Notable Books of the Twenties: Cane – Jean Toomer (1923)

A cornerstone of the Harlem Renaissance, Toomer’s Cane is a novel stitched together by a series of interwoven vignettes that poignantly capture the experiences of black Americans of his time. Probably its best-known section is the poem ‘Harvest Song,’ which opens with the haunting line: ‘I am a reaper whose muscles set at sundown.’

Sales of the book were modest at the time, but his influence over the Harlem Renaissance was such that the sociologist Charles S. Johnson, called it ‘the most astonishingly brilliant beginning of any Negro writer of his generation.’ In echoes of Langston’s call to arms, he always pushed back when labelled a ‘Negro writer’ because he identified first as an ‘American’, forbidding his publisher from mentioning his race in the book (‘My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine’). It was crucial in bringing the African American experience into focus for American culture.

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