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.
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.
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.