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

Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy/De Agostini Picture Library/Bridgeman Images

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

Jean Toomer’s Cane was greeted in 1923 by influential critics as the brilliant beginning of a literary career. Many stressed the “authenticity” of Toomer’s African Americans and the lyrical voice with which he conjured them into being. His treatment of black characters contrasted starkly with both the stereotypes of earlier work by (mostly) white authors and the then current limitations of African-American problem fiction. As Montgomery Gregory pointed out for the new black magazine Opportunity, Toomer had avoided “the pitfalls of propaganda and moralizing on the one hand and the snares of a false and hollow race pride on the other hand.” Waldo Frank wrote, in the foreword to the book, “It is a harbinger of the South’s literary maturity: of its emergence from the obsession put upon its mind by the unending racial crisis—an obsession from which writers have made their indirect escape through sentimentalism, exoticism, polemic, ‘problem’ fiction, and moral melodrama. It marks the dawn of direct and unafraid creation.”        

The unusual features and effectiveness of Cane can be attributed to the fact that its author was in rapid transition, vocationally, geographically, socially, and intellectually, between different identities. His unsettled position derived from both a complicated personal history and the unusual cultural moment in which he emerged as an artist. Born just two years after his famous grandfather, P.B.S. Pinchback—a former governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction—had moved from a palatial home in New Orleans to a smaller, though fashionable, house in Washington, Toomer never really knew the father for whom he was originally named. His mother, Nina, gave birth to him just nine months after a wedding of which her father disapproved and then found herself abandoned when Nathan Pinchback Toomer (as Jean was first named) was only a year old. Nina moved back to her autocratic father’s home, on the condition that she change the boy’s surname to Pinchback and his first name to anything other than Nathan (her husband’s name). Eventually, the first name became Eugene, after a godfather; but friends called the boy “Pinchy.” His mother called him Eugene Toomer and his grandparents, Eugene Pinchback. Ambiguity of identity and a strong intuition of the arbitrary nature of social labels came early to Toomer.

After his mother’s 1906 remarriage, a move to a white neighborhood in New Rochelle on Long Island Sound, and then his mother’s death in 1909, Eugene returned at age fourteen with neither father nor mother to the Pinchback family in Washington, where his grandparents now lived in his uncle Bismarck’s home on Florida Avenue, in a mostly black neighborhood. He would later remember this milieu as one of a genuine distinction in culture, manners, and learning. Yet his family belonged to Washington’s “colored aristocracy,” a group that considered itself “above” most black people in manners and education. After graduating in 1910 from the famous, all-black M Street (later Dunbar) High School, he began consciously to think of himself as neither black nor white—or both black and white, belonging to both worlds and yet, because of that, removed from each.

Toomer entered an agricultural program at the University of Wisconsin—where he was apparently taken by many for a Native American—but dropped out after only a year. His interest in modern scientific agriculture and agricultural technology, joined with what he later learned from Marxist sources, informs his notion of the transformation of the rural South that pervades Cane. The “cane” of the book is that of sorghum, a plant brought from Africa during the slave trade. Throughout the southeastern United States, the cane-stalks of sorghum were crushed for their sap, which was then boiled to make molasses, the chief sweetener in southern homes. Sorghum molasses, moreover, was a key ingredient for “moonshine” whiskey in the early twentieth century. Yet, in the 1920s and 1930s, it was being replaced by cane sugar as new roads integrated the Southern countryside into larger national and international economic networks, networks that helped carry moonshine north via “bootleggers in silken shirts,” to quote from the opening of the second section of Toomer’s book.

In January 1916, Toomer entered the American College of Physical Training in Chicago. Fellow student Meridel Le Sueur, later a famous left-wing poet, would remember Toomer as “reserved, isolated, perceived as an Indian by the rest of the students.” A boxing instructor introduced him to socialism, and he began attending lectures by the famous left-wing lawyer Clarence Darrow and others on naturalism, atheism, and social radicalism. These overturned his prior notions of the world, and he began seeking a comprehensive theory of contemporary reality. He enrolled at the University of Chicago but dropped out after only a few months. Returning East, he took a sociology course at New York University’s summer school, then studied history at City College while he stayed with his uncle Walter. World War I broke out and he went back to Chicago, where he sold Ford automobiles and began writing while reading Bernard Shaw. Then he took a short-term job as a substitute physical education director in Milwaukee. The story “Bona and Paul,” the first of the pieces that would later make up Cane, may well have been drafted at this time. 


After returning to Washington with neither a job nor a vocational plan, Toomer once again moved to New York to take a clerk’s post with a grocery firm. He attended lectures at the left-wing Rand School and there met radical writers associated with journals such as The Liberator, where he would soon begin submitting his work, and the New York Call, a voice of the Socialist Party of America, where he placed two pieces, his first appearance in print.

About the same time, influenced by Romain Rolland’s novel Jean-Christophe (which featured a composer-prophet fusing German and French “spiritual” inheritances into pan-European music), he decided to become a composer and took a second job as a physical education director in a settlement house to pay for music lessons and piano rental. He adopted the name “Jean,” inspired by Rolland’s hero and Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean. 

In his later autobiographical manuscripts, Toomer played down the extent of his interest in socialism. His pieces for the Call clearly reveal, however, that he had found in Marxist theory a compelling framework for understanding racial as well as class exploitation. The socialist strain remains evident in references within Cane to “powerful underground races” threatening the foundation of bourgeois Washington. In a letter to his publisher while Cane was in press, Toomer described a new book project about “this whole black and brown world heaving upward against, here and there mixing with the white. The mixture, however, is insufficient to absorb the heaving, hence it but accelerates and fires it. This upward heaving is to be symbolic of the proletariat or world upheaval. And it is likewise to be symbolic of the subconscious penetration of the conscious mind.”  

Even in the late 1920s, Toomer would write of how existing economic, political, and social systems formed the ground of racial division and exploitation. He turned increasingly to psychological and spiritual exploration, guided in part by a theory about the emergence of a new “American” race, of which he considered himself the first conscious member. Spiritual and psychological transformation, Toomer believed, would be the first step toward social reconstruction. Maybe a radically experimental literature could inspire this step.

Between 1919 and 1929, political conservatism and reaction had driven many left-wing artists to cultural radicalism, psychological and “spiritual” programs to transform society. Waldo Frank, already an important voice on the left, published Our America just as Toomer’s first pieces appeared in the Call, complementing the direction in which Toomer was moving. Believing that “Puritan” and “pioneer” traditions had prevented the emergence of a genuine American culture, Frank argued that the United States had no rooted peasant traditions out of which a national art might develop. Anglo-Americans had never put down roots in the continent, and the cultures of the Indian and Mexican had succumbed to white, industrial civilization. Industrialism and materialism rendered the nation a cultural and spiritual wasteland. Yet Frank believed the “spiritual pioneers” of the rising generation would move beyond naturalism and critical realism to a fusion of the revolutionist and the artist-prophet in the “bringer of a new religion.”

Like most white intellectuals of the time, Frank failed to take any notice of African-American culture, as Toomer would point out to him in 1922. W.E.B. Du Bois had proclaimed as early as 1903 that black Americans offered the only indigenous spirituality, the only folk song and simple reverence, the only genuine “culture” in a “dusty desert of dollars and smartness.” Just as he tended later in life to downplay the influence of socialism on his thinking, Toomer covered up much of his apparent indebtedness to African-American thought in his early intellectual development. He clearly had read Du Bois, for example. The controversy between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington (who had occasionally stayed at the Pinchback home) would surely have been a topic of conversation within his family, and the way in which he imagined African-American culture transforming Frank’s cultural nationalist program seems to owe much to The Souls of Black Folk. Alain Locke, a philosophy professor at Howard University, knew Toomer by at least 1919 and acted as an early adviser. He may have been the first person with whom Toomer shared some of the pieces that went into Cane


The poet Georgia Douglas Johnson was also an important contact and source of moral support before Toomer had connected with white modernists. She expressed approval for how much he had “improved” through his contact with New York intellectuals. Toomer directed study sessions at Johnson’s home on the history of slavery, the social and economic forces behind racial ideology, and the position of the “mixed race group” in the United States. At about this time, Johnson wrote her own poems of the “new race” that would appear in the climactic section of her book Bronze. The sessions initiated by Toomer apparently formed the beginning of her regular “Saturday Nighters”—meetings of black writers and intellectuals interested in contemporary issues and literature. These helped incubate what came to be called the “Negro Renaissance.” Thus Toomer drew on two different communities of thinking, roughly centered in black Washington and Greenwich Village, in the years immediately preceding Cane.

Through his grandfather’s contacts, Toomer accepted a short-term position as substitute principal of Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute, beginning in September 1921. Located a mile or so outside of Sparta (the “Sempter” of Cane) in east central Georgia, the school trained young black men and women chiefly for jobs in agriculture and light industry. Toomer spent only two months there before the principal returned, but the experience was pivotal. It exposed him for the first time to southern folk music in its native setting. Yet that black townspeople disdained the music as “shouting” only confirmed his belief that the folk culture would soon die out in the “modern desert.” He wished to preserve it while there was still time. The experience in Sparta unleashed a steady creative surge.   

Toomer took a second trip to the South with Waldo Frank, who, though Jewish, “passed” as black so that they could travel and eat together while feeling the pressure of segregation, as Frank worked on the novel Holiday; the two men began thinking of their books as interrelated efforts to bring the South to artistic fruition. Upon returning to Washington, Toomer took a job for two weeks as assistant manager at the Howard Theater, a popular black-managed theater in the heart of what later became known as Washington’s “Little Harlem,” where African-American revues destined for fame in New York held trial runs. This experience inspired “Theater” and “Box Seat.” Toomer remained in contact with Alain Locke, who helped him place “Song of the Son” in The Crisis, which was the official magazine of the NAACP. Thereafter, other pieces from what is now Cane began appearing in “little magazines” associated with left-wing politics and the modernist avant-garde.

Toomer had read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and The Triumph of the Egg and Other Stories just before going to Sparta and asserted that these books had nourished his artistic response to the folk life there. His sketches owed much to Anderson’s method of de-emphasizing plot and developing instead a “lyric fiction,” using repetition and refrain to structure the work. 

Like Winesburg, the first and last sections of Cane (which Toomer initially planned to form the whole of the book) presented a series of semi-independent stories or sketches, focusing on different characters, all set in the same locale. A sense of spiritual and emotional frustration, failure of basic communication between individuals, repression of “natural” energies, suffuse the book. They reveal the “chaos” of contemporary American life and the need for a spiritual awakening, a bursting of unconscious forces through the crust of worn-out traditions. In Cane, these forces are distinctly black and politically volatile.

Toomer aspired to go beyond Anderson and Frank, moreover, in response to the forces of industrialization and modern technology. The introduction of the machine, he believed, had destroyed humanity’s balance with Nature, creating spiritual conflicts to which artists had responded either by rejecting “the Machine” and suggesting back-to-nature programs or by accepting the machine as a necessary evil and creating aesthetic “counter-forms” against its destructive features.

He aspired to a “classic American prose,” a fusion of heterogeneous rhythms, words, and forms of pronunciation currently differentiated into conflicting racial and class dialects. Like jazz, slang and colloquialisms kept pace with the introduction of new forces into society; literary artists should do no less. Hence Kabnis’s tortured attempt to find words to “feed his soul”—his need to create “golden words” to transmute the terrors of southern history into aesthetic value and spiritual awakening is Jean Toomer’s as he worked toward his own voice under the pressure of southern life. But “Kabnis” ends before its central character achieves what Toomer and Waldo Frank would call “fusion.” Toomer intended “Kabnis” as the dramatization of a phase from which both he and the United States were about to emerge. Thus he ends the book on a note of uncertainty and transition—rather than resolution and achieved “identity” in either comic or tragic mode.

Cane, while a critical success, sold well below 1,000 copies, and Toomer never composed the books he had planned and described to Liveright as Cane was in press. He had come to believe that the literary vocation in its current state was part of the problem of modernity rather than a solution. The artist must learn to unify himself before attempting to provide a new vision for society. Toomer turned to G.I. Gurdjieff’s program “The Harmonious Development of Man,” which had much in common with beliefs Toomer already held about the need for a balance of intellectual, emotional, and instinctual aspects of the self. (He was not alone: many other writers and artists took the same direction at this time.) His disaffection with the literary seems intimately intertwined with a sense of his failure to free words from limiting forms of consciousness and social institutions—including the institution of race.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Jean Toomer, 1934; click to enlarge

The drama surrounding the publication of Cane epitomizes the fact that no person considered “Negro,” according to the one-drop rule of the United States, could get a hearing except under the sign of blackness, even if they did not consider themselves black. Horace Liveright probably was interested in the book partly because it was by someone he considered black. He considered the “race” of the author crucial to marketing Cane. Toomer objected, and Liveright (who was Jewish) then expressed wonder that he would wish to “dodge” the fact of his racial identity, infuriating the author. Nonetheless, washing his hands of the advertising program, Toomer explicitly allowed Liveright to “feature Negro” if he wished, while insisting that any representation of the book to reviewers and the like and anything purporting to reflect Toomer’s own views must not refer to him as a Negro but reflect his own “fundamental position”: “My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine… I expect and demand acceptance of myself on their basis. I do not expect to be told what I should consider myself to be.”

He had made that position known to the head of the Associated Negro Press well before Cane’s publication. Responding to Claude Barnett’s inquiry about his racial identity, Toomer replied, “The true and complete answer is one of some complexity, and for this reason perhaps it will not be seen and accepted until after I am dead… The answer involves a realistic and accurate knowledge of racial mixture, of nationality as formed by the interaction of tradition, culture, and environment, of the artistic nature in its relation to the racial or social group, etc. All of which of course is too heavy and thick to go into now. Let me state then, simply, that I am the grandson of the late P.B.S. Pinchback. From this fact it is clear that… I have ‘peeped behind the veil.’ And my deepest impulse to literature (on the side of material) is the direct result of what I saw.” Contrary to some later narratives, 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.”

Being identified as a Negro author would not only violate Toomer’s philosophy and personal self-conception but would also lead people to interpret his work entirely in relation to issues of racial identity, as “Negro literature.” He fully realized that his self-definition would lead many people to the same conclusion as Liveright—that he was “dodging” his racial identity. Many of Toomer’s black readers and white friends already thought of him as a Negro, knew his family as a Negro family, and would not have understood his self-description any more than Horace Liveright did. He neither cut off such friends nor avoided other African Americans. Quite the contrary, in addition to starting a “Gurdjieff group” composed mostly of African-American artists and friends, he continued to have black friends visit him in Greenwich Village.

In 1925, Toomer gave a lecture at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, then the intellectual hub of black Harlem, “Towards Reality,” in which he greeted the budding Negro Renaissance as “evidence of a two-fold fact, the fact that the Negro is in the process of discovering himself, and of being discovered” by the culturally aware members of the white world. “I would be receptive of his reality as it emerges,” he concluded, “(being active only by way of aid to this emergence), assured that in proportion as he discovers what is real within him, he will create, and by that act create at once himself and contribute his value to America.” This was hardly the act of a black man attempting to “pass” as white. The black Harlem newspapers reported on the event to a readership that thought of Toomer as a Negro. The white editor John Farrar, who also thought of Toomer as a Negro, reported on the event for the Bookman, finding the lecture a bit too “abstruse.”

Alas, it was one thing for Toomer to work out a position in his own mind and to share it with his friends. It was quite another to project his concept into “this American world in which, as I had come to realize more and more, there was this fixed view that in this country a person must be either black or white.” When faced with official government forms, which did not allow for his self-identity, he would identify himself or be identified as alternately “Negro” or “White,” but this did not signal the adequacy of such labels. As Allyson Hobbs has argued in an award-winning history of passing in the United States, Toomer was not “confused, racially misidentified, or frustrated with the limits of language, but rather struggling to convey a holistic understanding” in a society that would not, and still cannot, accept that understanding.

None of Toomer’s seeming compromises about letting people come to their own conclusions about his racial identity contradicts his commitment, however utopian, to the idea of a “new race.” Cane is full of inarticulate members of this new group of “Americans” (both “black” and “white”) who have yet to become “conscious” of themselves, in Toomer’s phrasing. Violation of the color line provokes ostracism or death for others, as Americans resist the “merging,” haunted by wraiths of the past and established socio-economic structures. This feature of his book remained illegible to critics for over half a century.

Americans were not going in Toomer’s direction. Indeed, the great irony of Toomer’s career is that modern American racial discourse—with an absolute polarity between “white” and “black” at its center—took its most definite shape precisely during the course of his life. The United States would be more segregated at the time of Toomer’s death than it had been at the time of his birth, despite the dismantling of some of the legal bulwarks of white supremacy. The “mulatto” designation disappeared from the US Census in 1920. Only in 2000 could people choose to mark more than one racial “box” on the census forms. Toomer probably would have found even this misguided.

It is a sign of the fundamentally segregated nature of American society that Cane could only be understood as a “black” text and in relation to African-American identity. Toomer’s connection with the Harlem Renaissance largely accounts for the availability of his work today. Georgia O’Keefe (with whom Toomer had had an affair in the 1920s) and Toomer’s former white roommate at the University of Wisconsin wanted to bring it out in the 1950s, when Toomer also renewed his copyright, but only after he died was the book reissued, in the context of the “black aesthetic.” Interest in African-American literature, and the Harlem Renaissance in particular, brought Cane back to public attention—and into print—some forty years after its second small printing.

It must be allowed that Toomer would be upset; it must also be allowed that this connection is not inappropriate. Not only was Cane a tremendous influence upon the Harlem Renaissance and later African-American writing, it was produced by the same confluence of institutions and even individuals that helped produce the Harlem Renaissance. But while it is entirely fitting to read Cane in the context of African-American literary tradition, it is just as important to recognize that Cane can be read in relation to other traditions and movements. Indeed, it is precisely the liminality—and mobility—of Toomer’s “identity” in a society obsessed with clarity on this score that motivated the restless searching through which Cane came about, through which Toomer left it behind, and without which there could be no book like it.

This essay is adapted from the author’s introduction to Cane, by Jean Toomer, which is republished by Penguin Classics on January 8.

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