Uncommon Classics: A book club celebrating lost, forgotten, or underappreciated works from the past that could easily be on any high school syllabus.
This month's book club pick is Cane by Jean Toomer.
As a series of vignettes chronicling the origins and experiences of African Americans in early 20th century America, Toomer constructed a masterpiece of American modernist fiction. The vignettes include narrative prose, poetry, and dramatic dialogue, all relatively independent in plot, with thematic and contextual connections. Broken into three sections, the book confronts racism and segregation in both the South and North, with an intersecting finale centering around a Northern African American traveling South to find the more flagrant and seething prejudices of that climate. Several of the narrative vignettes involve sexual and racial tensions, outlining the desire for what is forbidden and the agonized defeat inherent in constricted and polarized identity. Although Cane was lauded by critics, it was largely ignored by both black and white readers. Fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes believed Cane's lack of a wider readership was because it didn't reinforce the stereotypes often associated with African Americans during the time, but portrayed them in an accurate and entirely human way, breaking the mold and laying the groundwork for how African Americans are depicted in literature. Now, rediscovered as a monumental piece of experimental fiction in the canons of American and African American literature, Toomer’s novel stands alongside the likes of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, OH and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
"It has been reverberating in me to an astonishing degree. I love it passionately, could not possibly exist without it." - Alice Walker
"[Toomer] is American literature's greatest, most enduring enigma. . . But here, in this lush, bleak book, in his evocation of the world as it is instead of how it ought to be, something hardier, more useful is conveyed -- of the possibilities for epiphany, the reliable consolations of love and revenge. And in his style -- this pastiche of poem, autobiography and fable -- there is an integration of the self that the life never afforded."
- Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
Jean Toomer (1894-1967) was an African American novelist and poet who wrote during the Harlem Renaissance. The son of a mixed-race freedman born into slavery who later joined ranks with the mixed-race elite in Washington, D.C., Toomer's lighter skin and upbringing in all-white schools and neighborhoods caused him to not identify as black or white, but rather an American who represented a new mixed race. Despite his refusal to be bound or classified by race, Toomer is considered one of the most important African American writers to come out of the Harlem Renaissance, as his non-stereotypical depiction of African Americans in Cane (which was inspired by his time teaching at a rural school in Georgia) set a groundbreaking precedent for the honest portrayal of the black experience in America. Toomer resisted racial classification and did not want to be marketed as a black writer. His last literary work published during his lifetime was Blue Meridian, a long poem extolling "the potential of the American race". He continued to write for himself, including several autobiographies and a poetry volume, The Wayward and the Seeking.
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