When Flannery O’Connor called the south Christ-haunted, she was thinking not least of its freaks. The role of the freak takes on a theological tone in grotesque southern fiction because “it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.” The freak becomes the medium of the prophetic for the southern writer much like the fool did for medieval literature.
In the same way that Chrétien de Troyes has the fool declare “like a prophet” that the young Perceval will become the “knight of all knights” despite his being girded about with clothes that Welsh peasants usually wear, so the southern novelist uses the freak to see “near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up.” This is the prophetic in fiction according to O’Connor, which she goes on to describe as a realism of distances.
I thought of this recently when I read back through Jean Toomer’s Cane, published in 1923. Set deep in the Georgia cotton fields (southern snow), Toomer’s series of vignettes takes the reader on a tour of the souls of black folk and white folk. This tour fuses poetry and prose to mimic the mysticism and realism of southern life. The characters about which Toomer writes are caught up in the social order of Jim Crow and yet they manage to tap into the deeper, spiritual rhythms that stand as a bulwark against the prevailing order. In O’Connor’s words, what one finds is that “the characters in these novels . . . have an inner coherence . . . their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected.”
Toomer uses the grotesque to humanize, placing his tortured subjects between the shadows of Christ and the shades of a Georgia dusk. They all live in the valley of “Cain,” which serves as a symbol for the cursed kind of existence they must endure. Thus Toomer is able to give moral meaning to their lives amid the horrors of Jim Crow.
One poignant story is about Becky, a white Catholic with two mulatto sons. Ostracized by both communities, she refuses to reveal the father of her children. Becky is given a narrow strip of land upon which is built a one-room cabin with a leaning brick chimney. The odd spectacle of a cabin with a leaning chimney that shakes every time the train rolls by is further heightened by the “islandized ground,” which juts up out of the landscape for all to see. Everyone sees Becky and everyone extends a measure of charity to her, but “no one ever saw her.” With her sunken eyes and stringy neck, she is fully visible and yet remains invisible, a soul cursed to the point that whenever a train rumbled by “a creepy feeling came over all who saw that thin wraith of smoke and felt the trembling of the ground.”
Toomer weaves a continuous refrain into the narrative, “the pines whispered to Jesus.” The phrase becomes the prayer a mother utters for her boys: “O pines. . .tell Him to come and press sweet Jesus-lips against their lips and eyes.” It also becomes an expression of the fear the townspeople had of Becky. They feared she might have already died and be haunting the place; and they feared she might still be alive like a blight on the landscape. They wonder constantly about a woman they do not wish to see or touch. These fears cause them to cry out, “O pines, whisper to Jesus.” Becky and her sons symbolize the final lines of the poem that prefaces the story: “Superstition saw / Something it had never seen before / Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear / Beauty so sudden for that time of year.”
One autumn day a group of men from Ebenezer Church decide to visit Becky. Her boys had long since fled. Left all alone on this mysterious day, the “ghost train rumbled by” and the leaning chimney collapsed, burying Becky under a pile of rubble. Instead of trying to save her, Barlo, who Toomer later reveals as a bankrupt religious personality, simply throws his Bible on the pile of bricks, a final talisman to ward off any ill effects.
In Toomer’s account, there is a continuous contrast between Becky and the communities who reject her and her sons. Despite her isolation from the prevailing social order, creation and the God behind it stand with her as the “pines whisper to Jesus.” Yet, it costs Becky everything. Like another one of Toomer’s characters, Karintha, Becky moves through purgatorial fires so that she can sing “smoke is on the hills. Rise up. Smoke is on the hills, O rise. And take my soul to Jesus.” Black and white, Catholic and Protestant, these women cry out in a manner that causes their souls to take flight. Toomer later confessed that he wrote Cane in part to preserve the spirituals and the folk culture they embodied. Like Zora Neale Hurston wrote of the Sanctified Church, he understood the power of the “shouting” and yet how such practices were already being shunned as odd relics of a past no longer wanted.
Toomer’s narrative brings to life O’Connor’s claim that the reader who looks for a redemptive act in a story has “forgotten the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.” As a species of folly, Toomer uses the grotesque to communicate the price of redemption for the souls of black folk in the Christ-haunted south. Their displacement is our displacement and their struggle, our struggle. It is a struggle for deliverance that occurs in between the mysticism of the spirituals and the reality of Jim Crow. In grotesque fiction we see with special clarity how the foolish in the eyes of the world are the very ones who peer through the veil into another reality.