Jean Toomer was born as Nathan Eugene Pinchback Toomer on December 26, 1884 in Washington, D.C. His father was a wealthy farmer, who was originally born into slavery in Georgia. Nina Pinchback was also of mixed descent. Jean’s father abandoned his family when he son was an infant, so he and his mother lived with her parents. As a child in Washington, Toomer attended all-black schools. After his mother remarried, they moved to New Rochelle, New York, and he attended an all-white school. After his mother’s death, Jean returned to Washington to live with his grandparents. He graduated from an academic black high school. By his early adult years, he refused to be segregated and wanted to be identified only as an American.
Between 1914 and 1917 Jean Toomer attended 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. He majored in agriculture, fitness, biology, sociology, and history but he never completed a degree.
After leaving college, Jean published some short stories and continued writing after World War I. In 1923, Toomer returned to New York where he became friends with Waldo Frank, who became his mentor and editor on his novel Cane. In 1923, he published the novel Cane, in which he used material inspired by his time in Georgia. Below is an excerpt from his novel, Cane.
“whisper of yellow globes
gleaming on lamp posts that sway
like bootleg licker drinkers in the fog
and let your breath be moist against me
like bright beads on yellow globes
telephone the power-house
that the main wires are insulate
(her words play up and down
dewy corridors of billboards)
then with your tongue remove the tape
and press your lips to mine
till they are incandescent”
ReadingWoman.com states, “Cane is one of the works of fiction that announced the arrival of the Harlem Renaissance. Though a slim volume, this collection of sketches, stories and poems makes up a dense and powerful book. Through vivid imagery and authentic dialects, Jean Toomer realistically portrays the lives and experiences of African-Americans, from the Southern peasant to the urban black in the North. Neither glorified nor stereotyped, Toomer’s characters speak in their own voices and are completely themselves, their behavior reflecting the truth about who and what they are. Cane compels the reader to feel its power on a physical level. At the time the book was published, and still today, these full, rich characters and images lead us to a greater understanding of the human condition.” He stopped writing literary works in 1950. Jean Toomer died on March 30, 1967 in Doylestown, PA after years of poor health.
“Jean Toomer – ENotes.com Reference.” Enotes.com. Enotes.com. Web. 02 Apr. 2012. <http://www.enotes.com/topic/Jean_Toomer>.
“Writers of the Harlem Renaissance – Book Reviews.” Great Books for You to Read. Web. 02 Apr. 2012. <http://www.readingwoman.com/harlem.html>.
“Jean Toomer Biography.” Department of Mathematics, University at Buffalo. Web. 02 Apr. 2012. <http://www.math.buffalo.edu/~sww/toomer/toomerbio.html>.