Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined

By Victor A. Kramer; Robert A. Russ | Go to book overview
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of uncertainty and inadequacy of a different kind in an effort to achieve an expression of that which was most authentic in their lives.

Toomer was correct when he commented in retrospect that Cane was a "swansong." 27 It was the end not only of a way of Southern black life, as he saw it, but of his own commitment to place that life within art. Even during the year of Cane's publication, 1923, Toomer's attention turned to problems that he considered to be more fundamental than the challenge of producing another work modeled on Cane. When he looked at his friends and acquaintances, many of whom were committed in some way to the world of art, he was compelled to say:

Most of the men and women were growing into lopsided specialists of one
kind or another; or, they were almost hopelessly entangled in emotional
snarls and conflicts. And neither literature nor art did anything for them. In
short, my attention had been turned from the books and paintings to the
people who produced them; and I saw that these people were in a sorry
state. What did it really matter that they were able by talent to turn out
things that got reviews? 28

Toomer continued to write, but he was not destined to produce anything that matched Cane's power. His primary concern became experimentation in life rather than in art, an endeavor to be heavily influenced by contact with Gurdjieff's ideas, occurring for the first time in 1923. Before we deplore the loss to art as a consequence of this decision, we should recall that it was the aftermath of another experiment in life, Toomer's brief period of existence as a black in Georgia, that brought us Cane.

For example, Countee Cullen wrote: "I bought the first copy of Cane which was sold, and I've read every word of it. . . . It's a real race contribution, a classical portrayal of things as they are." Letter to Jean Toomer, 29 Sept. 1923, Jean Toomer Collection, Fisk Univ. Archives, Nashville, Tenn., Box 1, Folder 12, No. 386. Charles S. Johnson, editor in 1923 of Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, recalled in later years his reaction to the emergence of Jean Toomer: "Here was triumphantly the Negro artist, detached from propaganda, sensitive only to beauty." Arna Bontemps, "The Awakening: A Memoir," in The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, ed. A. Bontemps ( New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972), p. 9.
Published by Boni & Liveright, Inc. The edition cited throughout this study is a Perennial Classic paperback edition published by Harper & Row ( New York, 1969). Subsequent references to Cane will appear parenthetically in the text.
Sherwood Anderson's interest in Cane is to be measured by this generous offer: "I hope to write something about Cane for Freeman but it had been given to some one else. If your publisher knows of any place I can write of it I'll be mighty glad to do it. My admiration for it holds." Letter to Jean Toomer, 14 Jan. 1924, Toomer Collection, Box 1, Folder 1, No. 51.
"The Significance of Jean Toomer," Opportunity 3 ( Sept. 1925): 262.
"The Significance of Jean Toomer,"262.
Toomer Collection, Box 14, Folder 1.
Letter to Jean Toomer, 25 April 1922, Toomer Collection.


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