Welcome to the Harlem Renaissance Classics Circuit! If you're not familiar with the Circuit, hop on over to that link and check it out - I think it's a fantastic idea, sort of a cross between a readalong and regular book blogging. Major props to Rebecca and all of the great folks who help to organize it.


Jean Toomer's Cane is a work of in-betweens, of liminal spaces that resist categorization. And based on its author's biography, it's easy to see why. Toomer, the light-skinned grandson of the first person of African descent to become Governor of a US State, grew up in an upper-crust Washington DC society; he went on to attend first all-black, then all-white, then all-black area schools. In a city halfway between historical North and South, Toomer had the experience of being of mixed racial descent in a segregated country. In later life, he refused to identify with any race other than the new "American" one he saw forming out of the intermingled ethnicities across the United States:

In my body were many bloods, some dark blood, all blended in the fire of six or more generations. I was, then, either a new type of man or the very oldest. In any case I was inescapably myself...If I achieved greatness of human stature, then just to the degree that I did I would justify all the blood in me. If I proved worthless, then I would betray all. In my own mind I could not see the dark blood as something quite different and apart. But if people wanted to say this dark blood was Negro blood and if they then wanted to call me a Negro - this was up to them. Fourteen years of my life I had lived in the white group, four years I had lived in the colored group. In my experience there had been no main difference between the two.

This attitude, in turn, meant that although Cane is regarded as one of the masterpieces of the Harlem Renaissance, Toomer was a bit of an outsider even within that bohemian group; his attempt at a post-racial philosophy didn't jive with the goals of writers and artists who were celebrating Pan-Africanism and making more visible the "New Negro" way of life.

All of these influences are visible in Cane, which is neither a novel, nor a poem, nor a book of short stories, but something more unique altogether. It's divided into three sections: the first two, set in rural Georgia and DC/Chicago respectively, are collections of lyrical character sketches interspersed with poems in a wide variety of forms (sonnet, traditional and modified "In Memoriam" stanzas, rhyming couplets, etc.). The third section is, as Toomer said, a "long, semi-dramatic closing-piece." If this description makes Cane sound like a motley assortment of ingredients thrown together to make up something long enough for a book, that is basically what happened; Toomer wrote the entire middle (Northern) section in order to pad his Southern material. And yet, the whole of the book has an undeniable unity and great beauty. Anyone who has watched and appreciated such Jim Jarmusch films as Mystery Train and Coffee and Cigarettes will understand what Toomer is up to: as we weave in and out of characters' lives, in and out of verse and prose, we recognize repeating motifs that tie it all together: smouldering sawdust piles wreathing Georgia valleys in blue smoke; carriages jolting down the Dixie Pike; sexuality smothered under religion or society; tableaux glimpsed from the windows of speeding trains. In the first section, especially, I felt as though every bit of prose and verse is necessary to, and couldn't belong anywhere other than, Cane as a whole. Toomer creates a blistering love-song to a fading way of life.

November Cotton Flower

Boll-weevil's coming, and the winter's cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take
All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground--
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
Significance. 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.

Toomer's style strikes me as more "High Modernist" than that of other Harlem Renaissance luminaries like Zora Neale Hurston or Langston Hughes: edgy, experimental, sometimes obscure, with more emphasis on atmosphere and character than action. (I wouldn't recommend Cane to those Woolf in Winter readers who felt Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse lacked plot.) Although he is obviously deeply moved by visiting and observing rural Georgia life, Toomer remains an outsider; he never takes on, as Hurston does, the country or city dialect as his own. Instead he writes in a skittish in-between voice: lightly inflected with the cadences of Georgia spirituals and back-fence gossip sessions, but never escaping an erudite, Northern (even British-sounding) tone. When he does depict characters speaking in Southern dialect, he inserts a Northern outsider character, a stand-in for himself. One gets the sense he wishes to approach closer, but he can never quite manage it: his awkwardness, what he would probably term his Northern over-civilization, gets in the way. I think, though, that it's this yearning of an outsider to find belonging, that gives Cane its energy and beauty, as well as its melancholy tone. It's audible even from the opening lines:

                               Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,
                               O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
                               Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,
                               . . .When the sun goes down.

Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down. Old men rode her hobby-horse upon their knees. Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with their grown-up girls. God grant us youth, secretly prayed the old men. The young fellows counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them. This interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her.

I love Toomer's skill at shading poetry into prose and prose back out into poetry; it might be my favorite manifestation of the way Cane balances on border-lines and leaps across spectrums. So too, he blurs racial lines: the people of Cane are every color imaginable, from Karintha's eastern-horizon blue-black, to Fern's "cream-colored" and Dorris's "lemon-colored" complexions, to Muriel's "flushed ginger," Esther's "chalk-white," and young Louisa, "the color of oak leaves on young trees in fall." Are all these women "black"? Such an idea, we can hear Toomer argue, is ridiculous: and yet, as the lynching, estrangement, and heartbreak of this book attest, it still has a terrible power.

(I understand the irony of adding Jean Toomer to the list of "Black Authors in North America" over at Diversify Your Reading, but I'm doing it anyway. Mostly because I think more people should read this gorgeous book.)


  • Oh wow, I really need to read this. As I started reading your post, I was reminded of Woolf! And then you mentioned that similarity.

    I think the most interesting idea is the blending of races. So much of the HArlem Renaissance lit I've researched seems to be noticing the differences of the races and how they are all so great. But this is saying "why?" I can understand how, if that is Toomer's point, he wanted to stand aside from the rest of the Renaissance movement.

    Thanks for joining the Circuit!

  • Oh this does indeed sound like a gorgeous book! I knew Toomer was an author but nothing more. Thanks for such a great review. This one is going on my TBR list for sure!

  • What a beautiful review. I've not heard of this author before, so thank you for the introduction. I loved this sentence: "I wouldn't recommend Cane to those Woolf in Winter readers who felt Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse lacked plot." I liked both of those books but you certainly have to get yourself into the right frame of mind to enjoy them. It sounds like the same could be said of Cane, but the investment would be well worth it.

  • That reference to Jim Jarmusch caught my attention! This definitely sounds like a book that would appeal to me - sounds absolutely lovely. I love the idea of a mesh of prose and poetry, and the examples you've offered here are compelling.

  • Yes, Emily, your stated affection for Jim Jarmusch here has finally erased the grudge I've been carrying against you for being such an unrepentant Whit Stillman fan elsewhere on your blog! More to the point, Cane's genre splice and the tension in the way you suggest Toomer handles such complicated themes make this sound like a real winner. Thanks for the post!

  • Rebecca: Yes, it seems to me like Toomer was chronically one step out of line with everyone around him - which makes him interesting, but probably also made him frustrating for other Renaissance people. I can really see both sides of the argument. I'd be curious about your impressions of Cane, and thanks for coming up with the Circuit in the first place!

    Stefanie: You're welcome! It's quick and lovely, especially the first section. :-)

  • Laura: I'm glad you enjoyed it; thanks for stopping by! Yes, both Woolf and Toomer repay one's effort at suspending the expectation of traditional "novels." (At least, I think so.)

    Sarah: I was thinking of you as I wrote that! Remembering your notes on Down by Law the other week. :-) Yes, I think with your appreciation of poetry and lyrical language you would really enjoy Cane.

  • Richard: Haha, YOU NEVER FORGET! Well, I'm glad I've finally redeemed myself somewhat in your cinematic eyes. :-) Cane's great! As is Fishing with John.

  • This sounds like a great read for me to try when I'm in the mood for something slightly modern. It was your comparison to Coffee and Cigarettes that made me perk up my ears :)

  • This book sounds wonderful and your insightful review makes it sound all the more appealing.

    Thanks for 'Browse by Author' also - yay!

  • Maire: Apparently I'm not alone in my love of Jarmusch! Glad that got your attention, and yes, I highly recommend Toomer for when you're feeling modernistic. :-)

    Marieke: You're welcome! I have a whole post lined up about that and other random things. Glad you enjoyed the review.

  • Such a lovely review! This book is going on my TBR list for sure. I'm embarrassed to say that I never heard of this author or this book before.

    Regarding post-racialism - some of the progressive blogs I've been reading (I'm sort of drifting away from the conservatism I was raised with) have issues with that idea. The argument is that it's indicative of white privilege because white people, unlike people of the color, are allowed to be defined by something other than their race. Not sure I agree, but that's some food for thought.

  • This sounds really great. I love books that experiment with form (or rather, I admire the experimentation, and sometimes I love them if the experiment works for me). On the TBR list it goes!

  • EL Fay: Yeah, you are a wacky conservative, I have to say. :-) I can REALLY sympathize with both sides of the post-racialism argument. On the one hand I do see Toomer's point about feeling like society was trying to shoehorn him into one side or another of a dichotomy that doesn't reflect his reality. On the other hand, yeah, people of color definitely have a less privileged, less visible experience than white people, so I can also see the argument for celebrating and focusing on those (racialized) cultural aspects that are usually ignored or stigmatized - the project of most of the other Harlem Renaissance writers. It's a fascinating debate.

    And also, I think the issue as it applies to Cane is a bit indicative of the changing times...these days most people would probably just think of Toomer as white. He looked white, but back in the 20s many people were rabid about the "one drop of black blood" idea, so he was considered black (except in his own mind, where he was "American," or by people who didn't know his history). By the same doctrine I would be considered Native American, but making such a claim is ridiculous because everyone I interact with processes me as white. Food for thought, indeed...

  • Dorothy: I think the first of the three parts is particularly successful, but recommend the whole thing. I know what you mean about admiring the experimentation and loving the books if it works for you. :-)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography