Themes and Meanings
Recognized widely as one of the major literary works of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s, Cane emerged from Jean Toomer’s experience as the temporary head of a Georgia industrial and agricultural school for African Americans. Toomer called sadness the dominant emotion in the volume, saying it “derived from a sense of fading.” Cane as a whole is an exercise in self-discovery, with its sensitive, self-effacing narrator, actually the author himself, revealing and exploring his own racial identity. Indeed, Toomer himself was so light-skinned that he lived for many years as a white man and throughout his life challenged the norms of racial labeling.
Cane’s form has been as problematic for critics as its substance. Some see it as merely a gathering of fugitives—stories, poems, and a play previously published separately in different magazines—unified only by their common themes, settings, and binding. Others have called it either an experimental novel or a work that denies the possibility of standard categorization. Critical uncertainty and controversy notwithstanding, the form of Cane is not unique, for it is similar to James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), two other thematically related story collections that develop unified and coherent visions of societies. It also echoes Edgar Lee Masters’s poetry collection Spoon River Anthology (1915), which probes the psyches and secrets of small-town residents. Toomer surely was familiar with the Joyce and Masters books, and he knew Anderson personally. Both Cane and Winesburg, Ohio have similar narrators, men who serve as mediators between author and reader; both are collections of prose cameos, and each has a group of characters that become “grotesques,” in...
(The entire section is 757 words.)