Largely ignored upon its initial publication in 1923, Jean Toomer’s Cane is now regarded as a precursor of the Harlem Renaissance and a masterpiece of modernist American literature.
Some have called Cane a prose poem, but it truly defies classification. Toomer weaves together short stories, poetry, and drama to sketch a provocative and haunting portrait of (mostly) southern African American life that is a deep and rich as the cane fields that feature prominently in the book.
Born in Washington, DC, the grandson of a former governor of Louisiana, Toomer attended schools in Wisconsin, Chicago, and New York. He began writing some of the pieces that make up Cane as early as 1918, but it was a stint as principal of a black agricultural institute in Sparta, Georgia, in 1921-22 that inspired his greatest work.
After publishing Cane, Toomer would never publish anything like it again—no one has. He died shortly before Cane was “rediscovered” in the late 1960s. After being out of print for four decades, Cane finally began receiving the attention that it deserved. Alice Walker has said of Cane “I love it passionately” and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has written that “Cane is arguably the most sophisticated work of literature created over the course of the Harlem Renaissance.”