The Romantic Spirit of the Harlem Renaissance: Jean Toomer
By Mary Arnold
In his only novel on African Americans, Jean Toomer also found beauty in the "vernacular culture" among the people in Sparta, Georgia, where Toomer spent two months working as an interim principal at the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute in 1921 (Byrd 733). Nathan Pinchback Toomer (1894"1967) changed his name to Jean after his move to Greenwich Village and reading Romain Rolland's Jean Christophe (1904), in an effort to "solidify his emerging identity as a writer" (Byrd 733).
Toomer's experimental novel, Cane (1923), is described as "a record of his discovery of his southern heritage, an homage to a folk culture that he believed was evanescent, and an exploration of the forces that he believed were the foundation for the spiritual fragmentation of his generation" (Byrd 733). Although Toomer continued writing after the publication of Cane until the time of his death, he did not have any other works of fiction published during his lifetime (Byrd 733).
After coming under the influence Georgei I. Gurdjieff, a Russian mystic and psychologist, Toomer never returned to depicting African American life (Byrd 733). This change in subject matter could be attributed to Toomer's efforts to "transcend" the "narrow divisions of race" (Byrd 734). Due to his desire for transcendence of racial boundaries, Toomer's later writings do not employ any racial themes; also this desire led Toomer to disassociate himself from Cane, the "work that has earned him a central place in the African American literary tradition" (Byrd 734).
Despite Toomer's later rejection of racial themes, many of the Harlem writers were considerably influenced by Cane, such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston, the most prolific black woman writer in her lifetime, is the most extraordinary, intriguing, but ultimately tragic, participant in the Harlem Renaissance.
Byrd, Rudolph P. "Jean Toomer." The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 733-734.
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