Toomer, Jean 1894–1967
Jean Toomer 1894–1967
Author of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry
Jean Toomer, a writer of mixed racial heritage, was a complex and often misunderstood figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Although he frequently evaded the question of his racial identity, his initial fame in literary circles—for the 1923 novel Cane —was based largely on his reputation as an African American author who held great promise for changing the way white America viewed black artists.
Toomer’s grandfather, Pinckney B. S. Pinchback, was the son of a white plantation owner and Eliza Stewart, a former slave of mixed race, possibly including African and Native American blood. Pinchback didn’t hesitate to identify himself as black and, in fact, made that identity very much a part of his career: by the 1860s, Pinchback had a broad public reputation as a black politician, including a brief career as the first black governor in the United States. Toomer’s mother, Nina, was Pinchback’s only daughter; his father, Nathan, was variously reported as English, Dutch, Spanish, African, and Native American. Toomer’s biographers, Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge, recorded Nathan and Nina’s marriage license as listing both parents as “colored.”
Jean, legally named Nathan Pinchback Toomer, was born December 26, 1894, in Washington D.C., where Pinchback had moved his family in 1892. Nathan Toomer vanished as soon as financial problems set in, and Nina and her baby boy moved back into her father’s home. For much of his early childhood, Jean was an adventurous and assertive child, ruling the neighborhood gang with confidence. He attended the Garnet School, an elementary school for black students, where “he threw crayons and erasers around, rolled inkwells up the aisles, sent notes, and teased the girls,” according to Kerman and Eldridge in The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness. Straddling both the black and white worlds, Toomer was separated from his neighborhood crowd when he was at school, since the other families on his street in the nation’s capital were generally of white immigrant stock.
In 1905—during a period he later described in one of his autobiographical pieces as a “dark night streaked with nightmares“—Toomer experienced a year of illnesses that put him behind in school and toppled him from the leadership position among his neighborhood buddies. As he withdrew and became a solitary child, his enthusiasm for reading and study was nurtured by his Uncle Bismarck, a studious member of the Pinchback’s extended family. Toomer later recalled this time as a significant turning point in his life: “I had been active
Born Nathan Pinchback Toomer, December 26, 1894, in Washington, DC; died March 30, 1967, in Doylestown, PA; son of Nathan and Nina (Pinchback) Toomer; married Margery Latimer (a writer), October 30, 1931 (died August 16, 1932); married Marjorie Content, September 1, 1934; children: Margery (with Latimer). Education: Attended University of Wisconsin, 1914; American College of Physical Education, Chicago, 1916; University of Chicago, 1916; City College of New York and New York University, 1917.
Moved between New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC, 1915-21, working as a car salesman, an assistant librarian at City College of New York, and a physical education director at a settlement home; began writing occasionally during college years; temporary head of the all-black Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute in Georgia, 1921; wrote series of sketches, which later became Cane, 1922; began involvement with Gurdjieff Institute, 1923; continued writing, but rarely published after 1930; suffered malicious media attack over marriage to first wife, 1932; settled in Doylestown, PA, with second wife, 1936; traveled to India, 1939. Showed interest in a variety of philosophies and teachings, including psychoanalysis, Quakerism, and dianetics.
mainly externally. Now I could not be so. I gradually became active mainly internally and built up an inner world of my own in which intangible things were more real than tangibles.”
When Toomer’s mother moved to New York and remarried in 1906, young Jean had a brief opportunity to rebound. In a white school in New Rochelle, he succeeded with his studies and built his physical strength back up. But in 1909 Nina died from advanced appendicitis, and Jean went back to his grandparents. They had moved to a different part of Washington, and he discovered there his first opportunity to live in a black neighborhood. Toomer described in an autobiographical work his enthusiasm for “this world—an aristocracy—such as never existed before and perhaps never will exist again in America—midway between the white and Negro worlds. For the first time I lived in a colored world.”
Enrolled in Dunbar High School in 1910, Toomer found himself enthusiastic about a variety of subjects, sports, and his social group. He and his best friend, Henry Kennedy, “cut school to read books and took long walks reading Shakespeare and Milton aloud“; Kerman and Eldridge surmised that “Jean had a growing sense of himself as different from the other students.”
When he graduated from high school in 1914, college applications required that Toomer classify his race; he chose to identify himself as white or not to identify himself at all. He apparently feared the discrimination he might experience if he enrolled in any predominantly white college as a “colored” student. Entering the agriculture program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he found himself again enthusiastic about an active social life and sports, which he indulged in much more than his studies. He quit Wisconsin after a semester, briefly entertained the possibility of enrolling in a similar program at the University of Massachusetts in the fall of 1915, but instead took some time out in New York City.
In January of 1916 he started studies at the American College of Physical Education in Chicago; soon after, he also enrolled in the University of Chicago. He enjoyed the course of study, but again found his greatest excitement and education outside of any formal training. As Kerman and Eldridge noted, “Jean’s intellectual horizons were expanding to the point of explosion.” He began attending lectures on—among other topics—socialism, naturalism, and atheism, and eventually gave several talks of his own.
Toomer eventually put aside work at both colleges, choosing instead to drift through a variety of less orthodox learning experiences. He moved between New York City, Chicago, and Washington D.C. In New York and Chicago he proved himself in various jobs, including stints as a car salesman and an assistant librarian at City College of New York. In D.C., he tended to live off of his grandparents, which he could do for only so long before his grandfather’s obvious disappointment made him anxious and restless. Throughout it all, he was reading voraciously, developing a broad intellectual background, and even beginning to write his own pieces.
His belief in himself as an author blossomed in 1920, when he met one of his most important friends and his first mentor, author Waldo Frank, at a literary party in New York. With Frank’s encouragement, Toomer devoted himself to his writing, returning to his grandparents’ apartment in Washington, D.C. to work. He very quickly produced reams of manuscripts, none of which, however, he wanted to submit for publication. He claimed in one of his autobiographical pieces: “Before I had even so much as glimpsed the possibility of writing Cane, I had a trunk full of manuscripts. The phrase ‘trunk full’ is often used loosely. I mean it literally and exactly.”
Just when he was beginning to feel too exhausted to keep working, he was offered an opportunity for a change: he took a temporary position as the substitute head at the all-black Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute in Georgia. He remained through the fall of 1921, seeing for the first time in his life the world of rural African Americans; it was this discovery, ultimately, that inspired Toomer to write the sketches that would eventually become Cane, one of the landmark experimental texts of early twentieth-century American literature. In a letter to Frank, quoted in Brian Joseph Benson and Mabel Mayle Dillard’s Jean Toomer, he wrote: “The visit to Georgia last fall was the starting point of almost everything of worth that I have done. I heard folk-songs come from the lips of Negro peasants. I saw the rich dusk beauty that I heard many false accounts about, and of which, till then, I was somewhat skeptical. And a deep part of my nature, a part that I had repressed, sprang suddenly into life and responded to them.”
In July of 1922, Toomer collected the sketches into a book; Cane, which takes its name from the harvesting of sugar cane in the southern states, was accepted for publication by Horace Liveright on January 2, 1923, and appeared in bookstores the following September. An intriguing blend of poetry, short stories, and drama, Cane contrasts the black experience in the rural South with that of the urban North and offers powerful insights into the nature of human frustration, alienation, and spiritual disconnection. The book did not actually sell well—no more than 1,000 copies—but it became, nonetheless, a highly acclaimed modern novel.
Not surprisingly, the book and its author were received as part of the then astronomical rise in black American intellectual and artistic output known since as the Harlem Renaissance. Toomer’s talent was applauded by leaders of the black community, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and Countee Cullen; Kerman and Eldridge pointed out that “Du Bois, Locke, and others were urging him to make an even more fruitful ‘race contribution.”’ Nathan Irvin Huggins, who wrote the first comprehensive study of the Harlem Renaissance in 1971, described Cane as “more than other contemporary novels by black authors … a conscious exploration of Negro identity.”
Many of the Cane fragments, as well as other poems and short stories by Toomer, soon appeared in literary reviews, including Dial, Liberator, Broom, and the Little Review. The first of these contributions appeared in April of 1922, when the Crisis, the official journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), published “Song of the Son,” which would later appear in Cane. In response to both Cane and his shorter works, many editors insisted on identifying the author as black or, to use the terminology of the time, Negro; Toomer soon began expressing his discomfort with this.
Toomer’s rejection of race classification is thought to have stemmed largely from his commitment to art and to his idea of a “new American” race. These feelings prevail in a 1923 letter to his publishers from which Kerman and Eldridge quote: “I have told you … to make use of whatever racial factors you wish. Feature Negro if you wish, but do not expect me to feature it in advertisement for you.…Whatever statement I give will inevitably come from a sympathetic human and art point of view; not from a racial one.”
It was only after he married Margery Latimer, a white novelist from a wealthy midwestern family, on October 30, 1931, that Toomer confronted the kind of bigotry that white America could visit on a person of color. The Toomers had settled quietly in Carmel, California, when Toomer granted an interview to a San Francisco reporter who he assumed was interested in his philosophical work; when the article appeared, however, he discovered that the paper considered his race much more important—and not in the way that the New York literati had. The story began appearing in syndicated articles around the country with headlines such as “Negro Who Wed White Writer Sees New Race“—despite the fact that Toomer had listed himself on his marriage license as white.
Toomer’s own relationship to an African American identity, apart from his political feelings about the black population in general, is described in a seven-page pamphlet called “A Fiction and Some Facts.” Although the original manuscript is undated, Kerman and Eldridge guess its origin at around 1937; Benson and Dillard, however, assume that it was written in 1932, soon after the publicity began concerning his marriage.
The author asserted in the pamphlet that his grandfather “came of stock predominantly Scotch, Welsh and German,” adding, “I am not prepared to state as a fact that there was, or that there was not, some Negro or Indian blood in the family.” He suggested that his grandfather’s predominant identity as black was, more than anything else, political opportunism: “Whereas others would have thought it to their disadvantage to claim Negro blood, Pinchback thought it to his advantage.” Toomer is often quoted as having said: “I am I, for better or worse. If Negro blood is among the bloods that make me what I am, then the Negro blood, along with others, shares in producing whatever virtues I may have, and also shares in producing whatever vices I may have.” Later, he insisted, “In biological fact I am, as are all Americans, a member of a new people that is forming in this country. If we call this people the Americans, then biologically and racially I am an American.”
Nearly a decade prior to his first marriage, around the time of Cane’s publication in 1923, Toomer’s search for intellectual and emotional wholeness led him to the works and method of George Gurdjieff, a Russian philosopher living in France who had articulated a “way” to spiritual realization that had, by the late 1920s, won a sizable following in New York. A disciple’s involvement consisted of classes, many of which included reading, attendance at lectures, and physical exercises that appealed to Toomer’s earlier work in physical education. A number of “teachers” led the classes in New York; Kerman and Eldridge described their work: “Each in his own way was teaching Gurdjieff’s complex cosmological system through an experiential process by which people could work on themselves to attain more awareness of that system, true individuality, the development of a higher consciousness.” Toomer subsequently withdrew almost completely from the literary circles in New York.
Soon after immersing himself in the system, Toomer envisioned himself as a teacher, a role that had appealed to him since his childhood as leader of his neighborhood gang. He traveled to Gurdjieff’s Institute for Man’s Harmonious Development in France (where the guru himself taught), first in the summer of 1924 and again in 1926, 1927, and 1929. During this time, Toomer also started several groups in the United States. He had the most success with a branch in the Midwest—Gurdjieff felt that his word needed to travel beyond New York—where he started a Chicago group in 1926.
The Chicago group survived through 1931, the same year that Toomer married for the first time. Margery Latimer Toomer died less than a year after their wedding, on August 16, 1932, after the birth of their child. Toomer never really tried to revive the Chicago group after this blow. He eventually returned to New York, where he met Marjorie Content in 1934; they were married on September 1 in Mexico. The couple settled on a farm, which they christened Mill House, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania in 1936. By this time, Toomer had broken with Gurdjieff, who kept requiring money for support from his disciples. Toomer himself earned little money, aside from an occasional fee for his lectures and infrequent publications. He avoided taking on any kind of regular work, instead devoting himself to his writing, which had again become prolific.
By 1927 Toomer was writing quite steadily again, producing essays, fiction, and poetry, as well as longer manuscripts, but even his fiction at that time was largely determined by his spiritual work with Gurdjieff. He consistently submitted the work to publishers, both book publishers and small journals, but only a fraction of what he was writing would make it into print. Toomer was aware that this kind of work was not what his publishers expected of him; they were anticipating a follow-up to Cane. But the increasingly abstract nature of his writings limited his potential audience. The last piece of work Toomer had published by a major publication during his lifetime was in 1936, when The New American Caravan printed “Blue Meridian,” a long poem that focuses on the concept of identity and offers a vision of a single, harmonious human race.
Toomer and his second wife set up a Mill House imprint, a small, private publishing operation that allowed him to distribute some of his work in pamphlet form. He continued to lecture as well, but neither of these efforts brought his family a viable income; they tended to live, instead, off of gifts from her wealthy father. Jean still felt that it was his primary purpose in life to find the “way” and to realize his “being-consciousness.” After his break with Gurdjieff, he pursued spiritual work in his own writing and tried a few other systems. In 1939 he, along with his reluctant wife and daughter, traveled through India looking for a teacher who could reveal a “true” system of self-realization; he returned, unsuccessful, after five months. In the 1940s he believed that he had found his answer in a small Quaker church in their area, where he and Marjorie became involved with the Friends until 1948. He flirted briefly with Jungian psychoanalysis in 1949 and gave dianetics a try in 1951. Finally, he returned to the Gurdjieff method, which maintained him through the rest of his life.
In the late 1940s Toomer began experiencing physical ailments, particularly digestive difficulty and abdominal pains. He tried to address the problem through diet and psychoanalysis, but throughout the 1950s the complications simply worsened; other physical problems gradually attacked him as well. He was so incapacitated by 1957 that he had to relinquish all involvement in group meetings, including his own lecturing and teaching. After moving into a nursing home in 1965, he died two years later on March 30. Toomer never saw the revitalization of Cane, which began with its republication in 1969; the book won the kind of sales and broad public recognition that would have made his life much easier. Benson and Dillard have described the reputation of the novel during Toomer’s lifetime as “one of those classics kept alive by word of mouth and sheer admiration on the part of readership.” By 1980, however, with the release of several paperback editions, Cane was reaching a “much larger audience, [was proving to be] a financially successful venture, and [was] once again…beginning to exert a wide influence on readers.”
Cane (a novel comprised of poetry, short stories, and drama), Boni and Liveright, 1923.
The Gallonwerps (unpublished), 1927.
Transatlantic (unpublished), 1929.
Essentials, Lakeside Press, 1931.
Caromb (unpublished), 1932.
“Easter,” Little Review, Spring 1925.
“Mr. Costyve Duditch,” Dial, December 1928.
“Winter on Earth,” The Second American Caravan, edited by Alfred Kreymborg, Macauley Company, 1928.
“York Beach,” The New American Caravan, edited by Alfred Kreymborg, Macauley Company, 1929.
“Withered Skin of Berries,” written in 1930, first published in The Wayward and the Seeking, 1982.
“Song of the Son,” Crisis, April 1922.
“Bride of Air” (unpublished), 1931.
“Brown River Smile,” Pagany, January-March 1932.
“As the Eagle Soars,” Crisis, April 1932.
“Blue Meridian,” The New American Caravan, edited by Alfred Kreymborg, Norton, 1936.
“Oxen Cart and Warfare,” Little Review, Autumn-Winter 1924-25.
“Reflections,” Dial, April 1929.
“Race Problems and Modern Society,” Man and His World, edited by Baker Brownell, D. Van Nostrand, 1929.
“A Fiction and Some Facts,” c 1930s.
Balo, in Plays of Negro Life, edited by Alain Locke and Montgomery Gregory, Harper’s, 1927.
Autobiographical manuscripts are extensive and largely unpublished, except for the excerpts included in The Wayward and the Seeking, which also includes some previously unpublished stories and poems.
“Values and Fictions: A Psychological Record,” 1925.
“Earth Being,” 1930.
“Incredible Journey,” 1945.
“Outline of an Autobiography,” 1946.
Benson, Brian Joseph, and Mabel Mayle Dillard, Jean Toomer, Twayne, 1980.
Black Literary Criticism, Gale, 1992.
Bone, Robert, The Negro Novel in America, revised edition, Yale University Press, 1965, pp. 65-94.
Bontemps, Arna, editor, The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, Dodd, Mead, 1972, pp. 51-62.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin, Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1971.
Kerman, Cynthia Earl, and Richard Eldridge, The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness, Louisiana State University Press, 1987.
Kramer, Victor A., editor, The Harlem Renaissance Reexamined, AMS Press, 1987.
McKay, Nellie Y., Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936, University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
O’Daniel, Therman B., editor, Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation, Howard University Press, 1988.
Turner, Darwin T., editor, The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer, Howard University Press, 1982.
Black American Literature Forum, Fall 1987, pp. 253-73.
Crisis, February 1924, pp. 161-63; September 1924, pp. 204-10.
Southern Review, July 1985, pp. 682-94.
—Ondine E. Le Blanc
Racine, Jean (1639–1699)
RACINE, JEAN (1639–1699)
RACINE, JEAN (1639–1699), French playwright and author. Racine was born in La Ferté-Milon, northeast of Paris. His parents died when he was very young, and he was therefore raised mostly by his maternal grandmother, Marie Desmoulins. As his mother's family had close connections with the Jansenists of Port-Royal, Racine came under their influence from an early age, and their rigorous Augustinian theology would be central to his work. After beginning his education at the Collège de Beauvais, he studied at the Petites Écoles de Port-Royal, where he absorbed both Jansenist doctrine and a solid classical education, becoming a particularly fine scholar of Greek. From 1658 Racine began to lead a more worldly life, rejecting his austere upbringing in favor of writing poetry and party-hopping with his cousin Nicolas Vitart, the writer of fables Jean de La Fontaine (also a distant relation), and other figures on the Parisian literary scene. His family sent him (1661–1663) to Uzès in an effort to make a churchman of him, but his letters from this time show us how little this sort of life appealed to him. By 1663 he was back in Paris, where he met Molière and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, and (despite criticism from his family) began to write for the theater.
Racine's first play to be produced was La Thébaïde (The Thebiad), which had its premiere on 20 June 1664, inspiring both popular and critical acclaim. This was followed by Alexandre le grand (1665), in whose preface Racine somewhat ungratefully repudiated his teachers at Port-Royal. The first few performances were given by Molière's theater company; then, however, Racine took both the play and its leading lady, Thérèse du Parc, away from Molière, and arranged for further performances to be given by the rival troupe of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, a move that Racine thought (correctly) would augment both his fame and his boxoffice receipts. Such machinations made Racine few friends, and indeed he seems to have been, at least in his professional life, a difficult man: vain, humorless, quick to take offense, and ungenerous toward fellow artists, even if his scathing attacks on his enemies were sometimes justified.
There followed Racine's first real masterpiece, Andromaque (1667, written for Du Parc); his only comedy, Les plaideurs (1668; The litigants); Britannicus (1669); Bérénice (1670); Bajazet (1672); and Louis XIV's personal favorite, Mithridate (1673, the year in which Racine was elected to the Académie Française). Du Parc having died in 1668, by 1670 Racine had joined the crowd of lovers of another leading actress, Marie de Champmeslé, for whom he wrote the title roles of Bérénice and his two last plays on classical subjects, Iphigénie en Aulide (1674) and Phèdre (1677). After Phèdre he suddenly abandoned the theater, probably less because of any spiritual crisis than because Louis XIV made him (with Boileau, one of the few friends Racine had managed to keep) his official historiographer. He married Catherine de Romanet, a distant relation by marriage, and settled down to a life as a respectable courtier and the devoted father of seven children. For the next twelve years Racine busied himself with his official duties, only returning to the theater in 1689 at the request of Louis's wife Madame de Maintenon, for whose girls' school at Saint-Cyr he wrote Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691). In 1695 he produced his Cantiques spirituels (Spiritual songs), and thereafter entered semi-retirement, interpreted by some as the result of falling from Louis's favor. After writing the Abrégédel'histoire de Port-Royal (Summary of the history of Port-Royal), which was not published until 1767, Racine died on 21 April 1699.
Racine's theater uses extreme economy of means to generate an intensity of tragic feeling rivaled only by his classical Greek models and by Shakespeare. The unusually small vocabulary of the plays (just under 3,000 words) and his strict adherence to the three unities (codified by his rival Pierre Corneille) give his tragedies the sharpest possible focus. He is a poetic craftsman of the first order, and the austere, oblique elegance of his verse serves to heighten, through ironic contrast, the horror of his characters' torments. His themes and plots, too, while more varied than commonly supposed, are rigorously organized, and their inexorable unfolding shows how well he has absorbed both the theatrical technique and the tragic outlook of the Greeks; but the ruthlessness of his tragedy often surpasses even that of Sophocles or Euripides. This is because Racine adds to the tragic equation a harsh pessimism, derived from Jansenist theology, according to which humans are not merely liable to error, but doomed to self-destructive transgression. In the absence of redemptive grace, even the greatest and noblest souls are driven by their own passions—incestuous lust, hunger for power, murderous vengefulness, sadistic cruelty—to crimes that destroy victim and perpetrator alike. Racine displays an almost clinical fascination with this process, especially as embodied in his tormented female protagonists. Of the sufferings of an Iphigénie or a Phèdre, perhaps none is more exquisite than their terrible lucidity, their claustrophobic awareness of a fate they can do nothing to avoid. The psychological complexity Racine gives to these roles has made them coveted by generations of actresses.
In the immaculate music of his verse, Racine expresses passions of a perverse, even blasphemous ferocity; the result is powerful theater that has continued to fascinate audiences and scholars alike from the seventeenth century to the present. Save for a period of disfavor in the nineteenth century, when the Romantics preferred Shakespeare, Racine's work has remained the benchmark for tragic theater, in France and elsewhere. He claimed to be writing for the sophisticated few, but his immense success belies his intention. The literature on Racine is enormous and still growing; historicists, Marxists, psychoanalytic critics, poststructuralists, and the philosophically or theologically inclined all find that Racine has as much to say as ever.
See also Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas ; Classicism ; Corneille, Pierre ; French Literature and Language ; Jansenism ; La Fontaine, Jean de ; Molière .
Racine, Jean. Andromache, Britannicus, Bérénice. Translated by John Cairncross. Baltimore, 1967.
——. Five Plays. Translated by Kenneth Muir. New York, 1960.
——. Iphigenia, Phaedra, Athaliah. Translated by John Cairncross. Baltimore, 1963.
——. Oeuvres complètes. Edited by Raymond Picard. 2 vols. Paris, 1950–1966.
——. Oeuvres complètes. Edited by Georges Forestier. Paris, 1999–.
Barthes, Roland. On Racine. Translated by Richard Howard. New York, 1964.
Bénichou, Paul. Morales du Grand Siècle. Paris, 1948.
Goldmann, Lucien. The Hidden God: A Study of Tragic Vision in the Pensées of Pascal and the Tragedies of Racine. Translated by Philip Thody. London, 1964.
Jasinki, René. Vers le vrai Racine. Paris, 1958.
Picard, Raymond. La carrière de Jean Racine. Paris, 1961.
Pommier, Jean. Aspects de Racine, suivi de l'histoire littéraire d'un couple tragique. Paris, 1954.
Rohou, Jacques. Avez-vous lu Racine? Mise au point polémique. Paris, 2000.
Viala, Alain. Racine, la stratégie du caméléon. Paris, 1990.
David M. Posner
BORN: 1639, La Ferte-Milon, France
GENRE: Drama, poetry
Jean Racine has long been held as one of the foremost dramatic writers in the whole of French literature, though his fame rests essentially on ten plays. Most of his plays are still regularly performed, some of them even in translation, in spite of their being exceptionally difficult to translate because of his unique style of poetry. Racine usually borrowed his dramatic subjects from mythology and constructed his plays using a high-style neoclassical tragic form.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Orphaned but Well Educated Baptized on December 22, 1639, Racine was presumably born a few days before this date in the small town of La Ferté-Milon in the province of Champagne, some fifty miles northeast of Paris, to a lower-middle-class family. His father, also named Jean, occupied a modest and poorly paid position in the tax-collecting bureaucracy. In January 1641, Racine's mother, Jeanne Sconin Racine, died while giving birth to her second child, Marie. In February 1643, the children's father, who had remarried three months earlier, also died, leaving Racine and his sister destitute. Their paternal grandparents took charge of the boy, the maternal grandparents of the girl.
In October 1649, the young Racine was enrolled as a nonpaying student at the “PetitesÉcoles” (Little Schools) in Cheureuse. The school provided him with a superior education, which, contrary to the then prevailing fashion, was conducted not in Latin but in French and emphasized a close study of the vernacular. It included a sustained study of Latin and Greek—in which Racine soon became remarkably fluent—as well as the modern languages of Spanish and Italian. After his four years at Port-Royal, Racine entered the Collège de Beauvais in Paris, an institution sympathetic to the abbey, where he studied for two years, returning to Port-Royal in the fall of 1655. He spent three more years as a student there before entering the Collège d'Harcourt in Paris, where he studied for a final year (1658-1659), completing an education of virtually unparalleled scope and quality, one far superior to what a destitute and provincial orphan could have hoped for.
Success and Rivalry Several years later, having entered into friendships with writers Molière, Jean de La Fontaine, and Nicolas Boileau, he began writing for the Parisian stage, with the neoclassical theorist Boileau being an especially strong influence upon him. In 1664 Racine's The Thebans was produced by Molière, who also launched the young dramatist's second play, Alexander the Great, the next year; these works brought their author much acclaim.
When Alexander opened, Racine made the first of several key decisions that brought him strained relations with friends—if not influential enemies—throughout his career. Immediately dissatisfied by Molière's production of Alexander at the Palais-Royal, he mounted a rival production at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, deeply offending Molière and ending their friendship.
At about the same time, due to a misunderstanding, Racine publicly broke with the Jansenist Catholics of Port-Royal (a particular branch of Catholics whose beliefs centered on original sin and human depravity) by publishing an open letter—which he later regretted—filled with ill-spirited caricatures of and anecdotes about key Jansenist figures. Having split with the Jansenists and now considered a rising rival of Pierre Corneille, Racine embraced the worldliness of the Parisian dramatic world, took actresses for mistresses, and actively competed in dramatic popularity with the older writer. In the drama Britannicus he not only ventured into political drama, at the time considered Corneille's exclusive domain, but he also attacked Corneille himself (though not by name) in his introduction, having come to believe that a plot led by Corneille had sought to undermine his drama's success. He also answered Corneille's El Cid with his own Andromache (1667) and pitted his superior Berenice (1670) against Corneille's Tite et Berenice, which appeared almost simultaneously.
Racine's most distinguished plays appeared during the next few years, and in 1674, he was elected to the Academie Francaise, becoming its youngest member. But by the mid 1670s, the ill will he had engendered among his peers and their admirers affected his own career. One of his more powerful enemies, the Duchesse de Bouillon—a niece of Cardinal Mazarin and sister of the Duc de Nevers—learned of Racine's Phaedra during its composition and persuaded a minor dramatist, Jacques Pradon, to write a rival version of the play, which opened two days after Racine's production. Further, it is said that she reserved many of the main seats for the earliest performances of Racine's play, leaving these seats empty on the crucial opening nights. Although Phaedra was eventually seen as superior to Pradon's tragedy, Racine was badly shaken by this episode and its aftermath, which included having his personal safety threatened by the Duc de Nevers.
Retirement and Revival At the height of his career, Racine retired from the professional theater; he married, became the devoted father of seven children, and accepted the post of Royal Historiographer, a position he shared with Boileau. For two decades Racine enjoyed access to the most influential political and literary circles; he and Boileau also traveled with Louis XIV on military campaigns, recording the Sun King's exploits.
In 1689, at the request of Louis XIV's wife, Madame de Maintenon, Racine produced a new play, Esther, based on the biblical story, which was performed at a religious school in Saint-Cyr. Praised by the king himself, this play was so well received that Racine wrote another biblical drama, Athaliah, which was performed at Saint-Cyr two years later. During his remaining years, he wrote four spiritual hymns and a history of Port-Royal. Racine died in 1699 after a long illness.
Works in Literary Context
With Pierre Corneille, Racine was one of the premier authors of French dramatic tragedy during the reign of Louis XIV. Similar to Greek tragedy and Corneille's works, Racine's plays emphasize the exposition of character and spiritual conflict, eliminating nearly everything not central to each drama's theme. His accomplishment was summarized in glowing terms by Anatole France, who wrote that Racine's “period, his education, and his nature, conspired together to make of him the most perfect of French poets, and the greatest by reason of the sustained nobility of his work.”
Racine's death marked the virtual demise of the literary genre he had so ably illustrated. In the century that followed, many tragedies were written in emulation of Racine's, but none succeeded in matching his, and almost none have survived, in spite of the talent of some of their authors, Voltaire in particular. Not until the early nineteenth century did critics finally realize that, with Racine, French tragedy had reached both its zenith and the beginning of its decline.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Racine's famous contemporaries include:
Pierre Corneille (1606–1684): Corneille was a French playwright considered one of the greatest French dramatists of the seventeenth century.
Molière (1622–1673): Molière, born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, was a French playwright considered one of the masters of the comedic play.
John Locke (1632–1704): Locke was an English philosopher and one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers. He also made signifiant contributions to American Revolutionary thought.
Louis XIV (1638–1715): Louis became the King of France at age four and ruled until his death over seventy years later. He is also known as Louis the Great and The Sun King.
Isaac Newton (1642–1726): Newton was an English scientist and mathematician who laid the groundwork for classical mechanics, the view that dominated the scientific view of the physical universe for the next three centuries.
Several scholars note that within Racine's work, the world of Jansenist Port-Royal and the neoclassical world were in constant warfare. But, these worlds were arguably complementary, in both style and in form. The influence of Jansenist teaching, which stressed human depravity and predestined salvation, is evident in Racine's dramatic characters, who—like their forerunners in classical Greek drama—are undone by their passions and driven to ruin by ungovernable impulses. The simple neoclassical tragic form was well fitted to Racine's themes and poetic style, which has been praised for its simplicity, harmony, and rhythmic flow; of all his contemporaries, Racine was the first to achieve success within a framework which had been deemed too difficult to master since its inception during the Italian Renaissance.
His style has been described as simple yet polished, smooth yet natural. Robert Lowell has praised Racine's dramatic verse for its “diamond edge” and “hard, electric rage,” calling Racine “perhaps the greatest poet in the French language.” In most of his plays, Racine employed a basic plot structure in which a monarch demands something of a particular underling, often a prince or princess, who denies this demand. The monarch then attempts to force his subject's obedience, with tragic results. Launched upon a course of impending doom, Racine's characters know what must be done to avert disaster but are unable to subdue their desires to take prudent action.
Works in Critical Context
During their author's lifetime, Racine's dramas, though popular, were attacked for what some critics considered their crude realism and their focus upon passion. Jean de La Bruyére wrote of Corneille and Racine that “the former paints men as they should be, the latter paints men as they are.” Like La Bruyée, many critics compare the intentions and accomplishments of Racine with those of Corneille, often to Racine's advantage. “Unlike Corneille,” wrote Irving Babbitt, “Racine moved with perfect ease among all the rules that the neo-classic disciplinarians had imposed upon the stage. Indeed, it is in Racine, if anywhere, that all this regulating of the drama must find its justification,” here speaking of the unities of time, space, and action prescribed by neoclassical theorists.
Over time, Racine's work grew in critical stature and popularity. In one of the seminal discourses upon Racine's achievement, Racine et Shakespeare (1823–25), Stendhal wrote of Racine—in his preoccupation with passion—as an artist of romantisme, the literary element which satisfies an ever-changing standard of beauty. Several scholars have compared the theatricality of Shakespeare and Racine, with David Maskell observing that they “provide examples of a common visual vocabulary which is the peculiar feature of theatrical language, and which unites dramatists who can exploit its rich potential.”
Other major French critics of Racine's work have included Jules Lemaître, Ferdinand Brunetiere, Jean Giraudoux, Francois Mauriac, and Roland Barthes, while English-language criticism and translation of Racine's works has been dominated by Martin Turnell, Geoffrey Brereton, and Kenneth Muir, among others. Many scholars concur in spirit with the judgment of George Saints-bury, who wrote of Racine, “Of the whole world which is subject to the poet he took only a narrow artificial and conventional fraction. Within these narrow bounds he did work which no admirer of literary craftsmanship can regard without satisfaction.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Racine's works are filled with characters who are undone by their passions and driven to ruin by their ungovernable impulses. Here are some other works with similar characters and storylines:
Oedipus Rex (429 b.c.e.), a play by Sophocles. This play, considered one of the greatest examples of ancient Greek drama, tells the story of one man's prophecied fall as he kills his father and marries his mother.
Othello, The Moor of Venice (1603), a play by William Shakespeare. This play deals with racism, love, jealousy, and betrayal in a setting of political intrigue.
The Cid (1637), a play by Pierre Corneille. This play tells the story of a man facing the eternal human struggle to balance personal sentiment with duty to family and society.
Responses to Literature
- Racine displays an interest in strong, troubled female characters. In a five-page essay, explain how his depictions are relevant for understanding the women of today. What has changed in society since Racine's time to make these characters lose their relevance, and what has remained the same to give these characters continued relevance?
- Racine made use of themes borrowing from ancient Greek drama and popularized during his time. With a group of your classmates, brainstorm Racine's common themes, then discuss whether or not these themes are still relevant today. Would a revival of literary work based on these themes produce works that a present-day audience would appreciate and admire?
- Many of Racine's characters face inner, spiritual conflicts among competing values and impulses. Using one of Racine's texts as inspiration, write a short story with a main character who faces a similar conflict.
- Racine's plays were based on a plot structure centered around the demands of a monarch. Sketch a plot outline to rewrite and update one of his plays, placing the action in the context of a modern, democratic government.
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