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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jean Toomer (December 26, 1894–March 30, 1967) was an American poet and novelist and an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance.



Born, Nathan Pinchuback Toomer in Washington, D.C., mixed racial and ethnic descent (Dutch, French, Native American, African-American, Welsh, German, Jewish). His parents were Nathan Toomer and Nina Pinchback. His maternal grandfather was Louisiana Governor P. B. S. Pinchback, the first African American to become Governor of a U.S. state. He spent his childhood attending both all-white and all-black segregated schools. In his early years, Toomer resisted racial classifications and wished to be identified only as an American after going to an all-black school in Washington D.C., then an all-white school in New Rochelle N.Y., then an all-black school in Washington D.C. again. Toomer attended six institutions of higher education between 1914 and 1917 (the University of Wisconsin, the Massachusetts College of Agriculture, the American College of Physical Training in Chicago, the University of Chicago, New York University, and the City College of New York) studying agriculture, fitness, biology, sociology, and history, but he never completed a degree. The readings that he would undertake and the lectures he attended during his college years shaped the direction his writing would take. After leaving college, Toomer published some short stories, devoted several months to the study of Eastern philosophies and took a job as a principal in Sparta, Georgia. The segregation Toomer experienced in the South led him to identify more strongly as an African American.

In 1923, Toomer published the novel Cane, an important work of High Modernism. It is considered by many scholars to be his best work. A series of poems and short stories about the black experience in America, Cane was hailed by critics and is seen as an important work of both the Harlem Renaissance and the Lost Generation.

His 1936 Whitmanesque long poem The Blue Meridian dramatically foreshadows the racial discourse of the 21st Century and the 2008 Presidential campaign.

Toomer found it harder and harder to get published throughout the 1930s and in 1940 moved with his second wife to Doylestown, Pennsylvania where he joined the Religious Society of Friends and began to withdraw from society. Toomer wrote a small amount of fiction and published essays in Quaker publications during this time, but devoted most of his time to serving on Quaker committees. Toomer stopped writing literary works after 1950. He died in 1967 after several years of poor health.

A close and longtime friend of American painter Georgia O'Keeffe, Toomer appears as a character in the 2009 television movie Georgia O'Keeffe. However, in this regard he has no dialogue. He speaks only in about a half dozen outtakes available exclusively on the Lifetime Television website. Toomer not only helped O'Keeffe recover from a crucial nervous breakdown but was important in giving her the courage to live independently and develop her best work. So his excision is significant. Additionally, the lead characters played by Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen are made to look quite close to their historical counterparts. Henry Simmons, cast in the Toomer role, looks nothing like Jean Toomer. Vernal Bagneris, who plays Toomer in the 1991 Public Television version, A Marriage: Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz offers a much more credible representation.


Jean Toomer's papers are held by the Beinecke Library at Yale University.


  • Cane (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923) ISBN 0871401517
    • Written during the Harlem Renaissance, Cane is a collection of poems and short narratives that examine the African-American condition both in the South as well as in Harvard, D.C. around the time of its publication.
  • Blood Burning Moon (1923)
  • Problems of Civilization, by Ellsworth Huntington, Whiting Williams, Jean Toomer and others, (New York: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1929)
  • Essentials: Definitions and Aphorisms (Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1931)
  • An Interpretation of Friends Worship (Philadelphia: Committee on Religious Education of Friends General Conference, 1947)
  • The Flavor of Man (Philadelphia: Young Friends Movement of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1949)
  • The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988) ISBN 0807842095


  • Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance, editors Michael Feith and Genevieve Fabre. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000. ISBN 0813528461
  • Turner, Darwin T. "Introduction." Cane by Jean Toomer (New York: Liveright, 1993). ix-xxv. ISBN 0-87140-151-7.

See also

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Jean Toomer (December 26, 1894March 30, 1967) was an American poet and novelist and an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance.


Poems from Cane (1923)

  • And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds,
    His belly close to ground. I see the blade,
    Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade
    • from "Reapers"
  • O singers, resinous and soft your songs
    Above the sacred whisper of the pines,
    Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines,
    Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs.
    • from "Georgia Dusk"
  • Superstition saw
    Something it had never seen before:
    Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
    Beauty so sudden for that time of year.
    • from "November Cotton Flower"
  • One seed becomes
    An everlasting song, a singing tree,
    Caroling softly souls of slavery,
    What they were, and what they are to me,
    Caroling softly souls of slavery.
    • from "Song of the Son"

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