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Jean Toomer

Even though he only published one widely read work during his career, Jean Toomer (1894-1967) is now known as a crucial Modernist writer and a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance. His best-known work, Cane (1923), explored the African American experience from South to North with a mixture of poetry and prose. After its publication, Toomer continued writing essays, poetry, and short stories but remained relatively obscure.

Jean Toomer: Biography

Jean Toomer led a varied and eclectic life.

Childhood and Early Life

Jean Toomer was born Nathan Pinchback Toomer on December 26, 1894, in Washington, D.C. His father, also called Nathan Toomer, was a formerly enslaved man from North Carolina, and his mother was a wealthy young Black woman named Nina Elizabeth Pinchback. Nina was nearly half Nathan Toomer's age and his third wife. Shortly after their son was born, Nathan Sr. abandoned his wife and son.

Full of resentment, Nina divorced her husband and decided to rename her son so that he no longer bore his father's name. She began calling him Eugene, after his godfather. Toomer acquired a myriad of other nicknames.

In 1919, Toomer shortened Eugene to Jean, the name he would publish under and use for the remainder of his life.

Toomer first attended all-Black schools in Washington, D.C., and later an all-white school in New Rochelle, New York. In 1909, when Toomer was fifteen years old, his mother died, and he returned to Washington, D.C., where he lived with his maternal grandparents.

Education

Back in D.C., Toomer enrolled in the prestigious all-Black Paul Dunbar High School, graduating in 1914. Later that year, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, where he studied agriculture. After just six months, Toomer decided to transfer to the Massachusetts College of Agriculture. However, he changed his mind again and moved to Chicago to take classes at the American College of Physical Training. The following year, Toomer moved to New York, where he studied at the City College of New York and New York University. In all, he attended five institutes of higher education in four years but never obtained a degree.

Joe Toomer, New York City, StudySmarter
Fig. 1: Toomer attended universities in several different states.

However, during his years studying, Toomer became interested in literature. He read widely and began to publish poems, essays, and short stories in journals such as Broom, The Liberator, and The Little Review.

Literary Career

In 1921, Toomer moved to Sparta, Georgia, where he briefly worked as a principal for the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute. Toomer's parents were both of mixed race; he was light-skinned enough to pass for white in many situations and had grown up immersed in both Black and white culture. In Georgia, however, Toomer experienced the African American culture of the Deep South for the first time.

Although he only spent a few months in Georgia, it was a profound experience for Toomer, one which he felt connected him to his African American heritage in a new way. He began writing poems and bits of prose inspired by his time in Georgia. Initially published in various magazines, these separate pieces were soon combined to create the experimental modernist work Cane (1923).

Cane was a revolutionary mix of poems, sketches, and short stories illustrating the Black experience in both the North and South. The book received a great deal of critical attention, and Toomer was celebrated as the premier African American writer of his generation.

Jean Toomer, sugarcane, StudySmarter
Fig. 2: Cane is named for sugarcane, an important crop in the South.

Toomer, however, resented this classification. He wished to be known only as an American writer and requested that his publisher not mention race when promoting the novel. Cane was well-received by critics but did not garner a wide readership until the book was reissued in the 1960s. Cane has since become a landmark work of African American literature and is now viewed as one of the key works of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement centered in Harlem, New York, in the 1920s and 30s that saw a proliferation of African American art, music, and literature.

After Cane was published, Toomer began to immerse himself in the teachings of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, an Armenian philosopher and spiritual leader. He traveled to France to study with Gurdjieff and later to India, where he continued to explore his spirituality.

During this period, Toomer wrote about Gurdjieff's teachings and gave lectures in New York to audiences that included some of the key figures in the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

In 1931, Toomer married Margery Latimer, a fellow writer. Latimer was a white woman; the couple's marriage sparked a miscegenation scandal, even though the racially ambiguous Toomer was also listed as white on the marriage certificate. Their situation was exacerbated because they lived in an experimental commune-type community in rural Wisconsin, where the locals were less than accepting of alternative ways of life. The two had a daughter the following year, but Latimer died in childbirth. Following her death, Toomer remarried in 1934 to a Jewish photographer named Marjorie Content. This new relationship lasted more than thirty years until Toomer's death.

Jean Toomer's End of Life and Death

Toomer moved to Pennsylvania with his wife and daughter. In 1940, he became a Quaker. He continued writing but found little success with editors. Most of his published work appeared in Quaker publications, and he gave frequent lectures.

For decades preceding his death, Toomer was in poor health. He suffered myriad ailments, including kidney failure, severe arthritis, and stomach problems, that often required extensive treatment.

Toomer died on March 30, 1967, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He was seventy-one years old.

Jean Toomer: Writing Style and Works

Jean Toomer was an influential Modernist writer. He wrote many different kinds of literature, producing poems, essays, short stories, and more, often combining poetry and prose in the same work.

Modernism was a literary movement that began at the start of the 20th century and continued until the early 1940s. Modernist writers rejected traditional literary structures and modes of storytelling, instead creating fragmented texts that used techniques like stream-of-consciousness narration and multiple viewpoints.

Many of the key characteristics of Modernism, including fragmentation, shifting viewpoints, a tendency towards experimentation, and a disregard for traditional literary conventions, are prominent in Toomer's work.

Jean Toomer: Poems

Jean Toomer's poems appeared in many publications throughout his career, and some appeared in his book Cane. He also wrote a great number of poems that were never published. In 1988, several of Toomer's poems were compiled for the first time and published in a volume called The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer. Toomer's most famous stand-alone poem is a lengthy lyrical poem called "Blue Meridian" (1936).

"Blue Meridian"

"Blue Meridian" is a poem that spans more than twenty pages and was first published in a volume called The New Caravan (1936). The poem explores race and identity in which Toomer advocates for a conception of a race outside of the black-white binary. He argues that the major races in the United States should be combined to create a new blue race.

Joe Toomer, holding hands, StudySmarter
Fig. 3: Toomer advocated for an understanding of "American" free from racial markers.

Jean Toomer: Novels

Jean Toomer's best-known work is the lyrical modernist novel, Cane.

Cane

Cane is a modernist work that can only loosely be described as a novel, consisting of poems, short stories, vignettes, and drama. Toomer was inspired by his time living in Georgia and working as a principal at an all-black trade school, which put him into contact with Southern Black culture and poverty for the first time. Poems and stories from Cane were first published in various journals and magazines before being combined into a full-length book.

Cane is divided into three sections. The first explores the experience of African Americans in the rural South. The narrative then moves to the North and more urban experiences. Finally, Cane concludes with a semi-autobiographical exploration of the experience of an African American man from the North returning to the South.

Jean Toomer: Key Quotes

Jean Toomer was known for his insistence that he not be celebrated as a Black writer but rather simply as an American one.

I have lived equally amid the two race groups. Now white, now colored. From my own point of view I am naturally and inevitably an American. I have striven for a spiritual fusion analogous to the fact of racial intermingling." -Jean Toomer (Letter to The Liberator, 1922).

Growing up, Toomer moved between both Black and white spaces. He attended both all-Black and all-white schools and was light-skinned enough that he often passed for white. During his time in Georgia, Toomer began to identify with his African American heritage for the first time. However, throughout his life, he embraced a kind of racial fluidity that he hoped could be adapted to a post-racial United States.

"Her skin is like dusk,

O cant you see it,

Her skin is like dusk,

When the sun goes down.

Karintha is a woman. She who carries beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down. She has been married many times. Old men remind her that a few years back they rode her hobby-horse upon their knees. Karintha smiles, and indulges them when she is in the mood for it. She has contempt for them. Karintha is a woman.” -Cane (“Karintha”)

This quote comes from the first chapter of Cane, Toomer's best-known work. "Karintha" combines poetry and prose to tell the story of Karintha, a beautiful woman who has been married several times and has many admirers in her rural Georgia community. Toomer's writing in this vignette has a musical quality that mirrors the rhythm of African American spirituals.

"Unlock the races, Open this pod by outgrowing it,

Free mend from this prison and this shrinkage,

Not from the reality itself

But from our prejudices and preferences

And the enslaving behavior caused by them,

Eliminate these— I am, we are, simply of the human race." -"Blue Meridian"

This quote comes from Jean Toomer's lengthy lyric poem, "Blue Meridian." Toomer hoped that the United States could move away from the confining categories of race, embracing a definition of "American" apart from ideas of blackness or whiteness.

Jean Toomer - Key takeaways

  • Jean Toomer was born in Washington, D.C., on December 26, 1894.
  • He attended five institutes of higher learning in four years and studied a myriad of subjects but never earned a degree.
  • Toomer's best-known work is the Modernist novel Cane, which mixes poetry and prose to describe the African American experience across the United States.
  • Toomer was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, but he wished to be known as an American author, not a Black author or a white author.
  • Toomer died on March 30, 1967, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, after being in poor health for years. He was seventy-one years old.

Frequently Asked Questions about Jean Toomer

Jean Toomer is most famous for his Modernist novel, Cane, published in 1923.

Toomer continued writing throughout his life, even though he met with little commercial success. Much of his later writing revolved around his interest in spirituality, including the teachings of philosopher and spiritual leader Gurdjieff.

Jean Toomer was born in Washington, D.C., on December 26, 1894.

Jean Toomer is a well-known Modernist writer and a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

Jean Toomer died of arteriosclerosis after being in poor health for many years.

Final Jean Toomer Quiz

Question

When was Jean Toomer born?

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Answer

December 26, 1894

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Question

How many institutes of higher education did Jean Toomer attend after he graduated high school?

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Answer

Five

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What did Jean Toomer do while he lived in Georgia?

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He was a principal at an all-Black school.

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What was Jean Toomer’s given name?

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Answer

Nathan Pinchback Toomer

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Why did Jean Toomer’s mother change his name?

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Answer

Because Toomer’s father, who he was named after, abandoned his family.

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Which literary movement is Jean Toomer NOT associated with?

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Answer

Romanticism

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Jean Toomer became a follower of what philosopher and spiritual leader?

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Answer

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff

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What is the name of Jean Toomer’s best-known poem?

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Answer

“Blue Meridian”

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True or false? Jean Toomer wanted to be known as the best African American writer of his generation.

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Answer

False

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How many times was Jean Toomer married?

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Twice

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What inspired Jean Toomer to write Cane?

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His time spent working at a school in Sparta, Georgia.

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When was Cane published?

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Answer

1923

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Cane is an example of what literary movement?

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Modernism

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Which is NOT a key theme in Cane?

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Answer

Love and family

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What is NOT included in Cane?

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Non-fiction essays

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Cane is divided into how many parts?

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Three

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Which chapter of Cane is semi-autobiographical?

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Answer

“Kabnis”

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Where does part one of Cane take place?

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Answer

Rural Georgia

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Where does part two of Cane take place?

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Answer

Cities in the Northern United States

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Question

Why did Jean Toomer resist being associated with the Harlem Renaissance?

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Answer

Because he wanted to be known as an American writer, not just an African American writer.

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