Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Reading and the Representation of Ambiguity in Jean Toomer’s Cane


When Jean Toomer's modernist experimental novel Cane was published in 1923, both he and the text were taken to be representative voices of African American life, even though Toomer explicitly renounced these labels during Cane's pre-publication promotion. The larger project of the Harlem Renaissance, during which Toomer lived and wrote Cane, was to validate and celebrate African American artists and their work. As a result, the author's claims of racial ambiguity and multiracial identication, and their expression in his work, were poorly received. This paper looks at the tension between the aesthetically ambiguous qualities of the text as well as its role as a cultural artifact that can be explored and interpreted against different backdrops. Cane's aesthetic elements work primarily through the text's structural and linguistic ambiguity, a blurring of various themes that allow for readers to search for and conceive of their own meanings and experiences. To that end, I examine interpretations of racial identity in Cane during three signicant cultural periods: Cane's initial publication in 1923 during the Harlem Renaissance, its re-publication at the cusp of the modern Civil Rights movement in 1951, and our current age of supposed "post-raciality" in which the modern reader first discovers the text.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View