Analysis of Jean Toomer’s Box Seat

Box Seat is perhaps the most provocatively ambiguous short story included in the African-American writer Jean Toomer’s Cane, a collection of poems, sketches, and dramatic vignettes. It includes such strange lyricisms as “shy girls whose eyes shine reticently upon—the gleaming limbs and asphalt torso of a dreaming nigger” (59). It is therefore not surprising that even so sensitive an analyst of African-American “double consciousness” as W. E. B. DuBois could say that the story “muddles me to the last degree” (171).

Dan Moore walks in a middle-class African-American neighborhood of a northern city, suffused with anticipation of seeing Muriel, an object, but not the only object, of his desire. His impressions are objectified as audial and visual perceptions so vivid as to seem hallucinatory, such that the natural world becomes a springtime dream of universal eroticized animation and prospective union. A frustrated wouldbe prophet of a transformative salvific consciousness, Moore exhorts himself, as Toomer simultaneously exhorts himself: “Stir the root-life of a withered people. Call them from their houses, and teach them to dream” (59). But the denizens fail to emerge, just as his soul-song falters. Hyperconscious of being an outsider and fleeting worry that the neighborhood might suspect him of trying to break in, Moore must go inside, penetrate the confines of the bourgeoisie, to deliver Muriel from the sheltering that keeps these houses “virginal.”

The dialectical clash of apparently contradictory opposites that governs Toomer’s pattern of imagery intensifies once Moore enters the house, a domain characterized by spatial arrangements and structural designs that produce and maintain separation and stagnation under the oppressive weight of genteel propriety and conformist values. Persistent references to what is cold, sharp, heavy, and metallic serve to evoke the stasis and rigidity, at once self-protecting and constricting, of the many kinds of enclosure constructed by the judgmental yet timid, up-tight, and bolted-down African-American urban bourgeoisie. Toomer depicts this class as fearful of losing its hardwon place in the social hierarchy and contemptuous of those who have been locked out. He orchestrates a sound imagery of ratchets and the mechanistic “clicks” of things being put and kept in their place. This is meant to conflict, dialectically, with his, and Moore’s, belief that spontaneous impulses are desirable because they manifest what is authentically human, free of the constraints of social conventions, sentimental platitudes, and the “technical intellect” of the machine age. Thus, newspaper reading signifies complicity in binding the self to myopic preoccupations and mundane concerns that serve to displace any creative encounter with the reality of idiosyncratic desire. This activity has produced the paradoxically “watery” yet metallic, piercing eyes of the landlady, Mrs. Pribby, and it is therefore indicative that the admonishing rustle of her newspaper from an adjacent room dispels the moment of greatest intensity between Muriel and Moore.

Moore is convinced he is contact with a truth, a reality, that has been lost or at least obscured, and he bitterly excoriates Mrs. Pribby in his mind: “Dare I show you? If I did, delirium would furnish you headlines for a month” (60). Toomer uses Moore’s discomfort with and antagonism toward bourgeois domesticity to address the difficulty of creatively organizing hypersensitive attunements amid the emotional and spiritual obtuseness of others. This problem morphs into another: the struggle to maintain a lyrical, life-giving consciousness against the temptation to prosaic pontification and arrogant and pugnacious grandstanding. Bearing a first name that is Hebrew for “he who judges,” Moore possesses the self-righteous mean streak of the unheeded prophet. “Get an ax and smash in . . . their faces,” he tells himself. Rejecting the bourgeois preoccupation with happiness, he exhorts Muriel to embrace life’s fusion of joy and pain, yet he wants to kill “whats weak” in all of them. This motivation is not easily reconciled with his belief that “I am come to a sick world to heal it,” but the seeming contradiction is inherent in the gospel tradition. Speaking more out of vainglory or megalomania than divine inspiration, Moore thinks, “I’ll show em” (59).

Jean Toomer/Library of America

It is not possible to state conclusively in what sense Moore is more. His perceptions might be authentically visionary or the product of an emerging psychosis. He has, or imagines he has, intimations of a “new-world Christ” who will not descend from the sky but emerge from a subterranean system of arboreal roots—Afro-southern rural roots—that lies beneath the urban concrete of the North. He transmutes the mechanical rumble of a streetcar into the fleshy throb of Earth, which he feels is the repressed legacy of his race and the source of the instinctual spontaneity that offers the only possibility of redemption. This arising god is subtly linked to Moore’s own erotic arousal, prompted not just by the hint of Muriel’s latent “animalism, still unconquered by zoorestrictions and keeper-taboos” but by his “impulse to direct her” (62). Different desires and impulses converge: an elevating desire to create and to liberate creativity in others; sexual desire, cruder but obstinate to the point of absurdity; and the desire to compel people to transform themselves through contact with chthonic powers. The stubborn incapacity of others to comprehend him has frustrated and tainted his artistic temperament into resentful wrath and apocalyptic fantasy. As the Messiah arises in his imagination, so too “a continent sinks down,” requiring “consummate skill to walk upon the waters where huge bubbles burst” (60). Within the terms of this ambiguous confusion of impulses, attitudes, and motives, it is perhaps worth noting that folk tradition has identified the tribe of Dan, one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, with the origins of the Antichrist, probably because the tribe fell into idolatry according to the biblical Book of Judges. At the least, a measure of disquiet is produced by the pointed contrast between the impaired, watery eyes of other characters and Moore’s feeling that his own eyes “could burn clean—burn clean—BURN CLEAN!” (67).

The development of established imagery and the continuation of his stream-of-consciousness technique in the second and concluding section give “Box Seat” a structural symmetry and thematic integrity its sketchiness might otherwise lack. The Lincoln Theater is ironically named for a liberator of those who do not want to be liberated too much or from all forms of bondage. It is repeatedly designated “the house,” which is to say, a place where the potential ravaging revelations of art are domesticated or displaced by meretricious and savage forms of distraction. Nothing can be recreated at the bourgeois site of recreation. Wanting to affirm her genteel sensibility, Muriel tries to believe that she is going to enjoy the show, and yet she also registers annoyance at “This damn tame thing” (64).

Toomer’s description of the seating is particularly relevant. Its linearity implicitly contrasts with the unruliness of roots that grow, and sustain life, according to their own logic of necessity; the uprightness of the seats reflects the desire for respectability that keeps people like Muriel morally upright. Moore, who cannot “fit in,” as both he and Muriel know, must squeeze his body between those already in their places. With regard to the implications of the story’s title, a box seat purports to give access, by virtue of proximity, to the scene of the action, the staged events of culture. By virtue of this proximity it might make those actions and events more vivid—something Moore, who wants to vivify the terms of existence, might endorse if it were less passively spectatorial. Yet a seat that functions as a box functions in the same oppressive manner as the chairs in Muriel’s house. Such seats click people into place. Even if the Day of Judgment were to occur, Moore observes: “Each one is a bolt that shoots into a slot, and is locked there. The seats are slots. The seats are bolted houses” (64). Moore’s beamed thought to Muriel, “Prop me in your brass box” (66), slights her supposed sexual frigidity by punning on “Rock me in your big brass bed,” a well-known blues refrain.

Moore sits next to a fat woman, who seems to exude the vitality of rooted earthiness he requires. His growing unruliness and need to dominate others culminate in a grandiose fantasy of revenge, in which he, as the biblical Samson—the blinded hero of the tribe of Dan—pulls down the girders of the theater around them all. Unruliness and the need to dominate seem the order of the day onstage as well. The battle of the dwarfs and its aftermath constitute a sequence of events and a complex of symbols that are the most ambiguous, if not enigmatic, in the story. The dwarfs perform aggression with bulging heads that are compared to boxing gloves. This might constitute a grotesque allegory of instinctual consciousness deformed into passive aggression by middle-class intellectualization. Such a reading would need to be reconciled with the fact that the conflict “pounds the house” with excitement, and with the fact that many folklore traditions associate dwarfs with chthonic power and wisdom. The triumphant dwarf who sings sentimental songs to a feminine chosen few, illuminates them with a flashing pocket mirror, and presents Muriel with a blood-stained emblem of wounded desire may represent Moore’s aspirations and pretensions debased and deformed in accord with his diminished sense of self as he sees himself through the reductive eyes of those who judge him crazy. Moore’s capacity to bear witness to the coidentity of him and all misfits as incarnations of Christ may well be authentic, but even this permits a diagnosis of desperate megalomania and romanticized abjection.

African-American Short Fiction

At this point the story becomes nebulous, petering out just as Moore has found “an enemy—he has long been looking for” (66). Moore and Toomer may both seem insufficiently concentrated, guilty of Muriel’s charge, “Starts things he doesn’t finish.” It is not clear whether Moore drifts away from the fight because he is impassive in the face of aggression, on the model of the Christian redeemer, or because his rapt obliviousness is less otherworldly than psychologically dissociative. The odor of garbage and rancid fl owers seems to testify to the insufficiency of his vegetal vision, as the natural world has reached the decay inherent in it. Whether or not Moore has found his roots, he is now but “a green stem that has just shed its flower.” He has proved ineffectual: He has not called Muriel into a vivid sensuality that for him constitutes a redemptive sensibility. The girlish eyes of houses “blink out” (69).

Moore leaves the reader as if called elsewhere, as Toomer would forsake literature for a period shortly after the publication of Cane. Toomer’s dawning conviction that the artist must first integrate his own being in order to be able to produce art capable of healing the ravages of modernity led him to sustained training in techniques developed by F. M. Alexander and by G. I. Gurdjieff for eliminating habitual thought processes and behavior with the objective of completely spontaneous, yet orderly living.

DuBois, W. E. B. “Sexual Liberation in Cane.” In Cane: Norton Critical Edition, edited by Darwin T. Turner. New York/London: W. W. Norton, 1988. Flowers, Sandra Hollin. “Solving the Critical Conundrum of Jean Toomer’s ‘Box Seat.’ ” Studies in Short Fiction 25, no. 3 (Summer 1988): 301–306. Schultz, Elizabeth. “Jean Toomer’s ‘Box Seat’: The Possibility for ‘Constructive Crisises[sic].’ Black American Literature Forum 13, no. 1 (Spring 1979): 7–12. Toomer, Jean. “Box Seat.” In Cane: Norton Critical Edition, edited by Darwin T. Turner. New York/London: W. W. Norton, 1988. Turner, Darwin T. “Introduction [to the 1975 Edition of Cane].” In Cane: Norton Critical Edition, edited by Darwin T. Turner. New York/London: W. W. Norton, 1988.

Categories: African Literature, American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story

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