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Cane (novel)

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Wikipedia article

'Cane' is a 1923 novel by noted Harlem Renaissance author Jean Toomer. The novel is structured as a series of vignettes revolving around the origins and experiences of African Americans in the United States. The vignettes alternate in structure between narrative prose, poetry, and play-like passages of dialogue. As a result, the novel has been classified as a composite novel or as a short story cycle. Though some characters and situations recur between vignettes, the vignettes are mostly freestanding, tied to the other vignettes thematically and contextually more than through specific plot details.

The ambitious, nontraditional structure of the novel - and its later influence on future generations of writers - have helped 'Cane' gain status as a classic of High Modernism.As of March 2008, there were over 100 scholarly articles on the book at the MLA Database. Several of the vignettes have been excerpted or anthologized in literary collections, perhaps most famously the poetic passage "Harvest Song", included in several Norton poetry anthologies. The poem opens with the line: "I am a reaper whose muscles set at sundown."

In 2000 [http://www.arionpress.comcatalog/059.htm Arion Press] published an edition of 'Cane' with woodblock prints by the artist Martin Puryear and an afterword by Leon Litwack.

Writing 'Cane'

Jean Toomer began writing sketches that would become the first section of 'Cane' in November 1921 on a train from Georgia to Washington D.C.McKay, Nellie. 'Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work'. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. By Christmas of 1921, the first draft of those sketches and the short story Kabnis were complete. Waldo Frank, Toomers close friend, suggested that Toomer combine the sketches into a book. In order to form a book-length manuscript, Toomer added sketches relating to the black urban experience. When Toomer completed the book, he wrote: My words had become a bookI had actually finished something.Toomer, Why I Entered the Gurdjieff Work, Toomer Collection, Box 66, Folder 8, p. 29.

However, before the book was published, Toomers initial euphoria began to fade. He wrote, The book is done but when I look for the beauty I thought Id caught, they thin out and elude me.Jean Toomer to Waldo Frank, Toomer Collection, Box 1, Folder 3. He thought that the Georgia sketches lacked complexity and said they were too damn simple for me. In a letter to Sherwood Anderson, Toomer wrote that the story-teller style of Fern had too much waste and made too many appeals to the reader.Jean Toomer to Sherwood Anderson, Toomer Collection, Box 1, Folder 1.

In August 1923, Toomer received a letter from Horace Liveright asking for revisions to the bibliographic statement Toomer had submitted for promotions of the book. Liveright requested that Toomer mention his colored blood, because that was the real human interest value of his story. Horace Liveright to Jean Toomer, August 29, 1923, Toomer Collection, Box I, Folder 6. Toomer had a history of complex beliefs about his own racial identity, and in the spring of 1923 he had written to the Associated Negro Press saying he would be pleased to write for the groups black readership on events that concerned them. However, when Toomer read Liverights letter he was outraged. He responded that his racial composition was of no concern to anyone except himself, and asserted that he was not a Negro and would not feature himself as such. Toomer was even willing to cancel the publication of the book.Jean Toomer to Horace Liveright, September 5, 1923, Toomer Collection, Box 1, Folder 6.


Toomer spent a great deal of time working on the structure of 'Cane'. He said that the design was a circle. Aesthetically, 'Cane' builds from simple to complex forms; regionally, it moves from the South to the North and then back to the South; and spiritually, it begins with Bona and Paul, grows through the Georgia narratives, and ends in Harvest Song. The first section focuses on southern folk culture; the second section focuses on urban life in Washington D.C.; and the third section is about the racial conflicts experienced by a black Northerner living in the South.

In his autobiography, Toomer wrote: I realized with deep regret, that the spirituals, meeting ridicule, would be certain to die out. With Negroes also the trend was towards the small town and then towards the cityand industry and commerce and machines. The folk-spirit was walking in to die on the modern desert. That spirit was so beautiful. Its death was so tragic. Just this seemed to sum life for me. And this was the feeling I put into 'Cane'. 'Cane' was a swan-song. It was a song of an end. Turner, Darwin, ed. 'The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer'. Washington: Howard UP, 1980.


'First Section:'

Reapers- poem
November Cotton Flower- poem

Cotton Song


Song of the Son

Georgia Dusk


Nullo- poem

Evening Song- poem


Conversion- poem

Portrait of Georgia- poem

Blood Burning Moon

'Second Section:'

Seventh Street



Beehive- poem

Storm Ending- poem


Her Lips are Copper Wire- poem

Calling Jesus

Box Seat

Prayer- poem

Harvest Song- poem

Bona and Paul

'Third Section:'


Critical Reception

'Cane' was largely ignored during the Harlem Renaissance by the average white and African American reader. Langston Hughes addressed this in his essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" by saying, 'O, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are,' say the Negroes. 'Be stereotyped, dont go too far, dont shatter our illusions about you, dont amuse us too seriously. We will pay you,' say the whites. Both would have told Jean Toomer not to write 'Cane'. The colored people did not praise it. The white people did not buy it. Most of the colored people who did read 'Cane' hate it. They are afraid of it. Although the critics gave it good reviews, the public remained indifferent. Yet (excepting the works of DuBois) 'Cane' contains the finest prose written by a Negro in America. And like the singing of Robeson it is truly racial."Hughes, Langston, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, 'Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present'. Ed. Angelyn Mitchell. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. 55-59. Hughes suggests that 'Cane' failed to be popular among the masses because it did not reinforce white views of African Americans. It did not fit the model of the Old Negro and did not depict the lifestyle of African Americans living in Harlem that whites wanted to see.

'Cane' was not widely read when it was published but was generally praised by both black and white critics. Montgomery Gregory, an African American, wrote in his 1923 review, America has waited for its own counterpart of Maranfor that native son who would avoid the pitfalls of propaganda and moralizing on the one hand and the snares of a false and hollow race pride on the other hand. One whose soul mirrored the soul of his people, yet whose vision was universal. Jean Toomeris the answer to this call.Durham, Frank (ed.), 'Studies in 'Cane'.' Columbus: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, 1971. Gregory criticized Toomer for his labored and puzzling style and for Toomers overuse of the folk. Gregory believed that Toomer was biased towards folk culture and resented city life.

W.E.B. DuBois reviewed 'Cane' in 1924. He said, Toomer does not impress me as one who knows his Georgia but he does know human beings. DuBois goes on to say that Toomer does not depict an exact likeness of humans but rather depicts them like an Impressionist painter. DuBois also wrote that Toomers writing is deliberately puzzlingI cannot, for the life of me, for instance, see why Toomer could not have made the tragedy of Carma something that I could understand instead of vaguely guess at.

In his 1939 review The New Negro, Sanders Redding wrote, 'Cane' was experimental, a potpourri of poetry and prose, in which the latter element is significant because of the influence it had on the course of Negro fiction.

White critics who reviewed 'Cane' in 1923 were mostly positive about the novel, praising its new portrayal of African Americans. John Armstrong wrote, It can perhaps be safely said that the Southern negro, at least, has found an authentic lyric voice in Jean Toomerthere is nothing of the theatrical coon-strutting high-brown, none of the conventional dice-throwing, chicken-stealing nigger of musical comedy and burlesque in the pages of 'Cane'. He goes on to say, the Negro has been libeled rather than depicted accurately in American fiction because fiction typically portrays African Americans as stereotypes. Cane gave white readers a chance to see a human portrayal of blacks[blacks] were seldom ever presented to white eyes with any other sort of intelligence than that displayed by an idiot child with epilepsy.

Robert Littell wrote in his 1923 review that, 'Cane' does not remotely resemble any of the familiar, superficial views of the South on which we have been brought up. On the contrary, Mr. Toomers view is unfamiliar and bafflingly subterranean, the vision of a poet far more than the account of things seen by a novelist.

Modern criticism

Alice Walker said of the book, It has been reverberating in me to an astonishing degree. I love it passionately, could not possibly exist without it.

In 'The Negro Novel in America', Robert A. Bone wrote, By far the most impressive product of the Negro Renaissance, 'Cane' ranks with Richard Wrights 'Native Son' and Ralph Ellisons 'Invisible Man' as a measure of the Negro novelists highest achievement. Jean Toomer belongs to that first rank of writers who use words almost as a plastic medium, shaping new meanings from an original and highly personal style. Bone, Robert A. 'The Negro Novel in America'. Yale University Press, 1965.

In popular culture

The novel inspired the Gil Scott-Heron song "Cane", in which he sings about two main characters of the novel: Karintha and Becky.

The novel inspired Marion Brown in his "Georgia" trilogy of jazz albums, especially on 'Geechee Recollections' (1973) where he put "Karintha" to music, recited by Bill Hasson.

The album [http://solotechne.bandcamp.com/album/incandescent Incandescent] by the contemporary electronic solo-artist [http://www.kinjac.com Kinjac] takes its title from the poem "Her Lips Are Copper Wire" in Cane. The first track on the album, "Her Lips Are Copper Wire (A Poem by Jean Toomer)", uses the poem as its lyrics.

Critical studies (since 2000)

as of March 2008:

Book articles/chapters

#Snaith, Anna, "C. L. R. James, Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, Jean Toomer: The 'Black Atlantic' and the Modernist Novel", in Shiach, 'The Cambridge Companion to the Modernist Novel', Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press; 2007. pp. 20623.

#Lamothe, Daphne, "'Cane': Jean Toomer's Gothic Black Modernism", in Anolik and Howard, 'The Gothic Other: Racial and Social Constructions in the Literary Imagination.' Jefferson, NC: McFarland; 2004. pp. 5471.

#Petesch, Donald, "Jean Toomer's Cane", pp. 9196, in Iftekharrudin, Boyden, Longo, and Rohrberger, 'Postmodern Approaches to the Short Story.' Westport, CT: Praeger; 2003. xi, 156 pp. (book article)

#Terris, Daniel, "Waldo Frank, Jean Toomer, and the Critique of Racial Voyeurism", in Hathaway, Heather (ed.); Jarab, Josef (ed. and introd.); Melnick, Jeffrey (ed.); 'Race and the Modern Artist'. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 2003. pp. 92114.

#Fontenot, Chester J., Jr., "W. E. B. Du Bois's 'Of the Coming of John,' Toomer's 'Kabnis,' and the Dilemma of Self-Representation", in Hubbard, 'The Souls of Black Folk One Hundred Years Later.' Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press; 2003. pp. 13060.

#Fahy, Thomas, "The Enslaving Power of Folksong in Jean Toomer's 'Cane'", in Meyer, 'Literature and Music' Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi; 2002. pp. 4763.

#Lemke, Sieglinde, "Interculturalism in Literature, the Visual and Performing Arts during the Harlem Renaissance", in Martn Flores and von Son, 'Double Crossings/EntreCruzamientos', Fair Haven, NJ: Nuevo Espacio; 2001. pp. 11121.

#Wardi, Anissa J., "Divergent Paths to the South: Echoes of 'Cane' in 'Mama Day'", in Stave, 'Gloria Naylor: Strategy and Technique, Magic and Myth.' Newark, DE; London, England: University of Delaware Press; Associated University Press; 2001. pp. 4476.

#Nicholls, David G., "Jean Toomer's 'Cane,' Modernization, and the Spectral Folk", in Scandura and Thurston, 'Modernism, Inc.: Body, Memory, Capital'. New York, NY: New York University Press; 2001. pp. 15170.

#Boelhower, William, "No Free Gifts: Toomer's 'Fern' and the Harlem Renaissance", in Fabre and Feith, 'Temples for Tomorrow: Looking Back at the Harlem Renaissance', Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press; 2001. pp. 193209.

#Boutry, Katherine, "Black and Blue: The Female Body of Blues Writing in Jean Toomer, Toni Morrison, and Gayl Jones", in Simawe, 'Black Orpheus: Music in African American Fiction from the Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison.' New York, NY: Garland; 2000. pp. 91118.

#Ickstadt, Heinz, "The (Re)Construction of an American Cultural Identity in Literary Modernism", in Hagenbchle, Raab, and Messmer, 'Negotiations of America's National Identity, II'. Tbingen, Germany: Stauffenburg; 2000. pp. 20628.

Articles on 'Cane' in the collection 'Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance'

(Ed. Genevive Fabre and Michel Feith, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press; 2001.)

#Fabre, Genevive, "Tight-Lipped 'Oracle': Around and Beyond Cane", pp. 117.

#Sollors, Werner, "Jean Toomer's Cane: Modernism and Race in Interwar America", pp. 1837.

#Hutchinson, George, "Identity in Motion: Placing Cane", pp. 3856.

#Grandjeat, Yves-Charles, "The Poetics of Passing in Jean Toomer's Cane", pp. 5767.

#Clary, Franoise, "'The Waters of My Heart': Myth and Belonging in Jean Toomer's Cane", pp. 6883.

#Coquet, Ccile, "Feeding the Soul with Words: Preaching and Dreaming in Cane", pp. 8495.

#Michlin, Monica, "'Karintha': A Textual Analysis", pp. 96108.

#Fabre, Genevive, "Dramatic and Musical Structures in 'Harvest Song' and 'Kabnis': Toomer's Cane and the Harlem Renaissance", pp. 10927.

#Nadell, Martha Jane, "Race and the Visual Arts in the Works of Jean Toomer and Georgia O'Keeffe", pp. 14261.

#Soto, Michael, "Jean Toomer and Horace Liveright: Or, A New Negro Gets 'into the Swing of It'", pp. 16287.

#Williams, Diana I., "Building the New Race: Jean Toomer's Eugenic Aesthetic", pp. 188201.

#Fabre, Michel, "The Reception of Cane in France", pp. 20214.

Journal articles

#Farebrother, Rachel, "Adventuring through the Pieces of a Still Unorganized Mosaic": Reading Jean Toomer's Collage Aesthetic in 'Cane', 'Journal of American Studies,' December 2006; 40 (3): 503-21.

#Baldanzi, Jessica Hays, "Stillborns, Orphans, and Self-Proclaimed Virgins: Packaging and Policing the Rural Women of 'Cane'", 'Genders', 2005; 42: 39 paragraphs.

#Banks, Kimberly, "'Like a Violin for the Wind to Play': Lyrical Approaches to Lynching by Hughes, Du Bois, and Toomer", 'African American Review', Fall 2004, 38 (3): 451-65.

#Whalan, Mark, "'Taking Myself in Hand': Jean Toomer and Physical Culture", 'Modernism/Modernity,' 2003 Nov; 10 (4): 597-615.

#Ramsey, William M., "Jean Toomer's Eternal South", 'Southern Literary Journal', Fall 2003, 36 (1): 74-89.

#Hedrick, Tace, "Blood-Lines That Waver South: Hybridity, the 'South,' and American Bodies", 'Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South', Fall 2003, 42 (1): 39-52.

#Edmunds, Susan, "The Race Question and the 'Question of the Home': Revisiting the Lynching Plot in Jean Toomer's 'Cane'", 'American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography,' March 2003, 75 (1): 141-68.

#Whalan, Mark, "Jean Toomer, Technology, and Race", 'Journal of American Studies', December 2002, 36 (3): 459-72.

#Battenfeld, Mary, "'Been Shapin Words T Fit M Soul': 'Cane', Language, and Social Change", 'Callaloo: A Journal of African-American and African Arts and Letters', Fall 2002, 25 (4): 1238-49.

#Da-Luz-Moreira, Paulo, "Macunama e Cane: Sociedades Multi-raciais alm do Modernismo no Brasil e nos Estados Unidos", 'Tinta', Fall 2001, 5: 75-90.

#Scruggs, Charles, "Jean Toomer and Kenneth Burke and the Persistence of the Past", 'American Literary History', Spring 2001, 13 (1): 41-66.

#Shigley, Sally Bishop, "Recalcitrant, Revered, and Reviled: Women in Jean Toomer's Short Story Cycle, 'Cane'", 'Short Story', Spring 2001, 9 (1): 88-98.

#Rand, Lizabeth A., "'I Am I': Jean Toomer's Vision beyond 'Cane'", 'CLA Journal', September 2000, 44 (1): 43-64.

#Fike, Matthew A., "Jean Toomer and Okot p'Bitek in Alice Walker's 'In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens'", 'MELUS', Fall-Winter 2000, 25 (3-4): 141-60.

#Peckham, Joel B., "Jean Toomer's 'Cane': Self as Montage and the Drive toward Integration", 'American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography', June 2000, 72 (2): 275-90.

#Webb, Jeff, "Literature and Lynching: Identity in Jean Toomer's 'Cane'", 'ELH', Spring 2000, 67 (1): 205-28.

#Bus, Heiner, "Jean Toomer's 'Cane' as a Swan Song", 'Journal of American Studies of Turkey,' 2000 Spring; 11: 21-29.

#Harmon, Charles. "'Cane', Race, and 'Neither/Norism'", 'Southern Literary Journal', Spring 2000, 32 (2): 90-101.

#Scruggs, Charles. "The Reluctant Witness: What Jean Toomer Remembered from 'Winesburg, Ohio'", 'Studies in American Fiction,' 2000 Spring; 28 (1): 77-100.

#[http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0403/is_1_46/ai_63591261/ Kodat, Catherine Gunther, "To 'Flash White Light from Ebony': The Problem of Modernism in Jean Toomer's 'Cane'"], 'Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal', Spring 2000, 46 (1): 1-19.


Category:1923 novels

Category:African-American novels

Category:Modernist texts

Category:Novels set in Georgia (U.S. state)

Category:Novels set in Chicago, Illinois

Category:Novels set in Washington, D.C.

Category:1923 books

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