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Summary Article: Toomer, Jean (1894-1967)
From Encyclopedia of the Environment in American Literature

Best known for Cane, Jean Toomer's other work includes poetry, essays and other fiction manuscripts, and a large correspondence that has become of interest as Toomer has gained critical prominence. Toomer's early work interrogates a central problem of modernity: how to understand race, identity, and otherness as rural, pastoral America becomes increasingly urbanized. Influenced by religious experiences, Toomer eventually rejected the pastoral lyric in favor of broader reflections on the human condition, but his work continued to reveal a fundamental place-awareness.

Nathan Pinchback Toomer was born in 1894 in Washington, D.C., to Nathan Toomer, a Georgian planter, and Nina Pinchback Toomer, the daughter of Pinkney Benton Stewart Pinchback, a prominent politician in Louisiana during Reconstruction. At the age of four, after his parents’ divorce, he and his mother moved to P.B.S. Pinchback's house in Washington, where the boy was renamed Eugene Pinchback. His childhood was marked by profound change, from his mother's remarriage and death, and the family's financial struggles, to subsequent moves from upper-middle-class, mostly white neighborhoods to lower-income, interracial neighborhoods. In 1914 Eugene Pinchback enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, but left only a few months later; and over the next five years would attend five other schools, never receiving a degree.

In 1919 he changed his name to Jean Toomer and began to write, mostly unsuccessfully, until his acceptance of a teaching position at a rural black school in Sparta, Georgia. Here his first successful poems, two plays, and Cane were completed, and his friendship with Waldo Frank began. Toomer was disappointed with Cane's pastoral aesthetic soon after its completion, explaining that due to modernization, “‘Back to nature,’ even if desirable, was no longer possible, because industry had taken nature unto itself…. Those who sought to cure themselves by a return to more primitive conditions were either romantics or escapists” (qtd. in Ford 145). In his letters to Frank in this period, Toomer also complains of being classified as “a Negro writer” (Byrd 49), which he found a facile, restrictive understanding of race. This led him to reject the pastoral lyric, which he felt was too strongly associated with African-American history and poetics, and set out on a search for spiritual wholeness and universal identity. His search led to Eugene Gurdjieff, then scientology, and eventually the Society of Friends.

Though Toomer rejected traditional pastoral nature experience, nature continued to permeate his writing, and he was deeply aware of the role physical environment plays in constructing the individual — an effect he considered detrimental. In “New Mexico,” Toomer writes “One place gives you what others can't. You give to one place what you cannot give to others…. Do all you can, it is sufficiently difficult to become a citizen of the world. You may overcome prejudices and move towards universality; but preferences linger, and preferences tend to localize you” (Rusch 252). Yet despite his own rejection of pastoral place and aesthetics, Toomer's unpublished writing reveals his continued awareness of place as fundamental to identity.

After a long illness in the 1950s and 60s, Toomer died in 1967 in Doylestown.

  • Byrd, Rudolph P. Jean Toomer's Years with Gurdjieff: Portrait of an Artist 1923—1936. University of Georgia Press Athens, 1990.
  • Fabre Geneviève; Michel Feith, eds. Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance. Rutgers University Press New Brunswick NJ, 2001.
  • Ford, Karen Jackson. Split-Gut Song: Jean Toomer and the Poetics of Modernity. University of Alabama Press Tuscaloosa, 2005.
  • McKay, Nellie Y. Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894—1936. University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill, 1984.
  • Rusch, Frederik L., ed. A Jean Toomer Reader: Selected Unpublished Writings. Oxford University Press New York, 1993.
  • Amber Pearson
    © 2013 Geoff Hamilton and Brian Jones

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