Arion Lyre

59. Cane by Jean Toomer, with prints by Martin Puryear.

Cane by Jean Toomer, an afterword by Leon Litwack and ten woodblock prints by Martin Puryear, 2000.


Cane is regarded as the highest literary achievement of the Harlem Renaissance and a masterpiece of African-American writing. To call it a novel is misleading, for the book is made up of many parts, by turn fiction, poetry, drama, set in rural Georgia, urban Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. It was first published in 1923, though sections appeared earlier in magazines. While it may seem at first a collection of writings, it is a highly experimental novel, novel  in concept and form, and is a unified artistic whole. Cane  was praised when issued but sold few copies. Toomer isolated himself after the book was published, and it was not rediscovered until the 1960s with the rise of academic interest in black history and culture. Jean Toomer (1897-1967) wrote several autobiographies, other fiction, drama, poetry, and essays, but published only one other book, Essentials, a collection of aphorisms, in 1931.

Leon Litwack is an eminent historian of the black experience in America. In his essay on Cane, Litwack shows how the book addresses the racial situation in the early twentieth century. "In coming to grips with the present, Jean Toomer insisted on confronting the past and exploring the heritage of slavery to its very roots, in ways that would avoid both condescension and romanticization. Looking about him, he sensed an agrarian folk culture deeply rooted in the slave experience. There was still time, he thought, to explore that culture, indeed the very soul and spirit of the black South, before urbanization and industrialization rendered it unrecognizable."


Martin Puryear is a leading American sculptor. Born in Washington, D. C. (as was Toomer), in 1941, Puryear read Cane for the first time when he was teaching at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and living in the South for the first time. The book has been important to him ever since. Martin Puryear studied at Catholic University of America, the Swedish Royal Academy, and earned the M. F. A. degree from Yale University. He is recipient of National Endowment of the Arts fellowships and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. His work is in public and private collections internationally, including commissions for work at Battery Park City in New York and the Getty Center in Los Angeles. His woodcuts for Cane are on two scales. The seven larger images are abstract portraits of women characters in the book; the three smaller blocks are reinterpretations of the enigmatic arcs that Toomer placed on pages dividing sections in the first edition.


Format: oblong, 11-1/2 by 13-7/8 inches. The text type is Times New Roman, 14 point, with long descenders, with 12 point for subsidiary material, composed by Monotype. The display type is Lucian Bold, composed by hand. The text paper is Biblio, mouldmade in Germany. The print paper is Kitakata, handmade in Japan. The edition of the book is limited to 400 numbered copies for sale and 26 lettered copies hors de commerce. All are signed by the artist. Of the edition for sale, 350 copies are bound in full tan linen over limp boards with brown linen ties, and 50 copies are bound in full brown goatskin. These copies are enclosed in a wooden slipcase created by Martin Puryear and produced in his studio from four woods: African wenge, Swiss pear, Italian walnut, and New England maple; the colors of the woods symbolic of human skin tones. The specially bound books are accompanied by a full linen portfolio containing an extra suite of seven of the ten woodblock prints bound into Cane (the arcs are not included), preceded by a title page specifying the edition and listing the titles of the prints. The prints are on full-size sheets of Kitakata, 17 by 20-1/2 inches. The images measure 10-3/8 by 12-3/4 inches. Each print is numbered, titled, and signed by the artist. The edition of the extra suite is limited to fifty for sale, 1/50 to 50/50; five artist's proofs, A/P 1 to A/P 5; and five publisher's proofs, P/P 1 to P/P 5.

Edition of the book only (350 copies), $750. Out of print.

Edition of the book specially bound, in the wooden slipcase, with an extra suite of prints (50 sets), $12,500. Out of print.

Carma by Martin Puryear

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