Jean Toomer’s Cane at 100: the 'everlasting song' that defined the Harlem Renaissance

Renowned for its experimental style and provocative depictions of 20th century US race relations, Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) remains the great enigma of African American literary modernism.

The novel interweaves the stories of multiple characters’ lives in southern and northern communities during the post-slavery “Jim Crow” era. It both reflected and was the product of the extraordinary cultural transformations that occurred as millions of African Americans migrated from the deep south to northern cities such as New York, an exodus later called the Great Migration.

Cane would play a crucial role in shaping the artistic ethos of the Harlem Renaissance (c.1919–1936), the cultural revolution that resulted from that south-to-north traffic.

Toomer had lived among urban and rural Black, white and Jewish communities in Georgia, Washington DC, New York, and elsewhere. He felt compelled to write about his diverse experiences after he revisited the deep south in 1922.

In a mesmeric fusion of avant-garde prose, poetry and drama, Cane foregrounded the perspectives of poor Black southerners, describing the disintegrating psychological effects of segregation, gender inequity and class struggle, in a region where the nation’s traumatic past was palpably present, where life and death overlapped, and the living communed daily with the dead through oral history, folklore, songs and spiritual rites.

Many felt Toomer had inaugurated a durable modern African American literary tradition. Yet he refused to be labelled a “Negro writer”, citing his mixed African, European, and Native American ancestry. He later distanced himself from Cane and the movement it represented, contributing to the novel’s historical neglect and shrouding its elusive author in mystery.

Split-gut, tortured, twisted words

Although Cane is considered a novel, it is not the kind with a straightforward narrative that can be easily summarised. Toomer sought a radically new approach to form, one that synthesised the fragmentary elements of modernity in a way that satisfied the imagination.

He conceived of Cane not as a single tale, but a continuous “circle” or spiritual cycle of disparate stories, verses and images. The book’s three sections consider regional differences between north and south, respectively examining the southern experience after Reconstruction, the southerner’s experience in the urban north, and the northerner’s experience in the rural south. Instead of focusing on a single protagonist, Cane has polyphony as its organising principle: multiple overlapping voices are woven together like a fugue.

Distorted, nonlinear, fractured, but yearning for a pure “deep-rooted” past before industrial society and mass culture: the innovations of modernist literature mirrored an unevenly modernising world filled with disorienting incongruities, where scenes of fast-paced urban life collided with slower-paced rural vistas.

Toomer was influenced by the modernist avant-garde in Greenwich Village, where he met the novelists Waldo Frank and Sherwood Anderson, two social realist authors who influenced his ideas about what modern literature could depict.

Cane also reflected the scientific, philosophic, artistic, and political ideas of the day. Toomer was influenced by socialist politics and psychoanalysis, particularly Sigmund Freud’s notion that our dreams are symbolic means of processing repressed experiences. And he was drawn to the mystic philosopher George Gurdjieff, who believed that we do not possess a unified consciousness and require spiritual guidance to overcome our inner fragmentation.

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Oracular impressionism

Toomer’s style is a form of impressionism: image-driven writing that, in the words of Joseph Conrad, uses the “the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel […] to make you see”.

Deriving from the Latin orare (to pray/chant), the adjective oracular refers to a cryptic spiritual utterance. Cane’s epigraph introduces us to the book’s “oracular” system of meaning:

Redolent of fermenting syrup,
Purple of the dusk,
Deep-rooted cane.

The poet takes a simple object: a sugarcane plant. Instead of looking at the whole object, he breaks it down into abstract parts and associations: we smell boiling sugar, see purple stalks the colour of sunset, recognise the deep secrets of the plant’s vast root system.

Jean Toomer – Winold Reiss (c.1925) Public domain
Jean Toomer – Winold Reiss (c.1925) Public domain

Cane is therefore highly symbolic, like an oracle’s message. Breaking it down into its parts opens our senses to new ways of viewing the reassembled whole. The epigraph offers a lesson in interpretation, and a method for approaching Cane itself, as a dense “syrup” of seemingly disconnected forms and parts.

The title has another association – namely Cain, Adam’s exiled son in the Book of Genesis, the murderer of his brother Abel. Cane is Toomer’s metaphor for the repressed trauma in the nation’s psyche, hidden in southern fields: the heartland of slavery and the site of the nation’s moral Fall.

Set in Sempter, Georgia – a fictionalised depiction of Sparta, where Toomer had worked in a segregated school – Section One consists of prose portraits of rural women interspersed with symbolic poems that examine interracial tensions, sexual violence and social estrangement.

Many unspeakable secrets and faded memories haunt Sempter’s fields. The stories teem with mysteries and disembodied sounds. One portrait, “Becky”, tells of the deceased white mother of two fatherless “Negro sons”, who was ostracised from her community. Now her unresting soul murmurs in the pinetrees. Another vignette, “Fern”, has a male narrator who rationalises his violation of a woman in a canefield.

Toomer’s distinctive style twists and distorts pastoral imagery, rural vernacular, folk songs and local lore, making them feel new and modern. One way he achieves this is with truncated sentences. Words and images are juxtaposed without conjunctions (the technical term is parataxis). Clipped sentences stun. Tighten. Wound. “Blood Burning Moon”, for example, is the story of Louise and her Black lover Tom, a man accused of killing a white rival. Its staccato sentences create a chilling sense of urgency as the victim is apprehended by a lynch mob:

Drag him to the factory. Wood and stakes already there. Tom moved in the direction indicated. But they had to drag him. […] Too many to get in there. The mob divided and flowed around the walls to either side. […] Taut humming. No words.

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Jazzed, strident, modern

Largely set in Washington DC – where Toomer was educated – the second section of Cane explores the Great Migration, focusing on southern Black men residing in vibrant but spiritually isolating northern cities.

Toomer adopts a new polyrhythmic, blues style to mirror their “jazzed, strident, modern” and “crude new life”. Pastoral metaphors are supplanted by mechanical, urban ones. In the free-verse poem “Her Lips Are Copper Wire”, for example, electrical wire becomes a metaphor for sexual desire.

The stories focus on men’s mixed feelings about the prospects and inequalities of northern life. Some distract themselves from the systemic racism with jazz and theatre; others reroute their feelings into violent outbursts and bootleg liquor. Presiding over these scenes of misdirected rage, broken dreams and unrequited desire is the US Capitol building, described as a “gray ghost ship”: a foreboding reminder of the unhealed wounds of the nation’s slave past.

The book’s poems, many resembling slave spirituals or blues songs, temper its more confronting elements. In Song of the Son, the earth trembles with the ancestral vibrations of a “song-lit race of slaves” on whom the sun “has not set”. Although the tree that nurtured their memory has but one plum left, the son (the poet) plucks the last seed from its withering branches to cultivate

An everlasting song, a singing tree,
Caroling softly souls of slavery,
What they were, and what they are to me,
Caroling softly souls of slavery.

The poem questions the modern poet’s relationship to Black folk traditions and the transmission of history, finding that literature must guard these songs against modernisation, which Toomer felt was resulting in the decline of folk forms. He perceptively regarded folk songs as the foundation of a durable African American cultural tradition. Spirituals were an unbreakable conduit between the ancestors (the slaves) to the son (the poet of modernity), in whose memory the slaves’ souls are resurrected.

The artist’s role in modern society – a classic modernist theme – comes under scrutiny again in Cane’s final section, a 35-page drama entitled “Kabnis”. Ralph Kabnis, an intelligent but troubled northern teacher, transfers to Georgia, where he feels disconnected, despite his ancestral roots there. He is a flawed artist type, who wants to turn words into a source of redemption, but he finds only chaos, disorder and hypocrisy:

Bad rhyme. Bad poet […] Th form thats burned int my soul is some twisted awful thing that crept in from a dream, a godam nightmare, and wont stay still unless I feed it. An it lives on words. Not beautiful words. […] Misshapen, split-gut, tortured, twisted words. […] This whole damn bloated purple country feeds it cause its goin down t hell in a holy avalanche of words.

The deluge brings Kabnis to the brink of self-destruction. He almost insults a white man, drowns himself in bootleg moonshine, engages in seduction.

Toomer nevertheless believed in the potential of the words and poetry to restore a fractured nation by bringing its people into more sympathetic relations. Such is the power of art. This is one reason why Cane’s final lines ironically shift focus from a disillusioned Kabnis to uplifting images of dawn breaking outside his window. Symbolising renewal, the sun – a “Gold-glowing child” – climbs “into the sky and sends a birth-song slanting down gray dust streets and sleepy windows of the southern town”.

Jean Toomer’s passport (1926). Wikimedia Commons
Jean Toomer’s passport (1926). Wikimedia Commons

Ambivalent race politics

Cane’s modernist form created an ideal framework for observing its protean era. It was written after 1919, a summer of nationwide riots, in which Black communities defended themselves against mobs emboldened by the white nationalist 100 Percent American Movement, a revived Ku Klux Klan, and President Woodrow Wilson’s refusal to condemn white terrorism. The NAACP reported that 3,446 African Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968, mostly in the south.

Many looked to the leadership of W.E.B. Du Bois, co-founder of the NAACP and influential editor of the African American broadsheet The Crisis (which published “Song of the Son” in 1922). Du Bois held that, in addition to protests and lobbying, culture must redress racist perceptions of African American inferiority and increase public awareness of issues such as lynching.

As a cultural and political movement, the Harlem Renaissance emphasised racial pride, intellectual and artistic excellence, and cultural modernisation, but it also encouraged attentiveness to folk traditions and art as activism.

Cane exemplified these criteria. It was hailed as the movement’s definitive work, inspiring a young generation of African American writers, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

Langston Hughes (1936) – Carl Van Vechten. Public domain
Langston Hughes (1936) – Carl Van Vechten. Public domain

Unlike most protest literature, however, Cane never announces its author’s anti-racist views. It shows rather than tells. Published the year the Senate blocked the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill (it took another 100 years for a federal anti-lynching law to pass), Cane addresses that issue in moments such as Kabnis’s discovery of Sempter’s worst-kept secret: the story of an unborn child torn from its mother’s abdomen by a mob.

Cane turned real events into the subject of serious art, ensuring they had a lasting impact on the nation’s conscience, but Toomer found the label “race-writer” too limiting. In 1923, U.S. literary production was as segregated as any southern restroom, but some white publishers capitalised on the vogue for African American culture among young consumers, concentrated in cities like New York.

Toomer’s publisher, Boni & Liveright, which had published the American edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), wanted to market Cane as a work of “Negro” modernism. “My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine,” Toomer protested.

After Horace Liveright insinuated that Toomer was passing as white, Toomer doubled down, refusing Cane’s inclusion in many African American anthologies that materialised between 1923 and 1930, though his former mentor Alain Locke reprinted sections anyway in his definitive anthology The New Negro (1925). This drove Toomer further into isolation.

Zora Neale Hurston (1938) – Carl Van Vechten. Public domain
Zora Neale Hurston (1938) – Carl Van Vechten. Public domain

Toomer was protesting an insidious discourse of race governed by pseudo-scientific taxonomies, rather than cultural or ethnic affinities. This discourse had prevailed in the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy vs Ferguson, which sanctioned segregation. Denying Homer Plessy’s constitutional right to travel in a “whites-only” train carriage in Louisiana, the court ruled that the 14th Amendment’s provision of equal protection under the law was not “intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling”.

The justices calculated “the proportion of colored blood necessary to constitute a colored person”, defining Plessy as “seven-eights Caucasian”, but they decided this was ultimately the states’ right to codify. Michigan considered “that the predominance of white blood” must be “three fourths”. In Ohio, “any visible admixture of black blood stamps the person”. Many southern states, including Louisiana, enforced the severe one-drop rule, measuring Blackness as “one drop” or more of “black blood.”

The result of this irrational discourse was that Toomer was considered legally Black in Louisiana, white in Michigan, possibly either in Ohio. His draft registration listed him as Black, the census as white. Pressured to write as either/or, an exasperated Toomer chose another option: neither/nor. “I am American,” he declared, “neither black nor white, rejecting these divisions, accepting people as people.”

Toomer’s evasions confused many. He still puzzles scholars. Those who expected him to continue writing about African American life were disappointed. Though he wrote prolifically until his death in 1967, publishers now considered him unprofitable. After the dissolution of the Harlem Renaissance circa 1936, the name Jean Toomer receded into anonymity and Cane faded with it.

Since 1967, however, when Black Arts Movement activists rediscovered Cane, critics have hailed Toomer’s novel as a significant intervention. His “everlasting song” has resonated long after the Harlem Renaissance. Cane profoundly influenced later African American writers, including James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. As a pioneering work of southern psychological realism, it also paved the way for William Faulkner.

For a book that defined its era, Cane feels equally at home in our time. Its confronting vision of US history’s open wounds has ensured its continued relevance in the age of #BlackLivesMatter. A century after its publication, it remains a visionary masterpiece that offers new ways of relating to the past and rethinking the politics of identity in the present.

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This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Tamlyn Avery, The University of Queensland.

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Tamlyn Avery does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.