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Jean Toomer's Life and Career

Robert B. Jones

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Portrait by Weinold Reiss

Jean Toomer (26 Dec. 1894-30 Mar. 1967), writer and philosopher, was born Nathan Pinchback Toomer in Washington, D.C., the son of Nathan Toomer, a planter, and Nina Pinchback, the daughter of Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction and the first U.S. governor of African-American descent. Like his parents, Toomer could easily pass for white, his heritage comprising several European and African bloodlines. Indeed, throughout his formative years until age eighteen, he lived alternately as white and as African American. In 1895 Nathan Toomer abandoned his family, forcing Nina and her son to live with her somewhat tyrannical father in Washington. P. B. S. Pinchback agreed to support them only under the condition that the boy’s name be changed. Though his name was not legally altered, his grandparents thereafter called him Eugene Pinchback; in school he was known as Eugene Pinchback Toomer. (Later when he began writing, he shortened his name to Jean Toomer.) According to Toomer's biographers Cynthia Kerman and Richard Eldridge, "For Jean to grow up in a house with a grandfather who had been the only black governor of any state in the Union ... could not help shaping the perceptions and attitudes of the fatherless boy." In Washington Toomer lived in a white neighborhood but attended the all-black Garnet Elementary School.

When his mother remarried in 1906, the family moved to New Rochelle, New York, where they lived in a white neighborhood and he attended an all-white school. Toomer returned to Washington in 1909, following the death of his mother, and attended the all-black Dunbar High School. After graduation in 1914, he renounced racial classifications and sought to live not as a member of any racial group but as an American.

For the next three Years Toomer studied agriculture, physical education, psychology, and literature at several colleges and universities, including the University of Wisconsin (1914-1915), the Massachusetts College of Agriculture (1915), the American College of Physical Training at Chicago (1916), the University of Chicago (1916), the City College of New York (1917), and New York University (1917), although he never took a degree. It was during these years, however, that he was preparing to be a writer, by attending off-campus lectures on naturalism, atheism, psychology, evolution and socialism and by reading numerous philosophical and literary works, such as those by William Shakespeare, George Santayana, Charles Baudelaire, William Blake, Sherwood Anderson, Leo Tolstoy, and all the major American poets, especially the imagists. In 1920 he met Waldo Frank, who introduced him to several literary circles and later wrote an extremely laudatory introduction to the first edition of Cane. Toomer eventually became friends with many literary critics and luminaries, including Hart Crane, Sherwood Anderson, Malcolm Cowley, and Alfred Stieglitz.

Between 1918 and 1923 Toomer wrote the short stories "Bona and Paul" and "Withered Skin of Berries," the plays Natalie Mann (1922) and Balo (1922), and many poems such as "Five Vignettes," "Skyline," "Poem in C," "Gum," "Banking Coal," and "The First American." The urtext for both "Brown River Smile" and The Blue Meridian, "The First American" was a lyrical expression of his racial and democratic idealism.

I wrote a poem called "The First American," the idea of which was that here in America we are in the process of forming a new race, that I was one of the first conscious members of this race ... I had seen the divisions, the separatisms and antagonisms ... [yet] a new type of man was arising in this country--not European, not African, not Asiatic--but American. And in this American I saw the divisions mended, the differences reconciled--saw that (1) we would in truth be a united people existing in the United States, saw that (2) we would in truth be once again members of a united human race. (Turner, ed., The Wayward and the Seeking, p. 121)

Formally introduced to the philosophy of idealism in 1920, for more, than eight months Toomer abandoned writing to study Eastern philosophy.

I came into contact with an entirely new body of ideas. Buddhist philosophy, the Eastern teachings, occultism, theosophy ... These ideas challenged and stimulated me. Despite my literary purpose, I was compelled to know something more about them ... and my religious nature, given a cruel blow by Clarence Darrow and naturalism, but not, as I found, destroyed by them--my religious nature which had been sleeping was vigorously aroused. (Turner, ed., p. 119)

As an idealist philosopher, Toomer proposed the power of the mind to reconcile and transcend the self and the world. "In life nothing is only physical," he maintained, "there is also the symbolical. White and Black. West and East. North and South. Light and Darkness. In general, the great contrasts. The pairs of opposites. And I, together with all other I's, am the reconciler" (Turner, ed., p. 54). Based on his studies in orientalism, Toomer formulated theories of being and consciousness, and when he returned to writing in 1921 he sought literary equivalents for his idealism.

Symbolist and imagist aesthetics provided those equivalents, derived from both French and American sources. Of the French symbolists Toomer's mentor was Baudelaire, whose Petits poémes en prose provided models for the prose poems and lyrical sketches in Cane; of the American symbolists it was Walt Whitman, whose democratic idealism and mystical conception of the self appealed to Toomer's idealist imagination. Symbolist idealism also figures prominently in his early fascination with imagism. In his attempts to fashion experience as a mystical moment of vision, and to create the immediacy and presentness of portraiture of literature, he found imagist aesthetics to be compatible with his own. "Their insistence on fresh vision and on the perfect clean economical line was just what I had been looking for. I began feeling that I had in my hands the tools for my own creation" (Turner, ed., p. 120). Imagist poetics thus provided for him the ideal medium to make the reader "see," almost in mystical fashion, the distilled essence of an insight or experience.

In September 1921 Toomer traveled to Sparta, Georgia, where for two months he served as interim principal of the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute. Living as an African American in the rural South stimulated his racial consciousness, and he used this newly found identification with his racial past to create the poems, prose poems, lyrical narratives, and short stories in his lyrical novel and master-work, Cane (1923). While many critics have credited this work with ushering in the Harlem Renaissance, noting the book's representations of African-American characters and culture, others have located it within the Lost Generation, owing to its literary experimentation, its romantic primitivism, and its critiques of postwar values. Part one of the book presents portraits of six women of the rural South, in a style reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson's gallery of grosteques in Winesburg, Ohio (1919). Part two shifts to the urban North, using paysage moralisé settings in Washington, D.C., and Chicago to depict the modern world as a postwar wasteland. In Part three, "Kabnis," the setting shifts back to the rural South and dramatizes a portrait of an artist struggling to represent the parting soul of the African-American past in art. Robert Bone has noted that Toomer participated on equal terms with Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and T S. Eliot in the creation of a new, modern idiom during the 1920s, and he ranks Cane with Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) in the tradition of the African-American novel.

Shortly after the publication of Cane, Toomer began studying the austere idealism of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, and in 1924, 1926, and 1927 he attended the Gurdjieff Institute for Harmonious Development at the Château de Prieuré in Fontainebleau, France. Until 1935, when he distanced himself from Gurdjieff, Toomer preached the gospel of higher consciousness and spiritual self-development. Yet he continued his profession as a writer. Indeed, the years between 1923 and 1935 were the most productive of Toomer's literary career.

In 1925 the symbolist sketch "Easter" was published in Little Review, and in 1927 Toomer completed a burlesque novel, The Gallonwerps, and a modern morality play, The Sacred Factory. In 1928 he wrote the short story "Skillful Dr. Coville" while "Winter on Earth," another short story, was published in The Second American Caravan and the short story "Mr. Costyve Duditch" in the Dial. In 1929 he collected ten of his stories in a volume titled "Lost and Dominant" (unpublished), while the poems "White Arrow" and "Reflections" appeared in the Dial. In that same year, "Lettre D' Amérique," an essay on the election of Herbert Hoover as president and its impact on American values, was published (in French) in Bifur while his essay "Race Problems and Modern Society" appeared in Problems of Civilization. Also in 1929 York Beach, his psychological novella set in Maine, was published in The New American Caravan. In 1931 Toomer completed his long poem The Blue Meridian, a lyrical affirmation of democratic idealism modeled after Whitman's "Song of Myself," and Essentials, a book of aphorisms.

Also in 1931 Toomer conducted his highly publicized Gurdjieffian "Cottage Experiment," a summer workshop in psychological and social development held in Portage, Wisconsin. During this workshop he met and married Margery Latimer, author of This Is My Body (1930) and Guardian Angel and Other Stories (1932). They lived in an artist colony in Carmel, California. Toomer recounts this time in their lives, and the adverse publicity surrounding their interracial marriage, in his unpublished novel "Caromb" (1932). In August 1932 Latimer died while giving birth to their daughter, Margery. During this year the poem "Brown River Smile" appeared in Pagany, and the poem "As the Eagle Soars" was published in the Crisis. In 1933 he wrote a closet drama on modernism and dehumanization, Man's Home Companion. In 1934 Toomer published an essay on spiritual development, "A New Force for Cooperation," in Adelphi and an essay tribute to Stieglitz titled "The Hill" in America and Alfred Stieglitz: A Collective Portrait. In 1934 he married Marjorie Content, daughter of a Wall Street banker, and they remained together until his death. Because both of Toomer's marriages were interracial, they were highly publicized.

In 1935 Toomer dissociated himself from Gurdjieff after they argued over misappropriated funds. He and his wife then spent the summer in Taos, New Mexico, where he wrote A Drama of the Southwest, a play that captures his mystical identification with the area's landscape in imagery reminiscent of Cane. Although he and Gurdjieff were estranged, Toomer never repudiated Gurdjieffian philosophy. When the Toomers moved to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, in 1936, he established a Gurdjieff center, led groups modeled on Gurdjieff's teachings, and gave lectures on spiritual self-development. During this time he published three monographs called "psychologic papers," Living Is Developing (1937), Work-Ideas I (1937), and Roads, People, and Principles (1939).

In 1938 Toomer began attending meetings of the Religious Society of Friends in Doylestown. Throughout his apprenticeship with this group, he immersed himself in Quaker religious philosophy and wrote numerous essays on George Fox and Quakerism. Still engaged in his perennial quest for new forms of higher consciousness, Toomer toured India between August and December 1939. During these months he began writing The Angel Begori, a novel that allegorizes a quest for spiritual enlightenment, and The Colombo-Madras Rail, a one-act play dramatizing poverty and the decline of spiritual authority in India. Near the end of his tour, however, he admitted that this new quest for spiritual enlightenment was unsuccessful. "A life of withdrawal from the world as I have seen it lived in India is not the life for me," he declared (Kerman and Eldridge, p. 245).

When Toomer returned to Doylestown in January 1940, believing that Quakerism provided a new and radical venture into the religious idealism of "Inner Light" consciousness, he joined the Society of Friends.

The message of Quakerism is that there is that of God in every man. Indeed the message is the immediacy of God ... Quakerism says here is a way to God. Here are practices that will lead you to discover God in yourself and your fellowman. Here are means and methods that enable you to recover the indwelling divinity and realize you are part of it ... Quakerism is not unique in proclaiming that something of God is in man. Hinduism proclaims the same ... [and] Catholic mystics made the same discovery. (Toomer, "The Message of Quakerism")

He quickly became involved in various Quaker activities, serving on four Friends committees in 1941 and as clerk of the ministry and counsel committee for Bucks County in 1943. In 1943 he was appointed to the ministry and counsel executive committee at the annual Friends conference in Philadelphia, and he served on the religious life committee in 1945. In recognition of his devotion to Quaker principles, Toomer was asked to give the William Penn Lecture in Philadelphia in 1949. Notwithstanding his new religious affiliation, he continued his devotion to Gurdjieffian idealism. Indeed, in 1942 he sought to reconcile Gurdjieffian and Quaker philosophy by organizing a cooperative, comprising both lay individuals interested in spiritual self-development and Quakers. Based in an old water-powered grist mill called "Mill House," where they all worked and lived, the members of this cooperative, "Friends of Being," dedicated themselves to overcoming separations of all kinds. One Mill House resident, Frank Davenport, recalled his experiences as follows:

At the center was Jean Toomer, a gentle man with force. He was the prime mover; from him came the ideas, principles, purposes, insights, understandings.... He opened doors we were ready to walk through; he rang bells we were ready to harmonize with. ("Mill House," in BANG!, p.6)

Between 1940 and 1950 Toomer continued to write poems, such as "The Promise," "They Are Not Missed," "To Gurdjieff Dying," and "See the Heart," but his writings more often shifted away from literary works to lectures, essays, and pamphlets on Quaker religious philosophy. Many of the essays, like "Santa Claus Will Not Bring Peace" (1943), "The Presence of Love" (1944), "Keep the Inward Watch" (1945), "Authority, Inner and Outer" (1947), and "Blessing and Curse" (1950), were published in the Quaker journal Friends Intelligencer. In 1947 his Friends General Conference Lecture was published as An Interpretation of Friends Worship, while his 1949 William Penn Lecture appeared as The Flavor of Man. After 1950 Toomer produced no literary works, as he began withdrawing from public life. After attending a talk on Gurdjieff in New York City in 1952, however, he recommitted himself to promoting higher consciousness, so he conducted workshops in Doylestown until plagued by ill health in 1957. Following several years of invalidism, in and out of nursing homes and crippled by arthritis, he died in Doylestown.

While Toomer's literary reputation derives almost exclusively from his lyrical novel Cane, his eminence is further enhanced by a growing body of canon-formation scholarship that provides new perspectives on a career spanning more than three decades. Evaluating his significance is no longer difficult or problematical. He remains an enduring figure in the history and development of both the American and the African-American literary traditions.

Toomer's personal and literary archives, including several drafts of his autobiography, are located in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Beyond Cane, Toomer's major published works are contained in Darwin Turner, ed., The Wayward and the Seeking (1980); Robert B. Jones and Margery Toomer Latimer, eds., The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer (1988); Rudolph Byrd, ed., Essentials: Definitions and Aphorisms by Jean Toomer (1991); Frederik L. Rusch, ed., A Jean Toomer Reader: Selected Unpublished Writings (1993); and in numerous periodicals and little magazines such as Broom, Double Dealer, Liberator, Crisis, Modern Review, Chapbook, S4N, Nomad, Dial, Adelphi, Pagany, Pembroke Magazine, Little Review, Prairie, Dubuque Dial, Friends Intelligencer, and New Mexico Sentinel. The most comprehensive bibliographies are John M. Reilly, "Jean Toomer: An Annotated Checklist of Criticism," in Resources for American Literary Study (1974), and Robert B. Jones, "Jean Toomer: An Annotated Checklist of Criticism, 1923-1993," in Resources for American Literary Study (1994).

The standard biography of Toomer is Cynthia Kerman and Richard Eldridge, The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness (1987). The best collections of critical essays on Toomer are Frank Durham, ed., The Merrill Studies in Cane (1971); Darwin Turner, ed., Cane: An Authoritative Text, Background, Criticism (1988); Therman B. O'Daniel, Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation (1988); and Robert B. Jones, ed., Critical Essays on Jean Toomer (1994). Important essays also appear in two special issues dedicated to Toomer, BANG! 2, no. 2 (1972), published by the Special Collections Library at Fisk University, and CLA Journal 17 (June 1974). The most comprehensive literary and critical assessments are Robert Bone, The Negro Novel in America (1965); Darwin Turner, In a Minor Chord (1971); Brian Benson and Mabel Dillard, Jean Toomer (1980); Nellie Y. McKay, Jean Toomer, Artist (1984); Bernard Bell, The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (1987); Rudolph P. Byrd, Jean Toomer’s Years with Gurdjieff (1990); and Robert B. Jones, Jean Toomer and the Prison-House of Thought (1993).

From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Copyright 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.

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