Jean Toomer was born Nathan Toomer in Washington D.C. in 1894. His father was a planter and his mother was the daughter of the first US governor of African-American descent. Like his parents he was fair-skinned and lived both as white and black. When he was one year old, his father abandoned him and his mother and they had to live with her tyrannical father who made him change his name to Eugene Pinchback (he later shortened the first name to Jean). Though they lived in a white neighbourhood, Toomer attended an all-black school. When his mother remarried in 1906, they moved to La Rochelle, New York, where Toomer attended an all-white school. After his mother’s death three year later, he returned to Washington D.C. where he again attended an all-black school. After graduating in 1914, he vowed to lived as neither white or black but as an American.
He subsequently studied agriculture, physical education, psychology, and literature at various colleges but never took a degree. However, he was educating himself and read widely, including the imagist poets. However, it was the almost unknown Waldo Frank who introduced him to various literary circles. He started writing short stories and poetry but then gave it up for a while to study Eastern philosophy. After working for two months in Georgia and living as an African-American he became more aware of racial issues and this led to his major novel, Cane, often credited with being one of the founding works of the The Harlem Renaissance.
It was at this time that he came under the influence of the philosopher Gurdjieff, attending his institute in France. In 1931, while holding a workshop (the Cottage Experiment) in Wisconsin he met the author Margery Latimer whom he later married. They lived in an artists’ colony in Carmel, California but Latimer died in 1932 giving birth to their daughter. In 1934 he married the daughter of a Wall Street banker, Marjorie Content, to whom he remained married till his death. After distancing himself from Gurdjieff in 1935, he became a Quaker. However, he still believed in the essential tenets of Gurdjieff’s teachings and tried to reconcile the two. During all this time he continued writing. However, though he continued to write poetry, his writing turned more to works of philosophy and essays. In the 1950s he began to withdraw from public life and this withdrawal was increased when he suffered ill health, particularly arthritis. He was ill for a long time, finally dying in 1967. He is now remembered almost exclusively for his novel, Cane.
Books about Jean Toomer
Brian Benson: Jean Toomer
Rudolph P. Byrd: Jean Toomer’s Years with Gurdjieff
Cynthia Kerman & Richard Eldridge: The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness (standard biography)
Nellie Y. McKay: Jean Toomer, Artist
1947 An Interpretation of Friends Worship
1949 The Flavor of Man
1980 The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer
1980 The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer
1993 A Jean Toomer Reader: Selected Unpublished Writings
1996 Jean Toomer: Selected Essays and Literary Criticism
2003 The Uncollected Works of American Author Jean Toomer, 1894-1967
2006 The Letters of Jean Toomer, 1919-1924