Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Cane was published to favorable reviews in 1923, but only about five hundred copies were sold that year, and not until 1927 was a small second printing made. The novel soon went out of print and was largely forgotten. Not until the 1960’s did Cane again attract attention. A hardcover reprint was issued in 1967 (the year Toomer died), and a paperback edition came out two years later; others have followed. Since the 1960’s, Cane has been the subject of continuing critical commentary and has come to be accepted as a major product of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s.

In the immediate aftermath of Cane’s publication, Toomer was welcomed into New York City’s avant-garde white literary circles, but within a year or so he departed the literary scene. After Cane, he published only four short stories and Essentials (1931), a book of definitions and aphorisms.

Because of his experiments with language, technique, and form, Toomer can be linked with such contemporary white writers as Hart Crane, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. As such, he stands apart from his fellow black authors of the time, who in their work did not move far beyond standard realism. Toomer’s subject matter also distinguishes him from his peers; in Cane, he writes about aspects of black life that had not previously been examined in fiction. Though some critics have credited Toomer with inspiring a generation of black writers, such an influence is open to doubt. Because Cane was not popular when published and then went out of print for decades, it is more likely that other black writers simply were influenced by the same leading white figures to whom Toomer was drawn. Whatever the extent of Toomer’s influence upon his black contemporaries or later generations of black writers, in Cane he created a singular and memorable masterpiece of twentieth century American fiction.