Jean Toomer’s family was not typical of migrating African Americans settling in the North, or fleeing the South. Each of his maternal grandparents were born of a caucasian father. But a “speck of Black makes you Black.” Thus, Toomer’s grandfather, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, was a free born black, a Union officer in the Civil War and was elected to the office of Lieutenant Governor and later Acting Governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction. The Pinchback’s retired north and settled in the Negro community of the capitol. Thus, Toomer was born, as Nathan Pinchback Toomer into an upper class Negro family in Washington D.C. on December 26, 1894. Shortly after Toomer’s birth, his caucasion father deserted his wife and son, and in 1996 Toomer’s mother, Nina Toomer, gave him the name Nathan Eugene (which he later shortened to Jean). At the age of ten he was stricken with severe stomach ailments which he survived with a greatly altered life. He showed strength early – when faced with adversity, rather than wring his hands and retreat further into himself, Toomer searched for a plan of action, an intellectual scheme and method to cope with a personal crisis. Toomer writes in Wayward and Seeking, “I had an attitude towards myself that I was superior to wrong-doing and above criticism and reproach … I seemed to induce, in the grownups, an attitude which made them keep their hands off me; keep, as it were, a respectable distance.” Eugene and Nina and a new husband moved to New York in 1906; however, upon Nina’s death in 1909, Nathan moved back to Washington and his grandparents.
When Jean Toomer graduated from high school he began traveling. He studied at five places of higher education in a period of less than four years. At the University of Wisconsin, he enrolled in the agriculture program. Half a year later, however, he determined that Wisconsin was an atmosphere not meant for him, and he thus moved to Massachusetts to study at the Massachusetts College of Agriculture. During his period of transition between the two colleges, Toomer found an interest in physical fitness. Before officially enrolling at Massachusetts, he changed his mind, opting instead to begin taking classes at the American College of Physical Training in Chicago. Five months later, in January of 1916, he moved to Chicago to begin his studies. By the fall of 1916 he also
began supplementing his education with studies at the University of Chicago.
“I have lived by turn in Washington, New York, Chicago, and Sparta (Georgia)… I have worked, it seems to me, at everything: selling papers, delivery boy, soda clerk, salesman, shipyard worker, librarian-assistant, physical director, school teacher, grocery clerk, and God knows what all. Neither the universities of Wisconsin or New York gave me what I wanted, so I quit them.”
It was in Chicago that Toomer began to broaden his interest in literature. Although evidence shows that, in addition to Dante’s Inferno , Toomer was affected by Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to such a degree that he actually compared himself to Ishmael by having “mentally turned failure to triumph.” One of the most prominent literary characters with whom he became enthralled was Victor Hugo’s character Jean Valjean; Toomer
His southern sojourn as a school principal in Sparta, Georgia (1922) found in him the belief that he had located his ancestral roots (from Toomer’s experience and influence, Sparta was popularized as an ancestral root source by many of the Harlem Renaissance intelligensia; e.g., Zora Neal Hurston and Langston Hughes both traveled there in the summer of 1927). Thus, he began to write poems, stories, and sketches, especially about southern women whose stretch towards self-realization forced them into conflict with American societal moral attitudes. Upon return to Washington, he repeated his efforts, this time focusing on inhibited Negroes in the North. He made friends with Waldo Frank published in the most important journals. The result, for Toomer, was a book, Cane.
In 1923 Cane was published together with Waldo Frank’s Holiday . Frank was a mentor for Toomer, reading much of his work before publication. Toomer edited the manuscript of and actually wrote all the dialogue in Holiday.
A few “important” white people thought Cane was an extraordinary work. At a time when the best (or popular) novelists, poets, and publishers had fame not unlike the movie and rock stars of today, Waldo Frank, said,
“Cane is a harbinger of the South’s literary maturity… And, as the initial work of a man of 27, it is a harbinger of a literary force of whose incalculable future I believe no reader of this book will be in doubt.”
One wonders what Hemmingway and Faulkner thought of this!
Though Cane survived only two small printings (1923 and 1927) while Toomer was alive, William Stanley Braithewaite, a black critic, exclaimed
“Jean Toomer, …artist of the race, …can write about the Negro without the surrender or the compromise of the artist’s vision…. He would write just as well … about the peasants of Russia or … Ireland, has experience given him the knowledge of their existence. Cane is a book of gold…and Jean Toomer is a bright morning star of a new day of the race in literature.”
Thus, Cane forecast, by several years, what is now called the Harlem Renaissance and inspired an entire generation of African American writers, beginning with his contemporaries Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neal Hurston.
In spite of Toomer’s success with Cane , recent African American historians have given, at best, perhaps with misinterpretation, reluctant support of Toomer. Toni Morrison writes, of Toomer and Cane,
“In spite of Jean Toomer’s yearning for racelessness, his horror of ‘dark blood,’ what is astonishing is how eloquent he was about the drop that bedeviled him: how moving he was about those who shared it. What would have been no more than an after dinner story in France or Russia became an opus in this country where, racially speaking, the difference between one snowflake and an avalanche does not exit.”
Many critics only see Cane, while those who don’t consider the remainder of Toomer’s work as unrelated. However, biographer Rudolph Byrd writes that Cane was the first born in a family of works joined together by a common sense.