Jean Toomer’s Cane is one of the most influential works in the history of African-American literature. A “literary work” is truly the most appropriate term for Cane, certainly more appropriate than “novel.” Cane is comprised of sketches written in prose, poems, and even a play. Some poems are freestanding episodes, while other are works of verse incorporated into the prose. Even if it were not a foundational text in the evolution of African-American literature, Cane would have made its mark in literary history as work of extraordinary experimentation. As critic Robert C. Evans notes, “Partly the work is interesting as a contribution to the local color tradition of American writing: It reveals the distinctive customs, rhythms, sights, and sounds of life in particular regions and cities of the country, especially through the use of local dialect and slang."
The genesis of Cane lies in Toomer’s few months as interim principal at a school in Georgia. He admired the rural Southern black culture and wanted to depict the waning days of this type of Georgia life. Toomer wrote later of that Georgia countryside, “The setting was crude in a way…but strangely rich and beautiful. I began to feel its effects despite my state, or perhaps, just because of it. There was a valley, the valley of ‘Cane’, with smoke-wreaths during the day and mist at night.” The slave spirituals he heard were particularly impactful. Scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explains, “Under the spell of an alien and yet somehow familiar landscape, Toomer eagerly embraced this new body of impressions and sensations and thoughts, immersing himself in a set of experiences that he would interpret with impressive originality, without being nostalgic in any way.” He wove in vignettes of Northern life as well, looking to explore the formation of identity in post-WWI America, where the Great Migration was reshaping black life.
On the train out of Georgia, Toomer began to write what would be the third section of the work. He worked on a few of the other pieces but still felt he did not have enough. He brought in “Bona and Paul” and worked on other short pieces. He always envisioned three sections and told his publisher that a unified, “concentrated volume will do a good deal more than isolated pieces possibly could.” With the help of Alain Locke and Claude McKay, Toomer began to publish some of these pieces to herald the upcoming whole work. By 1922 he sent friend and literary figure Waldo Frank a completed manuscript after having sent him smaller works earlier. Frank sent the work along to Horace Liverlight of Boni and Liverlight Publishers, which had published T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and other notable modernist works by Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and Hart Crane (among others). On January 2nd, 1923 Frank wrote Toomer that the work was accepted.
The book garnered positive critical reviews, especially among members of the Harlem Renaissance. William Stanley Braithwaite wrote, “Cane is a book of gold and bronze, of dusk and flame, of ecstasy and pain, and Jean Toomer is a bright morning star of a new day of the race in literature." Countee Cullen sent him a congratulatory note. Robert Littell saw Cane as “the vision of a poet more than the account of things seen by a novelist—lyric, symbolic, oblique, seldom actual.” Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston visited Sparta, Georgia two years later to see the place that influenced Toomer so strongly. Arna Bontemps said, “no earlier volume of poetry or fiction or both had come close to expressing the ethos of the Negro in the Southern setting as Cane did.” Alain Locke also included Cane in his 1925 anthology The New Negro.
The impressionistic commingling of different approaches to storytelling (similar to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio) allowed Cane to become an influential book; novelists, short story writers, poets, dramatists and even jazz musicians could find something of merit within its pages to compare to their own artistic creations. This makes the legacy of the book relative to the life of its author all the more tragic.
At the time of its publication, Jean Toomer was heralded as something in short supply by white America in 1923: an intellectual Negro author. Cane was nothing like the “plantation novels” that had been the most successful entry by black authors into the reading habits of white society. The characters were more complex, the settings more diverse, and themes more culturally relevant outside black society. But while critics and artists enjoyed the work, the reading public did not latch on at this point; thus, it remained out of print until 1967.
Jean Toomer, considered the brightest light in the constellation of up-and-coming black authors in 1923 (although he was actually of mixed race), may well have sided with the public. Toomer quickly grew dissatisfied with the judgment that Cane was a great work of African-American literature. He saw, rightly, that his book was only about black in America. That was the subject of the book, but not the subject of the man. Rejecting the idea that he and the subject of his book were interchangeable, he resisted future efforts to market his writing according to race. The result was a continuing series of disappointing sales and virtual obscurity outside of the world of Harlem Renaissance artists, until Cane was rediscovered and reclaimed by African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.