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Taja Cheek, Yale Class of 2011 on Jean Toomer's Cane
Taja Cheek’s essay on Jean Toomer’s Cane (written for Professor Jessica Pressman’s Spring 2010 English 127 class) focuses on the tension between black southern dialect and scholarly English in the third section of the novel. Cheek considers Toomer’s exploration of conventional and dialectic language in light of a notebook found in Toomer’s papers (JWJ MSS 1, Box 61 Folder 1481), in which the writer considers the “Terms of My Language.” The notebook includes Toomer’s drawing “My Language Tree,” in which, Cheek writes, “the organization of the branches seems to indicate a hierarchy of language. . . . Toomer’s writing foundation, his rhythm and writing structure, are connected to various other modes of language—terms from the sciences, terms from other writers, his own language, American slang, and idiomatic English—but do not stem directly from one another”(2). Applying the terms of Toomer’s “Language Tree” to the character of Kabnis: “we enter the novel through the epiphenomenal ‘top branches’ of his diction. As we delve deeper, we reach the middle branch of ‘special words from particular writers and people,’—the rung reserved for Kabnis’ polished English. Once we reach the novel’s end and Kabnis’ linguistic devolution is complete, we reach the branch closest to the roots of the language tree—idiomatic English” (6). A PDF of the complete text of Taja Cheek’s essay is available here: Taja Cheek on Cane.

Image: Jean Toomer, My Language Tree, undated (JWJ 1, Box 61 Folder 1481)

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