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 earn a degree, and he switched his academic interests several times.
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