A Century Later, a Novel by an Enigma of the Harlem Renaissance Is Still Relevant

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2019-01-04 19:44Z by Steven

A Century Later, a Novel by an Enigma of the Harlem Renaissance Is Still Relevant

Books of The Times
The New York Times
2018-12-25

Parul Sehgal


Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

He is American literature’s greatest, most enduring enigma.

In 1923, Jean Toomer — highborn but an orphan and a drifter, a young man with secrets — published the single, slender novel upon which his reputation rests. In bursts of poetry and prose, “Cane” tells of black life in the lethal rural South and in the loveless cities of the North. The narration has a kind of cosmic consciousness, entering the world of the characters, the whispering pine trees, the falling dusk, the soil. It is oracular, delirious and American — rich with the intensities of Melville, the expansiveness of Whitman and Toomer’s own bedeviling preoccupation with color.

Many stories meander through “Cane” (including one autobiographical section featuring a Northern writer in the South), but at its core the book is about six Southern women, including beautiful, chaotic Karintha; Carma, who slays her jealous husband; Becky, white and an outcast, the mother of two black sons. Their lives are brief, vivid, doomed — but each “a wild flash that told the other folks just what it was to live.”

“Cane” sold modestly but exerted a powerful influence over the Harlem Renaissance; it was, according to the sociologist Charles S. Johnson, “the most astonishingly brilliant beginning of any Negro writer of his generation.”…

…A fleeting feeling. Toomer forbade his publisher to mention his race in the marketing for “Cane.” (“My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine.”) Nor would he allow his work to be included in black anthologies, insisting he was part of a new, emergent race, simply called American…

Read the entire article here.

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