Jean Toomer (1894-1967)
Jean Toomer is best known as the author of the 1923 novel Cane, an influential work about African
Jean Toomer was the adopted literary name of Nathan Pinchback Toomer, born on December 26, 1894, in Washington, D.C.
In 1920 Toomer returned to Washington, and in the fall of 1921 he accepted a short-term job as a substitute principal at the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute, in the Oconee River valley of middle Georgia, not far from Perry, Augusta, and Macon—all places where his mysterious father had lived. In Sparta, Toomer claimed he discovered an African American soul, a "seed" of his own blood that had been obscured by his ambiguous racial upbringing, and a part of African American heritage that he believed was generally disappearing in urbanized America. Previously frustrated in his search for a meaningful subject for his writing, Toomer found that he was overflowing with stories and poetry inspired by the Georgia landscape, the African American voices, and the interracial encounters of the southern blacks and whites he met in the Jim Crow–era agricultural town. Cane was the result.
The questions of psychological identity and spiritual harmony that led Toomer to go looking for himself, first in Georgia and then in the teachings of Gurdjieff, also led him to experiment with various other paths—Jungian psychology, the teachings of Edgar Cayce, and Scientology among them. In 1940 Toomer joined the Quakers, who were a sustaining comfort and influence throughout the rest of his life. He lectured for the Religious Society of Friends and wrote extensively for Quaker publications in the 1940s and 1950s. Toomer was married twice: to Margery Latimer in 1931 (she died in childbirth in 1932), with whom he had one daughter, Margery (Argie); and then to Marjorie Content in 1934. A resident of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, from 1934 onward, Toomer died in a Pennsylvania nursing home of arteriosclerosis on March 30, 1967.
Although he wrote throughout his life, Toomer's literary visibility effectively ended in 1936, with the last publication in his lifetime, the long poem "Blue Meridian," which extolled the potential of an "American" race, a "blue" hybrid that would incorporate and extend the spirits of the black, white, and red races. Toomer's subsequent writings—a considerable body of essays, experimental plays, poetry, and short fiction—would remain unpublished until the mid-1960s, when the scholar-writer Arna Bontemps acquired Toomer's papers for Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Cane was reissued for the first time in paperback in 1969, and it has become a classic text of African American studies. Recent publications include collections of Toomer's poetry and essays, as well as the republication of his 1931 self-published book of Gurdjieffian aphorisms, Essentials.
In 2002 Toomer was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
Barbara Foley, "'In the Land of Cotton': Economics and Violence in Jean Toomer's Cane," African American Review 32 (summer 1998).
Barbara Foley, "Jean Toomer's Sparta," American Literature 67 (December 1995).
Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge, The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987).
Kent Anderson Leslie and Willard B. Gatewood Jr. "'This Father of Mine . . . a Sort of Mystery': Jean Toomer's Georgia Heritage," Georgia Historical Quarterly 77 (winter 1993).
Nellie Y. McKay, Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).
Keith Hulett, University of Georgia Libraries
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