Jean Toomer Biography
(1894–1967), Cane, Essentials
American novelist, born in Washington, DC to parents of Louisiana Creole stock, educated at the University of Wisconsin and at City College, New York. Toomer began publishing poems and sketches in 1918 and in 1922 went to Georgia, where he worked in schools, an experience which provided material for the first part of Cane (1923), the book on which his reputation rests. Around 1923 his interest in mysticism brought him under the influence of the Russian Gurdjieff and he spent part of the summer of 1926 at his Institute in Fontainebleau, France; in 1931, in his quest for an alternative lifestyle, he organized an experiment in communal living with eight friends in Portage, Wisconsin. Cane is a modernist text that defies easy categorization. Though it has been called a ‘novel’, it is a miscellany that brings together short stories, poetry, and dramatic scenes and blends realistic detail with a lyrical narrative mode. The first part is set in Georgia, the second in Washington and Chicago; it concludes with a longer story, ‘Kabnis’, which employs a primarily dramatic mode to explore the educated northern African-American's quest for self. Many of the stories in Cane deal, in restrained and compassionate style, with protagonists who are the victims of their mixed racial identity. Toomer also published Essentials (1931), which expounds his philosophy of human possibility, and a number of plays. A fair-skinned man whose ‘coloured’ maternal grandfather Pickney Bentor Stewart Pinchbeck was acting governor of Louisiana during the Reconstruction era, Toomer's exact racial identity remains unclear. He himself consistently argued that his humanity transcended his origins—' I am of no particular race. I am of the human race'—but today he is generally regarded as a seminal figure in the African-American literary renaissance of the 1920s, albeit for his artistic innovation rather than any propagandist message. See ethnicity and harlem renaissance.