The Poets Jean Toomer (1894-1967)


About the Poet

Virtuoso, mystic, and modernist author of the first mature work of the post-World War I Southern Renaissance, Nathan Eugene "Jean" Toomer was an alienated seeker, a forerunner of the racial neutrality of 1990s multiculturalism. A steadfast humanist, he was uncertain of his ethnic makeup yet identified solidly with black themes. 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." A metrical whiz, he assimilated social themes into a varied canon; like his friends, poets Langston Hughes and Hart Crane, he attempted to transform jazz into verse. Along with Richard Wright's Native Son and Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man, publication of Toomer's creative montage Cane (1923) was a defining moment in Harlem's era of artistic experimentation.

Toomer was born on December 26, 1894, in Washington, D.C. Following his parents' divorce, he faced social and financial ruin after his mother married an irresponsible man and settled in New Rochelle, New York. At her death in 1909, he moved in with his grandfather, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, son of a slave woman and a Louisiana lieutenant governor during Reconstruct-ion. He enrolled at six institutions and studied law at the University of Wisconsin and history at City College of New York but gave up on scholastics and returned to Washington to manage the Howard Theater. In 1922, he took his first job in education, a four-month stint as principal of an agricultural and industrial academy in Sparta, Georgia. The experience — his only direct contact with the South — generated a rhapsodic love of Negro spirituals and folklore.

Toomer was influenced by poets William Blake and Walt Whitman and the artistic genius of novelist James Joyce. He associated with other black writers at the stylish salons hosted by Ethel Ray Nance and Georgia Douglas Johnson. The support of editor Jessie Redmon Fauset encouraged Toomer to publish poems, excerpts, sketches of Southern life, and short fiction. His stark picture of Southern segregation powered Cane, an experimental three-part study of black identity and citizenship in the United States. The work, set in Georgia, enlarges on Afro-centrism and prefigures the vast black migration to Chicago, Washington, D.C., and other northeastern urban centers and the "black is beautiful" movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The mixed-genre text contains verse, sketches, commentary, and drama. Its inventiveness earned him a place at the Harlem symposium of young artists in March 1924, when he, Langston Hughes, and Countée Cullen received accolades from W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Alain Locke, the revered elder statesmen of the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1923, the Howard University Players performed Toomer's poorly conceived play, Balo, A Sketch of Negro Life, a study of black Georgian peasant life. That same year, he failed to find a producer for Kabnis (1923), a modern drama based on his experiences while teaching in Georgia. Restless and dissatisfied, he moved from New York to Chicago and then to France. In Fontainebleau, France, he came under the influence of Russian mystic Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, a utopist gathering intent on founding an ideal society based on mutual understanding. After returning to the United States, Toomer lost his readership while sponsoring a Gurdjieff colony on Chicago's Gold Coast.

Toomer's on-again, off-again literary drive bemused his circle. They questioned why he seldom published and how he could afford to reject James Weldon Johnson's offer to publish his poems in Book of American Negro Poetry, which Toomer disdained because of its insistence on blacks only. Although Toomer persevered with a wealth of writing, including poems, novels, nonfiction, and short fiction, his career stalled. He produced only two works, the self-published book of sayings, Essentials (1931), influenced by Pennsylvania Quakers, and Portage Potential (1932). He went into a depression after his wife, novelist Marjorie Latimer, died giving birth to a daughter in August 1932. The publication of a rhapsodic long narrative poem, The Blue Meridian (1936), ended his role in the Harlem Renaissance.

At loose ends, Toomer was an artistic dropout turned Quaker. He withdrew into religious mysticism; his work passed out of print. He died on March 30, 1967, at a rest home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, leaving unpublished a sizable sheaf of stories, drama, novels, and an autobiography. In 1974, Darwin Turner issued The Wayward and the Seeking: a Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer. Editors Robert B. Jones and the poet's second wife produced a subsequent verse anthology, The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer (1988). The boldness of Toomer's racial neutrality influenced subsequent students of the black experience, notably novelist Alice Walker.

Chief Works

"Karintha," a focused vision, opens the seminal work Cane. The tribute to her beauty brims with the earthy eroticism of a male speaker overwhelmed by the dusky allure of a twenty-year-old. She has possessed eye-catching beauty since childhood, when the old men riding her "hobby-horse upon their knees" prefaced the prowl of lustful boys. Toomer breaks this entry into four lyric and three prose segments. Redolent with sexuality in the spring of rabbits on pine straw, the vignette depicts Karintha through potential tragedy — the failed hopes of a lush Venus "ripened too soon." By extension, the black race, hurrying to urban industrial centers, fling easy money at their goddess of pleasure without recognizing how quickly their energizing, rejuvenating "sun goes down." To stress his pessimism, the poet can't resist a second "goes down."

Prefacing a vignette called "Fern," Toomer's "Georgia Dusk" immerses the reader in seven stanzas extolling an idyllic black South. Sensuous and languid, the sawmill halts and people mingle at sunset in anticipation of a folk celebration — the "night's barbecue." A mélange of sense impressions summons "blood-hot eyes," sweet cane, and improvised folk airs. The poet saturates the lines with alliteration ("soft settling pollen," "pyramidal sawdust pile"), simile ("pine-needles fall like sheets of rain"), and metaphor ("blue ghosts of trees"). The poet identifies the graceful passage of celebrants down a swamp footpath with the pomp of African royalty, including king, high priests, and juju-man, or shaman. To Toomer, the import of this caroling assembly of singers and "cornfield concubines" is both erotic and holy.

"Seventh Street," an epigraph to a prose section of Cane describing Chicago and Washington, D.C., reduces to a single quatrain a rhythmic, imagistic glimpse of city high life. He describes the good-timer spending money, bootlegger in gaudy finery, fast-moving Cadillacs, and trams as examples of living fast and grabbing as much enjoyment as possible. The depiction suits its historical setting, which Toomer lists as "Prohibition and the War," meaning World War I. The impersonal speaker, who relishes alliteration and onomatopeia, passes no judgment on urban entertainments. Only the pain in the pocket suggests a physical need to escape through tactile, visceral pleasure.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Assess realistic details in the stylized portraiture of "Fern" in Toomer's Cane, Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology, and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio.

2. Express Toomer's vision in "Blue Meridian." Determine the practical means by which he hoped to "uncase the races," "open the classes," and "free man from his shrinkage."

3. Determine the purpose of the tightly controlling parallelism and fearful imagery in Toomer's "Portrait in Georgia."

4. Contrast the focus on light imagery in "Karintha" and "Song of the Son." Express Toomer's concern that the "New Negro" is fated to lose the sensuality, grace, and loveliness of a simpler, less frenetic time.

5. Discuss how World War I serves as a backdrop to "Seventh Street." How does the war influence the poem?