Image: Cane (Penguin Random House

Publisher Synopsis: Jean Toomer’s Cane is one of the most significant works to come out of the Harlem Renaissance, and is considered to be a masterpiece in American modernist literature because of its distinct structure and style. First published in 1923 and told through a series of vignettes, Cane uses poetry, prose, and play-like dialogue to create a window into the varied lives of African Americans living in the rural South and urban North during a time when Jim Crow laws pervaded and racism reigned. While critically acclaimed and known today as a pioneering text of the Harlem Renaissance, the book did not gain as much popularity as other works written during the period. Fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes believed Cane‘s lack of a wider readership was because it didn’t reinforce the stereotypes often associated with African Americans during the time, but portrayed them in an accurate and entirely human way, breaking the mold and laying the groundwork for how African Americans are depicted in literature.

Jean Toomer was a complex man to say the least. Today, he’d likely be canceled for his desire to not be seen racially as a black man, but as an American, potentially even passing for white at times (this is in dispute). Yet and still, he wrote an enduring classic of black literature with Cane, a lesser known but critically acclaimed work coming out of the Harlem Renaissance period. Seriously, many of the writers associated with that period, even those like Toomer who didn’t necessarily even want to be, are aggressively fascinating individuals. Artists, fam.

Cane, itself, is an interesting book in its presentation. It’s not written in any traditional sense but rather various styles that tell a story of both the south and north (Toomer is from Washington, DC, so it plays prominently). I can’t pretend to have loved it when I first read it, but as I became a writer and made attempts to revisit works for study, especially Renaissance writers, I found myself appreciating how experimental the book is in structure and storytelling. Nothing Toomer wrote after rose to the level of Cane, but that’s okay because this one book took the weight and it still stands as a work worthy of checking even if it is unfamiliar to you. Though not without its detractors, most writers laud it for helping push the envelopes of their own writing. Controversial artist who crafts seminal work(s) who hates being boxed in?

Somebody hand Kanye a copy of Cane.

Cane (1923) by Jean Toomer