Jean Toomer Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

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...

(The entire section is 531 words.)