Jean Toomer biography
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.
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.
Race and Identity
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.
Though Toomer broke away from Gurdjieff in 1935, that did not end his search for spiritual answers. He became interested in the Quaker religion in 1938, visited India the next year to examine that country's spiritual offerings, then joined the Quakers in 1940. Later in life, he explored Jungian analysis and L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics before once again embracing Gurdjieff's philosophy in 1953.
Toomer's spiritual undertakings also affected his writing. He penned a book of aphorisms inspired by Gurdjieff, Essentials (1931), that was privately printed. While active with the Society of Friends, he produced many pieces about Quakerism.
An ill Toomer spent the end of his life in a nursing home. He died at age 72 on March 30, 1967, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Reprinted in 1967, Cane received even more acclaim after his death.