Jean Toomer's: Cane

YANKEE STADIUM OPENED in 1923. To christen the so-called House that Ruth Built, the portly slugger batted .398 with 41 home runs.

The U.S. economy proceeded at its own torrid pace, growing 14 percent with less than 1 percent inflation; the Dow topped out at 105. In Germany, as inflation sent the currency soaring to a trillion marks per dollar, Adolf Hitler launched a failed putsch from a table in a Munich beer garden. Like many schemes conceived over beer throughout the course of history, Hitler's plan ended in arrest and humiliation.

Marcus Garvey's dreams of founding an empire by returning black Americans to Africa were scuttled by his conviction for mail fraud. The system of royal appointments he had established among supporters would come to an end as well.

Other historical dynasties were unearthed in 1923. In February, Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon discovered the "mortuary chamber" of pharaoh "Tut-Ankh-Amen." Later that year, the loot from that find would make its way to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, launching a fashion craze for scarves and slave bangles.

As King Tut emerged from the ground, America's 29th president, Warren Harding, was put into it after dying suddenly of apoplexy. (For decades to come, mothers would warn children against consuming milk and cherries, the rumored cause of the president's death. Warning against incompetent doctors, like those who treated Harding, would be more useful.) It was a novel way of ending a corruption-ridden administration; the same year, the Senate would launch investigations into the Teapot Dome scandal.

The White House began hanging Christmas lights in 1923. The neon tube sign flickered into existence. Many Americans, under the influence of spiritualism and ouija boards, started to see the light.

King Oliver lit up the stage with the young trumpet phenom Louie Armstrong. And George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan--saintly woman that she was--moved inexorably toward the pyre each night on New York's Great White Way.


Jean Toomer

TO SAY THAT Jean Toomer's Cane is the greatest novel of the Harlem Renaissance involves two complications: First, this slim collection of prose and verse is only debatably a novel; and second, the author at various points denied that he was black. The second objection is the more interesting of the two, and relates to the history and status of Toomer's family.

The writer's grandfather, Pinckney B.S. Pinchback, was the only African American to serve as acting governor of Louisiana, and later moved to Washington, D.C. Toomer, whose lower-class father disappeared before his birth, grew up with Pinchback in relative prosperity. Upon landing at the University of Wisconsin, Toomer neither dissembled nor discussed his race, positing a distinct identity as "either a new type of man, or the very oldest." Later in life, Toomer would go so far as to deny any African bloodline, claiming that his grandfather had been a reconstruction-era opportunist. In his earlier years, though, Toomer alternated between studying black American life intensively and dismissing the significance of racial classification.

This helps explain the curious sense of alienation that informs the last third of Cane, a story called "Kabnis" about a Northern, educated black man whose attempts to resettle and teach in rural Georgia leave him jittery and unnerved. In 1921, Toomer had acted as interim head of a technical school in Sparta, Ga.--though as a fickle student, he had bounced through some half-dozen colleges and universities, studying everything from sociology to physical education. Although his flirtations with socialism and spiritualism were fleeting, one aspect of his life remained constant: Throughout his early 20s, Toomer wrote prodigiously, amassing a large portfolio of essays, poems, sketches, and stories.

Cane represents a year of such efforts, tied together by a consistency of imagery and of tone. The first third of the book introduces a handful of women whose sexuality sets them afoul of their communities. There's Karintha, who grows up too fast; Beck, the white woman who lives in a shack by the rail tracks with "two Negro sons"; Carma, "strong as a man," whose sexual deception lands her husband Bane on a work gang. The prose is modern and imagistic; the dialogue taken from the demotic. Like an Aaron Copland composition, Cane applies a high-art sensibility to a vocabulary of folk vernacular.

The middle section, set in urban Chicago and Washington, D.C., trenchantly describes the frustration and unease of the black middle class. Again, Toomer describes the way men are consumed and thwarted by their attraction to women--suggesting a certain equality of misery between Northern and Southern blacks.

That Jean Toomer would never again write about the African-American experience--nor ever publish anything, save for a private collection of aphorisms--is one of the many curiosities of this intriguingly inscrutable artist. (Literary critic Darwin T. Turner lays out this history in greater depth in his insightful introduction to a mid-'70s edition of the book.)  

He spent the later years of his life as a disciple-instructor of a French spiritual movement, and his many unpublished novels, essays, and memoirs leaned toward polemical autobiography and pedantry. Toomer, however, would have no part in lamenting this fact.

According to him, Cane was consciously designed as a "swan song," an elegy to the agrarian South whose end had come in the form of the great black migration to the North, and industrialization. By that token, Cane--if not the finest novel of the New Negro movement--stands out as a masterpiece of the modern. (Michael Tortorello)

E.E. Cummings
The Enormous Room
W.W. Norton

PEOPLE TEND TO lose their sense of humor in times of war. The French censors during World War I, for instance, simply could not take a joke. When they intercepted a letter addressed to E.E. Cummings containing a bitterly funny parody of the French army, they mistook satire for sedition and tossed Cummings into prison. If they had read The Enormous Room, Cummings's semifictional account of this experience, they would almost certainly have had him shot.

Of course, there was nothing terribly funny about World War I. Although E.E. Cummings, like Ernest Hemingway, enlisted as an ambulance driver, he did not have the good fortune to be blown up and sent to a hospital with pretty nurses. For Cummings, who spent three months breathing disease and eating slime in a French internment camp, the war was bloody, vulgar, squalid, phenomenally stupid business. From his dank cell, he saw the spectacular scope of the idiocy: The war was designed solely to humiliate and degrade its participants, slowly siphoning off their humanity. Then it added injury to insult by killing them.

Not surprisingly, The Enormous Room is a rather indignant book. The French are sublime in their stupidity, and their camp is a filthy madhouse. Cummings doesn't leave out any detail: sleeping in one's own filth, freezing, and getting pushed around by nasty, subhuman guards are all among the unpleasant features of prison life. What is surprising is that The Enormous Room is also funny. Cummings is a ferocious satirist and both the French and a peculiar cast of fellow prisoners provide ample fodder. Like Joseph Heller half a century later, Cummings discovered that although war is a dirty game, there is redemption in satire. The ultimate act of dissent is to laugh at the people who are trying to kill you. (Peter Ritter)


The Ten Commandments
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Paramount Pictures

SADLY OR NOT, it stands to reason that some modern-day movie buffs would know the two-time director of The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956) only through an anachronistic one-liner in a Mel Brooks movie. "I must've killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille," brags Gene Wilder's Old West gunslinger in Blazing Saddles, apparently referring to the silent-film legend's reputation for stopping at nothing to get his spectacles onto the screen. (Picture James Cameron without his army of safety coordinators.) Perhaps the point behind the joke is that DeMille, as the pioneer of populist movie blockbusters, was first and foremost a manipulator--of history and histrionics no less than stuntmen and ticket-buyers. Drawing equal inspiration from Intolerance and the Bible, the flamboyantly moralistic Ten Commandments began with a printed prologue crediting postwar despair for a return to "old-fashioned" values. Nothing like a world war to instill the fear of God--or the desire for escapism.

Released in New York just in time for Christmas 1923, The Ten Commandments made history by charging up to two bucks for reserved seats in a Times Square movie theater: a dual ploy to lure the cinema's relatively new middle-class audience and, naturally, to recoup the film's whopping budget of $1.5 million. Brilliantly, DeMille's double-plotted epic promised two movies for the price of one but gave something closer to one-and-a-half. Less than an hour is spent dramatizing the FX-laden exodus of Moses and his people, while the remaining 90 minutes tells the contemporary (and cost-effective) story of a true believer and his atheist brother--climaxing with a cameo appearance by Jesus Christ. (The Old and the New, indeed.)

The Times critic couldn't be converted by such melodrama, although the film's first portion did earn this worshipful rave: "It is probable that no more wonderful spectacle has ever been put before the public in shadow-form." By today's standards, the color-tinted parting of the Red Sea resembles nothing so much as a flushing toilet. Yet the pillar of fire sequence remains pretty hot stuff, as does the scene in which God spells His own intertitles ("THOU SHALT NOT KILL") onto the silent-film screen. This moment of divine authorship aside, it's DeMille who makes the rules here, as when poor Miriam strokes the golden calf, gets felt up by a drunk, and then immediately contracts leprosy--thus allowing the director to sneak a little sex past the censors. Punishment pervades the second story, too, as the walls literally come tumbling down upon the bad brother who dares to build a church with cheap materials. As in Titanic, the self-reflexive message is: Capitalism is dangerous unless you're willing to spare no expense.  

Adjusting for inflation, The Ten Commandments stands as an even more audacious display of directorial omnipotence than Titanic. Put it another way: James Cameron may be the current king of the world, but in 1923, Cecil B. DeMille was God. (Rob Nelson)

Safety Last
Directed by Fred C. Neweyer and Sam Taylor
Hal Roach Studios, Inc.

IF ANY SHOWMAN transplanted advertising's commandments to the 1920s movie screen, it was Harold Lloyd, who built his career on product recognition with those trademark horn-rimmed glasses of his, and the promotional-stunt mentality of the thrill-comedy genre. But Lloyd, known as the Charlie Chaplin of the middle class, also advertised old-fashioned values in countless roles as the ambitious "100 percent American" boy next door.

Safety Last (1923), Lloyd's most famous feature, follows a corn-fed youth (Lloyd) who seeks his fortune in the big city but vows to send for his fiancée (Mildred Davis) once he has "made good." Although he finds a job as department store clerk No. 170, he brags in his letters home about a more lofty and lucrative position. When his hometown sweetie pays a surprise visit, he poses as the general manager; but in order to pull off the hilarious masquerade he must demonstrate literal upward mobility, climbing a 12-story building as part of a publicity gimmick for the store.

Safety Last celebrated advertising's illusory logic through switch-images where what you see is not what you get. Is that the picture of a train platform or a gallows? A mirror or a bald man's pate? A day at work or a nervous breakdown? Suffice to say the film's wink at consumer culture was not wholly admiring, as Harold's foes include not only Mr. Stubbs, his arrogant supervisor, whose muscles come from "patting himself on the back," but also ravenous female shoppers fighting over bargains. Then there are the bosses at the aptly named De Vore department store who bemoan their sorry ad campaign by exclaiming, "Something is wrong with our exploitation!"

Hollywood studios and theater chains certainly didn't share this complaint, as they successfully quashed competition from independent filmmakers and local movie houses in the course of the '20s. Ironically, for all his faith in hard work and the American Dream, Lloyd himself failed to survive the industry's big-business strategies, the advent of the talkies, or the Depression, and his film career sputtered out by the early '30s. But like many an ad exec--and unlike Chaplin--Lloyd happily retired with millions. (Leslie Dunlap)


The Adding Machine
Elmer Rice

THE NEW YORK Times review read, "New York last night was treated to the best and fairest example of the newer expressionism in the theatre that it has yet experienced." Decades after its premier that March, Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine would continue to be considered the foremost representation of German expressionism in America. Soon, Germany's Weimar-era depression would set the pendulum in Western drama moving back toward naturalism. At its height, though, expressionism delivered a cry for individuality in the industrial age, and a revolution against the trappings of the bourgeoisie and their polite society plays. Call it a comedy of the unmannered.

"Unmannered" is the right word for Mr. Zero, Rice's anti-hero. He has worked at the same job, at the same desk, adding numbers for 25 years. He has never missed a day. His home is papered with accounting sheets and peppered with his wife's sniping. At work, Zero reads numbers and "wonder[s] if I could kill the wife without anybody findin' out. In bed some night. With a pillow." In Rice's careful stage directions and rat-tat-tat language lie the defining hallmarks of expressionism; this play is a nightmarish projection from the protagonist's head.

Then the adding machine makes its entrance, leading Zero's boss to fire him: "I'm sorry--no other alternative--greatly regret--old employee--efficiency--economy--business-Business--BUSINESS." At this point, Rice reproduces this crisis through every device in his arsenal. The stage directions state, "The music swells and swells. To it is added every off-stage effect of the theater: the wind, the waves, the galloping horses...The noise is deafening, maddening, unendurable..."  

And then Zero gives his boss the business: He kills him. Zero is sentenced to death for his boss's murder and finds himself, oddly enough, in the Elysian Fields, where "only the favored remain, but anybody may." He notes with disgust that people here spend their time playing music, painting, and laughing. "Rummies and loafers and bums!" Zero pronounces. "What's the quickest way out of this place?"

And so he leaves nirvana to run an adding machine in some bizarre corner of the afterlife for another 25 years. At one point he asks a co-worker there, "What do you think I am, a machine?" Rice thought so. (Anne Ursu)


Bessie Smith
"Downhearted Blues"
Columbia Legacy

BESSIE SMITH WAS the Babe Ruth of the blues, a bawdy swinger who never let a double entendre go ungrowled--the frankfurters she smacks her lips over during "Kitchen Man" are a much different meat than the hot dogs the Babe famously inhaled. Like Ruth, Smith's enormous talent permanently reordered the parameters of the game she played. The first real blues diva (her mentor, Ma Rainey, lacked Smith's vocal depth and urban sophistication), Smith's breakthrough season began in February 1923 with the recording of "Downhearted Blues," a tune that had already been a hit for Alberta Hunter a year earlier. Just 28 and not yet validated by critical acclaim, Smith also hadn't developed the feistiness that would later become her trademark. But her ability to evoke the mania of romantic despair was always immediately apparent.

Accompanied only by pianist Clarence Williams, Smith's vocals are utterly abject. Where a sardonic tinge colors Hunter's version of "Downhearted Blues," Smith's doleful wail darkens the blues into a new-moon blackness. Unlike the highly sexualized vamp of her later songs, she plays the role of the virginal victim here, with a dashed innocence intensifying her grief: "I've never loved but three men in my life/My father/My brother/And that man who wrecked my life." When she does rise above the mire, it's with a reckless jubilance brought on by a seemingly suicidal aggression. "I've got the world in a jar/And the stopple's in my hand," she hollers, perched on the edge of insanity.

By the end of 1923, her "Downhearted Blues" had sold an unbelievable 750,000 copies, and throughout the rest of the 1920s Bessie Smith was a huge star touring the nation in her own railcar. She teamed with Louis Armstrong for "St. Louis Blues," pleaded with the judge to "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair" for murdering her lover, and cut her mournful masterpiece, "Empty Bed Blues." Her passion, diction, and phrasing have influenced imitators from Dinah Washington to Janis Joplin. But her enduring legacy--begun with "Downhearted Blues"--is simple: She was the greatest blues singer of all time. (Britt Robson)

Fletcher Henderson
Fletcher Henderson & Blues Singers (volumes 1 and 2)

LESS THAN A decade after the first poster advertising a "jass" concert appeared on a New Orleans lamppost, the music had begun moving into the American mainstream. Paul Whiteman, a white acolyte-cum-bandleader billing himself as the "King of Jazz," took the music to the masses in a way no black bandleader possibly could.

Meanwhile, in New York, a Georgia-born piano player named Fletcher Henderson was putting together an orchestra of improvisers that would include Coleman Hawkins (who joined in 1923) and Louis Armstrong (who came on a year later). In early 1924 Henderson's band would replace the society dance band at the Roseland Ballroom on 52nd, and by the '30s his orchestra would be the dominant black-led band in the country, paving the way for every self-supporting African-American band to come in its wake. But in 1923, at age 26, Henderson was still finding himself as a player, working a part-time job at the less prestigious Club Alabam while honing his skills studying James P. Johnson's piano rolls and those of his protégé Fats Waller.

By all rights Fletcher Henderson shouldn't have been a jazz player at all. Born in 1897 to middle-class parents, he studied classical piano as a teen and chemistry at Atlanta University. Arriving in New York in 1920 he began searching for a job as a chemist, before signing on as the house pianist and chief arranger for Black Swan records, a black-owned independent label that recorded both "legitimate" vocalists and blues singers including the legendary Ethel Waters.

Document's two discs present Henderson playing with a list of now-forgotten female singers whose vocal styles are steeped in the vaudeville and minstrelsy that marked the emergence of a new kind of hybrid pop singer. Inez Wallace's 1923 jaunt through "Aggravatin' Pappa" and "Radio Blues" is pure vaudeville, even if Henderson's playing is straight out of Harlem. Hannah Sylvester's darker "Down South Blues" and "I Want My Sweet Daddy," aided by Coleman Hawkins's rambunctious sax, moves a step further, using the blues as a springboard for the kind of brash improvisation that would make Henderson's bands of the '20s and '30s standard-bearers for bop and beyond. (Jon Dolan)

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