| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Nathan Eugene
Toomer was the only child of Nina Pinchback, and her husband, Nathan Toomer.
Soon after his son’s birth, however, Nathan, Sr., disappeared, and Nina was
forced, through economic need, to return to live with her father, Pinckney
Benton Stewart Pinchback, who had been a controversial figure in Louisiana
Reconstruction politics. She remarried in 1906 and took her son with her to New
Rochelle, New York. Following her untimely death in 1909, Toomer returned to
Washington and remained there until he left for college in 1914. Thereafter,
intermittently, he lived for varying periods of time with his grandparents, until
their deaths in the 1920s.
a young man, Jean Toomer took a long time choosing a profession. He attended
six separate institutions of higher education, but never graduated. However,
even as a child, he enjoyed literature, and as early as when he lived in New
York, he attempted to write. In 1919 he made up his mind to pursue a literary
his most important work, was published in 1923. This book grew out of a trip to
the South in September 1921, at a time when he was frustrated with the slow
progress of his writing. Toomer’s encounter with rural African American folk
culture inspired him, and the visit served as the catalyst for ideas that
connected his identity, positively, to his creative impulses. Cane was highly
praised upon publication. Toomer’s friends and associates were mostly white
avant-garde writers, but black writers of the early New Negro Renaissance
claimed him as their own. As the first book to emerge from that period, Cane
was called the herald of a new day in African American letters, and Toomer the
most promising of the upcoming new writers. In its artistic achievement, his
work had surpassed all prior literary descriptions of the African American
experience. His future seemed assured.
composed of three separate parts, Cane unifies the northern and southern
African American experiences through its circular movement. In the first
section, six vignettes of southern women and twelve poems, in lyrical, vivid,
mystical, and sensuous language, highlight the duality of black southern life
in their portrayal of conflicts, pressures, and racial and economic oppression.
The second section is a kaleidoscope of impressions of the death of black
spirituality in a wasteland of urban materialism and technology. In the final
section, a drama, a black northerner searches for and discovers his identity in
the South of his ancestors. The most enduring aspect of Cane is its revelation
of an intrinsic strength and beauty in black American culture even in the face
of white oppression.
other works of note include several plays written between 1922 and 1929 in
which he experimented with expressionist techniques, then new to America. Among
American playwrights, only Eugene O’Neill surpassed him in this respect. But by
the beginning of 1924, angered by the negative impact of racial identity in
American society and in search of a philosophy that would permit him a sense of
internal unity, Toomer turned away from literature and became a follower of
mystic George Gurdjieff. From 1924 to 1932 he worked as a teacher of
Gurdjieff’s philosophy, one which promised him the unity he sought. He
continued to write, but never again about the black experience, or with the
qualities of his masterpiece, Cane. Publishers refused the new work on its non-literary
merits. His final publication, a long Whitmanesque poem entitled “The Blue
Meridian” (1936), pays tribute to Americans of all races, creeds, and colors.
was a gifted artist who turned his back on what might have been a brilliant
writing career for a principle regarding the meaning of race in America. For
this reason, his life and work remain especially interesting to scholars. His
grandfather claimed a black identity, although he was sufficiently
light-skinned to pass for white. As the equally fair-skinned Toomer grew up and
learned about racial politics, he declared himself a member of the American
race rather than belonging to a particular ethnic group. This caused him many
difficulties, especially as others accused him of denying his African American
heritage, a charge he stoutly refuted. He stood firm, maintaining that he was
the conscious representative of a people with a heritage of multiple
bloodlines, and that others would understand this in time. By privileging no
one of his bloodlines, Toomer perceived himself as having taken an important
step toward solving America’s racial problems.
Nellie Y. McKay|
University of Wisconsin at Madison
In the Heath Anthology
Song of the Son
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Modern American Poetry
Critical writings on Toomer's work, a brief biography, and links.
The Jean Toomer Pages
Biography, bibliograpy, stories, and poems (all compiled in May 1996) honoring Jean Toomer's one-hundredth birthday.
Rudolph P. Byrd, Jean Toomer's Years with Gurdjieff; Portrait of an Artist 1923-1936, 1990
Robert B. Jones, Jean Toomer and the Prison-House of Thought: A Phenomenology of the Spirit, 1993
Rudolph B. Jones and Margery Toomer Latimer, The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer, 1988
Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge, The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness, 1987
Nellie Y. McKay, Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936, 1984
Therman B. O'Daniel, Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation, 1988