Cane (1923)

Classic ‘novel’ of Jean Toomer (1894-1967). Cane was immediately hailed as one of the foremost pieces of the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties. A collection of poems, sketches, stories, and a novella (‘Kabnis’) built around dialogue, the book was inspired by Toomer’s visit to rural Georgia to teach. There he ‘heard the folk-songs come from the lips of Negro peasants’ and ‘saw the rich dusk beauty of the poor black South.’ The title refers to one of the book’s foci, the cane fields. Cane is divided into three parts: it begins in the cane fields, moves to the harsh streets of the North, and then back to the South. The black South is seen as a link to Africa and as a sensuous, soulful place of hardship, for example dealing with such themes as miscegenation, lynching, and the efficacy of the old Negro spirituals. The second section takes place mainly in Washington, D.C., Toomer’s birthplace, where blacks are estranged from their spiritual home. Though on the surface a potpourri, Cane as whole achieves a tonal and thematic unity through its recurring images and symbols, which suggest the beauty, vitality, and pain that Toomer saw in the agrarian South, a way of life he felt was passing and for which Cane is his lament.”

Excerpted from: Murphy, Bruce, ed. Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

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