Jean Toomer Essay - Toomer, Jean

Toomer, Jean


Jean Toomer 1894–-1967

(Born Nathan Eugene Toomer) American short story writer, poet, and essayist. See also Jean Toomer Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 4, 13, 22.

Toomer's Cane (1923) is one of the most admired and frequently studied literary creations of the Harlem Renaissance, a period in the 1920s that saw a flowering of American culture. Described as an amalgamation of stories, sketches, poetry, and drama, Cane is an intimate portrait of African-American life, depicting such themes as slavery, sexuality, and most importantly, self-identity. It is this latter theme, so often highlighted by critics, that forms the quest in Cane. Toomer's work is highly praised both for its rich use of symbol and myth and for its experiments with language and form, and is often cited as an extremely influential work in the canon of Black-American literature. Despite the encouragement of Sherwood Anderson, Hart Crane, and Waldo Frank, Toomer never again equaled the success of his initial work. Although he published several essays, poems, and stories in small-press periodicals during the more than thirty years of his subsequent writing, he never sold another book to a commercial publisher.

Biographical Information

Born in Washington, D. C. in 1894, Toomer was of mixed race: his grandfather was black, his mother of mixed blood, and his father a white Georgia farmer. Toomer spent much of his childhood in an affluent white section of Washington, relatively free of racial prejudice, in the home of his maternal grandfather, a prominent Louisiana politician of the Reconstruction era. It was after the death of Toomer's mother in 1909 that his family experienced extreme financial losses, requiring the family to move to a modest black neighborhood. Toomer's position in both black and white society offered him an unusual perspective on racial identity. Early in his life he concluded that he was a member of the American race, neither black nor white, a conviction that deeply affected both his literary career and the course of his life. As a young man, Toomer lived a transient existence, studying various subjects at several universities and working a number of jobs. He enjoyed a literary apprenticeship for several months in 1919 and 1920 in Greenwich Village, where he met some prominent New York intellectuals. In 1921 Toomer accepted a temporary teaching position in Sparta, Georgia, a poor, rural southern town which gave Toomer the opportunity to discover his black roots. This exposure to the South inspired much of Toomer's writing in Cane. His encounter in 1924 with the teachings of George Gurdjieff, a Greek and Armenian spiritual leader who taught a complex program of philosophy, psychology, and dance movements designed to achieve spiritual wholeness, led Toomer to eschew the literary world he cultivated during the early 1920s. He joined Gurdjieff's movement, attended the Gurdjieff Institute at Fontainebleau, France, and taught Gurdjieff philosophy from 1926 until 1933. As a result, many of Toomer's subsequent writings reflect his dedication to Gurdjieffian philosophy and methods, and display little of Cane's poignant lyricism, beauty, or sorrow. Toomer married in 1931, but lost his wife in childbirth. After he remarried in 1934, Toomer moved to Pennsylvania and became a Quaker. Toomer died in 1967.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Cane includes many pieces that originally appeared in the avant-garde literary magazines Broom, The Crisis, and S 4 N. The work is divided into three sections and reflects Toomer's impressions of African-American life in both the rural South and the urban neighborhoods of Washington, D. C. and Chicago. Employing a structure often compared to musical composition, particularly elements of gospel and blues, Toomer unifies Cane's various pieces with recurring themes and motifs and with parallel and contrapuntal relationships between the urban and rural black experience. In the first section of Cane, Toomer interweaves six stories with twelve poems, using imagery drawn from nature to create the lyrical, impressionistic, and often mystical portraits of six Southern women. By turns strong and vulnerable, exotic and ordinary, innocent and misunderstood, Toomer's women, commentators note, convey the essence of this Southern life, which was soon to be altered by encroaching cultural change. Critics conclude that in section one Toomer successfully captures the beauty and dignity as well as the pain and suffering of these people and their lives. Cane's second section, which is comprised of seven prose sketches and five poems, shifts in setting from the rural South to the urban environments of Washington, D. C. and Chicago. Commentators assert that the second section is a skillful portrayal of characters spiritually bankrupt and devoid of vitality because they have abandoned their natural heritage and adopted society's stifling values. The third and final section of Cane consists of “Kabnis,” Toomer's longest, most sustained piece, which incorporates the themes of both sections one and two. Variously described by critics as a play, novella, and short story, “Kabnis” is a thinly-veiled autobiographical portrait of an educated but spiritually confused northern black man who travels to the South to teach school in a small, rural town in the hope of discovering his ancestry.

Critical Reception

Cane drew early critical interest because of its engaging approach to its subject and its experimental form. Critics contended that Cane was not a diatribe on racial relations, nor a strident reformist doctrine, as were many works by other Harlem Renaissance writers, but was instead a lyrical, passionate, and artistic creation. The influence of Sherwood Anderson and Waldo Frank, acknowledged by Toomer, is evidenced in the centrality of folk life; Toomer also attributed his work to the influence of the Imagist poets, whose economy of line and image he praised and emulated. Yet critical reaction to Cane as a masterpiece of African-American literature angered Toomer, who declared his work to be a depiction of American experience written by an American author, not a black one. Although he wrote voluminously after the publication of Cane, Toomer felt that Cane had voiced his essential message about the dying black folk spirit. In recent decades, critics have reexamined some of Toomer's more obscure short fiction, concluding that it lacks the passion and insight of his major work, Cane.

Principal Works

Cane (stories and verse) 1923

The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer (stories, sketches, and verse) 1980

Essentials (aphorisms) 1931

The Flavor of Man (lecture) 1949

Collected Poems (poetry) 1988

Selected Essays and Literary Criticism (essays and criticism) 1996


Patricia Chase (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “The Women in Cane,” in College Language Association Journal, Vol. 14, No. 3, March, 1971, pp. 259-73.

[In the following essay, Chase explores Toomer's complex portrayal of women in Cane, maintaining of his female characters that: “Perhaps they are all the same woman, archetypal woman, all wearing different faces, but each possessing an identifiable aspect of womanhood.”]

If the fabric of Cane is the life essence and its meaning behind absurdity, then Toomer's women characters are the threads which weave Cane together. Like the form in which Toomer chose to express himself, his women characters are no less rare and sensual....

(The entire section is 5648 words.)

Udo O. H. Jung (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Jean Toomer: Fern,” in The Black American Short Story in the 20th Century, edited by Peter Bruck, B.R. Grüner Publishing Co., 1977, pp. 53-69.

[In the following essay, Jung examines the circumstances surrounding the publication of and the critical reaction to “Fern,” and surveys the major themes of the story.]

“Fern” is from Jean Toomer's book Cane, which he published in 1923 and which to his chagrin sold no more than 500 copies.1 However, if we are to believe the late Dr. Bontemps “a few sensitive and perceptive people went quietly mad”2 about the book. The judgement of those readers who were...

(The entire section is 7228 words.)

Richard Eldridge (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “The Unifying Images in Part One of Jean Toomer's Cane,College Language Association Journal, Vol. XXII, No. 3, March, 1979, pp. 187-214.

[In the following essay, Eldridge discusses the recurring imagery in the first part of Cane, asserting that it functions to unify the overall themes of the work.]

Although many of the poems and stories in Jean Toomer's Cane1 were published separately in little magazines like Broom, S4N, and Double Dealer, the final complication of Toomer's book was no random collection of writings. In July of 1922 Toomer wrote of his desire to put under one cover some of his writing because...

(The entire section is 8668 words.)

Elizabeth Schultz (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Jean Toomer's ‘Box Seat’: The Possibility for ‘Constructive Crisises,’” in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 7-12.

[In the following essay, Schultz contends that not only is “Box Seat” integral to the thematic, imagistic, and philosophical unity of Cane, but the story has integrity and significance on its own.]

Jean Toomer's Cane has once again come into its own. Recognized by a handful of critics shortly after its publication in 1923 as a masterpiece, it fell into neglect until the late Sixties when a flurry of articles began to appear on Toomer in general and Cane in particular. Many of...

(The entire section is 6090 words.)

Brian Joseph Benson and Mabel Mayle Dillard (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Lifting the Veil: Cane,” in Jean Toomer, Twayne, 1980, pp. 49-98.

[In the following essay, Benson and Dillard offer a thematic and stylistic analysis of Cane.]

Cane, published by Boni and Liveright in 1923, was Toomer's first book-length work. His early poetry, short stories, and sketches had been well received by the literary world and Toomer was considered a promising young author. These early pieces had, as Toomer said, sought to extract the beauty from black life and to direct the people's sensitivity and perception to that beauty. Cane is a further attempt to show the beauty in black life in its various stages: the primitive...

(The entire section is 21760 words.)

Frederik L. Rusch (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “A Tale of the Country Round: Jean Toomer's Legend, ‘Monrovia,’” in MELUS, Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 37-46.

[In the following essay, Rusch considers autobiographical aspects of the unpublished story, “Monrovia” and deems the story unique in Toomer's oeuvre.]

From his unpublished autobiographies, we learn that, throughout much of his life, Jean Toomer (1894-1967) was unhappy, frustrated, and uncertain about where he belonged in the scheme of existence.1 For a variety of reasons, most notably his mixed racial heritage and his somewhat chaotic and insecure childhood, Toomer seemed not to know who he was. Consequently, he spent much of...

(The entire section is 4742 words.)

Nellie Y. McKay (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Finding a Different Place: Cane (2),” in Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936, The University of North Carolina Press, 1984, pp. 125-50.

[In the following essay, McKay interprets the second section of Cane as an exploration of Toomer's urban experience in the North.]


After the violence and despair at the conclusion of “Blood-Burning Moon,” the narrator shifts the action from the rural South to the northern urban environment, and, in Section 2, he explores a new kind of black experience. Many factors contributed to the movement of large numbers of blacks to the North in the early...

(The entire section is 11083 words.)

Sylvia G. Noyes (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “A Particular Patriotism in Jean Toomer's ‘York Beach,’” in College Language Association Journal, Vol. 29, No. 3, March, 1986, pp. 288-94.

[In the following essay, Noyes explicates the major themes of Toomer's short story, “York Beach.”]

Jean Toomer's short story “York Beach”1 was published six years after his masterpiece, Cane. While this neglected story differs in most respects from Cane, the works share a central theme: “The sin whats done against the soul.” The sin against the soul in “York Beach” is vulgar commercialism, a theme common throughout American literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne presented it in the...

(The entire section is 2150 words.)

Herbert W. Rice (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “An Incomplete Circle: Repeated Images in Part Two of Cane,” in College Language Association Journal, Vol. 29, No. 4, June, 1986, pp. 442-61.

[In the following essay, Rice uncovers “a pattern of imagery” in the first and second sections of Cane.]

The broad connections between Parts One and Two of Cane have been noted by several critics. Arna Bontemps points to the contrasting settings: Part One is set in the South, while Part Two is set in the North.1 On a more specific level, Donald Ackley notes the contrast between the roads in the two sections: most of Part One is set on or around the rural Dixie Pike, while Part Two begins...

(The entire section is 6760 words.)

Robert Bone (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Jean Toomer,” in Down Home: Origins of the Afro-American Short Story, Columbia University Press, 1988, pp. 222–28.

[In the following excerpt, Bone discusses “Fern,” “Theater,” and “Bona and Paul” as prime examples of Toomer's narrative technique.]

The genre of Cane has been the subject of considerable speculation and debate. Some critics have viewed the book as an experimental novel; others as a miscellany, composed of poetic, dramatic, and narrative elements; still others as a work sui generis, which deliberately violates the standard categories. The problem is complicated by the fact that parts of Cane were published...

(The entire section is 2401 words.)

Peter Christensen (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Sexuality and Liberation in Jean Toomer's ‘Withered Skin of Berries,’” in Callaloo, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 616-26.

[In the following essay, Christensen assesses the flaws in “Withered Skin of Berries” and deems it “an indispensable part of our heritage from the Harlem Renaissance.”]

The publication of The Wayward and the Seeking1 in 1980 did not turn out to be a major event in American literature. For many people, Jean Toomer's claim to fame still begins and ends with Cane.2 Yet, two selections included by Darwin T. Turner are closely related to Cane and the Harlem Renaissance. One of these,...

(The entire section is 5418 words.)

Sandra Hollin Flowers (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Solving the Critical Conundrum of Jean Toomer's ‘Box Seat,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 301-05.

[In the following essay, Flowers contends that Toomer effectively explores 1920s class division among African Americans in “Box Seat.”]

Contemporary critics tend to read Jean Toomer's Cane as the odyssey of the black writer in search of racial heritage. Consequently, since “Box Seat,” one of Cane's short stories, is set in the city, it is treated as part of the urban leg of the odyssey.1 In numerous letters and journal entries, Toomer encourages this approach by citing a 1921 trip to...

(The entire section is 2209 words.)

Ralph Reckley, Sr. (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Vinculum Factor: ‘Seventh Street’ and ‘Rhobert’ in Jean Toomer's Cane,” in College Language Association Journal, Vol. 31, No. 4, June, 1988, pp. 484-89.

[In the following essay, Reckley emphasizes the thematic and stylistic significance of “Seventh Street” and “Rhobert” in Cane.]

Whether Cane is considered to be a novel or a montage of poetry and prose, the one thing that cannot be denied is the fact that the two works that begin the second section of the volume, “Seventh Street” and “Rhobert,” are vinculums. They are linchpins for Cane not only because they are structurally transitional devices, but also...

(The entire section is 1894 words.)

Robert B. Jones (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Gothic Conventions in Jean Toomer's ‘The Eye,’” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 20, No. 2, Autumn, 1992, pp. 209-17.

[In the following essay, Jones provides a laudatory assessment of “The Eye,” asserting that the unpublished story “is unique in its evocation of terror in the Gothic tradition.”]

Among the scores of unpublished short stories written by Jean Toomer, a newly discovered one is unique in its evocation of terror in the Gothic tradition. Deciphering the facsimile copy is tedious and laborious. Comprising eighteen pages of typed manuscript, with extensive and numerous corrections on every page, the text contains strikeovers,...

(The entire section is 4020 words.)

Robert B. Jones (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Cane: Hermeneutics of Form and Consciousness,” in Jean Toomer and the Prison-House of Thought: A Phenomenology of the Spirit, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1993, pp. 33-62.

[In the following essay, Jones analyzes Toomer's utilization of and experimentation with myriad literary forms in Cane.]


In his foreword to the 1923 edition of Cane, Waldo Frank properly locates the pulse of Toomer's Symbolist-Modernist aesthetic, heralding him as “a poet in prose.” In describing his own writing, Toomer corroborates Frank's assessment: “As for writing—I am not a...

(The entire section is 11925 words.)

George Hutchinson (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Jean Toomer and American Racial Discourse,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 226-50.

[In the following essay, Hutchinson contends that the predominant motif of Cane is the author's exploration of his own racial identity.]

The culture which will transcend, and thus unite, East and West, or the Earthlings and the Galactics, is not likely to be one which does equal justice to each, but one which looks back on both with the amused condescension typical of later generations looking back at their ancestors.1

Knowledge of what...

(The entire section is 11016 words.)

Janet M. Whyde (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Mediating Forms: Narrating the Body in Jean Toomer's Cane, in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 42-53.

[In the following essay, Whyde investigates Toomer's narrative representation of the body in Cane.]

Long before Jean Toomer published his first novel, Cane, in 1923, the questions of racial definition and identification were important ones for blacks and whites alike.1 For white Americans, the problem of the color line was primarily political. For African-Americans, however, more was at stake than just their right to vote or issues of skin color. In part, what African-Americans sought through self...

(The entire section is 5111 words.)

Barbara Foley (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Jean Toomer's Sparta,” in American Literature, Vol. 67, No. 4, December, 1995, pp. 747-75.

[In the following essay, Foley locates one of the actual settings for Cane as the town of Sparta, Georgia, and assesses the impact the place had on Toomer's work and life.]

Students of Cane have long been aware that the “Sempter” of Toomer's text is Sparta, seat of Hancock County in central Georgia. Toomer himself freely acknowledged his text's close connection with the locale where he had lived for three months in the fall of 1921 while serving as substitute principal for the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute. In 1922 Toomer wrote to...

(The entire section is 11445 words.)

Kathryne V. Lindberg (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Raising Cane on the Theoretical Plane: Jean Toomer's Racial Personae,” in Cultural Difference & the Literary Text: Pluralism & the Limits of Authenticity in North American Literatures, edited by Winfried Siemerling & Katrin Schwenk, University of Iowa Press, 1996, pp. 49-74.

[In the following essay, Lindberg discusses Toomer's theories of racial and national identity.]

At least as early as 1924, when Alain Locke was constructing the New Negro and putting together his anthology, Jean Toomer, already burned by his debut as a “Negro writer,” had a counter-definition—more properly a refusal of definition—of the possibilities for the...

(The entire section is 9329 words.)

Barbara Foley (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Jean Toomer's Washington and the Politics of Class: From ‘Blue Veins’ to Seventh-Street Rebels,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 289-321.

[In the following essay, Foley probes Toomer's racial and class consciousness as expressed in the Washington, D. C. section of Cane.]

Familiarity, in most people, indicates not a sentiment of comradeship, an emotion of brotherhood, but simply a lack of respect and reverence tempered by the unkindly … desire to level down whatever is above them, to assert their own puny egos at whatever damage to those fragile tissues of elevation which constitute the worthwhile meshes...

(The entire section is 12260 words.)

Megan Abbott (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “‘Dorris Dances … John Dreams’: Free Indirect Discourse and Female Subjectivity in Cane,” in Soundings, Vol. 80, No. 4, Winter, 1997, pp. 455-74.

[In the following essay, Abbott considers the function of the female characters in Cane, maintaining that they are often the “sites onto which men project their judgments and desires.”]

Many of the chapters that comprise Jean Toomer's Cane share a common textual anxiety, which is rooted in the relation between the narrators and the female characters.1 In Cane, women are often the sites onto which men project their judgements and desires, and many of the chapters...

(The entire section is 7946 words.)

Barbara Foley (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “‘In the Land of Cotton’: Economics and Violence in Jean Toomer's Cane,” in African American Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1998, pp. 181-98.

[In the following essay, Foley explores Toomer's treatment of economic factors and racial violence in Cane.]

Critics of Jean Toomer's Cane disagree about the text's relation to the economic and social realities confronting rural and small-town Georgia blacks in the early 1920s. Some scholars read the novel as a nostalgic celebration of a vanishing peasant existence close to the earth. If the text acknowledges the harshness of racism and poverty, it subordinates social protest to lyricism, the...

(The entire section is 11322 words.)

Catherine Gunther Kodat (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: “To ‘Flash White Light from Ebony’: The Problem of Modernism in Jean Toomer's Cane,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 46, No. 1, Spring, 2000, pp. 1-19.

[In the following essay, Kodat delineates the two camps of Toomer criticism and asserts that the “great strength of Cane lies in Toomer's risky decision to represent racial and gender oppression through modernist literary technique.”]

The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation—and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that...

(The entire section is 8482 words.)

Charles Scruggs (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: “The Reluctant Witness: What Jean Toomer Remembered from Winesburg, Ohio,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring, 2000, pp. 77-100.

[In the following essay, Scruggs evaluates the influence of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, on Toomer's Cane.]

Winesburg, Ohio and The Triumph of the Egg are elements of my growing. It is hard to think of my maturing without them.”

—Jean Toomer to Sherwood Anderson,

December 18, 1922

The Sherwood Anderson whom Toomer said he admired was the Anderson who affirmed the value of existence...

(The entire section is 10322 words.)

Joel B. Peckham (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: “Jean Toomer's Cane: Self as Montage and the Drive toward Integration,” in American Literature, Vol. 72, No. 2, June, 2000, pp. 275-90.

[In the following essay, Peckham provides a stylistic analysis of Cane, particularly the way the disparate elements of text work together as a unified whole.]

In the past decade several important preliminary studies have begun to focus on the relation between the modernist aesthetic and the thematic and formal elements of Jean Toomer's Cane. But while scholars have done much to elucidate the fragmented, avant-garde nature of the text's form and to pose possible unifying themes, their efforts have been...

(The entire section is 5936 words.)

John F. Callahan (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: “‘By de Singin' uh de Song’: The Search for Reciprocal Voice in Cane,” in In the African-American Grain: Call-and-Response in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction, University of Illinois Press, First Paperback Edition, 2001, pp. 62-114.

[In the following essay, Callahan addresses Toomer's use of American vernacular and song in Cane, particularly his use of spirituals and folk songs.]


In The Conjure Woman Charles W. Chesnutt adapted African-American call-and-response to a radically different cultural situation. Uncle Julius performs for a white audience, and his stories challenge his listeners' values and in...

(The entire section is 20318 words.)

Further Reading


Kerman, Cynthia Earl and Richard Eldridge. The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987, 411 p.

Detailed biography emphasizing Toomer's quest for spiritual fulfillment.


Bell, Bernard W. “Jean Toomer's Cane.Black World 23, No. 11 (September 1974): 4-19, 92-7.

Commentary on the pastoral and religious elements in Cane.

Benson, Brian Joseph and Mabel Mayle Dillard. Jean Toomer. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980, 150 p.

Biographical and critical study of...

(The entire section is 766 words.)