Introduction to Cane
as appearing in the Perennial Classic Edition
copyright 1969 by ARNA BONTEMPS

Back to Reading Group

LOOKING back on the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's, the distinguished scholar and sociologist, Charles S. Johnson, observed that "A brief ten years have developed more confident self-expression, more widespread efforts in the direction of art than the long, dreary two centuries before." Recalling the sunburst of Jean Toomer's first appearance, he added, "Here was triumphantly the Negro artist, detached from propaganda, sensitive only to beauty. Where [Paul Laurence] Dunbar gave to the unnamed Negro peasant a reassuring touch of humanity, Toomer gave to the peasant a passionate charm.... More than artist, he was an experimentalist, and this last quality has carried him away from what was, perhaps, the most astonishingly brilliant beginning of any Negro writer of this generation."

Cane, the book that provoked this comment, was published in 1923 after portions of it had appeared earlier in Broom, The Crisis, Double Dealer, Liberator, Little Review, Modern Review, Nomad, Prairie and S 4 N. But Cane and its author, let it be said at once, presented an enigma from the start-an enigma which has, in many ways, deepened in the years since its publication. Given such a problem, perhaps one may be excused for not wishing to separate completely the man from his work.

During the summer of 1922 Toomer had sent a batch of unpublished manuscripts to the editors of the Liberator, Max Eastman and his assistant Claude McKay. They accepted some of the pieces enthusiastically and requested biographical material from the author. Toomer responded with the following:

Whenever the desire to know something about myself comes from a sincere source, I am always glad to meet it. For in telling other folks I invariably tell my own self something. My family is from the South. My mother's father, P B. S. Pinchback, born in Macon, Georgia, left home as a boy and worked on the Mississippi River steamers. At the beginning of the Civil War he organized and was commissioned captain of a Negro company in New Orleans. Later, in the days of Reconstruction, he utilized the Negro's vote and won offices for himself, the highest being that of lieutenant, and then acting governor of Louisiana. When his heyday was over, he left the old hunting grounds and came to Washington. Here I was born. My own father likewise came from Middle Georgia. Racially, I seem to have (who knows for sure) seven blood mixtures: French, Dutch, Welsh, Negro, German, Jewish, and Indian. Because of these, my position in America has been a curious one. I have lived equally amid the two race groups. Now white, now colored. From my own point of view I am naturally and inevitably an American. I have strived for a spiritual fusion analogous to the fact of racial intermingling. Without denying a single element in me, with no desire to subdue one to the other, I have sought to let them function as complements. I have tried to let them live in harmony. Within the last two or three years, however, my growing need for artistic expression has pulled me deeper and deeper into the Negro group. And as my powers of receptivity increased, I found myself loving it in a way that I could never love the other. It has stimulated and fertilized whatever creative talent I may contain within me. A visit to Georgia last fall was the starting point of almost everything of worth that I have done. 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. My point of view has not changed; it has deepened, it has widened. Personally, my life has been torturous and dispersed. The comparative wealth which my family once had, has now dwindled away to almost nothing. We, or rather, they, are in the unhappy position of the lowered middle-class. There seems to have been no shop-keepers or shysters among us. I have lived by turn in Washington, New York, Chicago, Sparta, Georgia, and several smaller towns. I have worked, it seems to me, at everything: selling papers, delivery boy, soda clerk, salesman, shipyard worker, librarian-assistant, physical director, school teacher, grocery clerk, and God knows what all. Neither the universities of Wisconsin or New York gave me what I wanted, so I quit them. Just how I finally found my stride in writing, is difficult to lay hold of. It has been pushing through for the past four years. For two years, now, I have been in solitude here in Washington. It may be begging hunger to say that I am staking my living on my work. So be it. The mould is cast, and I cannot turn back even if I would.

Neither the editors of the Liberator nor the lonely youth taking care of his decrepit grandparents in Washington, watching them slowly deterioriate after having led exciting and eventful lives, could have realized that this sudden outpouring was itself a strange harbinger. Cane was published the following year. While a few sensitive and perceptive people went quietly mad, as the saying goes, about this wholly extraordinary book, they seemed unable to enlarge its audience. Only two small printings were issued, and these vanished quickly. However, among the most affected was practically an entire generation of young Negro writers then just beginning to emerge; their reaction to Toomer's Cane marked an awakening that soon thereafter began to be called a Negro Renaissance.

Cane's influence was by no means limited to the joyous band that included Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Eric Walrond, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Rudolph Fisher and their contemporaries of the'Twenties. Subsequent writing by Negroes in the United States, as well as in the West Indies and Africa, has continued to reflect its mood and often its method and, one feels, it has also influenced the writing about Negroes by others. Certainly 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. Even in today's ghettos astute readers are finding that its insights have anticipated and often exceeded their own.

There are many odd and provocative things about Cane, and not the least is its form. Reviewers who read it in 1923 were generally stumped. Poetry and prose were whipped together in a kind of frapp6. Realism was mixed with what they called mysticism, and the result seemed to many of them confusing. Still, one of them could conclude that "Cane is an interesting, occasionally beautiful and often queer book of exploration into old country and new ways of writing." Another noted, "Toomer has not interviewed the Negro, has not asked opinions about him, has not drawn conclusions about him from his reactions to outside stimuli, but has made the much more searching, and much more self-forgetting effort of seeing life with him, through him."

It is well to keep in mind the time of these remarks. DuBose Heyward's Porgy was still two years away. William Faulkner's first novel was three years away. His Mississippi novels were six or more years in the future. Robert Penn Warren, a student at Vanderbilt University, was just beginning his association with the Fugitive poets.2 His first novel was still more than a decade and a half ahead. Tennessee Williams was just nine years old.

A chronology of Negro writers is equally revealing. James Weldon Johnson had written lyrics for popular songs, some of them minstrel style, and a sort of documentary novel obscurely published under a pseudonym, but God's Trombones was a good four years off. Countee Cullen's Color was two and Langston Hughes' The Weary Blues three years away, though both of these poets had become known to readers of the Negro magazine Crisis while still in their teens, and Hughes at twenty-one, the year of Cane's publication, could already be called a favorite.

The first fiction of the Negro Renaissance followed Cane by a year or two, and Eric Walrond's Tropic Death did not come for three. Zora Neale Hurston's first novel was published in 193 1, eight years after Cane. Richard Wright made his bow with Uncle Tom's Children in 1938, fifteen years later. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison followed Toomer's Cane by just thirty years. James Baldwin was not born when Toomer began to publish.

The book by which we remember this writer is as hard to classify as is its author. At first glance it appears to consist of assorted sketches, stories, and a novelette, all interspersed with poems. Some of the prose is poetic, and often Toomer slips from one form into the other almost imperceptibly. The novelette is constructed like a play.

His characters, always evoked with effortless strength, are as recognizable as they are unexpected in the fiction of that period. Fern is a "creamy brown" beauty so complicated men take her "but get no joy from it." Becky is a white outcast beside a Georgia road who bears two Negro children. Kabnis is a languishing idealist finally redeemed from cynicism and dissipation by the discovery of underlying strength in his people. Is he Jean Toomer in fictional disguise? One wonders.

It does not take long to discover that Cane is not without design, however. A world of black peasantry in Georgia appears in the first section. The scene shifts, with almost prophetic insight, to the black ghetto of Washington, D. C. in the second. Rural Georgia comes up again in the third. Changes in the concerns of Toomer's folk are noted as the setting changes.

A young poet-observer moves through the book. Drugged by beauty "perfect as dusk when the sun goes down," lifted and swayed by folk song, arrested by eyes that "desired nothing that you could give," silenced by "corn leaves swaying, rustv with talk," he recognized that "the Dixie Pike has grown from a goat path in Africa." A native richness is here, he concluded, and the poet embraced it with the passion of love.

If such a first work as Cane was betokened by the biography he sent to his friends at the Liberator on August 19, 1922, it was also a harbinger of a very different sort. It foreshadowed a wild search for identity that was to drive Toomer through all the years that followed till his death in 1967 and, eventually, even to preempt his talent.

Some of Toomer's admirers, putting Cane beside the early work of such contemporaries as William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, have wondered why he appears to have stopped short and deliberately turned his back on greatness. If this was indeed what happened, a few clues as to the reasons might be cited.

As a youngster Toomer had been fascinated by the idea of self-improvement by body building and he had enrolled in correspondence courses. His efforts had been remarkably successful, and the beautiful child of Nina Pinchback, daughter of a controversial celebrity, had grown into a personable and athletic youth. By the time of Cane's publication in 1923, he had turned to an intensive study of his own psychology, and in the same year encountered the ideas of Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, a system or teaching by which one sought to attain through instruction and discipline new levels of experience, beginning with the difficult first step to self-consciousness and progressing to worldand possibly cosmic-consciousness. A year later he spent the summer at the Gurdjieff Institute at Fontainbleau, France, explaining to his friends, "I am. What I am and what I may become I am trying to find out."

Half a dozen years passed and he had still not resolved this problem when in 1931 he undertook a psychological experiment with a group of friends living in a cottage in Portage, Wisconsin. Not too much is known about this, and one can only assume it was in line with the Gurdjieff aims. The townsfolk, probably fearing that the "experiment" was a disguise for some sort of free love adventure, were horrified, though they pressed no accusations. A year later, Toomer married Marjory Latimer, a descendant of the early New England poet, Anne Bradstreet, and a renowned New England clergyman, John Cotton. She had been a member of the group of men and women associated with Toomer in the experiment, and her friendship with him had been an outgrowth. She was also known as one of the most promising young novelists in the United States. Marjory Latimer Toomer died the following year giving birth to their only child.

A sojourn in the Southwest, sometimes troubled, always questing, followed. During this time he appears to have made some prominent converts to the Gurdjieff system; Langston Hughes' poem "A House in Taos" was believed by some to have been inspired by Toomer's experiences there. In 1934, however, Toomer contracted an equally surprising second marriage. It was his destiny, apparently, to be closely linked with Marjories. With Marjorie Content, daughter of Harry Content, a member of the New York Stock Exchange, he appeared to vanish from literature among the tolerant Quakers of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. When next heard from, he was writing for the Friends Intelligencer, sometimes calling himself by his father's first name, lecturing piously to Friends' meetings, and occasionally making vague references to the racial blend in him.

An inquiry by a young Quaker friend of mine elicited a frank though guarded response from a General Secretary of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. At a time when the committee that was running the George School would not permit the faculty to accept Negro applicants, someone volunteered that there was already a so-called Negro in attendance. The finger was pointed at Toomer and the child by his first wife, but Toomer parried the questions and no action was taken.

Within his own heart and mind, however, the fundamental issue was too big to be disposed of so lightly. "All of this," wrote the General Secretary, "is possibly a basis for Jean's present condition. I have recited it because of Arna Bontemps' request for biographical information for the last twenty years. He may know most of it and more, but it is during the last twenty to thirty years that I have known Jean. . . . This information was given me by Jean at my request. He did not indicate that it was confidential but it is certainly personal and should be handled in that spirit."

As this sequence occurred, Toomer made notes for an autobiography in which he proposed to cope with the problems raised by his situation. It was never developed fully, but his outlines suggest that he remembered vividly the ordeal of muscle-building in which he had engaged as a boy, his restoration after an exhausting "spell of sex," his growing disgust with "most of the life" around him in Washington, his painful vigil while watching "Pinchback's breakup," and the decline of their once well-to-do family into poverty, and eventually the grueling confrontation with himself on setting out for the University of Wisconsin. "I would again be entering a white world; and, though I personally had experienced no prejudice or exclusion either from the whites or the colored people, I had seen enough to know that America viewed life as if it were divided into white and black. Having lived with colored people for the past five years, at Wisconsin the question might come up. What was I? I thought about it independently, and, on the basis of fact, concluded I was neither white nor black, but simply an American. I held this view and decided to live according to it. I would tell others if the occasion demanded it."

On November 7, 1923, Allen Tate, then a member of the Fugitives and one of the editors of The Fugitive, wrote to Jean Toomer at the suggestion of their mutual friend Hart Crane. Tate wrote him again in May 1924. Both times it was connected with a train stopover in Washington which he thought would provide an opportunity for them to meet face to face. But it never happened. Tate appears to have been reaching toward Toomer, tentatively and vaguely, on behalf of the Fugitive enclave. Had they met, perhaps some good might have resulted, both to them and to him.

Between these two attempts to meet Toomer, Tate reviewed Cane for the Nashville Tennessean, saying that parts of it "challenge some of the best modern writing," and that he judged it "highly important for literature." It was a perceptive and prophetic reading of a timeless book.


September, 1968


Site maintained and sponsored by the African American Literature Book Club