George Hutchinson is a Newton C. Farr Professor of American Culture at Cornell University. He is the author of In Search of Nella Larsen, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White, and Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s. Most recently he brought to light Anita Thompson Reynolds’ memoir, American Cocktail: A ‘Colored Girl’ in the World. He also edited The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. (December 2018)

NYR DAILY

Jean Toomer’s ‘Cane’ and the Ambiguity of Identity

A drawing of a sugar cane field in South Carolina, by Edouard Riou, late nineteenth century

Contrary to some later narratives, Jean Toomer was not attempting to “pass” as white. He would adhere to his own self-understanding while allowing others to make of him what they would. He considered himself the first conscious member of a “new race” coming into existence in the United States, and Cane itself attests pervasively to this idea, in that it presents a cycle of history coming to a close, awaiting the birth of a new one. Cane, he famously insisted, was a “swan song.”