Jean Toomer

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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Jean Toomer (December 26, 1894–March 30, 1967) was an American poet and novelist and an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance.


  • 1 Biography
  • 2 Works
  • 3 References
  • 4 External links


Born Nathan Pinchback Toomer in Washington, D.C., Jean was of mixed racial and ethnic descent (Dutch, French, Native American, and African American). His parents were Nina Pinchback and Nathan Toomer. 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. 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 lead 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 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. In 1926, Toomer went to France to attend the Gurdjieff Institute and was associated with G. I. Gurdjieff until 1935. Toomer was prolific during this period, writing plays, the novel, The Gallonwerps, and several poems and short stories that appeared in The Dial.

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.


  • Cane (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923)
    • Written during the Harlem Renaissance, Cane is a collection of poems and short narratives that examine the African-American condition both in the South as well as in Washington, D.C. around the time of its publication.
  • Problems of Civilization, by Ellsworth Huntington, Whiting Williams, Jean Toomer and others, (New York: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1929)
  • Essentials: Definitions and Aphorisms (Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1931)
  • An Interpretation of Friends Worship (Philadelphia: Committee on Religious Education of Friends General Conference, 1947)
  • The Flavor of Man (Philadelphia: Young Friends Movement of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1949)
  • The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer (1980)
  • Turner, Darwin T. "Introduction." Cane by Jean Toomer (New York: Liveright, 1993). ix-xxv. ISBN 0-87140-151-7.
  • Review of Shadows of Heaven
  • Modern American Poetry: Jean Toomer
  • Essay on Cane
  • Online Toomer bio
  • Essay on Toomer and Class
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