Jean Toomer’s “Cane”/John Smelcer
Identity, Multigenrism, and the Historicity
of Jean Toomer’s Cane, and the Rise
of the Harlem Renaissance
By Lucille Clifton and John Smelcer
Jean Toomer’s Cane is widely considered the first major text of the Harlem Renaissance, which is generally regarded as beginning in 1923, with the publication of Cane, and ending in 1929, though the precise boundaries are debatable. But what is the multi-generic Cane? It can be argued that Toomer’s masterpiece, a herald of a new era literary and artistic expression, is a precursor to the modern short story cycle, a form which took off almost immediately after its publication.
For more than eighty years Cane has defied easy classification as to its genre. The book consists of twenty-nine separate units divided by three simple visual images: fifteen poems interspersed between seven short stories, six prose sketches, and one extended short story (“Kabnis,” which Toomer called a play though it is neither wholly a play, either), which utilizes, in places, the use of play-writing dialogue, complete with stage directions, thereby making Cane a mixed-bag of literary techniques and genres. Some of the prose sketches may even be argued to be prose poems. It has been variously called a “novel,” a “collage,” a “poetic novel,” and even an “anti-novel.” Regardless of its genre, Cane is an important modernist text, depicting the horrors of a world of lynchings, race riots, and Jim Crow (Scruggs, 1).
Robert Bone called Cane “a collection which forms one of the distinguished achievements in the writings of Americans” (81). Bernard Bell and Odette Martin said essentially the same thing: that Cane holds a unique place in American literature (Bell, 11; Martin, 6). But for more than forty years after its initial publication in 1923, Cane was all but forgotten until a resurgence of African-American literature in the late 1960s resuscitated interest in it, culminating in the book’s republication in 1967 by University Place. But the question remains today as it did then: What is Cane? As Arna Bontemps asks in the “Introduction” to Harper & Row’s 1967 re-issue of Cane, in what genre is this “odd and provocative form” (x) to be classified?
On its initial publication in 1923, critics praised Cane as an innovation, a landmark in American literature, mostly for its unique portrayal of Blacks and the sheer poetic beauty of the book’s language. Others cited its remarkable uniqueness from anything that came before it. W. E. B. DuBois extolled the book’s importance in The Crisis, the magazine he then edited for the NAACP, and Charles S. Johnson remarked of Toomer in the “Introduction” to the 1969 re-publication of Cane that his was the “most astonishingly brilliant beginning of any Negro writer of his generation” (vii). And Toomer’s friend and mentor, Waldo Frank, wrote in the foreword to the original 1923 publication that “Cane is a harbinger of a literary force of whose incalculable future I believe no reader of this book will be in doubt” (iii).
Unfortunately, the promise of a stellar literary career never materialized. Within a few years, Toomer disappeared from the literary scene altogether. In his lifelong search for meaning of the self as artist, Toomer turned to the Gurdjieff Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, where he eventually established a local Gurdjieff Group in Harlem, attracting such artists as Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. Toomer remained involved with the Gurdjieff group until 1934.
But Toomer’s ultimate disappearance from the American literary scene came about largely, if not entirely, from his own doings. With all the praise applauding Cane as a Negro work, Toomer himself began to state that he was not a Negro. He considered himself a new type of man. In his personal correspondence, Toomer said he was mixed with Scotch, Welsh, German, English, French, Dutch, Spanish, and some dark blood. Indeed, he was often mistaken for being Eastern Indian, Native American, and even Latin American. He wrote a series of letters stating, “The fact that I am not [emphasis mine] a Negro is a negative, and not of main importance” (September 18, 1930; Toomer Collection). Shortly thereafter, Toomer wrote to James Weldon Johnson saying essentially the same thing about his Negro-ness and declining to allow some of the poems in Cane to be included in The Book of American Negro Poetry, which Johnson was then editing. Finally, in December 1934, Toomer wrote to the Baltimore Afro-American, “I do not really know whether there is any colored blood in me or not” (1).
Toomer essentially disappeared from the literary scene altogether after these proclamations. He was rarely heard of again and Cane languished until 1967 when the rising interest in Black literature spurred University Place to produce a cloth re-printing of Cane. Ironically, Toomer, then 73 years old, was invited to write an introduction, but he died on March 30th before the letter arrived.
While it is true that Cane largely languished until 1967, it is not entirely so. Some Afro-American writers and scholars still thought about Cane. Indeed, in August 1964, the University of California sponsored the Conference on the Negro Writer in the United States, held outside Monterey. Among the faculty were Gwendolyn Brooks, Arna Bontemps, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), James Baldwin, Robert Bone, and Kenneth Rexroth (Bontemps and Bone would both eventually provide introductions to Cane). Ralph Ellison, who had agreed to contribute, did not arrive, and conference-goers noted the conspicuous absence of Langston Hughes, who had not been invited. Participants included over 200 educators, writers, intellectuals, and social workers. Arna Bontemps gave a “spell-binding” discussion of Cane. When he was finished, he was confronted with an overwhelming number of hands. The audience wanted to know more about Toomer. Kenneth Rexroth correctly stated that most of the audience had never heard of Toomer before but now wanted to hear more (Kent, 180).
In 1969, encouraged by the success of the University Place reprinting, Harper and Row made the work more available in its paperback Perennial Classics series, including an excellent Introduction by Arna Bontemps, and Cane was once again a success. Despite his denunciation of his Negro-ness, Toomer’s reputation was resurrected, and today Cane is held as an important literary landmark in African American literature.
After his death, some 30,000 items of Toomer’s were donated to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Among the items included numerous manuscripts (novels, short stories, autobiographies, correspondences, and Natalie Mann, a play that would eventually be published) that opened up the way for increased scholarly study about the writer. Since then, a great deal has been learned about the man. The plethora of material continues to raise the question of Toomer’s racial identity and the significance of that identity to understanding Cane. Some critics (Scruggs and VanDemarr, et. al.) even question the reliability of Toomer’s autobiographical statements. Some of these materials were later complied and edited into The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer (1980), edited by Darwin Turner.
Aside from questions of Toomer’s racial identity and Cane’s long, bumpy ride from overnight fame to relative obscurity, what is to be done about the question of the book’s genre classification? A significant number of articles have been published in recent decades trying to answer this question. As a whole, they have produced some ingenious commentary on the role of myth (most obviously Cain and the notion of the Black Messiah), as well as commentary on the influence of symbolism, philosophy, and the role of women characters in binding the multiple forms in Cane. Critics such as Marion Berghahn have pointed out Toomer’s use of African symbolism, which was connected with a then (as it is today) contemporary interest in “authentic” experience, a hearkening to African heritage.
Other interesting suggestions for unlocking the mystery of Cane’s structural unity includes the discovery in the early 1970s that Cane is organized based on principles of the Blues (McKeever, 61). However, in his essay “The Novel of the Negro Renaissance,” George Hutchinson says it was jazz, not The Blues that inspired Cane, even discussing Cane’s improvisational style. Jazz was more than simply a new kind of uniquely American music; it was a lifestyle instrumental in defining the emerging Harlem Renaissance. F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited with coining the term Jazz Age in his novel This Side of Paradise and in his (1920) short story collection Tales of the Jazz Age (1922). Fitzgerald earned a reputation as the symbol of the Jazz Age.
Nowhere in Steven Tracy’s essay “The Blues Novel” does he even mention Toomer. One of the reasons for arguing that Cane’s structure is influenced by jazz is the way Toomer develops many of his sketches, four of which have poetic refrains, which repeat at the beginning, middle, and end. Two others, “Calling Jesus” and “Rhobert,” incorporate short musical (poetic) refrains within the body.
Although poetically brilliant and lyrically beautiful in diction, symbolism, and intensity, Cane certainly cannot be labeled as merely a book of poetry, although it is a book containing poetry. Conversely, because of the intermittent use of poetry, Cane is neither a short story collection. Of the idea that Cane is a novel (even a poetic or lyric novel), Toomer himself informed publisher Horace Liveright in a letter he wrote shortly before the publication of Cane, that he [Toomer] had no familiarity with the composition of a novel and did not consider Cane to be a novel (Jean Toomer Collection, 1923). And although the book uses dramatic, theatrical techniques (in the form of play-dialogue, especially in “Kabnis,” possibly “borrowed” from Eugene O’Neill), it is neither a play, although Toomer himself called “Kabnis” a play in three acts. The prose sketches, short fictional descriptions of a character or place, Toomer called his “attempt at an artistic record of Negro and mixed blood America” (Toomer Collection, March 24, 1923).
It can be argued that Cane is a short story cycle, alternatively providing a microscopic and macroscopic examination of the nature of the African American experience in the United States. If it is, then Cane (along with Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and The Triumph of the Egg) is a precursor to the modern short story cycle, which uses the recurrence of patterns in theme, symbol, images, trope, character, place, words, and even phrases (among other elements) to treat the same theme from different angles. Indeed, the short story cycle, or some hybrid version of it, was in vogue immediately following the publication of Cane, including William Carlos William’s “In the American Grain” (1925) and Ernest Hemingway’s “In Our Time” (1924).
Toomer’s placement of each poem, story, or sketch is significant, serving to increase the intertextuality of the short story cycle, complementing and building on itself. Even the space or gaps between the stories has a function, allowing interpretation for what is unsaid by the author. In some ways, the poems and the episodic sketches and stories are like snapshots, revealing a broad scope of place and events outside the constraints of the linear structures and temporality generally given to novels.
While many early critics noted the recurrence of themes in Cane’s divisions, they did not fully understand the synthetic unity of the collected work; that came later, especially throughout the 1970s after Cane’s republication, which explains Arna Bontemps’ statement that Cane has an “odd and provocative” structure. And what of the three visual images which separate the three divisions? As Robert Bone and Blyden Jackson point out, Toomer uses words almost as a plastic medium. George Hutchinson says of Cane’s multi-generic structure in “The Novel of the Negro Renaissance”:
“The work that really broke the mold and helped inspire new forms of African American fiction was . . . Jean Toomer’s multi-generic tour de force, Cane. While not exactly a novel, Cane explored many of the different possibilities that would be taken up by others and worked out in novelistic form . . . infusing the work with the improvisatory qualities and the rhythms of African American spirituals and jazz. Toomer’s creation of a hybrid literary form consonant with new types of popular culture suggested exciting possibilities for black literary experimentation.”(52)
As stated above, Cane is divided into three cycles. The first is what has been termed the Southern Cycle, the second the Northern Cycle, and the final unit (“Kabnis”) is a synthesis of the two: of a Northern Negro’s experience in the brutal (yet beautiful) South. Toomer himself represents the divisions by his use of a symbol on the page preceding each new division. A downward curve announces section one (representing both the southern portion of a sphere and the beginning of a diurnal cycle); an upward curve introduces section two (representing the northern portion of a sphere and the second half of a diurnal cycle); and an unconnected circle (a whole sphere), made by bringing both former symbols together (but not combined or joined), represents the synthesis of the first two parts of Cane (including the complete annual cycle of the seasons as Cane spans one year).
In the third cycle, Ralph Kabnis is a Northern Negro whose quest takes him from his home in Washington (and New York), “which he always half-way despised” (84) in search of the other half of the Afro-American heritage to be found in Georgia. The whole work, then, read as a cycle, is a representation of Toomer’s piercing insight into the deep inadequacies of North and South, based on his perceptions of the internal contradictions in both, with the culminating cycle, “Kabnis,” being a portrait of the Negro writer (Toomer), reflecting his inability to clearly articulate his vision. The artist-hero of the cycles experiences history as he moves through time, from pre-American African experience, through post-reconstruction, to the modern Black experience in the North. In part, Cane is Toomer’s attempt to articulate questions of his own racial identity.
This structural arrangement allows for various treatments of the same theme from different perspectives. This method may have been borrowed from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and his The Triumph of the Egg, which has a good many of the elements found in Cane, especially the incorporation of short stories, poems, and even illustrations. Toomer and Anderson corresponded during the formation of Cane. Other literary influences on Toomer during that time included the writing of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Coleridge, Blake, Shaw, Ibsen, Goethe, Santayana, Dreiser, Lewis, Robert Frost, Amy Lowell, and of course, Waldo Frank. Several of William Blake’s famous images include sketches of Blacks being lynched, which influenced his Visions of the Daughters of Albion (Klonsky, 46-48). Blake was a master of symbolism and myth, something which Toomer succeeds in Cane.
It is likely that Toomer was also influenced by T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” which was receiving great fanfare in America about the time he was composing the middle section of Cane and revising “Kabnis.” In a letter to Horace Liveright in January, 1923, Toomer comments that he had indeed read “The Wasteland” (Fabre and Feith, 2).
Some critics (Blyden Jackson, et. al.) point to the drama of Eugene O’Neill as another influence on Cane’s form (Hutchinson, 52). Yet Cane achieves a higher complexity than either O’Neill’s or Anderson’s works. The cyclic design and the interrelatedness of the stories themselves is much more ambitious, even tying together the underlying impulse toward nurturing an inherent and composite myth. Toomer knew both these authors’ works and he especially admired Anderson, with whom he corresponded, their exchanges discussed in an essay by Darwin Turner and some of the letters catalogued in the Jean Toomer Collection at Fisk University.
Cane was not written chronologically; the first and third cycles were written first, followed by the middle cycle. Also, companion pieces were written and incorporated into the manuscript sporadically throughout 1922, especially in November. The cyclical nature of the work allows for establishing connections between, for instance, the “son” in “Song of the Son” in the beginning of the book and the extended short story, “Kabnis” at the end of the book.
Indeed, most of the stories or sketches in Cane have companion pieces in the other cycles, a hallmark of the modern short story cycle. In such a reading, the author reveals the optimism of the first against the experience and wisdom of the latter. Read as such, Cane is a transcending representation of different perspectives of the same racial North-South dichotomies over time and especially geography (particularly Georgia and Washington D. C.).
This cyclical perspective also reveals the pity of Toomer’s northern characters whose limited choices range from staying in the South and suffering for it (recall how the first division of Cane ends in a lynching and all the other violence in that cycle), and existing in the North essentially as refugees from the South. “Beehive,” the first poem in the Northern Cycle, is a portrait of the busy life in a city. “Kabnis” is a compromise, a synthesis in which Toomer suggests that a new American heritage must be defined — a new kind of American (one which he argued for all his life). In “Kabnis,” the play-dialogue section clearly indicates this juxtaposition of the North-South Negro experience and attitudes. At one point, a stone with a note wrapped around it shatters a window. The note seemingly threatens Kabnis to leave the South at once: “You northern nigger,” it reads, “its time fer y t leave. Git along now” (90).
Some critics, such as Edward Margolies in his Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth Century Negro American Authors, have misconstrued Cane’s theme, arguing that “the work celebrates the passion and instincts of black persons close to the soil as opposed to the corruption of their spirit and vitality in the cities” (39). Such a misreading fails to comprehend the real case against the South which Kabnis makes in the final division (cycle) of Cane and ignores the disturbing scenes of a legacy of violence. The first cycle of Cane ends with the story of Tom Burwell being burned alive at the stake in “Blood-Burning Moon,” a story in which a white male has an affair with a Black woman, whose confusion about the complexities of color inform the tragic conclusion of the story:
“A great flame muffled in black smoke shot upward. The mob yelled. The mob was silent. Now Tom could be seen within the flames. Only his head, erect, lean, like a blackened stone. Stench of burning flesh soaked the air. Tom’s eyes popped. His head settled downward. The mob yelled.” (34)
Not to be outdone, “Kabnis” includes the horrifying murder of Mame Lamkins:
“Layman: White folks know that niggers talk, an they don’t mind jes so long as nothing comes of it, so here goes. She was in the family-way, Mame Lamkins was. They killed her in th street, an some white man seein the risin in her stomach as she lay there soppy in her blood like any cow, took an ripped her belly open, an the kid fell out. It was living; but a nigger baby aint supposed t live. So he jabbed his knife in it and stuck it t a tree.” (90)
The backdrop of the Southern cycles of Cane is a contradictory landscape of natural beauty, depicted in Toomer’s gorgeous poetic and lyric diction, against the harsh brutality of Southern racial culture. Throughout Cane, Toomer depicts White Southerners as seeing Blacks as nothing more than animals, compared to a cow in the above-mentioned passage and in another instance when Layman says, “The white folks (reckon I oughtn’t tell it) had jes knocked two others like you kill a cow—brained um with an ax” (88). Indeed, Cane is considerably influenced by Toomer’s three-month stay in Sparta, Georgia, in 1921, during which time he lived in a shack and “began to realize the hardship the Blacks suffered both socially and economically” (“Jean Toomer”, 2).
During those months, the Sparta Ishmaelite was filled with the stories of violence and deprivation heaped on Blacks, the headlines almost always masked as suspicious suicides, such as the story of a 35-year-old woman who emptied a shotgun into her belly. This period marked the high point of Southern lynching of Blacks and may be the spark which influenced Toomer to create Ralph Kabnis, a Northern Negro who eventually panics and flees the South, convinced that he is to be lynched. In a letter to Waldo Frank, Toomer briefly suggests that he barely escaped a serious situation himself (04/26/1922, Toomer Collection).
Another issue that Toomer investigates in Cane is interracial sexual relationships, miscegenation, and the plight of Negro women, possibly influenced by witnessing the sadness and suffering of his own mother, Nina Toomer, whose life was to show her son the anguished dependencies and bewildering existences of women, a dominate motif in Cane. His juxtaposed stories, “Bona and Paul” and “Blood Burning Down” contrast how in one the urge is surrendered to, while in the other a reluctance develops in which Paul is able to reverse the course of his relationship. Other counter-posed sketches include “Rhobert” and “Calling Jesus,” and “Avey” and “Seventh Street” in which Toomer regards the promise of freedom in the new land (the North; Washington D. C. and Chicago) in contrast to the insufficiency of security and alienation in “Avey.” “Reapers” and “November Cotton Flower” are another example of a pairing in the South-North cycles in which Toomer returns to his motif of feminine beauty.
Blyden Jackson incorrectly asserts that “no single character or group of characters appears in more than one story or sketch” (319). Jackson overlooks the repetition of character-types and the repeated use of several characters such as Barlo, David Georgia, Father John, and of course, the narrator/artist-hero that appears under a variety of different names.
Frequently, a word, phrase, image, trope, or a symbol in one poem or sketch is mirrored in other parts of Cane, including “Evening Song,” a companion piece to “Fern,” which shares a common landscape used in “Withered Skin.” Another example is the recurring moon, like the ubiquitous cane fields, a constant throughout the cycles. The blood-colored moon foreshadows lynching. These repetitions are, again, hallmarks of the modern short story cycle. Such parallels exist throughout Cane and are part of the extraordinary complexity and richness of the work. Other repetitions include pines, cane, canebrakes, cane fields, moon, flames and fire, smoke and dusk (both obscure), violence and lynching, references to Christ and Christianity, imaginative imagery of Africa, miscegenation, and references to women. Toomer almost always compares the land to a woman. Sometimes the repeated words or symbols are combined, as in “Becky”, the second sketch in the book, in which Toomer states twice on the same page, “The pines whispered to Jesus” (5).
Adding to the complexity of Cane is Toomer’s use of the cycles of nature and the cycles of religion. For instance, in “Esther,” Toomer reveals the false prophecy of a Black messiah who misleads the devout Esther with his deceitful actions.
Although no one in Cane actually migrates, the book is nonetheless considered a work on Black migration (Griffin, 27). For instance, the Southern cycle ends with Louisa asking in “Blood-Burning Moon”, “Where have all the people gone?” The answer: they have moved north, Toomer’s keen observation of the mass migrations of Blacks northward to escape the economic hardships and outrages of the South. Indeed, abruptly after the lynching, the reader hurriedly “migrates” to the North as the Northern cycle begins.
In “Who Set You Flowin’?,” Farah Jasmine Griffin comments that Toomer accurately “foreshadows . . . the lynching which spurs the movement of the text North” and that he “establishes one of the major tropes of the migration narrative,” that is “violence on the black body as a trope to signify the violence of the South and as a major catalyst for migration” (24-25), a reasonable catalyst why the main character in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man runs away.
Whatever Cane may be, a long-forgotten one-hit wonder or a genre-less masterpiece of American literary ingenuity, it has greatly influenced subsequent African American writers, many of whom have used his mixed-literary device/mixed-genre style in their own writing. This influence is evident in, among others, Alice Walker’s Living By the Word, Anything We Love Can Be Saved, By the Light of My Father’s Smile, and Possessing the Secret of Joy. Walker provides a front cover blurb on the Norton edition in which she says, “Cane has been reverberating in me to an astonishing degree. I love it passionately; could not possibly exist without it.” Toomer’s influence is also evident in Maya Angelou’s Gather Together in My Name and Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas, and in four books by Nikki Giovanni: Those Who Ride the Night Wind, Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea, Blues: For All the Change, and Acolytes. No doubt, a great many writers (African-American and otherwise) to come after Toomer were influenced by Cane.
Without question, the newly republished Cane, gaining a popular national momentum, made possible new ways for Black literary expression during and after the explosion of African-American literature in the late 1960s. As Robert Bone writes on the dustcover of Cane, “Jean Toomer belongs to that first rank of writers who use words almost as a plastic medium, shaping new meanings from an original and highly personal style.” While Toomer may be one of the most ambiguous figures in American literary history, that malleable plastic medium is his generous gift.
About the authors:
John Smelcer and Lucille Clifton met at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope, NJ, in the fall of 2006 and began this collaboration a year later. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Lucille was “discovered” by Langston Hughes, who included her poems in his 1969 anthology, The Poetry of the Negro. Over the years, Lucille taught at Columbia and Dartmouth. Her poetry books were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. She served as the Poet Laureate of Maryland and as a Chancellor for the Academy of American Poetry. In 2007, she received the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for Lifetime Achievement. She died in Baltimore in February of 2010 at the age of 73. John Smelcer, the author of a numerous books of poetry and ethnic American literature, was recently a Clifford D. Clark Fellow at Binghamton University in upstate New York. After Lucille’s passing, it would be a couple years before John completed this article. You can read more about him in “About Us.”
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