Nathan Eugene Toomer was born in Washington, DC on December 26, 1894. His surname was Pinchback but he used his father's last name as an adult and changed his name from Eugene to Jean when he began to write. Toomer spent his early years in Washington in the home of his grandparents. His grandfather was Pinkney Benton Pinchback, a prominent Louisiana politician of the Reconstruction era. They were racially mixed and could have been considered white but his grandfather identified with the blacks.
Toomer considered himself a new type of man. He said he was mixed with "Scotch, Welsh, German, English, French, Dutch, Spanish and some dark blood." He said he was of the "human race". He spent much of his childhood in an affluent white section of Washington free of racial prejudice.
After the death of Toomer's mother in 1909, the Pinchbacks experienced extreme financial losses and moved into a modest black section of Washington. Toomer attended the M Street High School, Washington Secondary School for Negroes.
Toomer went to several universities studying various subjects and working different jobs. In 1914, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin to study agriculture but he left. He entered the Massachusetts College of Agriculture but left after a short time. In 1916, he was enrolled at both the American College of Physical Training and the University of Chicago. He studied evolution and socialism. He worked at a shipyard, a store, sold cars and directed physical education.
Jean Toomer's greatest contribution to literature is Cane (1923). It is composed of poetry, short stories, drama and prose that covers African-American culture in the rural south and urban north. When the writers of the early Harlem Renaissance read Cane, they were pleasingly surprised. Jean Toomer mostly associated with progressive white writers of the late 1910s and 1920s. After writing Cane, he was proclaimed by the black writers as the most promising black writer of that time.
During this time, he began to write and he read constantly. He read Victor Hugo, George Bernard Shaw, Walt Whitman and others. From 1919 and 1920, he enjoyed and met prominent New York intellectuals such as Edwin Arlington Robinson and Waldo Frank. Frank and Toomer became close friends and were part of Greenwich Village's artistic society.
In 1921, Toomer was living in Washington taking care of his aging grandparents and trying to write. He met a principal of a small black school in Sparta, Georgia, who needed someone to manage his school for a short time. In the fall of 1921, he accepted this position. This temporary position gave him the opportunity to study the culture and the people of the rural south and to discover his black roots.
Toomer loved living among the people of this beautiful land even though it was segregated at the time. He stayed in a "shack" and began to realize the hardship the blacks suffered both socially and economically. Even though Toomer only stayed a short time, this experience was the basis for Cane. It became a search for his identity.
Cane is divided into three sections. In the first section, Toomer interwove six stories with twelve poems using nature to create portraits of six southern women. "Karintha", "Becky", "Carma", and "Fern" shows the richness of a passing life, while ghost, full moons, and fire in "Esther" and "Blood-Burning Moon" represents the dissolution of life.
Cane's second section is comprised of seven prose sketches and five poems. They are set in urban Chicago and Washington, DC. The black people of this section, descendants and survivors of the black southern culture, are seeking a new life and hope in the urban north.
The third and the longest section entitled "Kabnis" brings the themes of both sections one and two together. It is a portrait of an educated confused black that travels to the south to teach school in Georgia. Cane shows the strength and beauty of African-American culture.
Between 1921 and 1923 Toomer wrote other works of African-American themes, a short story, "Withered Skins of Berries," and two plays, Balo and Natalie Mann. The Howard University Players produced Balo, a one-act folk drama during the 1923-1924 season.
Toomer married Margery Latimer in 1931. She died giving birth to their child Margery. In 1934, he married Marjorie Content and lived the rest of his life with her in Pennsylvania as a Quaker. His writing after Cane was never published, mostly because his post-Cane works were considered tedious and boring. He wrote several autobiographies, four novels, plays, poetry, short stories and articles. Critics believed Toomer gave up the beautiful writing he had done in Cane for something not so beautiful when he became influenced by the Gurdjieff philosophy.
Toomer became distressed over his inability to publish. He suffered with kidney and eye problems in the 1940s. During the final years of his life, he underwent intensive treatment for different ailments. His mental and physical state deteriorated and on March 30, 1967, he died of arteriosclerosis.
Poems - 10 in all
The Lost Dancer
Portrait in Georgia
Her Lips Are Copper Wire