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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   



10. Rhythms
in Poetry


•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- HD (Hilda Doolittle)
- T. S. Eliot
- Robert Frost
- Langston Hughes
- Claude McKay
- Ezra Pound
- Carl Sandburg
- Genevieve Taggard
- Jean Toomer
- William Carlos Williams
- Suggested
Author
Pairings
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•  Activities

Authors: Jean Toomer (1894-1967)

Cut Sugarcane Being Carried to the Trucks for USSC
[7104] Marion Post Wolcott, Cut Sugarcane Being Carried to the Trucks for USSC (1939), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-051089-E].

Jean Toomer Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Born in Washington, D.C., Nathan Eugene Toomer was raised by his grandparents. He studied at several universities, including the University of Wisconsin, Massachusetts College of Agriculture, and New York University. After college, he held a variety of jobs, including ship fitter, car salesman, and physical education teacher. Enamored of the art scene in Greenwich Village, Toomer soon became part of the intellectual crowd, making friends with people like Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson, Hart Crane, Alfred Stieglitz, and the renowned benefactress Mabel Dodge. His short stories and poetry, which he published in The Dial, Broom, The Liberator, Opportunity, Crisis, and other magazines, received high praise from Allen Tate and Kenneth Burke; indeed, his work was well received in both the white and the black communities. His ability to straddle cultures became a mixed blessing for Toomer, as he struggled to secure a stable identity in a nation with a long habit of dividing itself along racial lines. Light-skinned enough to "pass," Toomer grappled with his complicated racial identity all his life. Toomer was not alone in this predicament; novelists James Weldon Johnson and Nella Larsen both explored the notion of passing in their fiction.

In 1923, Toomer's most famous work, Cane, won the approval of critics and his fellow artists, though the book never sold well. Sometimes referred to as a prose poem, Cane is not easily categorized; it includes verse and prose pieces. For young black writers, like Jessie Fauset and Charles S. Johnson, Toomer's unconventional work confirmed the belief that African American artists could form a movement and use art to fulfill political aims. At a time when the Harlem Renaissance was just beginning to take shape, Toomer's Cane, with its candid picture of rural and urban African American life, its picture of women, and its critique of modern industrialism, provided much-needed encouragement and promise; Cane endured as one of the most important works of the Harlem Renaissance.

Cane also proved to be Toomer's best work. He left New York for France, and although he received generous financial support from Mabel Dodge, he did not manage to publish anything that gained the acclaim of Cane. In 1924 he traveled to Fontainebleau to study with the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff, whose work he later taught in America. He experimented with communal living, and in 1932 he married a woman he met in one of these communities, Marjorie Latimer, a white woman from a prestigious New England family. She died in childbirth after only one year of marriage. In 1934, Toomer married another white woman, also named Marjorie. These marriages caught the attention of the media, and in his later years Toomer was often evasive about the question of his race. After the 1920s, Toomer virtually disappeared from the literary scene, but he did not stop writing. His unpublished plays, poems, and autobiographical sketches were collected in The Wayward and the Seeking (1980) after his death.



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