One aspect of Scottish literature that has been receiving renewed attention is the widespread influence of Scottish writers within other cultures. From its first publication, Jean Toomer’s novel Cane (1923) has been recognized as a landmark work of the Harlem Renaissance and African-American modernism.1Less recognized has been the complex relationship between Toomer’s novel and earlier literature. Among the authors Toomer echoes is Robert Burns. Toomer’s poem ‘Reapers,’ the first poem in Cane, echoes and reworks a central image from Burns’s ‘To a Mouse,’ in the first of several such borrowings. On closer examination, as is often the case in the study of surprising literary echoes, Toomer’s allusion, puts both Toomer and Burns in a new perspective.
‘Reapers’ comes in the first section of Toomer’s novel, which is set in the deep South, and based on his short teaching stint in rural Georgia in 1921.2Brought up in Chicago and Washington, D.C., Toomer was both educated and urbanized; his time in Georgia was his first experience of African-American small town rural life, and it proved a turning point in his career as a writer. He subsequently wrote to the novelist and critic Waldo Frank, ‘There, for the first time I really saw the Negro, not as a pseudo-urbanized and vulgarized, a semi-Americanized product, but the Negro peasant, strong with the tang of fields and soil.’3Nellie McKay notes that Toomer was so moved by his time in the South that he was ‘incapable of holding back his creative responses.’4He began writing on the train going back north, and even though Georgia was the setting for just the first part of a three-part novel, that section still contains the most powerful and most frequently discussed part of the work.
‘Reapers’ is one of three poems in the first section that recall older literary traditions. All three are centered on Toomer’s response to the rural life he had observed in Georgia. The second poem ‘Song of the Son’ (p. 14) evokes William Wordsworth’s ‘Solitary Reaper,’ another poem set in rural Scotland:
I saw her singing at her work,
And o’er the sickle bending; —
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was hear no more.5
Toomer’s poem picks up both on the narrator’s distance from the song he overhears as the sun sinks, and follows by also adding that he needs to ‘catch thy plaintive soul, leaving, soon gone’ (12). The third poem ‘Georgia Dusk’ (p. 15) is a bit more problematic. For it, Toomer utilizes the distinct meter and rhyme scheme of Tennyson’s In Memoriam,and like Tennyson elegizes a place he will soon leave behind. While both poems are memorial poems, Toomer elegizes not a dead college friend, but a black man murdered by a lynch mob, an event narrated more explicitly in the prose story ‘Blood-Burning Moon’ that concludes the first section. Stylistically, in this third poem, Toomer soon swerves away from his Tennysonian original towards a more symbolist or decadent aesthetic. In some writers, echoes such as Toomer’s might be dismissed, in E.E. Kellett’s scornful phrase, as an attempt to ‘gain some attention for your opinions which [the writer’s] own name is not illustrious enough to ensure.’6But Toomer’s echoes are not just decorative but rather draw from and alter some of the themes of the poetic predecessors to whom he is alluding.
The short poems in the first section of Caneare conscious perspectives on aspects of African-American rural life that fascinated Toomer, in part because they were so foreign to his own experience. Many early Harlem Renaissance writers (Alain Locke, Marcus Garvey, Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes) focused either on a return to their African roots or to the ideal of the urbanized ‘New Negro’ northern cities. Toomer’s elegaic view of blacks in a dead rural South might seem to invite comparison with the Scottish Kailyard authors of the preceding generation. Like the Kailyarders, Toomer sought to describe a way of life that from the perspective of the city must have seemed increasingly archaic. Even the form of Cane,so often pronounced as being innovative and modernist, mirrors some of what Gillian Shepherd defines as the Kailyard formula; ‘an episodic format, a rural setting, an imprecise chronology.’7Unlike the Kailyard writers, however, Toomer was not aiming at a broad reading public.He was more akin with modernist writers such as James Joyce or T.S. Eliot; UlyssesandThe Waste Landpreceded Cane by only a year. Although Toomer often referred to his novelas ‘a swan-song,’8the writing is infused with more than nostalgia and presents the dying way of life in the South as inevitable.
Toomer’s echo of Burns encapsulates this complexity. The allusion is direct enough that his first readers, both white and African-American, would have noticed the parallel, but the wider theme of his book also brings to mind Burn’s symbolic status as a champion of liberty and democracy. In 1811, Robert Walsh attempted an explanation of Burns’s popularity in the States, saying ‘We look with more reverence upon the literary and scientific character of Scotland, and are always prepared to receive with admiration, the intellectual off-spring of her capital, which we consider as the metropolis of genius and learning.’ Abraham Lincoln, for example, constantly read Burns and claimed he could recite the whole of ‘Tam o’ Shanter.’ Burns’s numerous other American fans included the chief figure of American transcendentalism Ralph Waldo Emerson, the ecologist and naturalist John Muir, the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, and the Confederate president Jefferson Davis.9
Burns also had a healthy presence in American schools, at least until the mid-twentieth century. It is highly likely that Jean Toomer would have encountered Burns in his high school or college days. Scribner’s 1909 general textbook A First View of English and American Literaturecontains no less than nine poems by Burns: ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night,’ ‘The Twa Dogs,’ ‘Address to the Unco Guid,’ ‘A Red, Red Rose,’ ‘Bonnie Doon,’ ‘Of a’ the Airts,’ ‘Scots Wha Hae,’ ‘To Mary in Heaven,’ and ‘To a Mouse.’ Many editions of Burns were also issued that Toomer could have come across including the Macmillan’s Pocket Classics Carlyle’s Essay on Burns with ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ and Other Poems From Burns(ed. Willard C. Gore 1900) and Selected Poems and songs of Robert Burns (ed. Philo Melvyn Buck, Jr. 1908). Other similar editions included Ginn and Company’s Representative Poems of Robert Burns with Carlyle’s Essay on Burns (ed. Charles Lane Hanson 1897), Ainsworth & Company’s Selections From Burns’s Poems and Songs (1901), and Scott, Foresman and Company’s Selected Poems by Robert Burns and Essay on Burns by Thomas Carlyle (Ed. George L. Marsh 1920). As all of these texts included ‘To a Mouse,’ it is all but certain not only that Jean Toomer himself was familiar with the poem and with Burns’s literary legacy, but that he could expect similar familiarity from his first readers.
Within the African-American literary culture, Burns held a special place. Escaped slave and renowned abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass found Burns’s writings so meaningful to him that when he was in Scotland in the 1840s, he made a pilgrimage to view both Burns’s birthplace and his tomb. Upon escaping his bondage, the first book that Douglass had purchased was a collection of Burns’s poetry. The late nineteenth-century African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar was also greatly influenced by Burns, specifically in the use of dialects in his poetry. A selection from his poem ‘Lover’s Lane’ shows his use of heavy dialect in the style of Burns:
An’ dis t’ought will allus rise
Down in lovah’s lane:
Wondah whethah in de skies
Dey’s a lovah’s lane.
Ef dey ain t, I tell you true,
‘Ligion do look mighty blue,
‘Cause I do’ know whut I ‘d do
‘Dout a lovah’s lane.10
Such connections were recognized by nineteenth-century commentators. Carol McGuirk quotes Samuel Lover, who predicted such an influence when he said that, had Burns gone to Jamaica as he had planned, ‘he might have rhymed Negro melodies instead of Scotch, and anticipated the sable minstrels of our own day.’11Burns’s ideology was certainly an integral part of his attraction for African Americans. The idea of equality and justice in ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’ would easily appeal to the tormented minorities, and it is not surprising he has been held in such high esteem in the African-American community.
Although it borrows an image from Burns, ‘Reapers’ is markedly different in tone from
The poem’s shocked narrator, detailing the violence, contrasts in tone with Burns’s philosophical, slightly detached, if also sympathetic, remorse. Toomer’s narrator is very casual in describing the preparations of the workers, using the alliterative ‘s’ to mimic the sound of the scythes. The visual image of the black reapers, reinforced by the black horses, clearly connotes death, forewarning of the poem’s coming violence. The mowing horses actually commit the violent deed, and the impersonality of their attack is mediated through the mower they pull. The black reapers act as faceless and nameless automatons, following behind the monotonous motions of the emotionless horses. In discussing the poem, Nellie McKay notes, ‘No human awareness governs the actions of machines, which cannot comprehend the devastation they cause.’13Like Thomas Hardy, who had also picked up on Burns’s poem in his Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) to symbolize Tess’s encroaching victimization, Toomer had changed Burns’s vulnerable field mouse into a much more desperate and dangerous victim, a rat, and has made the victims plural, even though his narrative will later focus on a particular victim. The rat, normally symbol of tenacity or ferocity, is left ‘squealing’ helplessly as the mowers approach (6). Toomer’s narrator, like Burns, comments on the incident at the end, but there is only detachment without the faintest hint of sympathy. In ‘To a Mouse,’ Burns bemoans the mouse’s fate while at the same time hinting at his own great misfortunes and ‘prospects drear’ (46).
Toomer’s narrator watches the blade, now covered in blood, continue on its impersonal path of destruction without having established a semblance of communion with the dying rat, treating its violence against of animal life as equivalent to that against the vegetable environment of “weeds and shade,” but does not make overt any consequence to his own vulnerability as an educated northern black man in the south.
The specific echo of Burns’s poem in ‘Reapers’ illustrates Toomer’s objectifying tone, the crucial difference between Toomer’s modernist poem and ‘To a Mouse.’ Toomer utilizes the allusion in a way that, according to Allan Pasco, ‘[changes] the focus to emphasize the differences’14between the poems. The allusion aids Toomer in writing his lament over the South, and bringing out the impersonality of its violence, but equally it also draws attention to the more philosophic character of the Burns poem that Toomer choose to rework. Toomer could have picked several of Burns’s other poems and found ways to use them to enrich the texture of his own work. Burns’s contrast between the celebrated rustic lifestyle of the poor and the flippancy and downright vacuity of the wealthy, presented in ‘The Twa Dogs,’ would have fitted into the framework of Cane neatly, since the novel’s second section contrasts the South with the urban centers of Washington D.C. and Chicago. Another animal poem, ‘Poor Mailie’s Elegy,’ also celebrates the natural. Toomer could have echoed ‘To a Mountain Daisy,’ a distinctly pastoral poem, but his flower poem ‘November Cotton Flower’ instead uses apocalyptic imagery that recalls The Waste Landmore readily than Burns. Finally, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night,’ perhaps Burns’s most laudatory depiction of the peasantry of Scotland, also comes to mind as a well-known, widely taught and widely-anthologized, almost obvious, Burns allusion that Toomer apparently chose to ignore.
Instead, Toomer choosing ‘To a Mouse’, and our reading of Toomer’s reworking of the poem, in turn clarifies something of what is distinctive about Burns’s poem. Having read Toomer’s ‘Reapers,’ one reads ‘To a Mouse’ differently. Burns has not, at least within the poem, attacked the mouse, only its home. Burns, unlike Toomer’s reapers, horses, scythes or reaping blades, acknowledges responsibility for the harm his action has done, expressing both sympathy and some remorse, before he moves to take the mouse’s predicament as a type of his own. Unlike the automatons of ‘Reapers,’ Burns’s narrator is earnest in both his plea for forgiveness and his lament that ‘Man’s dominion / Has broken Nature’s social union’ (7-8). In the final two stanzas, the man humbles himself before the mouse, and communally binds them together by describing their shared fate. There is little sign of the power and possible maliciousness of ‘Man’s dominion’ in the character of the narrator, save his accidental uprooting of the mouse’s home.
Perhaps the poems also reveal some of their creators’ characters. Gilbert Burns said that Burns’s poem was composed after a similar incident ‘while the author was holding the plough.’15The simple act of Burns’s kindness in not killing the mouse gives an even greater credibility to the narrator’s sympathy in the poem. ‘Reapers’, however, is highly detached and impersonal in its imagery and descriptions, in the vein of other modernist works. Toomer, despite his spiritual awakening in the South, cannot be said to explore his feelings about it, rather simply to present the material that might evoke strong if inchoate feelings in others. The directness with which Burns explores his feelings, by contrast, makes clear the strength of feeling that he held, despite all hardship, both for rural life and the natural landscape of home; in ‘To a Mouse,’ there is no ambiguity of feeling about the writer’s cultural or geographic origins, as there is in Toomer. Toomer’s reworking of Burns’s central image of Burns’s ‘To a Mouse’ makes us reevaluate our understanding of the earlier poem and enhances our appreciation of it. The contrast between the two narrators gives us more appreciation for the selflessness of both Burn’s narrator and perhaps of Burns himself.
1Nellie Y. McKay, Jean Toomer Artist (University of North Carolina Press, 1984), p. 180.
2Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge, The Lives of Jean Toomer(Louisiana State University Press, 1987), p. 81.
3The Letters of Jean Toomer 1919-1924ed. Mark Whalan, (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. 2006), p. 36.
4Nellie McKay, Jean Toomer Artist(University of North Carolina Press, 1984), p. 82.
5William Wordsworth, The Complete Works of William Wordsworth,ed. Andrew J. George, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932) p. 298.
6E.E. Kellett, Literary Allusion and Quotation(Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons LTD, 1993), p. 46.
7Gillian Shepherd, ‘The Kailyard’,in The History of Scottish Literature,ed. Douglas Gifford. (Aberdeen University Press, 1988), III, p. 309-320.
8Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge, The Lives of Jean Toomer(Louisiana State University Press, 1987), p. 85.
9James Montgomery, ‘How Robert Burns Captured America’, Studies in Scottish Literature, 30(1998) 235-248.
10Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar ed. Joanne Braxton, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), p. 132.
11Quoted in Carol McGuirk, ‘Places in the Peasant Heart: Robert Burns’s Scotland, Stephen Foster’s American South, and Walt Disney’s World’, Scotlands, 2.2 (1995), 11-35, from Ben Trovato [Samuel Lover], Rival Rhymes in Honour of Burns; With Curious Illustrative Matter(London: Routledge, 1859), 131-132.
12Jean Toomer, Cane: A Norton Critical Editioned. Darwin T. Turner. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1988), p. 5.
13Nellie Y. McKay, Jean Toomer Artist(University of North Carolina Press, 1984), p. 97.
14Allan H. Pasco, Allusion: a Literary Graft(Toronto: University of Toronto Press Incorporated, 1994), p. 102-3.
15Robert Burns, Selected Poems,ed. Carol McGuirk, (New York: Penguin Books Inc., 1993), p. 219.