Public Domain Day advent calendar #12: Cane by Jean Toomer

Both the book Cane, and its author, Jean Toomer, resist easy classification. It’s now considered by many literary critics to be one of the major American literary works of its time, but despite admiring reviews, it did not sell widely, was out of print for notable intervals, and is not well-known to the general public.  The book’s depictions of African Americans (both in the characters portrayed and in the expression of the author) didn’t fit into the expectations of many white and black readers.  As Langston Hughes put it, “”O, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are,’ say the Negroes. ‘Be stereotyped, don’t go too far, don’t shatter our illusions about you, don’t amuse us too seriously. We will pay you,’ say the whites. Both would have told Jean Toomer not to write Cane.”  Toomer himself, who had both black and white ancestry and attended segregated schools on both sides of the color line growing up, didn’t want his publisher to emphasize his “colored blood” in the marketing of the book.  His racial self-identification would vary over the course of his life.

The book’s structure was also unusual, being a series of vignettes, not always straightforwardly connected, employing prose, poetry, and dramatic dialogue.  It’s often classified as part of the Harlem Renaissance that was getting increasing attention in the 1920s, but it could just as easily be grouped with the sort of experimental modernist literature that white writers like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein were publishing.

The book was published and copyrighted in 1923, and Toomer renewed the copyright in 1950.  By then, Toomer had decided not to pursue literary fame, and was occasionally publishing pieces like this one on his adopted Quaker religion.  In between, he wrote and sometimes published other literary works, but I have not found copyright renewals under his name other than the renewal for Cane, though he lived until 1967.  The influence of the book lives on in other writers who have appreciated it, though.  One of those writers is Alice Walker, who said in a 1973 interview that the book “has been reverberating in me to an astonishing degree. I love it passionately, could not possibly exist without it.”

Many 20th century literary works by African American authors are now in the public domain, either because they were published before 1923, or because they did not have their copyrights renewed.   (For instance, many of Zora Neale Hurston‘s early works were never renewed, and the influential NAACP magazine The Crisis also did not renew its copyrights, though some of its contributors renewed theirs.)  Some of these works are online now, and some are not.  In 20 days, I’m looking forward to seeing Cane join the public domain here, and have it and other often-overlooked works by African Americans become free to read and appreciate online.

2019 update: Link to full text of Cane, now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.


About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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