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The literary reputation of Jean Toomer is based primarily on Cane, a collection of poems, impressionistic prose sketches, and stories on Afro-American topics. He published other poems, stories, and dramas, as well as some essays and book reviews, in various periodicals, but none of them equaled his achievement in Cane. Though an influence on black writers of the Harlem Renaissance, he did not identify himself closely with them, preferring instead to think of himself as a new kind of man, a blending of races, an American. He was, as he said, of the human race.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Childhood of Turbulence and Tranquility
Toomer was born in Washington, D.C., on December 26, 1894. As a boy, a strong influence on Toomer was his grandfather P. B. S. Pinchback, an important Louisiana politician of the Reconstruction Era—the era of rebuilding the devastated South after its defeat in the American Civil War. Toomer spent much of his childhood in the home of his grandfather, who was living in Washington, D.C., by the time Toomer was born. Pinchback dominated his family, including his daughter Nina, Toomer’s mother, who remained most of her life a member of her parents’ household. Pinchback opposed her marriage to Nathan Toomer, a Georgia planter, who deserted his wife after about a year. Without resources, Nina moved with her newborn child back to her father’s home. The child was christened Eugene Nathan Toomer, but was known by the surname Pinchback through much of his childhood. Later in life he shortened Eugene to Jean.
In ”On Being an American,” one of his autobiographical writings, Toomer later described his racial heredity as ”Scotch, Welsh, German, English, French, Dutch, Spanish, with some dark blood.” His grandfather’s home on Bacon Street was not in a black neighborhood, and he remembered it as free of racial prejudice.
When Toomer was eleven, his mother married a second time. This marriage also failed, but it initiated a new phase in Toomer’s life, which was marked by frequent changes of residence, a gradual decline in his grandfather’s finances, and an increasing racial awareness. The unsettled nature of his life became even more evident when he entered college and tried to decide on a profession. Incapable of sustained effort, he skipped from one interest to another, one institution to the next: the University of Wisconsin in 1914, the Massachusetts College of Agriculture in 1915, both the American College of Physical Training and the University of Chicago in 1916, and the City College of New York in 1917. He retreated after each failure to his grandfather’s home, only to be faced there by increasing irritation and disenchantment. He tried different kinds of work: directing physical education, working in a shipyard, selling cars, working in a store. None of it gave him much satisfaction.
In the midst of this meandering activity he began to write. He also read constantly, and sought authors with whom he felt empathy or in whose work he found useful models. Victor Hugo stirred his sense of social justice. George Bernard Shaw exemplified to him the virtues of candor and independence. Walt Whitman, he thought, had something to teach him about the American experience. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in his creation of the character of Wilhelm Meister, gave him a model he could follow. He read Robert Frost, Sherwood Anderson, and books by social reformers. Finally, in 1919 in New York, he began to meet a number of authors with whom he could discuss his interests and compare his abilities. The most important of these new acquaintances was Waldo Frank who, during those years in which Cane was created, remained his closest literary associate.
In the summer of 1920 Toomer returned to Washington to live with his grandparents. While there, he wrote enough manuscripts to fill a trunk—essays, fiction, poetry, drama—but he thought none of it good enough to publish. Yet, his confidence in his ability grew, until finally, as he described it in his ”Outline of an Autobiography,” ”I was inside, I knew literature! And what was my joy!”
A Literary Breakthrough and a Spiritual Search
In the fall of 1921, Toomer was asked by the head of a black school in Sparta, Georgia, to serve as his replacement during his temporary absence. Toomer jumped at the opportunity to see that part of the South from which the black part of his heritage had come. Though this visit lasted only a few weeks, it became the impetus for Cane. What Toomer found was a dying culture, beautiful and sad, and the book he wrote was a farewell to that culture, arranged in a format intended to unify the rural southern and urban northern black experiences. He sent part of the manuscript to Waldo Frank, who found a publisher for it. In his foreword to Cane Frank praised the book but made more of a point of the author’s black heritage than Toomer wanted. For his publicity, Liveright, the publisher, wanted to stress the same racial element, which upset Toomer even more. Cane became a critical but not a popular success. The reviewers described it as the beginning of a new era and praised its fidelity and truthfulness. One of the ironies of his life, Toomer thought, was that his readers expected him to write more books like Cane, when for him, that book was a conclusion. That phase of his life was ended.
Cane can be read as one episode in its author’s search for self-identity, and the book ends inconclusively. The search led him next to George Gurdjieff, a Russian mystic, whose magnetic personality attracted many disciples in Europe and the United States. Toomer spent the summer of 1924 at the Gurdjieff Institute in Fontainebleu, France, became Gurdjieff’s disciple, and spent many years explaining and adapting what he learned from him. For example, he led Gurdjieff groups in Harlem and Chicago.
At this time, Toomer developed the belief that modern man had insulated himself from nature, and that to achieve wholeness he must attempt to reunite himself with this larger whole, even though the forces of modern society worked against him. He believed that behind the visible world was something even more essential that humanity, in this life, is ”out of.” Life, then, became an effort at integration and establishing contacts with essentials.
An Unconventional Poet
In 1931 Toomer married Margery Latimer, who died giving birth to their child, Margery. In 1934 he married Marjorie Content and lived the remainder of his life with her in Pennsylvania, where he became a Quaker, a member of a Christian group that most values simplicity in worship and daily life. Toomer wrote poetry intermittently in the years after Cane appeared, but he failed to get much of it published. Most of these poems he collected in a volume titled ”The Wayward and the Seeking.” A few of these poems are published by Turner in his edition of selected works by Toomer, for which he appropriated the title Toomer had given his book of poems. The most important poem Toomer succeeded in publishing is ”The Blue Meridian,” a long poem different in style and content from his earlier work. He spent much time and effort on it, writing and revising, letting an extract from it, ”Brown River, Smile,” appear in 1932 before he succeeded in getting the whole poem published in The New Caravan (1936). The poem displays an urgency lacking in his earlier poetry, a desire to enlighten and persuade quite different from the nostalgia that pervades the poems in Cane. ”The Blue Meridian” is an amazing statement to come from one contemporary with the members of the literary group known as the Lost Generation, whose ”visions” were more characteristically of wastelands, lonely streets, and sterile relationships. That Toomer was so at odds with the dominant sensibility of his times could help explain why he had such difficulty finding a publisher for ”The Blue Meridian.” In 1967, Toomer died with the realization that he failed to accomplish much of what he had dreamed of achieving. He felt isolated and frustrated, sensing within himself some obstacle that prevented him from expressing his thoughts freely. Though the poetry he did publish is not extensive, it displays a variety and richness of expression that makes him a distinctive voice both among the poets of the Harlem Renaissance and among the poets who were developing an American version of symbolism. Poetry, though, is only one aspect of Toomer’s literary achievement. It is perhaps best read not by itself, but as part of a unified whole, as but one form in which Toomer chose to describe his quest for identity.
Works in Literary Context
The cultural movement known as ”High Modernism” is a development and perfection of the late nineteenth century-early twentieth century movement called ”Modernism.” Modernism is essentially characterized by its fragmented, experimental approach to literature, music, and the visual arts. The movement was intended to reflect a move away from previously held concepts of societal norms and attempts at capturing realism in the arts. High Modernism designated those modernist works that best define the modernist movement. These are the works that are most consistently modernist in approach and execution. In literature, works of high modernism were most pervasive in the period between World War I and World War II. Among the definitive works of high modernism are James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), Virginia Woolfs To the Lighthouse (1927), and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929).
Cubism is a highly influential artistic movement of the twentieth century generally applied to the visual arts. The definitive characteristic of cubism is the artist’s deconstruction of objects and people into an abstract assemblage of geometric shapes. In cubist art, depth is removed and the basic elements of a form are reconfigured at strange angles. For example, a portrait might feature a face with both eyes on one side of its nose, or a figure with both arms jutting from one side of its torso. A 1983 article in Black American Literature Forum argues that Jean Toomer’s poems “Nullo” and ”Storm Ending” are examples of ”cubist poetry” because they display the same compression of ”many images into one moment” and abandonment of ”the conventional beginning-and-end or cause-and-effect scheme” characteristic of cubist art.
Works in Critical Context
Consistently regarded as a major African American writer of the first half of the twentieth century, Toomer remains best known for his debut novel Cane. The novel is comprised of a series of brief scenes that vary in structure from poetry to prose to script form, an experimental approach that thrilled readers at the time of its publication (in 1923, Toomer’s colleague Waldo Frank proclaimed, ”This book is the South”). Many critics also credited the book with beginning the African American art movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. The book continues to impress critics today. In 2006, Dan Schneider wrote on Hackwriters.com, ”the whole book is a tangle of imagery, feeling, and song, and the book seems to flow from harmony, unity, and an almost mythic idyll in part one to almost bleak nihilism in part three.” More succinctly, Kenneth J. Whisenton, in a biographical essay on Toomer, declares, ”Cane shows the strength and beauty of African American culture.”
The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer
While critical assessment of Toomer’s Cane is almost overwhelmingly positive, not all of his work is as highly regarded as his debut novel. The publication of The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer was greeted with mixed responses from some critics who deemed the collection inconsistent. In a review in The American Book Review, Alvin Aubert saves his praise for the earlier poems in the collection, which he considers to be the ”most aesthetically viable, most acceptable to our contemporary sensibility in their concreteness and existentiality.” However, Aubert criticizes the later poems in the collection for their abstract vagueness, even commenting that certain poems in the book ”self-destruct.”
- Benson, Joseph Bryan and Mabel Mayle Dillard. Jean Toomer. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
- Locke, Alain. Four Negro Poets. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1927.
- –. Four Negro Poets. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1927.
- Rosenfeld, Paul. Men Seen. New York: Dial, 1967, pp. 227-245.
- Turner, Darwin T. In a Minor Chord. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971, pp. 1-59.
- Aubert, Alvin.”Archetypal Victim.” The American Book Review vol. 10, no. 6 (January-February 1989): 12, 21.
- Bush, Ann Marie and Louis D. Mitchell. ”Jean Toomer: A Cubist Poet.” Black American Literature Forum vol. 17, no. 3 (Fall 1983): 106-108.
- Holmes, Eugene. ”Jean Toomer—Apostle of Beauty.” Opportunity 10 (August 1932): 252-254, 260.
- Kraft, James. ”Jean Toomer’s Cane.” Markham Review 2 (October 1970): 61-63.
- Lieber, Todd. ”Design and Movement in Cane. CLA Journal 13 (September 1969): 35-50.
- Mason, Clifford. ”Jean Toomer’s Authenticity.” Black World 20 (January 1971): 70-76.
- Turner, Darwin T. ”Jean Toomer’s Cane; Critical Analysis.” Negro Digest 18 (January 1969): 54-61.
- com. Cane, by Jean Toomer. Accessed November 21, 2008, from http://www.hackwriters.com/Cane.htm.
- District of Columbia Public Library Online. Jean Toomer. Accessed November 21, 2008, from http://029c28c.netsolhost.com/blkren/bios/toomerj.html.
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