Biography of Jean Toomer

Jean Toomer
Toomer circa 1920-1930
Toomer circa 1920-1930
Born(1894-12-26)December 26, 1894
Washington, D.C., u States
DiedMarch 30, 1967(1967-03-30) (aged 72)
Doylestown, Pennsylvania, United States

Jean Toomer (born Nathan Pinchback Toomer, December 26, 1894 – March 30, 1967) was an African American poet and novelist commonly associated with the Harlem Renaissance, though he actively resisted the association, and modernism. His reputation stems from his only book, the novel Cane (1923), which Toomer wrote during and after a stint as a school principal in Sparta, Georgia. The novel intertwines the stories of six women and includes an apparently autobiographical thread; sociologist Charles S. Johnson called it "the most astonishingly brilliant beginning of any Negro writer of his generation".

He continued to write poetry, short stories and essays. After his second marriage in 1934, he moved from New York to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where he became a member of the Religious Society of Friends (also known as Quakers) and retired from public life. His papers are held by the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University.

Ancestry, early life, and education

Toomer, who adopted the name Jean Toomer early in his literary career, was born in Washington, D.C. in 1894, the son of Nathan Toomer (1839-1906), a mixed-race freedman born into slavery, and Nina Elizabeth Pinchback (1866-1909), whose parents had been people of color free before the Civil War.

Toomer's father, the senior Nathan, was born in Chatham County, North Carolina, and eventually sold as a slave to Col. Henry Toomer. Nathan worked for Henry Toomer as a personal valet and assistant before and after the Civil War, learning the ways of the white upper class and later taking his surname. Nathan later married and became a farmer in Georgia. After the death of his first wife, he married Amanda America Dickson, a mixed-race woman whose inheritance from her white planter father led to her being called the "wealthiest colored woman in America." She died in 1893 after about a year of marriage, and Nathan received almost no inheritance.

Later in 1893, Nathan married Nina Elizabeth Pinchback, a wealthy young woman of mixed race. She was born in New Orleans as the third child of people of color who had been free before the Civil War. Her father, P. B. S. Pinchback, was of majority European heritage, from several nationalities, and also of African and Cherokee descent. He served as an officer in the Union Army; he became a Republican politician in Louisiana during the Reconstruction era and was the first African American to serve as governor of a U.S. state. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate in 1872 and 1873, respectively, but lost challenges by Democrats in Congress. In 1891-1892, with white Democrats establishing Jim Crow laws in Louisiana, the Pinchbacks had moved to Washington, D.C., where they were easily part of the mulatto elite. P.B.S. Pinchback was suspicious of Nathan Toomer and strongly opposed his daughter's choice for marriage, but ultimately acquiesced.

After frequent travels, the senior Nathan Toomer abandoned his wife and son (the future Jean Toomer) after the boy was born and returned to Georgia. Nina divorced him and took back her name of Pinchback; she and her son returned to live with her parents. At that time, angered by her husband's abandonment, her father insisted they use another name for her son and started calling him Eugene, after the boy's godfather. The boy also was given a variety of nicknames by various family members.

As a child in Washington, Jean Toomer attended segregated black schools. When his mother remarried and they moved to suburban New Rochelle, New York, he attended an all-white school. After his mother's death in 1909, Toomer returned to Washington to live with his Pinchback grandparents. He graduated from the M Street School, a prestigious academic black high school.

Between 1914 and 1917, Toomer attended six institutions of higher education (the University of Wisconsin, the Massachusetts College of Agriculture, the American College of Physical Training in Chicago, the University of Chicago, New York University, and the City College of New York) studying agriculture, fitness, biology, sociology, and history, but he never completed a degree. His wide readings among prominent contemporary poets and writers, and the lectures he attended during his college years, shaped the direction of his writing.


After leaving college, Toomer returned to Washington, DC. He published some short stories and continued writing in the volatile social period following World War I. He worked for some months in a shipyard in 1919, then escaped to middle-class life. Labor strikes and race riots of whites attacking blacks occurred in several major industrial cities during the summer of 1919, which was known as Red Summer. People in the working class were competing after World War I for jobs and housing, and tensions erupted in violence. In Chicago and other places, blacks fought back. At the same time, it was a period of artistic ferment.

Toomer devoted eight months to the study of Eastern philosophies and continued to be interested in this subject. Some of his early writing was political, and he published three essays from 1919-1920 in the prominent socialist paper New York Call. His work drew from the socialist and "New Negro" movements of New York. Toomer was reading much new American writing, for instance Waldo Frank's Our America (1919). In 1919, he adopted Jean Toomer as his literary name, and it was the way he was known for most of his adult life.

By his early adult years, Toomer resisted racial classifications and wanted to be identified only as an American. Accurately claiming ancestry among seven ethnic and national groups, he gained experience in both white and "colored" societies, and resisted being classified as a Negro writer, although he grudgingly allowed his publisher of Cane to use that term to increase sales. As Richard Eldridge has noted, Toomer

"sought to transcend standard definitions of race. I think he never claimed that he was a white man," Mr. Eldridge said. "He always claimed that he was a representative of a new, emergent race that was a combination of various races. He averred this virtually throughout his life." William Andrews has noted he "was one of the first writers to move beyond the idea that any black ancestry makes you black."

In 1921 Toomer took a job for a few months as a principal at a new rural agricultural and industrial school for blacks in Sparta, Georgia. Southern schools were continuing to recruit teachers from the North, although they had also trained generations of teachers since the Civil War. The school was in the center of Hancock County and the Black Belt 100 miles southeast of Atlanta, near where his father had lived. Exploring his father's roots in Hancock County, Toomer learned that he sometimes passed for white. Seeing the life of rural blacks, accompanied by racial segregation and virtual labor peonage in the Deep South, led Toomer to identify more strongly as an African American and with his father's past. Several lynchings of black men took place in Georgia during 1921-1922, as whites continued to enforce white supremacy with violence. In 1908 the state had ratified a constitution that disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites by raising requirements to voter registration. This situation was virtually maintained into the 1960s, when federal legislation was passed to enforce constitutional rights.

By Toomer's time, the state was suffering labor shortages due to thousands of rural blacks leaving in the Great Migration to the North and Midwest. Trying to control their movement, the legislature passed laws to prevent outmigration. It also established high license fees for Northern employers recruiting labor in the state. Planters feared losing their pool of cheap labor. This period was a formative experience for Toomer; he started writing about it while still in Georgia and submitted the long story "Georgia Night" to The Liberator in New York from Hancock County.

Toomer then returned to New York, where he became friends with Waldo Frank. They had an intense friendship through 1923, and Frank served as his mentor and editor on his novel Cane, though they came to have strong differences.


During Toomer's time of being the principal of Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute in Georgia, he started stories, sketches, and poems of his experience there which formed the basis for Cane, his High Modernist novel published in 1923. Cane was well received by black and white critics and was reissued in 1969, two years after Toomer's death. Cane was celebrated by well known African American critics and artists, including Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman.[citation needed] Toomer attributed the success of Cane to his African ancestry and his immersion in the black folk culture in rural Georgia.[citation needed]

Cane is structured in three parts. The first third of the book is devoted to the black experience in the Southern farmland. The second part of Cane is more urban and concerned with Northern life. The conclusion of the work is a prose piece entitled "Kabnis." People would call Toomer's Cane a mysterious brand of Southern psychological realism that has been matched only in the best work of William Faulkner.[citation needed] Toomer is the first poet to unite folk culture and the elite culture of the white avant-garde.[citation needed]

Cane was also an "analysis of class and caste", with "secrecy and miscegenation as major themes of the first section". He had conceived it as a short-story cycle, in which he explores the tragic intersection of female sexuality, black manhood, and industrial modernization in the south. Toomer acknowledged the influence of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919) as his model, in addition to other influential works of that period. He also appeared to have absorbed The Waste Land of T. S. Eliot and considered him one of the American group of writers he wanted to join, "artists and intellectuals who were engaged in renewing American society at its multi-cultural core."

Jean Toomer's passport (1926)

Many scholars have considered Cane to be Toomer's best work. A series of poems and short stories about the black experience in America, Cane was hailed by critics and is seen as an important work of both the Harlem Renaissance and Modernism. But Toomer resisted racial classification and did not want to be marketed as a Negro writer. As he wrote to his publisher Horace Liveright, "My racial composition and my position in the world are realities that I alone may determine." Toomer found it more difficult to get published throughout the 1930s and the Great Depression, as did many authors.

Later work

In the 1920s, Toomer and Frank were among many Americans who were very interested in the work of the spiritual leader George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, from the Russian Empire, who had a lecture tour in the United States in 1924. That year, and in 1926 and 1927, Toomer went to France for periods of study with Gurdjieff, who had settled at Fontainebleau. He was a student of Gurdjieff until the mid-1930s. Much of his writing from this period on was related to his spiritual quest and featured allegories. He no longer explored African-American characters. Some scholars have attributed Toomer's artistic silence to his ambivalence about his identity in a culture based on forcing binary racial distinctions.

He continued with his spiritual exploration by traveling to India in 1939. Later he studied the psychology developed by Carl Jung, the mystic Edgar Cayce, and the Church of Scientology, but reverted to Gurdjieff's philosophy.

Toomer wrote a small amount of fiction in this later period. Mostly he published essays in Quaker publications during these years. He devoted most of his time to serving on Quaker committees for community service and working with high school students.

His last literary work published during his lifetime was Blue Meridian, a long poem extolling "the potential of the American race". He stopped writing for publication after 1950. He continued to write for himself, including several autobiographies and a poetry volume The Wayward and the Seeking. He died in 1967 after several years of poor health.

Marriage and family

Toomer and Latimer Jean Toomer and Margery Latimer

In 1931 Toomer married the writer Margery Latimer in Wisconsin. During their travels on the West Coast following their marriage, it was covered in sensational terms by a Hearst reporter. An anti-miscegenation scandal broke, incorporating rumors about the commune they had organized earlier that year in Portage, Wisconsin. West Coast and Midwest press outlets were aroused and Time magazine sent a reporter to interview them. Toomer was criticized violently by some for marrying a European-American woman. Latimer was a respected young writer known for her first two novels and short stories. The following year she died in childbirth in August 1932; he named their only daughter Margery in her memory.

In 1934 Toomer married a second time, to Marjorie Content, daughter of a wealthy Jewish stockbroker. Because Toomer was notable as a writer, this marriage also attracted notice. In 1940 the Toomers moved to Doylestown, Pennsylvania. There he formally joined the Quakers and began to withdraw from society. Toomer wrote extensively from 1935 to 1940 about relationships between the genders, influenced by his Gurdjieff studies, as well as Jungian psychology. He had fundamentally traditional views about men and women, which he put in symbolic terms.

In 1939 Toomer changed his name again, using "Nathan Jean Toomer", to emphasize that he was male. He may also have been reaching toward his paternal ancestry with it. He usually signed his name N. Jean Toomer, and continued to be called "Jean" by friends.

Racial issues

Toomer's appearance was "racially indeterminate". As noted above, he lived in both black and white societies as he was growing up and during his life. He did not want to be bound by race and claimed to be an American and represent a new mixed culture. Given his wide experiences, he resisted being classified as a Negro writer. But, his most enduring work was Cane, inspired by his time in the rural South and the imaginative exploration of the early world of his absent father.

In preparing a new edition of that work, scholars Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Rudolph P. Byrd said in 2010 that, based on their research, they believe that Toomer passed for white at periods in his life even though he never claimed that he was white or black, he simply was an American as far as he was concerned.

They note that in the 1920 and 1930 censuses he was classified as European-American. (At that time, such data was provided by the census taker, often based on an individual's appearance, economic class, area of residence, neighbors, etc.) He twice had been classified (or registered) as Negro in draft registration in 1917 and 1942. When Toomer married Margery Latimer, a European-American woman, in Wisconsin in 1931, the license noted both as white. Other scholars disagree with Gates' and Byrd's interpretation of this documentation, while acknowledging that Toomer tried to stretch racial boundaries. William Andrews said, "If people didn’t ask," he said, "I expect he didn’t tell."

Jean Toomer avoided identifying with clear categories of race. Instead, he wanted to be classified only as “American.” His ambiguity towards race corresponds to his interest in quaker philosophy. In the beginning of his twenties, he attended meetings of the Religious Society of Friends in Doylestown, a Quaker group. Quakerism connects groups of different believers under the respect for everyone’s belief of a creed. They encourage each other to be able to understand themselves and their own personalities. Jean Toomer’s Quaker belief connects to his writings on the place of the African American in the 20th century. He also wrote essays on George Fox and Quakerism. In his selected essay “The Negro Emergent” Jean Toomer describes how African Americans were able to rise from those past identifications as portrayed as only slaves. They are also working to find a voice for themselves.

Legacy and archives

  • Toomer's papers and unpublished manuscripts are held by the Beinecke Library at Yale University.
  • When Cane was reprinted in 1969, it was favorably reviewed as a "Black Classic", leading to a revival of interest in Toomer's work.
  • Since the late 20th century, collections of Toomer's poetry and essays have been published, and his Essentials was republished; he self-published it in 1931. It included "Gurdjieffian aphorisms".
  • 2002, Toomer was elected to the Georgia Hall of Fame.

Books by Toomer

  • Cane (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923) .mw-parser-output cite.citation{font-style:inherit}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:"\"""\"""'""'"}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-free a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-registration a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration{color:#555}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription span,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration span{border-bottom:1px dotted;cursor:help}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output code.cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:inherit;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:block;font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:block;color:#33aa33;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration,.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-right{padding-right:0.2em}ISBN 0-87140-151-7
  • Problems of Civilization, by Ellsworth Huntington, Whiting Williams, Jean Toomer and others, (New York: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1929)
  • Essentials: Definitions and Aphorisms (Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1931)
  • An Interpretation of Friends Worship (Philadelphia: Committee on Religious Education of Friends General Conference, 1947)
  • The Flavor of Man (Philadelphia: Young Friends Movement of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1949)
  • The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988) ISBN 0-8078-4209-5
  • The Letters of Jean Toomer, 1919-1924, University of Tennessee Press, 2006

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