Biography of Jean Toomer

Jean Toomer is best known for his novel Cane (1923), but he contributed a great deal more to American letters, particularly during the Harlem Renaissance. His writings and ideas made provocative assertions about race; in some respects he was an unlikely pillar in the African American literary community.

Toomer was born on December 26th, 1894 and raised primarily in Washington D.C. by his maternal grandparents. His grandfather, Benton Stewart Pinchback, was the son of a white plantation owner and a slave with whom he lived openly; he was also the governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction. Toomer was fascinated by his grandfather, as well as by the father he barely knew.

In D.C. Toomer attended all-black schools, then all-white schools in New Rochelle after his mother remarried. He attended several different colleges to find the right fit, trying the University of Wisconsin, University of Chicago, New York University, and the City College of New York. He did not attain a degree, but he was very intelligent and began to study literature and philosophy quite seriously. He befriended important novelists like Waldo Frank and Sherwood Anderson and was influenced by the Imagists and artists in the futurist, impressionist, and symbolist movements. He wrote many notable poems during this time. In 1914 he also renounced racial identification and claimed he would live simply as an American.

In 1921 Toomer spent two months as interim principal in a vocational school in Sparta, Georgia, where he was inspired to write Cane. The work was critically lauded and was featured in Alain Locke’s The New Negro (1925), a prominent anthology of the Harlem Renaissance. Houston A. Baker praised Toomer’s "mysterious brand of Southern psychological realism that has been matched only in the best work of William Faulkner," while Kenneth Rexroth said, "Toomer is the first poet to unite folk culture and the elite culture of the white avant-garde, and he accomplishes this difficult task with considerable success. He is without doubt the most important Black poet."

Throughout the 1920s Toomer became fascinated with Eastern philosophy and studied the teachings of the mystic George Ivanovitch Gurdiieff. Toomer wrote, “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.”

Toomer married a white woman, Margery Latimer, and endured much criticism for miscegenation. Margery died in childbirth and Toomer then married Marjorie Content, also a white woman.

In the 1930s Toomer became a Quaker, and he and Marjorie moved to Pennsylvania. He wrote copiously—long poems, dramas, religious essays—but did not always garner the approbation of other African Americans due to his complex ideas on race. He wanted to be a new race of black and white rather than to embrace one.

Toomer stopped writing in the 1950s and became a veritable recluse. In 1967 he died of congestive heart failure in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.


Study Guides on Works by Jean Toomer

Jean Toomer’s Cane is one of the most influential works in the history of African-American literature. A “literary work” is truly the most appropriate term for Cane, certainly more appropriate than “novel.” Cane is comprised of sketches written in...