Jean Toomer spent barely eight weeks of his life in Georgia, in the fall of 1921. But this short visit -- in the homeland of a father he never knew - inspired him to write the Middle Georgia county of Hancock into American literary history. As the characters and landscape of "Sempter," the townspeople and surroundings of the community of Sparta form the Southern setting of Cane, Toomer's acclaimed and influential novel of early twentieth-century African-American life.
"Jean Toomer" was the adopted literary name of Nathan Pinchback Toomer, born December 26, 1894, in Washington, D.C. He was the son of Nina (Pinchback) Toomer and Nathan Toomer. His mother was the daughter of a noted Louisiana politician, while his father was a freedman farmer from Georgia, as well as the widower of a slave-born Georgia plantation heiress, Amanda America Dickson of Hancock County. What young Toomer knew of his father he learned second-hand, however, as his father had abandoned the family and returned to Georgia soon after young Nathan was born.
After Toomer's mother died in 1909, he lived with his grandmother and his grandfather, P.B.S. Pinchback, who had served briefly during Reconstruction as the first African-American governor of a U.S. state (Louisiana). Toomer graduated from Washington's noted M Street High School in 1914. He attended colleges in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Illinois and New York before he finally rejected the idea of a college degree in favor of a writing career.
In the fall of 1921, Toomer took a temporary job as a substitute principal at the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute in the Oconee River Valley, not far from Perry, Augusta, and Macon - all towns that had been home at one time or another to Toomer's father. In Sparta, Toomer proclaimed, he discovered an African-American soul, a seed of his own blood that had been obscured by his own ambiguous racial upbringing. He felt that the black community he met in Sparta still showed the signs of an African-American spirit that he saw dying out in urbanized America. Previously frustrated in his search for a meaningful literary subject, Toomer found that he overflowed with stories and poetry inspired by the Georgia landscape, the African-American voices, and the interracial encounters of the Southern blacks and whites he met in the Jim Crow-era agricultural town. Cane was the result.
At the time of its publication in 1923, Cane drew the admiration of many of Toomer's fellow writers - including some who would later be associated with the Harlem Renaissance period of American literature. Critics applauded Cane's lyrical sensitivity toward African-American life and its bold presentation of racial and sexual issues. Decades later, writers of the both the Black Arts Movement and African-American authors of a younger generation -- Georgia-born poet and writer Alice Walker, for one -- would pay homage to Cane's influence.
To the disappointment of many of Cane's admirers, by 1924 Toomer had exhausted his interest in African-American characters. He concentrated instead on allegorical writings that expressed the theories of the mystic-psychologist G. I. Gurdjieff, of whose work Toomer had become a disciple and teacher. The psychological and spiritual quest that led Toomer to Georgia and then to the teachings of Gurdjieff also led him to make various other pilgrimages. He traveled to India in 1939, and later he delved into the realms of Jungian psychology, Edgar Cayce, and the Church of Scientology. In 1940 he joined the Quakers, a relationship that would provide him some continuing solace and comfort in the latter half of his life. Essentially unpublished in literary magazines after 1936, Toomer however wrote extensively for Quaker publications in the 1940s and 1950s.
Twice married, with one daughter, Jean Toomer died in a Pennsylvania nursing home of arteriosclerosis on March 30, 1967.
Portrait courtesy of the Yale Collection of American Lit., Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
The following titles may be found in the Hall of Fame Library:
"Esther" and "Georgia Portraits." In: Modern Review. (Vol. 1, no. 2 (January 1923)
Cane. New York: Boni and Liveright [c1923]
"Balo." In: Plays of Negro Life: a source-book of native America drama. New York: Harper, 1927.
Essentials: Definitions and Aphorisms. Chicago: The Lakeside Press, c1931.
"Fern." In: Semaphore: International Review of Literature and Art. ( 1945)
The Flavor of Man. Philadelphia: Young Friends Movement of the Philadelphia Yearly Meetings, 
Cane. Introd. by Arna Bontemps. New York: Harper & Row, [1969, c1923]
"Song of the Sun." Broadside. Detroit, Mich.: Broadside Press, 1967.
Cane. New York: Liveright, [c1975]
The Autobiography of Jean Toomer. An Edition by Isaac Johnny Johnson. Thesis (Ph. D.)--Purdue University, 1982
Cane . Edited by Darwin T. Turner. New York: Norton, c1988.
The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer. Edited by Robert B. Jones and Margery Toomer Latimer. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, c1988.
Essentials. Edited by Rudolph P. Byrd. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1991.
A Jean Toomer Reader: Selected Unpublished Writings. Edited by Frederik L. Rusch. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Cane. New York: Modern Library, 1994.
Jean Toomer: Selected Essays and Literary Criticism . Edited by Robert B. Jones. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, c1996.
Essentials . Edited with an afterword by Rudolph P. Byrd, preface by Charles Johnson. Athens, Ga.: Hill Street Press, c1999.
The Uncollected Works of American Author Jean Toomer, 1894-1967 . Edited by John Chandler Griffin. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, c2003.
Major collections of Jean Toomer's papers are held by Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
Born: December 26, 1894
Died: March 30, 1967