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5.23: Jean Toomer (1894 - 1967)

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    Nathan Eugene Toomer, known as Jean, was born in Washington D.C. to a bi-racial father, Nathan Toomer from Georgia, and a bi-racial mother, Nina Pinchback, the daughter of P. B. S. Pinchback, who was the first person of African descent to serve as Governor of Louisiana. Toomer never knew his father, who left the family shortly after Toomer’s birth due to conflicts with his father-in-law, and was raised by the Pinchbacks, a well-respected family who had moved from New Orleans to Washington D.C. in order to escape Jim Crow laws. Since Toomer could “pass” as white and lived in an affluent neighborhood, his racial identity was of little consequence for most of his young life. It was not until he was fourteen, when Toomer moved in with his Uncle Bismark in a working-class African-American neighborhood, that Toomer began to experience racial tension of the period. After graduating high school, Toomer left for the University of Wisconsin to study agriculture, where, according to his own unpublished autobiography, he fully realized the stark racial conflicts between blacks and whites. Toomer dropped out of the University of Wisconsin, briefly studied biology at the University of Chicago, and later attended New York University. During this time, Toomer struggled with his own self-identity since he had always been able to pass as white, yet he began to self-identify as African-American.

    Toomer held odd jobs in Chicago and New York, while becoming active politically in the Socialist movement and gaining a growing reputation as a writer. However, it was Toomer’s year as the principle of an industrial and agricultural school for African-Americans in Sparta, Georgia that became the inspiration for many of the stories in his groundbreaking work, Cane (1923). As Toomer developed a growing reputation, publishing in notable places and working with W. E. B. Du Bois as part of the “talented tenth” in the Harlem Renaissance, Cane became a critical success. However, just as Cane began to raise his profile, Toomer began to feel hesitant about identifying as African-American and started withdrawing from public life, abandoning fiction and eventually writing philosophical treatises. Cane fell out of favor and was almost nearly a lost work, until it was re-discovered in the 1960s and has been highly acclaimed ever since.

    Originally published with Boni & Liveright, an avante-garde press of the time, Cane is today considered a modernist classic, but it is the only work associated with Toomer. It is hailed not only for its historical significance within the Harlem Renaissance, but also for its experimental form. Cane combines poetry, prose, short fiction, and even a play in the three-part book. In the short story “Blood Burning Moon” Toomer combines both poetry and prose. Hence, the book resists genre classification as a novel, a short story collection, or a book of poetry.

    Toomer’s own racial background became a major theme of his work, especially the conflict between races appearing in short stories such as “Blood Burning Moon.Other themes include the great migration of African-Americans from the rural South to urbanized areas, as well as the juxtaposition of the beautiful imagery of rural America (“Portrait in Georgia”) and the containment of the city (or slavery) which appear in works such as “Box Seat” and “Kabnis.”

    5.24.1 Selections from Cane

    “Blood Burning Moon”
    Please click the link below to access this selection:

    “Portrait in Georgia”
    Please click the link below to access this selection:

    5.24.2 Reading and Review Questions

    1. Why does Toomer include the verses in between sections of “Blood Burning Moon”? What effect does this have on readers? Does it change the meaning of the story?
    2. In the short poem “Portrait in Georgia,” how does Toomer’s conciseness affect readers? What type of images is he using in this poem? Why?

    This page titled 5.23: Jean Toomer (1894 - 1967) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Berke, Bleil, & Cofer (University of North Georgia Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.