Born Nathan Pinchback Toomer in Washington, D.C., mixed racial and ethnic descent (Dutch, French, Native 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.
Read An Interpretation of Friends Worship by Jean Toomer, free from Project Gutenberg.
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 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.
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.