By Jean Toomer. Introduction by Arna. Perennial Classic Edition (Harper & Row), New York. 239 pages. $.95
Twenty years ago, the William Penn Lecture at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was given by Jean Toomer, then assistant clerk of the Yearly Meeting Committee on Ministry and Counsel. Entitled, “The Flavor of Man,” it witnessed the dominant dream that he had in the maturing of his own inner thinking.
A second birth awaits us. Were we to flower in a natural way, we should still remain in the natural-human order. God’s design for us is that we rise higher, in virtue of His yeast and seed in us, through a spiritual birth into the divine-human order.
Long before that, Jean Toomer burst forth with poems and new literary forms that found their way into the little magazines that were seeking and discovering a new literary idiom.
So in 1923 Cane appeared in a small edition that today is a collector’s treasure and out of print. Because it was decades ahead of its time, this “black classic” has been issued again as a “soul” force that has influenced much writing in our time. (Friends Journal published a review of a new hardcover edition of Cane in the issue of February 15, 1968, see page 87.)
When it first appeared, reviewers generally were stumped. Poetry and prose were whipped together in a kind of frappe. Realism was mixed with mysticism. This is the testimony of Arna Bontemps, who has introduced this new edition in a moving tribute to Jean Toomer with biographical facts revealing a life of soul-searching.
Jean Toomer’s life span, 1894–1967, resulted in little published work other than Cane. After his death, a mass of thirty thousand manuscript pieces were given by will to the distinguished collection of black writings in the library of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Probably therein lies the autobiography of one who was writing for his culture through the period of renaissance, awakening, crisis, and revolution toward identity.
Cane is in three parts. In the first part are Karintha, Carma, Fern, Esther, evening songs, and portraits from rural Georgia. He had not grown up there, but wrote, “a visit to Georgia last fall was the starting point of almost everything of worth that I have done.”
The milieu then shifts in the second part to Washington, where he was born. Joy and pain, beauty and ugliness, goodness and evil—will there never be a good community born out of rural slum and black urban ghetto?
In the third part there might be a clue. It is almost prophetic of what is developing today. Black culture looks to find a soul. Cane appeared before propaganda. No wonder it was hailed by critics and writers and “marked an awakening that soon thereafter began to be called a Negro Renaissance.”