This is a collection of related stories, sketches, poems, and a one-act play by Jean Toomer, a little-known writer of the Harlem Renaissance. The book is divided into three sections. The first part of the book is a series of stories that portray the lives of poor black women in rural Georgia. They deal with such subjects as infanticide ("Karintha"), miscegenation ("Becky"), hysteria ("Carma"), lynching ("Blood-Burning Moon"), and religious mysticism ("Fern" and "Esther"). Taken together, these stories portray an intuitive, violent, spontaneous, and pre-rational culture.

The second part of Cane takes place in Washington, DC, where Toomer depicts the life of urban black Americans in the early 1920's. Here we encounter the conflict between rationalism, as represented by the well-educated "intellectuals," and traditional lifestyle and morality. The best stories in this section include, "Avey," "Theater," and "Box Seat."

The last section is a one-act play ("Kabnis") about two urban black writers attempting to establish a contemporary "Negro identity" in light of the repression and suffering of their people. One is overwhelmed by negativity and a sense of victimization, while the other man believes that the past can be transcended, especially through the power of art.


This collection was published in 1923, sold 500 copies, and then disappeared, until it was re-discovered in 1969 (two years after the author's death) as a "classic" of the Harlem Renaissance. Jean Toomer, who should probably be considered primarily a poet, was born and raised in Washington, D.C., embarked upon a writing career in New York, and then became an active proponent of Gurdjieff's system of spiritual self-development. The remainder of his life was characterized by a quest for emotional and spiritual advancement, but was largely dissociated from his identity as a black American. He published little, although he continued writing throughout his life.

While Cane is a powerful and eloquent expression of African-American culture, Jean Toomer was ambivalent about his black identity. (His father was Caucasian, and he was very light complexioned.) His personal quest was universalistic, rather than particularistic, and he spent the last years of his life living quietly as a member of the Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Quaker community.

The best of these stories (listed above) present vivid portraits of rural and urban African-American life in the early 20th century and, in some cases, depict extreme behavior, such as infanticide and lynching.


First published 1923. Introduction by Arna Bontemps.


Harper & Row

Place Published

New York



Page Count