‘Cane’ by Jean Toomer – The Devil was Already in Georgia

‘Cane’ by Jean Toomer   (1923) – 160 pages


‘Cane’ stunned me. It contains scenes which are so real that they never make it into fiction. ‘Cane’ surveys the hard and dangerous lives of the people of this Georgia neighborhood in the 1920s without getting sentimental. Thus the writing comes across as authentic and honest.

A young man from the North is visiting a black neighborhood in the South in Georgia. There are poems scattered among the stories, but all of the writing, even the prose, has a slow rhythmic cadence. The writing here is so atmospheric and compelling, you must read these stories and poems slowly to capture their full resonance. In his own words, Jean Toomer is “shapin words t fit m soul.”

In the first section of ‘Cane’, the stories depict the lives of six women, five of them black and one of them white, all of them doomed. The stories each are titled by the woman depicted – Karintha, Becky, Carma, Fern, Esther, and Louisa. Actually the story about Louisa is called “Blood-Burning Moon” and is probably Jean Toomer’s most famous story. You will never read anything more intense than the eleven pages of this story.

Men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman.”

In each of these stories, there is a contrast between the loveliness of the natural surroundings and the ugliness of the plights that these people must contend with.

God Almighty, dear God, dear Jesus, do not torture me with beauty. Take it away. Give me an ugly world…There is a radiant beauty in the night that touches…and tortures me.”

In the final section we get the long story ‘Kabnis’ which tells directly of this young man who has traveled South to teach but must confront the horrors of rural Georgia. This story comes directly from Jean Toomer’s own experiences.

His friends remind Kabnis what he’s gotten himself into. The “land of cotton” has a legacy of slavery, and not much has changed since then. Black people are targeted just for being black. Danger is always present. His friends keep quiet about racial atrocities so they don’t become the next victims themselves. Asking too many questions is dangerous. By the end of the story, Kabnis is physically scared of getting lynched himself.

Throughout ‘Cane’, the atmosphere recalls the eerie silence in which the black community is forced to live, keeping quiet about lynchings and threats.


Grade:   A



8 responses to this post.

  1. This sounds terrible, yet entirely credible…



    • Hi Lisa,
      In the United States, during the Reagan Era, they passed these harsh laws that punished possession of the type of drug blacks were most likely to use (not the type of drug that whites were most likely to use) with this draconian prison sentence of 20 or 30 years. By the early 2000s, a higher percentage of black people were in prison in the United States than even during the worst times of apartheid in South Africa.
      With its legacy of slavery, the country the United States most resembles today is South Africa during apartheid before the Mandela revolution.



  2. Great review! I’d never heard of Jean Toomer when I read this book a few years ago as part of a course I was auditing about the Harlem Renaissance. Like you, I found it overwhelming in the beauty of its language and its emotional impact. I’ve often wondered why Toomer’s book doesn’t come up more often in book challenges and so on (of course, this is my often subjective opinion — maybe I’m just missing the reviews), as it’s such an incredible work.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Janakay,
      You mention the Harlem Renaissance. Are you familiar with the writer Nella Larsen? She wrote two spectacular short novels, ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Passing’, and then went back to being a nurse. I have read both of these which I thought were wonderful back before I had a blog.

      Liked by 1 person


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