Jean Toomer

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What early factors were responsible for Jean Toomer’s identity crisis, and how is it reflected in his literary works?

Upon what African American cultural sources did Toomer draw for his poems?

What early twentieth century literary works does Cane most resemble in form?

How does Toomer develop the theme of communication failure in Cane?

In retrospect, does Toomer’s optimism in “Blue Meridian” appear naïve?

Other Literary Forms

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All Jean Toomer’s best fiction appears in Cane, which also includes fifteen poems. Toomer later wrote fragments of an autobiography and several essays, the most important of which are found in Essentials: Definitions and Aphorisms (1931).


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Jean Toomer’s Cane, published in 1923, is considered to be one of the masterpieces of experimental fiction and one of the most important and relevant evocations of African American life in the twentieth century. Toomer’s book was rediscovered in the late 1960’s after it was reprinted in 1967. Cane is represented in most anthologies of American literature, guaranteeing the author a distinguished place in American literary history.

Other literary forms

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Most of the work of Jean Toomer (TEW-muhr) was in genres other than poetry. His one published volume of creative writing, Cane (1923), contains only fifteen poems, mostly short, and fourteen pieces that appear to be in prose. However, they are all informed with the poet’s rather than the novelist’s sensibility, and some of them are poems in all but line breaks, while all of them use assorted poetic devices either throughout or sporadically.

Toomer published several pieces of fiction after Cane, generally quite experimental inasmuch as they lacked plot, often included philosophical meditations, and indeed often worked more like poetry, with impressionistic scenes and descriptions and an emphasis on developing a theme through juxtaposition of sections rather than an overall sequence of action. Among these are “Winter on Earth” (The Second American Caravan, 1929), “Mr. Costyve Duditch” (The Dial, 1928), and “York Beach” (New American Caravan, 1929). The first two were collected in the posthumous volume The Wayward and the Seeking (1980), edited by Darwin T. Turner, along with a previously unpublished story from 1930, “Withered Skin of Berries,” which is more in the style of Cane, though much longer than most of the pieces in that book.

Toomer published one short, fragmentary play during his lifetime, “Balo,” in Alain Locke’s collection Plays of Negro Life (1927), and two of several other plays which he wrote in The Wayward and the Seeking.

Nonfiction predominates in Toomer’s work, indicating his concerns with philosophical and spiritual goals, as in “Race Problems and Modern Society” (1929), “The Flavor of Man” (1949), and Essentials: Definitions and Aphorisms (privately printed in 1931, some of its aphorisms having been printed earlier in The Dial and Crisis, with many appearing much later in The Wayward and the Seeking). These aphorisms are occasionally poetic and certainly worthy of contemplation, but they might be stronger if incorporated into actual poems. Portions of several versions of Toomer’s autobiography appear in The Wayward and the Seeking. The rest of his many unpublished works, including many poems, remain in the Toomer Collection of the Fisk University Library.


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Jean Toomer’s Cane is one of the most memorable and appealing books in African American literature, conveying a vivid sense of the life of southern blacks around 1920 (though little changed since the time of slavery) and showing clearly the conflicts between the feelings of black people and the desensitizing and spirit-diminishing urban life they found in the North. However, Cane is significant not only for its content but also for its innovative form and style. Its combination of prose and verse, stories and poems, produces a unified impression,...

(This entire section contains 293 words.)

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with poems foreshadowing or commenting on adjacent stories and the stories and sketches exploring a multitude of perspectives on black life, rural and urban.

Toomer’s impressionistic style, his seductive but not mechanical rhythms, his brilliant imagery and figurative language, and his manipulation of language to produce a wide range of emotional and literary effects were refreshing to many black writers during and after the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s. Instead of adhering strictly to traditional European models of form and meter (like that of his major black contemporaries Claude McKay and Countée Cullen) or the literary realism and straightforward narrative style of black fiction to that date, he joined the progression of revolutionary poets and fiction writers who were creating literary modernism, from Walt Whitman on through James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, and T. S. Eliot, up to Toomer’s friend and contemporary Hart Crane.

Very few of Toomer’s other works come even close to the towering achievement of Cane, but its poems and poetic prose provided later writers a successful means of evoking the feel of the black experience. A reader can still sense echoes of its style in the evocative prose of novelist Toni Morrison.


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Benson, Joseph, and Mabel Mayle Dillard. Jean Toomer. Boston: Twayne, 1980. The first book-length study of Toomer, this volume is an excellent introduction to Toomer’s life, work, and place in American literature. After a biographical chapter, the book examines Toomer’s novel Cane and representative later works. Includes a bibliography.

Byrd, Rudolph. Jean Toomer’s Years with Gurdijieff: Portrait of an Artist, 1923-1936. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990. A good introduction to Toomer’s years of studying orientalism and the mystical philosophy of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. It indicates that, although Toomer was an African American writer, his concerns were primarily spiritual and philosophical rather than social and ethnic. It is a fascinating account of one part of Jean Toomer’s life.

Byrd, Rudolph. “Was He There With Them?” In The Harlem Renaissance: Reevaluations. New York: Garland, 1989. This article examines Toomer’s tenuous relationship with the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. It asserts that, although Toomer identified with many of the issues and social concerns being addressed by African American writers, his style, techniques, and philosophy made him something of an outsider and gave him a unique position among the major African American writers of the 1920’s.

Fabre, Geneviève, and Michel Feith, eds. Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001. A collection of essays that re-examine Toomer, placing the novelist among his contemporaries in America and in Europe.

Hajek, Friederike. “The Change of Literary Authority in the Harlem Renaissance: Jean Toomer’s Cane.” In The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture, edited by Werner Sollos and Maria Diedrich. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. Argues that one of the main unifying elements in Cane is the concept of changing authority, which occurs in three phrases corresponding to the three sections of the text. Asserts that the work is a swan song for a dying folk culture and a birth chant for a new black aesthetic.

Jones, Robert B. Introduction to The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer. Edited by Robert B. Jones and Margery Toomer Latimer. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Although this book is not about Toomer’s fiction, the introduction gives an excellent account of Toomer’s life and work within the context of the various phases of his writing and philosophical studies. In addition, it discusses the authors and poets who influenced Toomer’s life and writings.

Kerman, Cynthia. The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. This book gives an account of the various stages of Jean Toomer’s life and his attempts to find spiritual guidance and revelation throughout his lifetime. An interesting account of a fascinating life.

McKay, Nellie Y. Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Moore, Lewis D. “Kabnis and the Reality of Hope: Jean Toomer’s Cane.” North Dakota Quarterly 54 (Spring, 1986): 30-39. Moore’s article discusses the elements of “hope” within the context of the characters in Cane. In particular, he indicates that despite the repressive aspects of the society in which they live, Toomer’s characters are redeemed and indeed triumph over that society by virtue of the positive aspects of their humanity.

Scruggs, Charles, and Lee VanDemarr. Jean Toomer and the Terrors of American History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. Provides critical evaluation of Cane and other Toomer works. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Taylor, Paul Beekman. Shadows of Heaven. York Beach, Me.: S. Weiser, 1998. Examines the lives and works of Toomer, George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, and A. R. Orage.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Toomer’s Cane as Narrative Sequence.” In Modern American Short Story Sequences, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Discusses Cane as a modernist tour de force of mixed genre. Examines “Blood-Burning Moon” as Toomer’s ideal fiction construct that provides insight into the structural and thematic radicalism of the collection.


Critical Essays