horses have replaced black reapers. "A field rat, startled, squealing bleeds." This sentence alone breaks the silence of the reaping. It depicts industrial agriculture as having disregard for life or whoever it walks on. The main goal of industrial agriculture was to increase the production of the product, sometimes with disregard to morals or ethics. Overall I believe that the structure of the poem is very important, and although grouped together in 8 lines, "Reapers" provides readers with two different methods of agriculture.