Places: Cane

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1923

Type of work: Poetry and short fiction

Type of plot: Experimental

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*American South

*American CaneSouth. Although Toomer lived in the South only for a brief period, the experience had connected him to his ancestral roots. He knew that his father was from the South even though he had never seen him. His poem “Song of the Son” expresses nostalgia for the past. Toomer seeks solidarity with his African heritage as he mentions “souls of slavery” and “cotton bales,” to record a way of life that was shared by his ancestors. The first part of his book includes prose sketches of southern women whose sexual lives provide a common thread despite their individual differences. For example, Fern is an attractive and available woman who leaves an impression on the males that she is “above them.” She becomes a metaphor of a fluid identity that transcends conventional constraints. She can call upon Jesus Christ and also sing like a Jewish cantor; in spite of their regional and racial divisions in lifestyles, all men are eager to please her. Toomer can imagine her in different settings–as a prostitute as well as the wife of a lawyer or a doctor.

*Washington, D.C

*Washington, D.C. Capital of the United States and the urban setting for the second part of Toomer’s book. In “Seventh Street,” Toomer’s imagery includes streetcar tracks and Cadillacs.


*Chicago. Great midwestern city that is the setting for the last story in Toomer’s book, “Bona and Paul,” which brings together a southern white and a northern African American in a transient relationship.

BibliographyBone, Robert. Down Home: Origins of the Afro-American Short Story. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. Critical survey (1885-1935) that stresses the debts of black writers to an oral tradition that Bone calls a “blues aesthetic.” The chapter on Toomer reviews his entire career, including the important influences of Sherwood Anderson and Waldo Frank, and includes detailed analyses of three stories from Cane: “Fern,” “Theater,” and “Bona and Paul.”Bone, Robert. The Negro Novel in America. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965. Pioneering study of black writing from 1853 to the works of James Baldwin. Bone’s chapter on the Harlem School remains valuable, particularly for his discussion of Toomer and Cane.Cager, Chezia Thompson. Teaching Jean Toomer’s 1923 “Cane.” New York: Peter Lang, 2006. Guide to using sociological, historical, and biographical context to teach and understand Cane.Durham, Frank, ed. The Merrill Studies in “Cane.” Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1971. Includes critical studies of Cane from 1923 to 1969. Of special interest is Waldo Frank’s foreword to the first (1923) edition of the novel. Many other useful studies are included by such people as Robert Bone, Arna Bontemps, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Of questionable purpose is Durham’s grouping of the selections by each author’s race, especially since his racial classifications are not always correct.Grant, Nathan. Masculinist Impulses: Toomer, Hurston, Black Writing, and Modernity. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004. Compares Cane to work by Zora Neale Hurston; discusses the differences in the representation of manhood and masculinity between the two authors.McKay, Nellie Y. Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. A comprehensive and lucidly written study, with the author benefiting from her access to the collection of Toomer manuscripts and correspondence at Fisk University. The interpretation of Toomer’s imagery, structure, and themes is convincing, and McKay makes the interesting suggestion of a link between Cane and James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922).Toomer, Jean. Cane: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Criticism. Edited by Darwin T. Turner. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. Edited by a leading scholar in the field of black literature and a major force in advancing the reputation of Jean Toomer. In addition to reprinting the text of Cane, this excellent book includes early assessments of the novel, correspondence about his work between Toomer and others, and a balanced selection of critical studies from 1958 to 1984.Whalan, Mark. Race, Manhood, and Modernism in America: The Short Story Cycles of Sherwood Anderson and Jean Toomer. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007. Comparative study of Cane and Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919). Includes chapters on Cane’s representation of the body, the importance of its status as southern literature, and the relationship between its structure and its intended audience.
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