Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819
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, economic deprivation, and segregation provided him with the subjects and themes of his major literary work.
He wrote “Bona and Paul,” a story in the second section of Cane, in 1918 during a stay in Chicago, where the story is set. The other narratives and much of the verse, however, are products of a burst of creativity that began on the train that took him back to Washington from Georgia in November of 1921. A month after his return, he had completed the first draft of “Kabnis” (the third section of Cane), which closely reflects his Sparta sojourn. By the end of 1922, he had finished all the pieces that would make up Cane, and the book was published in 1923 with a foreward by Waldo Frank, who had become Toomer’s close friend and mentor. Despite favorable reviews, only about five hundred copies were sold in 1923; a small second printing was made in 1927. Shortly thereafter, the book went out of print until 1967.
In the aftermath of Cane’s publication, Toomer became part of New York City’s avant-garde white literary circles, but he objected both to rivalries that prevailed in the fraternity of writers and to attempts to promote him as a black writer. Largely because of these factors, he departed the literary scene by 1925. Though he continued to write, he published over the following four decades only a few short stories, some poetry, a book of maxims and aphorisms, and pamphlets about the Quakers.
Much of Cane suggests its author’s uncertainty about his identity (stemming from his mixed racial background and upbringing) and religious beliefs (he commented that he was raised “without benefit of organized religion” but that he “did have religious experiences and . . . did somehow form feelings and notions of God.”) Therefore, Toomer was receptive to the philosophy of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, a Greek-Armenian mystic who taught in Russia until the Russian Revolution and then in various Western European cities prior to opening the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man outside Paris. Central to Gurdjieff’s teachings was the need to seek a balance of mind, body, and soul through which one could develop a higher consciousness and achieve one’s maximum potential. Toomer spent the summer of 1924 at Gurdjieff’s schools, quickly became a disciple, and during most of the following decade led Gurdjieff groups in New York and Chicago.
Toomer married twice, both times to white women. His first wife was Margery Latimer, a novelist he met while in a Gurdjieff group in Portage, Wisconsin. Within a year, she died in childbirth, though their daughter survived. In 1934, he remarried, to Marjorie Content, an affluent New Yorker active in literary circles. They moved to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, in 1936, where they joined and became active in the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Toomer returned to the Gurdjieff philosophy in the 1950’s, but inadequate funds kept him from replicating the Paris institute. Plagued by frail health and alcoholism, he spent much of the last five years of his life in a Doylestown nursing home, where he died on March 30, 1967.
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