JEAN TOOMER was born Nathan Pinchback Toomer in Washington, D.C., on December 26, 1894, the son of Nathan and Nina Pinchback Toomer. At his grandfather's insistence he was called Eugene Toomer, and later he adopted the first name Jean because he thought it had a more literary connotation. Nathan Toomer abandoned the family soon after Jean was born, and Nina Toomer, after living with her parents for some years, moved in 1906 to New Rochelle, New York, where she lived with her white husband. She died in 1909, and Jean returned to Washington to live with his grandparents. At this time his grandfather, P. B. S. Pinchback, informed Toomer—who looked white and believed himself to be white—that he was of racially mixed ancestry.
Toomer attended several universities between 1914 and 1919, including the University of Wisconsin and the City College of New York, but finally abandoned academic life to pursue literature, writing poetry and fiction for such magazines as the Little Review, Secession, and Broom. Toomer disliked the use of race labels, insisting he was neither white nor black but "simply an American." He held the belief that race was not a fundamental constituent in one's self-definition, and was accordingly criticized for the lack of a black focus in his later works.
Toomer is best remembered for his first book, Cane (1923), a miscellany of stories, verse, and a drama concerned with the lives of black Americans in the United States. Much of the source material for this work was derived from a trip to Georgia he took in the fall of 1921. Cane is now regarded as one of the most remarkable novels of its time because of its prose-poetic language, its amalgamation of literary genres, and its rich evocation of the lives of both northern and southern black Americans.
Toomer's other works are the plays Balo, Natalie Mann, and The Sacred Factory; the novella "York Beach" (1929); Essentials (1931), a collection of aphorisms; the 800-line poem "The Blue Meridian" (1936), a radical expansion of an earlier poem entitled "The First American"; and other