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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Jean Toomer

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.

As 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 career.

Cane, 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.

Although 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.

Toomer’s 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.

Toomer 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
Blood-Burning Moon (1923)
Box Seat (1923)
Seventh Street (1923)
Song of the Son (1923)
from Cane
      Karintha (1923)

Other Works
Essentials (1931)

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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.

Secondary Sources

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