Born December 26, 1894
Died March 30, 1967
American poet, short story writer, dramatist, and essayist
Jean Toomer was hailed as the country's leading "Negro writer," but instead of being proud he was dismayed. He did not wish to be viewed through the lens of race. He considered himself simply an American writer who had written about the black experience in America.
With the publication of his novel Cane (1923), which was immediately hailed as a masterpiece of American literature and perhaps the highest achievement that any African American writer had yet attained, Jean Toomer moved to the forefront of all the promising young poets, novelists, and other artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Toomer soon turned his back on his newfound fame, however, to continue his lifelong search for inner peace, a more spiritual existence, and an identity that was universal rather than racial. Although he never achieved the brilliant career that many had foreseen for him, Toomer still stands as a brilliant author of the 1920s. Cane remains a major accomplishment and one of the finest works—if not the best—to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance.
A mixed-race family
Nathan Eugene Toomer (he began using the name Jean at the start of his literary career) was born in Washington, D.C., to a family of mixed European and African heritage. His maternal grandfather, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, had been a Republican lieutenant governor of Louisiana who was of mixed heritage and openly identified himself as black. Toomer's mother, Nina Pinchback, had defied her family's objections to her marrying Nathan Toomer, the illegitimate son of a former slave and her wealthy white owner. Light-skinned enough to hide his African American heritage, Nathan abandoned his young family soon after the birth of his son, and Jean Toomer saw his father only once thereafter.
Toomer spent his early boyhood under the roof of his domineering grandfather—whom he both admired and rebelled against—and his gentle but strong-willed grandmother. The Pinchbacks lived a life of luxury in their big house on Bacon Street, located in a quiet, all-white neighborhood, with a garden tended by a former slave. But Grandfather Pinchback's gambling habit led to a decline in the family's fortunes, and eventually they were forced to move to Brooklyn, New York, where Nina was living with her new white husband.
Feeling neither black nor white
At this point in his life Toomer was introduced to the world of books and imagination by his Uncle Bismarck, who shared a nightly ritual of reading with his intelligent young nephew. Toomer spent many hours in the public library, but he also liked the outdoors and enjoyed sports, especially swimming and sailing.
After Nina died unexpectedly in 1909, the Pinchbacks' fortune declined even more, and they were forced to move into a low-income, all-black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Toomer entered Paul Dunbar High School, attended by the brightest students of Washington's thriving African American community, but he did not feel comfortable in his new environment: he had experienced life in both the white and the black worlds, and he did not know where he belonged. A feeling of alienation and a yearning for a more meaningful existence would stay with Toomer for the rest of his life.
Years of wandering
In 1914 Toomer enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, intending to study agriculture, but he left after only one semester. Over the next four years he attended four more colleges, including the Massachusetts College of Agriculture, the American College of Physical Training (located in Chicago), the University of Chicago, and City College of New York. Toomer never earned a degree, but he continued to read and study many great literary works, such as those by playwrights George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) and Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892), and novelist and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). After finally leaving college, Toomer moved around a lot, working for short periods as a bodybuilder and physical education teacher, a welder, and a car salesman; at one point he even took up the life of a hobo (homeless person), hitching rides on passing trains.
Toomer was living in New York City in 1919 and spending time in Greenwich (pronounced GREN-itch) Village—a neighborhood that attracted many artistic people—when he came into contact with some members of the "Lost Generation," a group of writers (including poet Hart Crane [1899–1932] and critic Malcolm Cowley [1898–1989]) who felt alienated from the modern world and who tried in their work to stress art and human values over materialism and commercialism. One of these writers, a young, aspiring novelist named Waldo Frank, became Toomer's close friend. Toomer decided that he too would like to become a writer, and he began a period of learning and preparation.
Connecting with his heritage
The summer of 1921 found Toomer back in Washington, D.C., caring for his grandparents, who were both ill, and continuing to work on his writing. Then a friend of his grand-father's who was the principal of a small black school in Georgia stopped by for a visit. He said that he needed someone to take over the school's management for a short time, and Toomer volunteered for the job. In September, Toomer traveled to the small town of Sparta (located about eighty miles southeast of Georgia's capital, Atlanta) to become the temporary principal of the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute.
The few months Toomer spent in Georgia proved a very important time in his life. He lived in a tiny shack among the area's poorest black population. He heard through his open window the spirituals (religious songs) and work songs they sang. He attended the lively, music-filled church services. He listened to blues music and stories. He also saw firsthand the hardships and the brutalities of racism that blacks faced, but he was moved by their dignity, their ability to spring back from setbacks, and their deep spirituality.
For the first time in his life Toomer was in touch with his own African American heritage. In a letter to white novelist Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941), whose work (including the unconventional novel Winesburg, Ohio) he greatly admired, Toomer wrote: "My seed was planted in myself down there. Roots have grown and strengthened." Those roots would grow into a great literary work that Toomer began writing that November, while on the train home from Georgia. At this point he did not envision this record of his experiences in the South as a novel; he was writing poems and short pieces of prose, which he started sending out to various publications.
Cane: A collage of images
One of the editors who received Toomer's work was Claude McKay (1889–1948; see biographical entry) of the Liberator, who told "Miss Jean Toomer" that "her" writing was "a little too long, not clear enough, and lacking unity." Before long, however, McKay (who soon learned that Toomer was actually a man) was publishing Toomer's submissions in the Liberator, and fragments of what would become Cane also appeared in Dial and other magazines. In the summer of 1922, hoping to refresh his memories and impressions of the South, Toomer took a trip to South Carolina. This time he traveled with Waldo Frank, who was also working on a novel about the area.
By early 1923 Toomer had joined together all his scattered pieces of writing to form an unusual novel, which he called Cane (in reference to one of the southern states' main crops, sugar cane, from which sugar is derived only after a long, difficult harvesting and production process). Frank sent the manuscript to his own publisher, Boni & Liveright, which published Cane in September 1923. The book was like nothing anyone had ever seen before—a kind of collage of poems, scenes, and characters loosely linked by theme and tone—and the fact that it appeared at a time when many writers were experimenting with language and form heightened its impact.
A portrait of African American life, rural and urban
Divided into three parts, Cane features fifteen poems, six vignettes or character sketches, seven short stories, and one play. All of these pieces convey the black experience in both the rural South and the urban North. The first section, set in the Georgia countryside, contains lyrical, sensuous, but also harshly realistic portraits of six black women. Through these female characters, Toomer explores aspects of black life, culture, and womanhood. "Karintha" concerns a young girl whose innocent beauty eventually leads her into prostitution; "Carma" is unfaithful to her husband; "Becky" is a poor white women with two mixed-race sons who is shunned by her community; "Fern" is the alienated, emotionally dead daughter of a mixed (black and Jewish) marriage; "Esther" is a prim young girl infatuated with a flashy preacher; and in "Louisa" the title character's black lover stabs her white lover and then is lynched.
Cane's second part takes place in Chicago and Washington, D.C., evoking through seven prose pieces and five poems the lives of African Americans who have migrated to the northern cities in search of greater freedom, only to face continued struggle and deferred hopes. Many of the pieces concern relationships between men and women that are damaged by racial conflict. In "Rhobert" the overwhelming desire to own property is revealed as destructive, and in "Bona and Paul" a black boy who is able to pass as white loses the love of a white girl who had been attracted to his blackness.
The unobtrusive (not really noticeable) voice of the first two sections emerges in the third as a first-person narrator: "Kabnis" features a black schoolteacher from the North who travels to rural Georgia—a journey that takes him into the dark corners of himself as he struggles with his African American heritage and identity. Kabnis recognizes the value of the rural black culture he discovers, and he wants to celebrate and preserve it. Before he can do so, however, he must come to terms with the reality of slavery, which is symbolized by the character of Father John, an elderly man who is a former slave.
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An original masterpiece
Cane was a hit with critics and followers of the literary scene, if not with general readers (it sold less than five hundred copies). Waldo Frank told Toomer that he was "creating a new phase of American literature," and the prominent African American critic William Stanley Braithwaite, who seldom praised any work too highly, called Toomer "a bright morning star of a new day of the race in literature." Cane became a symbol of black achievement, a work that proved black writers could take their place beside whites. Most other works of the Harlem Renaissance could be classified as realism, but Toomer's stood out from the rest as a modernist (nontraditional) novel similar to those by American writers Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) and Gertrude Stein (1874–1946).
Toomer was now hailed as the country's leading "Negro writer," but instead of being proud he was dismayed. He did not wish to be viewed through the lens of race. He considered himself simply an American writer who had written about the black experience in America, and in an effort to convince others to see him this way, he began to deny his African heritage. He also began to turn away from his old friends and colleagues, who were puzzled by his attitude. Toomer would never again write about black life or experiences, and his work would never again be published by a major publishing house.
Becomes a Gurdjieff follower
In early 1924 Toomer became deeply interested in the teachings of Georgi Gurdjieff, a spiritual leader of Greek and Armenian heritage who had been living in Russia before moving to France, where he established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau (located just outside of Paris). Gurdjieff advocated a complicated system of psychology, philosophy, and physical movement and exercise that was supposed to help his followers achieve a balance of mind, body, and soul and reach a higher consciousness. This seemed like an answer to Toomer's lifelong quest for the deeper meaning of existence, and he joined Gurdjieff's group enthusiastically.
Toomer spent a summer in Fontainebleau, returning to New York with plans not to write but to teach Gurdjieff's principles. At first his lectures were quite popular, with many attendees drawn simply by Toomer's reputation as a talented author. Gradually, however, attendance dropped off, so Toomer moved on to Chicago. In the years that followed, he would live and promote the Gurdjieff system in Taos, New Mexico, and in Portage, Wisconsin.
Still writing, but not as successfully
Meanwhile, Toomer continued to write, but nothing he produced came close to Cane in artistry or originality. In fact, everything was infused with his new worldview and seemed designed to persuade others to join the Gurdjieff circle. In the late 1920s Toomer had several short stories ("Easter," "Mr. Costyve Duditch," and "Winter on Earth") as well as a novella (York Beach) published in literary journals. His final publication was a long poem called "Blue Meridian," which appeared in New Caravan in 1936. The poem presents an idealized vision of an America in which people of all races and religions come together in a new, universal human being called a "blue" man.
In 1932 Toomer married Margery Lattimer, a novelist and dedicated feminist whom he had met at the Gurdjieff community in Wisconsin. Less than a year later, she died soon after giving birth to a daughter. In 1934 Toomer married Marjorie Content and settled into life on a farm in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where he would live for the rest of his life. Although he gave up his active role in the Gurdjieff movement at the time of his second marriage, Toomer continued to practice its tenets. Still, he seemed to lack a full sense of inner peace: he took his family to India in 1939 and spent nine months talking to various religious leaders there. Shocked and depressed by the poverty and disease he witnessed in India, Toomer returned to the United States.
Because Toomer's writing never again appeared in print, many of those who had known him assumed he had stopped writing, but this was not true. In the last decades of his life he produced novels, plays, short stories, poems, and autobiographical pieces, but all were rejected by editors as lacking literary merit. In addition to this disappointment, Toomer's health began to fail during the 1930s, and it steadily declined over the next thirty years. He died in 1967, just as critics and readers were beginning to rediscover Cane and praise it as a classic work not only of the Harlem Renaissance but of American literature in general.
For More Information
Benson, Brian Joseph, and Mabel Mayle Dillard. Jean Toomer. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Durham, Frank. Studies in Cane. Columbus, OH: Merrill, 1971.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Kernan, Cynthia Earl. The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Penguin Books, 1979.
McKay, Nellie. Jean Toomer: Artist. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
O'Daniel, Therman B. Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1988.
Turner, Darwin T., ed. Cane (A Norton Critical Edition). New York: Norton, 1989.
Watson, Steven. The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture,1920–1930. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.
Woodson, Jon. To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the HarlemRenaissance. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Refusing to be labeled black or white, writer Jean Toomer (1894-1967) was first exalted, then criticized, ignored, and forgotten. However, during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s, Toomer was not only rediscovered but also "hailed as one of America's finest African American writers," noted the University of North Carolina's (UNC) website dedicated to English studies. Thus, he became "something he wouldn't have liked"—labeled. Toomer believed that "my racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine," quoted the Southern Literary Journal.
Raised Both Black and White
Born Nathan Eugene Pinchback Toomer on December 26, 1894, in Washington D.C., Toomer, until the age of 18, was perceived by others and lived alternatively as a black and as a white young man. After his father abandoned the family when Toomer was only one year old, he and his mother, Nina, moved in with her father, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, the first United States governor of African American descent.
While living with his grandfather in Washington D.C., Toomer attended an all-black elementary school, but lived in an affluent white neighborhood. However, when his mother remarried and moved her new family to New York, Toomer's life turned 180 degrees. In New York, he entered an all-white high school but lived in an all-black neighborhood. In 1909, after his mother's death, Toomer's life once again turned 180 degrees. He moved back into his grandfather's home in Washington D.C. and graduated from an all-black high school.
Living in both black and white worlds affected Toomer greatly. He saw that the world—both the black world and white world—had labeled him based on his appearance. Being a "fair-skinned, straight-nosed, straight-haired" African American, as UNC online described him, allowed Toomer acceptable entrance into the white world. However, by not looking absolutely "passable" white also allowed him entrance into the black world. This dual-entrance ability "added to his sense of isolation from any group identity," noted Black Issues Book Review. As a result, Toomer, by 1914, began rejecting all attempts to be classified by anyone in any world as "black" or "white." Toomer became the only label he would never refuse, "American."
Prepared to Be a Writer
Throughout the mid-1900s, Toomer continued his education by attending a variety of colleges including the University of Wisconsin and the City College of New York. He also studied many subjects such as agriculture, psychology, and literature. Yet, he never earned a degree. Unbeknownst to even himself, Toomer was not preparing for one career, but for his life as a seeker of knowledge and for his life as a writer.
Toomer began his life as a writer in 1918; for the next few years, he wrote many short stories and poems. Most reflected Toomer's steadfast idea that there was not a black or white race, but a "new race, that I was one of the first conscious members of this race … American," quoted Darwin Turner in The Wayward and the Seeking. However, these short stories and poems were not widely accepted or read by a popular audience. Unaffected, Toomer continued to write but abruptly stopped just two years later.
Adopted New Philosophy
In 1920, Toomer met writer Waldo Frank. Frank believed that a writer's or artist's duty and responsibility was to "[shape] American culture and society," stated Black Issues Book Review. Since Toomer had proclaimed that he was of no race but American, he adopted Frank's philosophy that as an American he should use his writing to "[set] the cultural agenda in a way that legislation or political activism could not."
Shortly after adopting Frank's beliefs, Toomer discovered a new philosophy—the philosophy of idealism. In order to delve into this new philosophy, Toomer stopped writing. Seeking knowledge, he began to study idealism which led him to believe that "in life nothing is only physical. There is also the symbolical. White and Black … In general, the great contrasts. The pair of opposites," further quoted Turner in The Wayward and the Seeking. Toomer's role in this philosophy was not so much that of a writer, but as a "reconciler" between the great contrasts of black and white.
To further his role as a "reconciler," Toomer sought out other writers who believed in and who demonstrated this idealistic philosophy in their work. He found the Imagist poetics or Symbolists: Charles Baudelaire and Walt Whitman. These writers, with "their insistence on fresh vision and on the perfect clean economical line was just what I had been looking for," commented Toomer in The Wayward and the Seeking. Yet, it was not only these writers or this new philosophy which would result in Toomer's most praised and most criticized novel. It was another geographical move—this time to the South.
Published a Literary Masterpiece
In 1921, Toomer began working and living in Sparta, Georgia. During this time in American history, the segregation of the races could be most blatantly seen in the rural South. No longer could Toomer remain focused on being only a "reconciler," a seeker of knowledge, or believe in one race, American. In the South, race could not be ignored. This indisputable fact forced Toomer to confront his own personal views on what others had labeled him—both black and white. How he did so was by writing Cane.
Like Toomer's own three-part identity—black, white, American—the structure of Cane is segregated into three sections. The first focuses on African American life in the South. By detailing the lives of six African American women, Toomer, in this section creates "the idealization of rural African Americans" noted the Southern Literary Journal. In section two, Toomer presents the opposite identity from section one—the urban North. He portrays this urban North as "a place of shallow, materialistic and antimystical striving," further noted the Southern Literary Journal. The third section once again shifts identities this time back to the rural South. However, Toomer focuses on an artist plagued by what role he should play in the world—should he represent the African American race or strive to become unidentified with any race.
Hailed by many critics of the time as a literary masterpiece, Cane nevertheless faded into obscurity. However, the ending of the book has provided clues as to why Toomer never again specifically focused on the black and white races as separate identities and how these identities can be harmoniously blended. Cane ends with the plagued artist watching a sunrise. As the sun rises, he theorizes that a bridge between races is not possible, yet a "bridge between himself and the universe" is, noted the Southern Literary Journal. Toomer's subsequent writings emphasized this philosophy.
Challenged Others to Think
Over the next 27 years, Toomer, unlike Cane, did not fade into obscurity. He married twice, became a father, and continued to challenge himself and others to think about their perception of the world. His belief that there is no black or white race, only American, never wavered; yet, how people should discover this belief changed with each new philosophy Toomer studied. For example, in 1938, Toomer traveled to India where he began writing about spiritual enlightenment. However, he struggled with India's "a life of withdrawal from the world," noted biographers Cynthia Kerman and Richard Eldridge in The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness.
During the 1940s, Toomer continued to struggle to connect his understanding of idealism to another religion: Quakerism. He tried to work through this struggle by organizing a living space called the Mill House. The Mill House welcomed both Quakers and laymen and offered an opportunity for both to dismiss all separations of religions and cultures. One member of Mill House praised Toomer for the "opened doors we were ready to walk through," quoted BANC!. Toomer wrote many essays and lectured frequently about Mill House; however, unlike Cane, they were not widely read. By 1950, Toomer stopped writing altogether, slowly withdrew from public life, and on March 30, 1967, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, he died.
Rediscovered Masterpiece and Writer
Why Toomer remained forgotten until the Harlem Renaissance has been widely debated. One popular theory is that Toomer was "frustrated by his inability to market much of his work," noted African American Review. Therefore, because of the time in which Toomer had been writing, he had been labeled a black writer. And, the white society had been taught not to read a novel, an essay, a poem, or other others works by a writer identified as "black."
The Southern Literary Journal has offered another popular theory as to why Toomer was forgotten. Toomer created his own obscurity by showing two faces—the "good" Toomer and the "bad" Toomer. The good Toomer "briefly and tactfully uses race to contain literary ambiguity [in Cane ], but the bad Toomer jettisons both race and literary ambiguity." In other words, Toomer was seen as a race traitor because he "challenged his culture's demand for absolute distinctions between white and black," noted African American Review. Consequently, because Toomer maintained his belief that he was no race but American, he pushed himself into obscurity.
However, this view changed during the 1960s and 1970s. Toomer was no longer seen as "bad" or a "race traitor." During this time of the Harlem Renaissance, "Toomer's rejection of race sounded, more importantly, like a rejection of white cultural hegemony," stated Black Issues Book Review. Therefore, Toomer became a cultural African American icon who, like civil rights activist Malcolm X, promoted the African American race as a separate identity.
Yet, by the 1990s, another theory would once again reemphasize that Toomer was not rejecting the white race or the black race. He accepted and truly believed that there is only one race, American. Integrating Roland Bartres classic 1956 essay Myth Today, Charles Harmon in the Southern Literary Journal offered his own interpretation of Cane using the philosophy of "neither/norism."
This philosophy, Bartres defined as "stating two opposites and balancing the one by the other so as to reject them both," Harmon quoted. Thus, Toomer, in Cane, which had presented both the black viewpoint and white viewpoint while ultimately rejecting both, had done just what Bartres defined. Therefore, Toomer should not be seen as "good" or "bad," rejecting the white hegemony, or as a race traitor—or in effect, a two-faced writer. What Toomer should be seen as is a writer who courageously challenged a belief by writing a masterpiece.
Ultimately, Toomer has been remembered as a significant writer—a significant African American writer. Although still labeled, Toomer's own words live on to reject that label. As quoted by the African American Review, Toomer never worried about how others saw him. He had always "simply gone and lived here and there. I have been what I am." And, as he further commented on racial identity, he urged people to realize that "both white and colored people share the same stupidity." However, it is Toomer's message to writers and artists that may truly silence his critics and his labelers: "Art … embraces all life … [its] noblest function … is to expand, elevate, and enrich that life."
Kerman, Cynthia and Richard Elrigde, The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness, 1987.
Turner, Darwin, editor, The Wayward and the Seeking, 1980.
African American Review, Fall 1998.
BANC! 2, 1972.
Black Issues Book Review, January/February 2001.
Southern Literary Journal, Spring 2000.
Jean Toomer (1894-1967), University of North Carolina online, http://www.inc.edu/courses/eng81br1/toomer/html (February 28, 2003). □
Nationality: American. Born: Nathan Eugene Toomer in Washington, D.C., 26 December 1894. Education: High schools in Brooklyn, New York, and Washington, D.C.; University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1914; Massachusetts College of Agriculture; American College of Physical Training, Chicago, 1916; New York University, Summer 1917; City College, New York, 1917. Family: Married 1) Margery Latimer in 1931 (died 1932), one daughter; 2) Marjorie Content in 1934. Career: Taught physical education in a school near Milwaukee, 1918; clerk, Acker Merrall and Conduit grocery company, New York, 1918; shipyard worker, New York; worked at Howard Theatre, Washington, D.C., 1920; studied at Gurdjieff's Institute in Fontainebleau, France, 1924, 1926: led Gurdjieff groups in Harlem, 1925, and Chicago, 1926-33; lived in Pennsylvania after 1934. Died: 30 March 1967.
The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Toomer, edited by Darwin T. Turner. 1980.
Collected Poems, edited by Robert B. Jones and Margery Toomer Latimer. 1988.
A Jean Toomer Reader: Selected Unpublished Writings. 1993.
Selected Essays and Literary Criticism. 1996.
Cane (includes stories and verse). 1923; edited by Darwin T. Turner, 1988.
Balo, in Plays of Negro Life, edited by Alain Locke and Montgomery Gregory. 1927.
Essentials (aphorisms). 1931.
An Interpretation of Friends Worship. 1947.
The Flavor of Man. 1949.*
"Toomer: An Annotated Checklist of Criticism" by John M. Reilly, in Resources for American Literary Study, Spring 1974.
In a Minor Chord (on Toomer, Cullen, and Hurston) by Darwin T. Turner, 1971; The Merrill Studies in Cane edited by Frank Durham, 1971; The Grotesque in American Negro Fiction: Toomer, Wright, and Ellison by Fritz Gysin, 1975; Toomer by Brian Joseph Benson and Mabel Mayle Dillard, 1980; Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work 1894-1936 by Nellie Y. McKay, 1984; The Lives of Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness by Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge, 1987; Toomer's Years with Gurdjieff: Portrait of an Artist 1923-1936 by Rudolph P. Byrd, 1990; Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen by Charles R. Larson, 1993; Jean Toomer and the Prison-House of Thought: A Phenomenology of the Spirit by Robert B. Jones, 1993; Race: Jean Toomer's Swan Song by Ronald Dorris, 1997; Shadows of Heaven: Gurdjieff and Toomer by Paul Beekman Taylor, 1998.* * *
After Jean Toomer wrote Cane he went on to write a number of plays, essays, poems, and short stories, many of them never published. One of the leading voices to be associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Toomer was born in Washington, D.C., 26 December 1894. His grandfather, P. B. S. Pinchback, a leading political figure in Louisiana during Reconstruction, was said to have African blood in his ancestry, setting up a racial ambivalence in Toomer that he attempted to resolve throughout his life. Toomer often lived in white communities, though his brilliance as a writer emerged when he became steeped in his black heritage. The pressures of a segregated America finally overwhelmed him, until he refused in later life to believe that his heritage included any African blood. He held a number of different jobs, including that of car salesman and physical education director, and he worked for a time in a business firm and settlement house.
In 1921 Toomer accepted a temporary teaching post in rural Georgia. Traveling through the South he became absorbed in the life of blacks, experiencing a personal regeneration that amounted to a spiritual awakening. As a result of his experiences in Georgia he began writing Cane on his journey back up North.
Cane stands as a classic of American experimental fiction, anticipating such later writers and experimenters in form as William Faulkner, Donald Barthelme, and Joan Didion. Cane has been read both as an extended poem-novel as well as a series of separate short stories, poems, and a dramatic piece. Toomer himself referred to an integral design throughout which allowed Cane to be read as a cohesive whole.
Cane is a prose-poetic vision of the black people's quest for integrity within a world fragmented by "corkscrew words," by hostile restrictions and cruel contradictions. The reader of Cane encounters a series of narratives circumscribed by fierce passion and debilitating prejudice. Personal histories circle against a natural backdrop of wilderness, cane fields, and the changing light of the sun. The dusky colors of the setting sun intensify the poignancy of individual experience as they peak, then become extinguished, casting geographic space and lingering time in lineaments of mysticism and sensuality.
The first section of Cane deals primarily with women in the South and their response to a world divided by prejudice. These historical narratives contained by the parameters of individual female personalities at the same time blend into and become part of nature in a lyrical commingling and spirituality. There is the exotic Fern who longs for fulfillment but is not satisfied by the men she attaches to herself by her insatiability. Fern becomes immobilized by her suffering, by words that issue forth from her in strange, broken sounds. Esther, too, finds her reality diminished. Esther begins to dream when her love for King Barlo is disrupted, and her passion becomes converted into flames that light the notion shop, the fire department rescuing a child she claims as her own. Condemned by society for being born white to a wealthy black father and white mother, she becomes like a dead person, unable to live life.
But it is the rebellious Karintha, her beauty causing men to be overwhelmed by her perfection, whose story resonates throughout Cane. The men who know her seek to violate Karintha before she is fully grown, to possess that perfection until she reacts by becoming a prostitute who burns her unwanted child in the sawmill pile in the woods. Smoke rises up from the sawdust pile to remind the town of its sins, of the materialism and carelessness of the masculine sensibility that has violated and destroyed Karintha.
Toomer, disturbed by the dying out of the tradition of folk songs in the South, makes Karintha's pain emblematic of the tragedy of other black souls, and yet linguistically gestures toward comfort and solace in a world that makes spiritual transcendence difficult, yet desired: "Smoke is on the hills…. O rise/And take my soul to Jesus." Throughout Cane the human plight of the women trapped by external forces is attested to and witnessed by the negro spiritual.
The second section of Cane opens on "Seventh Street"—"a bastard of Prohibition and the war. A crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington." Here a black masculine sensibility is affirmed against the sterility of materialism and industrialism that empties the soul out into a blankness, a white nothingness that is a reminder of the void the individual is cast into by prejudice.
In section three of Cane, "Kabnis," Lewis is a visionary who discerns promise in the character of Kabnis. Kabnis is a Christ image gone wrong, being "suspended," crucifixion-like, above the soil that would renew him. He is a confused, "completely artificial man" who, coming from the North, struggles but cannot respond to the possibility for regenerative vision held by the beauty of his heritage. Rather Lewis, as the man who has been most in touch with his black heritage, appears as the messiah to Carrie Kate: "The sun-burst from her eyes floods up and haloes him. Christ-eyes, his eyes look to her."
Yet within Cane there is no possibility for redemption from the sins of slavery and segregation as the narratives spin and circle against each other throughout, clashing and resonating. There is finally no possibility for the violence of human experience to be healed by the appearance of a different savior within Cane, one who wields the power of a new language and artistic face. The sounds of suffering are too great, the words of the spiritual bend before the weight of human pain, and though religion offers comfort, the fragmented conditions of society can bring only hope for a future healing.
Cane ends with Carrie Kate invoking the coming of the savior as she whispers, "Jesus, come." United with her past in the personality of Father John, she is viewed through the "soft circle" of a halo, becoming the last potential Madonna figure of a series of thwarted black women in Cane. Outside nature shares in Carrie Kate's longing as her hope is shaped by words into the linguistic creation of a "child" in the sun (son) that will regenerate the world: "The sun arises. Gold-glowing child, it steps into the sky and sends a birth-song slanting down gray dust streets and sleepy windows of the southern town."
Toomer sought throughout his life for an integrity to his personal experience, embracing at one point socialism, at another the teachings of Gurdjieff. But in his greatest fictional achievement, Cane, he came closest to realizing the profundity of human experience as it was cast within societal blindnesses and the obliteration of space and time.
December 26, 1894
March 30, 1967
Writer Jean Toomer was born Nathan Pinchback Toomer in Washington, D.C. (He changed his name to Jean Toomer in 1920.) His maternal grandfather, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, a dominant figure in Toomer's childhood and adolescence, was acting governor of Louisiana for about five weeks in 1872 and 1873. Because Toomer's father Nathan deserted his wife and child in 1895, and his mother Nina died in 1909, Toomer spent much of his youth in the home of his Pinchback grandparents in Washington, D.C. After graduating from Dunbar High School in 1914, Toomer spent about six months studying agriculture at the University of Wisconsin. During 1916 and 1917 he attended classes at various colleges, among them the American College of Physical Training in Chicago, New York University, and the City College of New York.
By 1918 Toomer had written "Bona and Paul," a story that became part of Cane, his masterpiece. This early story signaled a theme that Toomer was preoccupied with in most of his subsequent writing: the search for and development of personal identity and harmony with other people. Throughout his life, Toomer, who had light skin, felt uncomfortable with the rigid racial and ethnic classifications in the United States. He felt such classifications limited the individual and inhibited personal psychic development. Having lived in both white and black neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and having various racial and ethnic strains within him, he thought it ridiculous to define himself simplistically.
Two events early in Toomer's literary career were of great importance to his development as a writer. In 1920 he met the novelist and essayist Waldo Frank, and in 1921 he was a substitute principal at the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute in Georgia. Toomer and Frank became close friends, sharing their ideas about writing, and Frank, the established writer, encouraged Toomer in his fledgling work. However, it was in Georgia that Toomer became most inspired. He was moved and excited by the rural black people and their land. He felt he had found a part of himself that he had not known well, and perhaps for the first time in his life truly identified with his black heritage. The result was an outpouring of writing, bringing forth most of the southern pieces that would be in Cane.
Cane, stylistically avant-garde, an impressionistic collection of stories, sketches, and poems, some of which had been previously published in Crisis, Double Dealer, Liberator, Modern Review, and Broom, was published in 1923. Though only about a thousand copies were sold, it received mostly good reviews and was proclaimed an important book by the writers who were then establishing what was to become the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke praised Cane 's "musical folk-lilt" and "glamorous sensuous ecstasy." William Stanley Braithwaite called Toomer "the very first artist of the race, who … can write about the Negro without the surrender of compromise of the artist's vision…. Toomer is a bright morning star of a new day of the race in literature." A review in The New Republic lauded Cane for its unstereotyped picture of the South, and Allen Tate compared Toomer's avant-garde style favorably to other modern works.
However, despite the critical praise for Cane, by 1924 Toomer was feeling restless and unhappy with himself. His struggle with personal identity continued. He went to France to study at Georges I. Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau. Gurdjieff believed that human beings were made up of two parts: "personality" and "essence." Personality is superficial, created by social environment. It usually obscures essence, which is one's true nature and the core of one's being. Gurdjieff claimed that he could help people discover their essence. Toomer soon embraced Gurdjieff's ideas of personal development, and when he returned to the United States, he became an advocate of Gurdjieff's philosophy, leading Gurdjieff workshops at first briefly in Harlem and then in Chicago until 1930.
Due to Gurdjieff's influence and Toomer's continuing search for a meaningful identity, after 1923 he largely abandoned the style and subject matter he had used in Cane. To a great extent he abandoned black writing. From 1924 until his death, he wrote voluminously, but with little critical or publishing success. He wrote in all genres: plays, poems, essays, stories, novels, and autobiographies. Whereas his writing became noticeably more didactic, some of it was not without interesting stylistic experimentation, especially his expressionistic drama, most notably The Sacred Factory, published posthumously in 1980. During this period, Toomer also wrote a number of autobiographies and provocative social, political, and personal essays, some of which were published posthumously. Works that Toomer did publish after Cane include: Balo (1927), a play of Southern rural black life, written during the Cane period; "Mr. Costyve Duditch" and "Winter on Earth," stories published in 1928; "Race Problems and Modern Society" (1929), an important essay on the racial situation in the United States that complements "The Negro Emergent," published posthumously in 1993; and "Blue Meridian" (1936), a long poem in which Toomer depicts the development of the American race as the coming together of the black, red, and white races.
A decade after the publication of Cane, Toomer had dropped into relative obscurity. It was not until the 1960s and the renewed interest in earlier African-American writing and the republication of Cane that Toomer began to have a large readership and an influence on the young black writers of the day. Since then, four posthumous collections of mostly previously unpublished material have appeared: The Wayward and the Seeking (ed. Darwin T. Turner, 1980); The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer (ed. Robert B. Jones and Margery Toomer Latimer, 1988); Essentials (ed. Rudolph P. Byrd, 1991, a republication of a collection of aphorisms originally privately printed in 1931); and A Jean Toomer Reader: Selected Unpublished Writings (ed. Frederik L. Rusch, 1993).
Toomer had two wives. He married Margery Latimer in 1931, but she died the following year giving birth to their daughter, also named Margery. In 1934 he married Marjorie Content. From 1936 to his death, Toomer resided in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Byrd, Rudolph P. Jean Toomer's Years with Gurdjieff: A Portrait of an Artist, 1923–1936. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Griffin, John Chandler. Biography of American Author Jean Toomer, 1894–1967. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.
Kerman, Cynthia Earl, and Richard Eldridge. The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.
McKay, Nellie Y. Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Life and Work, 1894–1936. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
frederik l. rusch (1996)