Jean Toomer's passport.
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library/Yale University
book review / culture

A Century Later, a Novel by an Enigma of the Harlem Renaissance Is Still Relevant

The enduring influence of Jean Toomer’s “Cane,” written in bursts of poetry and prose.
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Many stories meander through “Cane” (including one autobiographical section featuring a Northern writer in the South), but at its core the book is about six Southern women, including beautiful, chaotic Karintha; Carma, who slays her jealous husband; Becky, white and an outcast, the mother of two black sons. Their lives are brief, vivid, doomed — but each “a wild flash that told the other folks just what it was to live.”

“Cane” sold modestly but exerted a powerful influence over the Harlem Renaissance; it was, according to the sociologist Charles S. Johnson, “the most astonishingly brilliant beginning of any Negro writer of his generation.”

And then Toomer disappeared, never to publish another book. He floated between cults and ideologies, dallying with occultism, Scientology and Jungian psychology. He traveled through India. Late in life, he joined the Quakers and wrote almost exclusively for their publications, once self-publishing a list of odd aphorisms.
 
“Cane” passed out of print, but not for long. It was rediscovered in the 1960s, and has been reissued every decade since. A new edition has been published, right on time, with a foreword by the novelist Zinzi Clemmons and a sharp, substantive introduction by the scholar George Hutchinson. As in its every appearance, the novel is again freshly positioned as a book for our times and angled to accommodate what we now know about Toomer’s racial identification.

For this is the riddle. Toomer was the grandson of the first black governor in America, of Louisiana, and grew up in the world of the light-skinned black elite in Washington. “Cane” was born out of a two-month stint of substitute teaching in Georgia (much of it written on the train rides home). “A visit to Georgia last fall was the starting point of almost everything of worth that I have done,” he wrote to the editors of the socialist magazine The Liberator. “I heard folk-songs come from the lips of Negro peasants. I saw the rich dusk beauty that I had heard many false accents about, and of which till then, I was somewhat skeptical. And a deep part of my nature, a part that I had repressed, sprang suddenly to life and responded to them. Now, I cannot conceive of myself as aloof and separated.”

A fleeting feeling. Toomer forbade his publisher to mention his race in the marketing for “Cane.” (“My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine.”) Nor would he allow his work to be included in black anthologies, insisting he was part of a new, emergent race, simply called American.
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