Jean Toomer is a phantom of the Harlem Renaissance. Pick up any general study of the literature written by Afro-Americans and there is the name of Jean Toomer. In biographies and memoirs of Harlem Renaissance figures, his name is invoked as if he had been one of the sights along Lenox Avenue. Toomer’s name appears in unexpected places too—among the editors and contributors of New Masses (May 1926); in America & Alfred Stieglitz (1934); in a recent biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. He is present in the letters of the young Hart Crane. Toomer, who sometimes denied he was a Negro, belongs as much to the downtown avant-garde scene of the Twenties as he does to the Negro Awakening.
Toomer’s one commercially published work, Cane, was a stunning critical success when it appeared in 1923. Few other works in Afro-American literature—one thinks of Native Son and Invisible Man—have inspired equal reverence. Sherwood Anderson and Waldo Frank wrote rhapsodically of Toomer’s achievement. Langston Hughes has described how young writers in Harlem studied the text. Yet the book sold fewer than 500 copies when it was first issued, and Toomer was unable to find a publisher for his eccentric writings after Cane. When he later disclaimed Afro-American culture, this repudiation—rather than the refusal of publishers to print his later work—was thought by many to be the cause of his “silence,” his disappearance from the literary world. In any event, when Toomer died in a nursing home near Philadelphia in 1967 at the age of seventy-three, his name was largely forgotten.
Cane was inspired by Toomer’s first experience in the deep South. Born and reared in Washington, Toomer was offered a job as acting principal at an agricultural college and traveled to Sparta, Georgia, in 1921. There he heard the spirituals, observed the folkways of rural black life. The intense feelings that pervade Cane derive from this experience. Indeed many of the stories, poems, and sketches that comprise this extraordinary work were written on the train home to Washington three months later.
Opaque and lyrical, Cane was much influenced by the imagists. It is divided in three sections. The first consists of sketches of five black women and one white woman in Georgia. Isolated, suffering from impossible longings, doomed to live out their disappointments in men, or sustained by withdrawal, by sullen defiance—these characters, and their circumstances, are made vivid in a few, sudden strokes. “Men always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.” Karintha grows up, men still pursue her. “She has contempt for them.” The characters are not full in the usual sense. Toomer is more interested in the drift of feelings, in elevated portraits of common events. “Becky was the white woman who had two Negro sons. She’s dead; they’ve gone away. The pines whisper to Jesus. The Bible flaps its leaves with an aimless rustle on …