Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Nathan Pinchback Toomer (by school age he was known as Eugene Pinchback Toomer) was born in Washington, D.C., on December 26, 1894, the son of Nina Pinchback and Nathan Toomer. Until he was almost eleven, he lived with his maternal grandparents, his father having left the family in 1895. Racially mixed and able to pass as white, the Pinchbacks lived in an affluent white neighborhood, though Toomer’s grandfather was well known as a black and briefly had been the governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction.
When Nina Toomer was remarried (to Archibald Combes, a white man), she and her son moved to New York, where they lived until she died in 1909. Returning to the Pinchbacks, who had experienced financial reversals, the teenage Toomer lived with them and an uncle in a modest black area, attended a black high school, and was faced with confronting the issue of his racial identity. He later wrote that he was “Scotch, Welsh, German, English, French, Dutch, Spanish, with some dark blood.” Having lived in both the black and white worlds, for a while he determined to consider himself simply an American, hoping to eschew any racial label.
Between 1914 and 1921, he attended five colleges in three states for brief periods and lived in Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, and Washington, D.C. He also changed his name to Jean Toomer, began writing, and in New York came to know such promising young writers as Van Wyck Brooks, Witter Bynner, Waldo Frank, and Edwin Arlington Robinson. While in Washington in 1921, caring for his ailing grandparents and writing full time, he was asked to become temporary principal of the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute, a rural Georgia school for black students. Whereas his experience in Chicago and Washington served as background for parts of Cane (1923), the two months in Sparta introduced Toomer to black life in the South. Its spirituality, music,...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Widely praised when published in 1923, Cane was not popular, so Toomer probably did not inspire a generation of black writers, as some have suggested. More likely, they simply were influenced by the same white figures (such as Sherwood Anderson and Waldo Frank) to whom he was drawn. His limited influence notwithstanding, he created a masterpiece of American fiction.
Cane is notable for its unusual form, which incorporates fiction, poetry and drama into a thematically and structurally unified experimental novel. It also stands apart because of Toomer’s analysis of the conflicts, hardships, and aspirations of black people struggling with a legacy of slavery and with segregation. He elaborates upon these themes in his epic poem “Blue Meridian,” which envisions a future of racial reconciliation and spiritual harmony in what he labels a New America.
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Born Nathan Eugene Toomer in Washington, D.C., on December 26, 1894, Jean Toomer stayed in the North for his education, attending the University of Wisconsin and the City College of New York. He began writing and was published in the little magazines of his time before moving South to become a schoolteacher in rural Georgia, an experience which he uses in “Kabnis,” the final part of Cane. Married twice to whites, Toomer was often equivocal about his blackness, partially because of his involvement in Unitism, the philosophy of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. Toomer’s later essays and stories expound his version of the philosophy and are often weakened by an excess of mystery and a deficiency of manners. In later life, he lived among the Quakers in Pennsylvania. Toomer died in 1967.
Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Jean Toomer (born Nathan Eugene Toomer) spent most of his life resisting a specific racial label for himself. His childhood and youth were spent in white or racially mixed middle-class neighborhoods in Washington, and his parents were both light skinned. Jean’s father left shortly after his birth and his mother died after remarrying, so that the most potent adult influences on his life were his maternal grandparents, with whom he lived until his twenties. His grandfather, P. B. S. Pinchback, had been elected lieutenant-governor in Reconstruction Louisiana and served as acting governor in 1873. Toomer believed that his victory was helped by his announcement that he had black blood, although Toomer denied knowing whether it was true. One thing is clear: Pinchback had indeed served the Union cause in the “Corps d’Afrique.”
Later in life, Toomer denied that he was a Negro—an acceptable statement if one understands his definition of “Negro” as one who identifies solely with the black race, for he, with certainly a great deal of nonblack ancestry, saw himself as not white, either, but “American,” a member of a new race which would unify the heretofore conflicting racial groups through a mixture of racial strains. The attainment of such an “American” race remained his goal throughout most of his life after Cane.
Toomer’s education after high school was varied, from agriculture at the University of Wisconsin to the...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Jean Toomer published only a single work of lasting literary importance, Cane, but that one volume has earned for him a distinguished place in American literary history. He was born Nathan Eugene Toomer in Washington, D.C., on December 26, 1894. His father, Nathan Toomer, abandoned his wife, Nina Pinchback, before their son was born. Raised in his maternal grandparents’ home, Toomer was influenced by his grandfather, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, a proud and once-powerful man who had served as lieutenant governor of post-Civil War Louisiana during Reconstruction. Through much of his adolescence, the young man was known as Eugene Pinchback, and it was only when he began to pursue a literary career that he adopted his father’s surname and changed Eugene to Jean.
Light-skinned and racially mixed, P. B. S. Pinchback had made his political career as a black; however, during Toomer’s childhood the family lived in an exclusive white neighborhood on Washington’s Bacon Street. Racial identity was an issue that Toomer considered carefully, and by the time he went to college, he had rejected identification with either race; instead, he embraced the label “American.”
When Toomer was a teenager, the family moved to a black neighborhood, where he finished high school at the segregated M Street High School. After graduation, he attended a series of colleges: the University of Wisconsin, Massachusetts College of Agriculture, the American College of Physical Training, the University of Chicago, and the City College of New York. He never stayed at any school long enough to...
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It is somewhat ironic that Jean Toomer is remembered as the writer of one of the greatest novels ever written by a black author, because during his lifetime he only published one significant book and he spent very little time among blacks. His mother's family was rich and powerful in Louisiana, where her father, Pickney B. S. Pinchback, had been the only African American ever to have served as acting governor. Toomer's father, Nathan Toomer Sr., was the son of a slave. His father left soon before Nathan Eugene Toomer was born on December 26, 1894, in Washington, D.C. The author was called Eugene Pinchback during his childhood, and was raised in affluent areas of New Orleans and Washington, where he hardly felt the effects of society's racist institutions until he was in high school.
In 1914, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin to major in agriculture, but quit after he found himself unable to win the race for the class presidency. Following that, he attended the Massachusetts College of Agriculture, then the American College of Physical Training in Chicago. In 1916, he became a devotee of socialism and gave lectures on the subject in a room that he rented out. Turned down by the Army during World War I in 1917, he became a Ford salesman in Chicago, then a substitute physical education teacher in the Milwaukee School System. In 1918 he went to work for a manufacturing company in New York, where he began to socialize in literary circles.
From 1920 to 1922 Toomer wrote passionately, filling a trunk with poems, essays, short stories, and letters. During this time he made the acquaintance of Waldo Frank, a famous novelist of the time who became his friend and mentor. During March of 1921 Toomer filled in as an administrator at the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute in Hancock County, Georgia, where he experienced the lives of rural blacks for the first time, an experience that strongly influenced Cane. That summer, feeling that he did not have enough material, he and Frank traveled the South together, with Frank posing as a black man: under the segregated laws of the early 1900s, they both could have been prosecuted or killed if people found out that a black man and a white man were travelling together.
After Cane, Toomer did not write about the African-American experience anymore. Being so light-skinned that he was often mistaken for being Indian, Oriental, or Mediterranean, he felt that the American black experience was not relevant to him: publishers, however, were only interested in his views regarding the black experience. His long friendship with Waldo Frank ended when he had an affair with Frank's wife. He became involved in different types of spiritualism, especially the teachings of Greek philosopher Georges Gurdjieff, whose Institute for Harmonious Development Toomer worked to popularize in America. His first wife died during childbirth a year after they married; his second marriage lasted more than thirty years, until his death on March 30, 1967, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Toomer published some poetry and essays, but never another novel.