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"Toomer's poems, poetic prose, and critical commentary invite the speculation that under more equitable conditions he would have become a truly outstanding American Modernist, ranking with the likes of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams as a shaper of our modern and contemporary poetic sensibilities."
A brilliant and versatile author, Jean Toomer wrote in diverse media, including fiction, poetry, drama, and philosophy. His mixed racial heritage enabled him to draw upon both black and white cultural traditions, although it also at times left him feeling marginalized. Toomer's work falls roughly into four periods: an aesthetic period, in which he experimented with literary form; an African-American period, in which he explored and affirmed his racial heritage; a Gurdjieffian period, in which he studied the mystical philosophy of George Gurdjieff; and a Christian period, in which he turned to Quakerism. Toomer's work, like his life, reflected an ardent quest for spiritual truth. His experimental novel, Cane (1923), a collection of short stories, poems and drama exploring African-American identity, was a masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance.
Jean Toomer. Photograph by Marjorie Content, n.d. Image courtesy of Susan Sandberg.
Education and Training
University of Wisconsin, agricultural program, Madison, Wisconsin, 1914-1915
American College of Physical training, Chicago, Illinois, 1916
Attended University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, 1916
New York University, summer school, New York, New York, 1917
City College of New York, New York, New York, 1917-1918
Gurdjieff Institute, Fontainbleau, France, 1924
Teachers and Influences
Philosophers George Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky
Novelist and essayist Waldo Frank was Toomer's close friend and travel companion.
Connection to Bucks County
From 1936 to 1967, Jean Toomer resided on Burnt House Hill Road near Buckingham, with his wife Marjorie Content Toomer, a gifted photographer. Toomer was actively involved in Bucks County religious communities, organizing a Gurdjieffian center in Doylestown in 1937 and, subsequently, participating in the Buckingham Friends Meeting. He served as a clerk of the Ministry and Counsel Committee of the Bucks Quarterly Meeting between 1943 to 1948. In 1951, he gave a six-week lecture series to the Doylestown Friends. Toomer during the 1950s participated in the New Hope Workshop with Stanley Kunitz, Josephine Herbst, and others.
Colleagues and Affiliations
Toomer was active with a literary group called The New Hope Workshop. Members included Marjorie Content Toomer, Jo Jenks, Stanley Kunitz, Josephine Herbst, and Jules Gregory. They met at different locations in New Hope to teach and read poetry.
Earth Being, 1929-1930
On Being an American, 1934
Book X, 1935
From Exile into Being, 1937, with revisions as The Second River, 1946
Incredible Journey, 1941-1948
Why I Entered the Gurdjieff Work, 1952-1954
Novels and Short Stories
Withered Skin of Berries, 1920
Meridian Hill, 1921
Mr. Costyve Duditch, 1928
Blue Meridian, 1936
The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer, a collection of short fiction, poetry, two plays, autobiographical selections, aphorisms and maxims, 1980
The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer, 1988
Natalie Mann, 1922
Balo: A Sketch of Negro Life, 1923-1924
The Sacred Factory, 1927
Criticism and Essays
Race Problems and Modern Society, 1929
Earth-Being: The Autobiography of Jean Toomer, 1930
Essentials, aphorisms and apothegms, 1931
Portage and Potention, 1932
An Interpretation of Friends Worship, 1947
The Flavor of Man, lecture, 1949
Teaching and Professional Appointments
Substitute Principal, Sparta, Georgia, 1920-1921
Teacher of Gurdjieff philosophy, Doylestown and New Hope, Pennsylvania
Affiliations and Memberships
Jean Toomer was involved with the Gurdjieff movement beginning in the 1920s. The philosophy appealed to some intellectuals and artists as an alternate spiritual path, promoting self awareness through specific exercises. He was also a part of, and considered to be one of the originators of, the Harlem Renaissance. This was a movement during the 1920s and 1930s that was pioneered by African-American intellectuals who were seeking to change old stereotypes prevalent in white society.
"'In Cane,' a collection of short fiction, poetry, and drama, Jean Toomer explored the hidden depths of the black American experience and produced a mysterious brand of Southern psychological realism that has been matched only in the best work of William Faulkner."
-Houston A. Baker, Jr.
Jean Toomer, descended on both sides from racially mixed ancestry, was fascinated by his African-American heritage. In 1921, he traveled to rural Georgia to immerse himself in the black community. Profoundly affected by this experience, Toomer wrote Cane (1923) as a celebration of Southern black culture.
Cane consists of short stories, poetry, and drama. The unifying principle of the novel is its central image, a cane. It is a symbol for blackness suggesting both the earthy, sensuous sweetness of sugar cane and the burdensome mark of the biblical Cain, which alienated him from the community. Divided into three movements, Cane portrays black experience in the impoverished rural South and in the bourgeois urban North, concluding with the private quest of a young writer- based on Toomer himself- to understand his black identity.
The record of his racial self-discovery, Cane bore tremendous personal significance for Toomer. It is also important as a work of American literature. As the leading novel of the Harlem Renaissance, it helped to promote an understanding, among both black and white readers, of the richness and complexity of African-American culture.
Jean Toomer. Photograph by Marjorie Content. Image courtesy of Susan Sandberg.
"The ultimate driving force behind the whole body of Jean Toomer's work is his ardent longing for unity at the highest level of the spirit."
For much of his life, Jean Toomer was drawn to mysticism. Torn by inner conflict, he passionately sought a philosophy or faith that would grant him peace. As a young man, Toomer turned to the metaphysics of the philosopher George Gurdjieff. Drawing upon several Eastern religions, Gurdjieffianism strove to reach the "essence" of the self, in this way to attain a higher level of consciousness. Looking for a more orthodox faith, however, Toomer adopted Quakerism in 1940. He became active in the Buckingham Friends Meeting, joining various committees, presenting several lectures, and counseling Quaker college students. Perhaps even more than the spirituality, the community Toomer discovered among the Bucks County Friends afforded him a sense of wholeness.
Critics have speculated that Toomer's yearning for wholeness and transcendence may have derived from his acute awareness of racial division, both within himself and throughout American society. When Toomer addressed this issue in his poetry and prose, he often assumed an oracular tone, proclaiming a future when Americans would be universal men and women, no longer divided along racial lines. Through mysticism, Toomer envisioned a nation beyond racism.
Portrait of Jean Toomer by Marjorie Content. Image courtesy of Susan Sandberg.