Jean Toomer

Cover of Cane

Rank: A
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Fall, 1999

Author Name: Jean Toomer

Review: Man, Cane kind of knocked my socks off. At this point in my life (freshman year of college), if there was a book that was really good, I thought that I would have at least heard some mention of it somewhere—especially if the book was written by an American. Then my 20th century English literature professor assigned us Cane (a book I’d never heard of) by Jean Toomer (an author I’d never heard of). I read it, and was blown away.

Cane is high art, in whatever sense of the word I feel like giving it right now. The book was written in 1923 (when all those other famous books were being written) about the South, by a black author from the North, and was, I suppose, kind of harsh for its time (understatement). This (if I remember rightly) is why the book isn’t known very well today (well, that, and the fact that he turned to Russian mysticism, apparently. That probably wasn’t too popular in the 50s…). In 1952, when Invisible Man was published, the country was ready for it. In 1923, the country wasn’t ready for this.

Cane is three distinct “stories”, or fictional landscapes (each preceeded by a little geometric figure—high art, I tells ya’!), that are somewhat loosely connected. The first contains a rather terrifying recounting of a lynching, both vivid and descriptively rich. Somewhere in here is a story of a play, if I remember right (it’s the last part), and a scene of people getting high. Man, I don’t remember this book enough; need to read it again. But really, it’s not a plot-driven book. It’s kind of a fictional experiment that gives you a series of impressions that tell you something about what it’s like to be human in a particular time and circumstance. And it does so remarkably well.

So, why read this book? First, it started the Harlem Renaissance. There’s your socio-historical reason. Second, it’s short. There’s your “why not?” reason. Finally, the writing is just gooey with imagery. It’s (I forget if I’ve said this already) high art. High! Much of it reads like poetry (especially the parts that, well, are poems). It’s really quite extraordinary. I almost feel like starting to read it again right this very second. But I have to go to bed… Stupid world. When I wake up, I’ll probably forget all about it, and then…who knows? I may never read it again. But it was so good! No foolin’! Oh well. Someday I’ll be in a position to remember not to forget when I have the time.

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