- NAME: Jean Toomer
- OCCUPATION: Author, Playwright, Poet
- BIRTH DATE: December 26, 1894
- DEATH DATE: March 30, 1967
- Did You Know?: Jean Toomer is the grandson of Pinckney Pinchback, the first person of African-American descent to become a U.S. governor.
- Did You Know?: Jean Toomer dated Georgia O'Keeffe
- EDUCATION: University of Wisconsin, Massachusetts College of Agriculture, American College of Physical Training at Chicago, University of Chicago, City College of New York, New York University
- PLACE OF BIRTH: Washington, D.C.
- PLACE OF DEATH: Doylestown, Pennsylvania
- Full Name: Jean Toomer
- Originally: Nathan Pinchback Toomer
- AKA: Eugene Pinchback Toomer
- AKA: Jean Pinchback Toomer
- AKA: N. Jean Toomer
- AKA: Nathan Jean Toomer
- AKA: Eugene Pinchback
- AKA: Eugene Toomer
Best Known For
Jean Toomer was a poet, playwright, novelist and short-story writer. His first novel, Cane, was an inspiration for many Harlem Renaissance writers.
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Born on December 26, 1894, in Washington, D.C., Jean Toomer—who began writing in 1918—authored short stories, plays and poems. His modernist novel Cane (1923) is considered a masterpiece about African-American life; however, he tried not to be seen as an African-American writer. Toomer also explored various spiritual beliefs during his life. He died on March 30, 1967, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
"I would not consider it libelous for anyone to refer to me as a colored man, but I have not lived as one, nor do I really know whether there is colored blood in me or not."
"I am of no particular race ... I am of the human race, a man at large in the human world preparing a new race."
"My poems are not Negro poems ... I see myself an American, simply an American."
"[Jean Toomer] never, ever wrote anything remotely approaching the originality and genius of Cane. I believe it's because he spent so much time running away from his identity."
Nathan Pinchback Toomer, who adopted the name Jean Toomer in his literary career, was born on December 26, 1894, in Washington, D.C. As his father decamped soon after his birth, he was raised by his mother, with support from his maternal grandparents.
Toomer shared the name Nathan with his father, so his grandfather, Pinckney Pinchback—the nation's first governor of African-American descent—referred to Toomer as "Eugene." Toomer's family also had European lineage; growing up, he moved between African-American and white neighborhoods, and attended both all-white and all-black schools.
As an adult, Toomer generally would not admit that he had African-American heritage, going so far as to suggest that his grandfather had passed for black during Reconstruction for political reasons. Upon his first marriage, to the white novelist Margery Latimer, his marriage license stated that Toomer was white. He also lived as a white man with his second wife, Marjorie Content, who was also white.
Henry Louis Gates and other scholars have said that Toomer chose to pass as white. However, Toomer—who did categorize himself as Negro while registering for the draft in 1917 and 1942—may have been trying to escape the restrictions of racial identity. Throughout his life, he insisted that he wanted to be thought of as "simply an American."
After attending a succession of colleges—though he never received a degree—Toomer began writing in 1918, starting with the short story "Bona and Paul." He also produced poems and plays, such as Natalie Mann (1922).
In 1921, Toomer worked as a school principal in Sparta, Georgia. The location inspired him to write Cane (1923), a novel that uses a mix of poems and stories to address the realities and emotions of the African-American experience. The book—considered a masterpiece—became an emblem and harbinger of the Harlem Renaissance, and is also considered an example of modernist literature.
However, Cane did not affect Toomer's determination not to be considered an African-American writer. Later works he produced—many of which stayed unpublished—did not focus on African Americans; his poem "Blue Meridian"(1936) was about the desire Toomer had for people to come together as an "American" race.
After Cane had been published, Toomer began studying with guru George Gurdjieff, learning about Gurdjieff's methods for reaching a higher level of consciousness. A true convert, Toomer shared these teachings in the United States.
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They are the famous African-American writers who have fearlessly examined cultural stigmas, provided intimate life details, presented new ideas and created remarkable fiction through literary works. For their prophetic genius, these men and women have received Pulitzer Prizes, NAACP awards and even Nobel Prizes, among other honors. Our list of prominent African-American authors includes Toni Morrison, who has detailed the lives of black characters who struggle with identity amidst racism and hostility; Langston Hughes, a founder of the Harlem Renaissance; and Maya Angelou, who has eloquently chronicled various eras of her life through her autobiographies.
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