Jean Toomer (1894–1967) arrived on the American literary scene in 1923 with the publication of Cane, a small, emotional book about southern blacks that is often seen as marking the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. But Toomer was much more than a fiction writer and poet dedicated to the pursuit of art. He was also a disciple and teacher of Georges Gurdjieff’s spiritual-mental-physical system for achieving wholeness, and later a religious leader among Quakers. The many “lives” that Jean Toomer led are unfolded in this comprehensive and fascinating biography by Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge.
The authors describe Toomer’s childhood and youth, tracing the influence of his grandfather, P.B.S. Pinchback, his peculiar isolation as a child even amid family and friends, the shock of his mother’s death, his removal to the home of his grandparents, and his erratic ventures from there into formal and informal education. They tell the story of Toomer’s sudden entry into, and as sudden exit from, the active literary world of New York in the early 1920s, and they follow Toomer’s reluctant but eventual total commitment to the mystical Gurdjieffan movement. Kerman and Eldridge devote considerable attention to Toomer’s subsequent involvement with Quakers in and around Philadelphia. They also consider the final fifteen years of Toomer’s life, when failing health and a diminished sense of achievement marked his withdrawal into a state of isolated invalidism.
Kerman and Eldridge are careful to place Toomer’s varied accomplishments in perspective. They seek to correct misapprehensions about Toomer’s position on race and offer a thorough treatment of his concept of the “universal man” as one beyond racial demarcation. They also look closely at Toomer’s penchant for mysticism. The authors find that Toomer’s intense need to be perfect and whole gave focus to the many passions he embraced throughout his life.
The Lives of Jean Toomer is enhanced by the authors’ extensive use of primary and secondary materials, particularly the voluminous Toomer papers, formerly at Fisk University and now at Yale, and by their interviews with various persons who knew Toomer. In style, content, and organization, in its depth as well as balance, The Lives of Jean Toomer is a model biography, a fitting tribute to an important but often misunderstood individual.
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