Jean Toomer (December 26, 1894–March 30, 1967) was an American poet and novelist and an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
Born Nathan Pinchback 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.
Read examples of Jean Toomer's writings, free from the Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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.