Jean Toomer

Jean Toomer Biography

Playwright, Author, Poet (1894–1967)
Jean Toomer was a poet, playwright, novelist and short-story writer. His first novel, 'Cane,' was an inspiration for many Harlem Renaissance writers and is regarded as a classic.


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 by far his most well-known work and is considered a multi-genre masterpiece of African-American life, though Toomer saw himself as an American writer first and foremost. Toomer also explored various spiritual beliefs during his life. He died on March 30, 1967, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

Background and Early Life

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.

Controversy Over Race and Identity

Perhaps influenced by his sister's decisions, 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, which might have been a reflection of an administrator's perception vs. Toomer's own self-identification. He also lived as a white man with his second wife, Marjorie Content, who was also white. (First wife Margery passed away from childbirth, with the couple having a daughter. Toomer also had a friendship and romance at one point with artist Georgia O'Keeffe.)

Some scholars, including Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Rudolph P. Byrd, have said that Toomer chose to pass as white. ("He never, ever wrote anything remotely approaching the originality and genius of Cane," Gates would say of Toomer's most famous work. "I believe it's because he spent so much time running away from his identity.) This assertion has been the subject of debate and controversy, with Toomer's own great-granddaughter later writing to the New York Times to critique Gates' and Byrd's claims. 

Toomer—who did embrace a black identity while writing to an early love interest and was categorized as "Negro" while registering for the draft in 1917 and 1942—may have been trying to transcend the sometimes harsh restrictions of an artificial racial identity, an assertion made by other scholars that include Richard Eldridge, who with Cynthia Earl Kerman wrote the 1987 biography The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness. Throughout his life, Toomer insisted that he wanted to be thought of as "simply an American."

Writing Career

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 visionary mix of poetry and stories to address the realities and emotions of the rural African-American experience. The book—considered a masterpiece and shining example of modernist literature—became an emblem and harbinger of the Harlem Renaissance, which featured other writing luminaries like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen and Claude McKay.

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. 

Over the course of his career, Toomer would also contribute pieces to an array of publications that included Crisis, Modern Review and Prairie.

Spiritual Quest

After Cane had been published, Toomer began studying with Russian guru George Gurdjieff, learning about his methods for reaching a higher level of consciousness. Apparently a true convert (though there would be accusations that the writer was not an earnest spiritualist), 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.  

Later Years and Legacy

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, lauded by a new wave of thinkers and writers that include Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker.

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