Biography Jean Toomer

Jean Toomer

photo of Jean Toomer
  • Time Period1894 - 1967
  • PlaceWashington
  • CountryUnited States

Poet Biography

Writer and philosopher Jean Toomber was born Nathan Pinchback Toomber on 26th December 1894. His parents, Nathan Toomber and Nina Pinchback, were of African-American descent, however, the family could all pass for white. In 1895 Nathan Toomber abandoned his family and Nina and Nathan Jr were forced to move in with her father, who ordered that the boy's name was changed to Eugene (shortened to Jeab when he began writing). Nina's father, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, had formerly been governor of Louisiana. According to Toomer's biographers Cynthia Kerman and Richard Eldridge, "For Jean to grow up in a house with a grandfather who had been the only black governor of any state in the Union ... could not help shaping the perceptions and attitudes of the fatherless boy."

After graduating from High School in Washington in 1914, Toomber studied at various colleges and universities, including the Univeristy of New York, for the next three years. Ultimately he left without a degree, but had formed a great interest in literature and philosophy, eventually becoming acquainted with many literary critics and luminaries, including Hart Crane, Sherwood Anderson, Malcolm Cowley, and Alfred Stieglitz.

As a writer, his works often reflected his racial and democratic idealism. Toomber saw himself as an 'American' and as a member of "a united human race", rather than a member of any other racial group. This is very much reflected in his early poem The First American.

From 1920 Toomber adandoned writing in order to study Eastern philsopohy. Then in late 1921 he travelled to Georgia where he served as interim principal of the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute. Living as an African American in the rural South stimulated his racial consciousness, and he used this newly found identification with his racial past to create his lyrical novel and most renowned work Cane in 1923. The years that followed this proved to be the most productive of his literary career. Works from that time include the novel The Gallonwerps (1927), the play The Sacred Factiry (1928), Lost and Dominant - a vlolume of poetry (1929), and the essay Race Problems and Modern Society.

In 1931, whilst conducting a phsychological experiment, Toomber met and later married Margery Latimer. They lived together in California, but she died whilst giving birth to their first daughter. In 1934 Toomber married again, this time

to Marjorie Content and they remained together until his death.

In the later years of his life, Toomber became involved with the Religious Society of Friends (or the Quakers) and also continued to write extensively.

For the last decade of his life, he was crippled by arthritis and spent a great deal of time in Nursing Homes. He died on 30th March 1967.

He is remembered as an enduring figure in the history and development of both the American and the African-American literary traditions.