Cane’s importance as a literary work is distinct from, although closely connected to, its role marking the start of the Harlem Renaissance. Primarily a poet before he wrote Cane, Jean Toomer included a large amount of poetry in the book, which is not a conventional novel, and also infused the prose work with poetic sensibilities and included a play. In 1923, when Cane was published, Toomer was far from the only black writer who had been working in New York, but the ambition of his undertaking and his flamboyant virtuosity of this singular work made a splash when it came out.
The “cane” of the title is the sugar cane produced in the US South. The life of the sharecroppers who work cane grew out of the nineteenth-century plantation system, especially the land and labor patterns that replaced slavery after the Civil War. The book deals with the complexities of race in a number of different settings. About two-thirds of the book takes place in the South and the other third in New York and Washington, D.C. In contrast to the rural settings and ways of life, the urban sections focus on those in creative fields such as theater.
Rather than offer a linear narrative featuring a few key protagonists, Toomer showcases the lives of numerous, distinct individuals in the various vignettes of the play. Most, but not all, of the main characters are African American and female, but Toomer also presents stories of white women who have relationships with black men, and a black woman who marries a white, Jewish man. Fire features prominently in many stories, including horrifying scenes of people being burned. Writing in an age of widespread segregation, Toomer shows how the color line worked in the North and the South, exposing the contradictions behind people’s decisions about racial identity, including passing as white.
When the book was published, Toomer’s star ascended and burned bright. Both black and white critics and fellow authors lavished praise on Cane, citing its brilliance and originality. The attention of W.E.B. Du Bois was crucial in positioning it at the start of a new era of black literature, which soon was labeled the Harlem Renaissance. Most critics predicted a great future for him, which did not materialize. Toomer’s discomfort with being, as he saw it, pigeonholed as a black writer and rejected because of his black racial identity ultimately led him away from writing.