(Nathan) Jean Toomer, author of influential book, "Cane"

N. Jean Toomer
Wed, 1894-12-26

Nathan Eugene Pinchback Toomer was born on this date in 1894. He was an African American writer.

Toomer was the son of Nathan Toomer, a Georgia farmer, and the former Nina Pinchback, the daughter of the first African American governor in the United States. He easily passed for white in spite of his black heritage, and lived in both black and white society before he was 18. When he moved to New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1906, he lived in a white neighborhood and attended a white school. Three years later in Washington D.C., he attended an all-black high school. He was raised in the home of his grandparents, after his father deserted his mother when he was a year old and his mother died in 1909.

Jean Toomer, his adopted name, found his way to New York, where in the 1910s and 1920s he was nurtured as a writer among the Greenwich Village progressive artists. It was while living in Sparta, Georgia, in 1921 that Toomer conceived the idea of "Cane," a work some compare to "Native Son" or "Invisible Man" in its impact on contemporary African-American culture. At the time he was serving a two-month stint as a substitute principal at the Black Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute.

Entranced by Georgia's rural geography and its Black folk traditions, he saw in Southern life the harmony that had escaped him. He believed the Black culture to be disappearing through migration to the North and its encounter with modernity. "Cane" is a series of vignettes whose narrative structure moves from the South to the North and back to the South, forming a troubled synthesis of the two regions.

Members of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, as well as later African-American women writers have cited its influence and acclaimed the author's sensitive treatment of Black folk life, his formal elegance, and his progressive, uninhibited approach to sexuality and gender. "Cane" was Jean Toomer's only work. After its publication he disappeared from literary circles. In 1924, the restless author made the first of several pilgrimages to Fontainebleau, France, to study at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.

He taught philosophy in Harlem and Chicago until the mid-1930s. Toomer wrote voluminously until his death, and although much of his writing received occasional praise for its experimentation, African-Americans largely dismissed it. In 1930, Toomer declined to be included in James Weldon Johnson's "Book of American Negro Poetry," on the grounds that he wasn't a Negro.

Toomer continued to strive for a sense of wholeness, however, and for a definition of what Henry Louis Gates Jr. has described as a "remarkably fluid notion of race.” He found this potential of an "American" race, described in the 1936 long poem "Blue Meridian," the last work published while he was alive.

Jean Toomer went on to become a Quaker. His death on March 30, 1967, came after a long illness.

The Poetry of Black America
Anthology of the 20th Century.
Edited by Arnold Adoff, introduction by Gwendolyn Bennett
Copyright 1973, Harper Collins Publishers
ISBN 0-06-020089-8

To be a Writer

Person / name: 

Toomer, Nathan Eugene (Jean) Pinchback