Jean Toomer, the poet who inspired an entire generation of African-American writers including Langston Hughes

Stephen Nartey January 24, 2023
Jean Toomer/Photo credit: Bettmann / Getty Images

American playwright and novelist Jean Toomer had a privileged upbringing in his early life. He was one of the many Black kids who had formal education at both all-white and all-black segregated schools.

As a child, he maintained that it was pointless placing any individual in a race bracket. He wanted to be referred to as just an American. He was born in Washington, D.C., and was the grandson of the first African-American governor in the United States, according to Poetry Foundation.

Despite the good life he was exposed to, he still could not place his finger on his sense of purpose. He schooled in colleges in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Illinois, and New York but turned down the idea of a college degree in favor of a career as a writer.

Prior to his famous literary piece, Cane, he took up a teaching appointment in the fall of 1921. He was the substitute principal at the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute, in the Oconee River valley of middle Georgia. This place was close to all the places his estranged father had sojourned, according to Georgia Encyclopedia.

In Sparta, he gained a better understanding of the internal battles he had been fighting over race. In that reawakening, Toomer found what he really wanted to write about. He wrote stories and poetry from the experience he had while in Georgia.

He touched on lived experiences of African Americans in the south and their interracial challenges with the whites. He was livid by experiences in the Jim Crow–era agricultural towns. The rural south experiences gave birth to his celebrated book, Cane, in 1923. Contemporary writers and critics praised his ability to navigate the racial sensitivity surrounding American life and issues of racial and sexual subjects.

Many Black writers like Alice Walker and writers of the Harlem Renaissance said Toomer’s treatment of stories had an immense influence on their own writings. He inspired writers like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neal Hurston. When he gained prominence through his book again, he still insisted he wanted to be identified as an American instead of Negro artist.

By 1924, his passion for writing about African American characters was waning. Toomer rather dedicated his time to learning from psychologist G. I. Gurdjieff and started teaching Gurdjieff’s beliefs in America. This also led him to explore other paths like Jungian psychology, the teachings of Edgar Cayce, and Scientology.

He became a member of the Quakers in 1940 and lectured for the Religious Society of Friends while writing extensively for Quaker publications in the 1940s and 1950s.

Toomer married Margery Latimer in 1931. He had one daughter with her. He re-married after the death of his first wife. He lived in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, from 1934 onward with his second wife Marjorie Content.

Toomer died of arteriosclerosis on March 30, 1967, in a Pennsylvania nursing home. His book, Cane, which is about the Georgian people and landscape, is regarded as an influential work in Modernist literature. Poet Kenneth Rexroth praised Toomer’s writing. “Toomer is the first poet to unite folk culture and the elite culture of the white avant-garde,” Rexroth stated, “and he accomplishes this difficult task with considerable success. He is without doubt the most important Black poet.” 

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