Toomer, Jean (Eugene Nathan)
Jean Toomer’s life was consumed by a search for spiritual wholeness. The search both preoccupied him throughout his life and has been blamed for ruining his promise as a brilliant writer. During his lifetime, Toomer produced only one great work—the novel Cane (1923)—but it was so brilliantly and artistically composed that it won Toomer great praise and renown as one of the most famous writers of the Harlem Renaissance. The fact that his first work exhibited such promise, however, led many to judge him to be, as Cynthia Kerman and Richard Eldridge say in their biography The Lives of Jean Toomer, “a comet that had one burst of glory before burning up.” Yet Toomer did not die or stop living after the publication of Cane but led an extremely active life in pursuit of religion and spiritual identity.
Nathan Pinchback Toomer was born to his parents Nina Pinchback and Nathan Toomer. His father was a farmer and his mother the daughter of P. B. S. Pinchback, a prominent politician in Louisiana during the period of Reconstruction. Toomer’s father and his maternal grandfather both claimed to have “black blood” but had very fair-skinned complexions, which Toomer inherited. After his mother and father divorced two years after he was born, Toomer’s mother took him to live with her parents who, because of their wealth and fair skin, lived in a prominent white upper-middle-class neighborhood. A few years later, his mother married and moved to upstate New York with her (white) husband and her son.
Because the neighborhoods he lived in for the first 14 years of his life were predominantly white and upper class, and because his skin was so fair, Toomer did not come into contact with real racial issues until his mother died in 1910. At that time, he moved from New York back to Washington, D.C., to live once again with his mother’s parents. However, his grandparents’ economic situation had taken a turn for the worse, and they had been forced to move out of their mansion in the upper-class white section of town and into a middle-class interracial community. Although for the most part he quickly adapted to his new environment and was almost invigorated by the change, it was at this point that he came into contact with issues of race and began to formulate his theories on the meaning of racial identity in a person’s relationship with the world.
The fact that Toomer once described himself having a mixture of “Scotch, Welsh, German, English, French, Dutch, Spanish and some dark blood” might indicate his ideas about the importance he gave to racial identity. In essence, he tried to avoid labels and hated the idea of being classified; he once said, “I am of no particular race. I am of the human race, a man at large in the human world, preparing a new race.” When pressed, he would reject the idea that he had to define himself as either black or white and insisted that he was a member of the “American” race—which he felt all Americans should claim to be.
However, as seems to be the case for many writers who eschew racial labels, Toomer is best known for the work that deals most clearly with racial themes—Cane. He decided to become a writer in 1919 after spending five years meandering through four different colleges and receiving no degrees. He found college disappointing because it failed to offer him “a sort of whole into which everything fits . . . a body of ideas which holds a consistent view of life.” He thus turned to writing in an attempt to find that whole and moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where he met a number of prominent writers and critics, including Waldo Frank, a writer who would later help him publish his novel. It was in New York that he changed his name from Nathan to Jean because he felt that the main character of Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe best embodied whom he would like to be as a writer.
Despite the time spent in New York, Cane was actually inspired by a trip Toomer took to Sparta, Georgia. He traveled there to take a position as an acting principal at the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute. While there, he was struck by the landscape of Georgia and by its rich history of slavery and segregation. He was also amazed to hear folk songs and spirituals being sung by the residents of the area, and hearing that music made him realize that in that place, black folk culture seemed to have remained untouched by white cultural influences. In a sense, the segregation of the South had served to preserve an African-American folk culture that Toomer never knew existed. He noticed, however, that the culture was being lost, as many young black people in the area moved away from the Southern rural areas and into the large industrialized Northern cities where they were forgetting their rich cultural history and instead taking up the values of white society. On the way home from his two-month stay, he began penning the poem “Georgia Dusk” and many of the vignettes that would compose the first section of Cane.
The novel is divided into three sections. The first depicts the black experience in the rural South and tells, in vignettes interspersed with verse, the experiences of five Southern women. All the women are presented as beautiful, strong, and vulnerable, and they represent different parts of the black community throughout history. The second section depicts the lives of African Americans in the North and comprises vignettes interspersed with verse. This section attempts to illustrate the way that the natural tendencies of human nature are destroyed by the sterile, harsh, and mechanical elements of the modern city. It also focuses on the detrimental effects segregated society has on the human spirit and the way it prevents African Americans from achieving wholeness of mind or body, and it warns black Americans of the danger they face if they lose sight of the values of black folk life when they appropriate the sterile values of white society.
The third part of the novel attempts a kind of synthesis of Northern and Southern black experience and offers a resolution of the two; it is a drama called “Kabnis,” which enacts the story of an urban black writer who travels to the rural South. This section is written entirely in prose. The black writer in the story is having difficulty with his African-American identity, and that prevents him from succeeding as a writer. With some fear, he undertakes a spiritual quest for identity, and on the way, he ends up dealing with issues of racial inequality. The end of the novel is mostly optimistic, as the writer spends a night in a basement with a number of Southern blacks, all of whom talk about the damage that they have experienced because of racial conflict. He emerges from the basement determined to write of the struggles of blacks throughout history and thus finds a place for himself in African-American history.
Whether he intended it to be or not, the third section of Cane is highly autobiographical—for after his trip to the South, Toomer did write of the struggles of blacks in the North and the South and did make a place for himself in history with that one novel. After its publication, however, Toomer dropped out of literary circles and rejected all his friends. He had become a writer because he felt that his writings could help to stem the rapid flow of technology that was causing people to become increasingly isolated and materialistic; after publishing Cane, he came to believe that the literary arts were proving to be completely ineffective at helping resolve many of the world’s problems. He also became very angry at the fact that in writing Cane, he began to be classified as a black writer and that it made people expect that he would continue to write about issues of race. He stated that “Cane was a song of end,” which had helped him come to terms with his racial identity but which was really only a part of his search for a unifying principle in himself.
His quest for wholeness continued after he abandoned his literary community when, in 1924, he became involved with Georgei I. Gurdjieff, a spiritual philosopher who propounded theories of human development. Toomer hoped this spiritual program would help him to attain a higher consciousness, which would help him to locate where his self existed in relationship to the universal whole. During this time, he continued to write and tried to publish his writings, but no publishers were interested in his rather abstract, spiritual work. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Some of Toomer’s philosophy may be found in his Essentials .)
In the mid-1930s, Toomer formally disassociated himself from Gurdjieff, although the ideas of Gurdjieff’s teachings would appear in Toomer’s writing for many more years. During that time Toomer was married twice—his first wife, Marjery Latimer, died in childbirth in 1931, and three years later, he married Marjorie Content. Continuing in his quest for spiritual wholeness, he and Marjorie became interested in the Society of Friends (known as the Quakers) in 1934 and became members in 1940.
His second and last literary milestone was achieved in 1936 when New Caravan agreed to publish his poem, “Blue Meridian.” Although at the time it was published it received little attention, some contemporary critics have claimed that it is artistically equal to Cane. In this poem, Toomer writes about the fusion of black-, white-, and red-skinned people into a new creation, the blue man. This poem is extremely idealistic and still contains a great deal of Gurdjieff’s philosophy, but it also makes some important social statements in a highly artistic way. The blue man represents a person who has shed all classifications—being of no sex, class, or color. This blue man lives in a new America, which has indeed become a melting pot. Everyone exists in harmony and oneness.
In many ways, “Blue Meridian” is yet another part of Toomer’s quest to reconcile disparate parts—of the self, the nation, and the world. As in Cane, Toomer draws the readers’ attention to the possibility of transformation and synthesis, for this is what Toomer had been searching for, unsuccessfully, throughout his life. His expectations for literature, religion, and the world were always unfulfilled, but in many ways that disappointment kept him always reaching—it kept him active as a thinking, living person but it stood in the way of fulfilling his promise as a brilliant writer. Gorham Munson, a friend of Toomer’s for 45 years, wrote a review of Toomer’s life after hearing of his death in 1967: “We must realize that there are many casualties on the road to self-development.” The fact that Toomer was one of them makes him abundantly human, if nothing else.
(See list of abbreviations here.)
Kerman, Cynthia Earl , and Richard Eldridge (1987), The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press).
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