A Jean Toomer Biography

by Scott W. Williams

CONTENTS - of this page

1. Jean Toomer's Origins 6. Millhouse
2. Cane 7. Toomer & the Quakers
3. Toomer & Gurdjieff 8. last 15 years
4. in Harlem 9. Summary
5. West & Portage References

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Jean Toomer Biography

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1. origins and early years

Jean Toomer's family was not typical of migrating African-Americans settling in the North, or fleeing the South. Each of his maternal grandparents were born of a caucasian father. But a "speck of Black makes you Black."

Thus, Toomer's grandfather, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, was a free born black, a Union officer in the Civil War and was elected to the office of Lieutenant Governor and later Acting Governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction.

Pinchback retired north and settled his family in the Negro community of the capitol. Thus, Toomer was born, as Nathan Pinchback Toomer into an upper class Negro family in Washington D.C. on December 26, 1894.

Shortly after Toomer's birth, his caucasion father [Was Toomer's father Caucasion? See below notes on Jean Toomer's Father] deserted his wife and son, and in 1896 Toomer's mother, Nina Toomer, gave him the name Nathan Eugene. Thus, Nina and her son went to live with grandfather Pinchback, and Jean used the name Eugene Pinchback Tomer (which he later shortened to Jean).

The Pinchbacks lived in a racially mixed neighborhood, but [telling] Jean attended the all-black Garnet Elementary School. At the age of ten he was stricken with severe stomach ailments which he survived with a greatly altered life. He showed strength early - when faced with adversity, rather than wring his hands and retreat further into himself, Toomer searched for a plan of action, an intellectual scheme and method to cope with a personal crisis. Toomer writes in Wayward and Seeking, "I had an attitude towards myself that I was superior to wrong-doing and above criticism and reproach ... I seemed to induce, in the grownups, an attitude which made them keep their hands off me; keep, as it were, a respectable distance."

Nina, a new husband, and Jean, moved to New Rochelle, New York, in 1906. They lived in a white neighborhood and Jean attended an all-white school; however, upon Nina's death in 1909, Nathan moved back to Washington and his grandparents. He attended the very good all-black Dunbar High School [whose faculty, even then, had teachers who had graduate studies under their belts]. After graduation in 1914, he renounced racial classifications and sought to live not as a member of any racial group but as an American.

Jean Toomer began traveling. He studied at five places of higher education in a period of less than four years. At the University of Wisconsin (1914-1915), he enrolled in the agriculture program. Half a year later, however, he determined that Wisconsin was an atmosphere not meant for him, and he thus moved to Massachusetts to study at the Massachusetts College of Agriculture (1915). During his period of transition between the two colleges, Toomer found an interest in physical fitness. Before officially enrolling at Massachusetts College, he changed his mind, opting instead to begin taking classes at the American College of Physical Training (1916) in Chicago. Five months later, in January of 1916, he moved to Chicago to begin his studies. By the fall of 1916 he also began supplementing his education with studies at the University of Chicago. Moving to New York, he studied at the City College of New York (1917), and New York University (1917). Toomer never took a degree.

Toomer inherited wonderlust from his parents and grandparents:

"I have lived by turn in Washington, New York, Chicago, and Sparta (Georgia)... I have worked, it seems to me, at everything: selling papers, delivery boy, soda clerk, salesman, shipyard worker, librarian-assistant, physical director, school teacher, grocery clerk, and God knows what all. Neither the universities of Wisconsin or New York gave me what I wanted, so I quit them."

It was in Chicago that Jean Toomer began to broaden his interest in literature: William Shakespeare, George Santayana, Charles Baudelaire, William Blake, Sherwood Anderson, Leo Tolstoy, and all the major American poets, especially the imagists. Although evidence shows that, in addition to Dante's Inferno , Toomer was affected by Herman Melville's Moby Dick to such a degree that he actually compared himself to Ishmael by having "mentally turned failure to triumph." One of the most prominent literary characters with whom he became enthralled was Victor Hugo's character Jean Valjean; Toomer claimed he felt "acquainted with ... Valjean."

Three articles, Ghouls (June 15, 1919), Reflections on the Race Riots (August 2, 1919), and Americans and Mary Austin (October 10, 1920), Jean Toomer wrote for The New York Call in 1919 and 1920 represent his background of political and economic thinking. They remain his most militant public statements about racial matters in the United States. In ...Race Riots he prophesies movements of the 1960s, and in ...Mary Austin he shows a subtle understanding of how American prejudice spilled over lines of race or class identity or political party or regional affiliation. It was these articles which gave Toomer entry to Waldo Frank's circle, a group including Sherwood Anderson, Kenneth Burke, Hart Crane, Lewis Mumford, Gorham Munson, Georgia O'Keefe, Paul Rosenfeld, Alfred Stieglitz, and others.

from Reflections on the Race Riots

The central fact emerging from the recent series of race riots is not so much that the Negro has developed an essentially new psychology, characterized by a fighting attitude. The Negro has always been conspicuous for his aggressiveness when arrayed against a foreign enemy. What is significant is that the Negro, for the first time in American history, has directed his "fight" against the iniquities of the white man in the United States. It is, of course, obvious that this fighting spirit received a decided stimulus in the form of the world war. It is likewise clear that the manifest disinclination of civil authorities to protect Negro life went far to crystallize a long smouldering resentment. Yet the outstanding feature remains, not that the Negro will fight, but that he will fight against the American white.

As long as the Negro was here passive the true solution of the race problem could wait. The South burned and lynched, and the North aided by its silence. But now, with the Negro openly resolved and prepared to resist attacks upon his person and privileges, the condition assumes a graver aspect. Immediate steps toward co-operative relations are imperative. It now confronts the nation, so voluble in acclamation of the democratic ideal, so reticent in applying what it professes, to either extend to the Negro (and other workers) the essentials of a democratic commonwealth or else exist from day to day never knowing when a clash may occur, in the light of which the Washington riot will diminish and pale. Clearly, then, this is no time for appeal. This is no time for academic discussion and presidential meditation. This is essentially a time for action. ...

Between 1918 and 1923 Toomer wrote the short stories Bona and Paul and Withered Skin of Berries, the plays Natalie Mann (1922) and Balo (1922), and many poems such as Five Vignettes, Skyline, Poem in C, Gum, Banking Coal, The First American, Brown River Smile and The Blue Meridian, The First American was a lyrical expression of his racial and democratic idealism.

2. Cane

His southern sojourn as a school principal in Sparta, Georgia (1922) found in him the belief that he had located his ancestral roots (from Toomer's experience and influence, Sparta was popularized as an ancestral root source by many of the Harlem Renaissance intelligensia; e.g., Zora Neal Hurston and Langston Hughes both traveled there in the summer of 1927). Thus, he began to write poems, stories, and sketches, especially about southern women whose stretch towards self-realization forced them into conflict with American societal moral attitudes. Upon return to Washington, he repeated his efforts, this time focusing on inhibited Negroes in the North. He made friends with Waldo Frank published in the most important journals. The result, for Toomer, was a book, Cane, published in 1923 and included many of the aforementioned short stories and poems.

Cane was published in 1923 together with Waldo Frank's Holiday. Frank was a mentor for Toomer, reading much of his work before publication. Toomer edited the manuscript of and actually wrote all the dialogue in Holiday. The book consists of three parts:

Part one of Cane weaves six stories with twelve poems using nature to create portraits of six southern women. "Karintha", "Becky", "Carma", and "Fern" shows the richness of a passing life, while ghost, full moons, and fire in "Esther" and "Blood-Burning Moon" represents the dissolution of life.

Part two comprises seven prose sketches and five poems. They are set in urban Washington, DC and Chicago. The black people of this section, descendants and survivors of the black southern culture and the post-civil war world, are seeking a new life and hope in the urban north.

In Part three, the longest section, "Kabnis," brings the themes of both sections one and two together. The setting shifts back to the rural South and dramatizes a portrait of an educated confused black, an artist struggling to represent the parting soul of the African-American past in art.

A few "important" white people thought Cane was an extraordinary work. At a time when the best (or popular) novelists, poets, and publishers had fame not unlike the movie and rock stars of today. Thus, Toomer became an enormous figure of the media. About the book, Waldo Frank said,

"[Cane ] is a harbinger of the South's literary maturity... And, as the initial work of a man of 27, it is a harbinger of a literary force of whose incalculable future I believe no reader of this book will be in doubt."

One wonders what Hemmingway and Faulkner thought of this! In any case, it has been said that Toomer participated on equal terms with Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and T S. Eliot in the creation of a new, modern idiom during the 1920s.

Jean Toomer photo1
Toomer, 1923

Though Cane  survived only two small printings (1923 and 1927) while Toomer was alive, William Stanley Braithewaite, a black critic, exclaimed

"Jean Toomer, ...artist of the race, ...can write about the Negro without the surrender or the compromise of the artist's vision.... He would write just as well ... about the peasants of Russia or ... Ireland, had experience given him the knowledge of their existence. Cane is a book of gold...and Jean Toomer is a bright morning star of a new day of the race in literature."
Thus, Cane  forecast, by several years, what is now called the Harlem Renaissance and inspired an entire generation of African American writers, beginning with his contemporaries Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neal Hurston.

In spite of Toomer's success with Cane , recent African American historians have given, at best, perhaps with misinterpretation, reluctant support of Toomer. Toni Morrison writes, of Toomer and Cane,
"In spite of Jean Toomer's yearning for racelessness, his horror of 'dark blood,' what is astonishing is how eloquent he was about the drop that bedeviled him: how moving he was about those who shared it. What would have been no more than an after dinner story in France or Russia became an opus in this country where, racially speaking, the difference between one snowflake and an avalanche does not exist."

Many critics only see Cane, while those who do not, consider the remainder of Toomer's work as unrelated. However, biographer Rudolph Byrd writes that Cane was the first born in a family of works joined together by a common sense.

3. and Gurdjieff

Fortunately, during Toomer's rigorous self-assessment, A. R. Orage, brilliant editor of the New Age, and Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff's principle representative in England, arrived in New York to make final arrangements for Gurdjieff's first American tour. Toomer learned from Orage the beginnings of Gurdjieff's system of self-development through intellectual, emotional, and physical integration. Some weeks later, Toomer, accompanied by his lover, Waldo Frank's wife Margaret Naumberg, saw Gurdjieff and his students perform special exercises at Manhatten's Leslie Hall and at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Nothing, including intensive studies of P.D. Ouspensky's Tertium Organum and discussions with Orage, prepared Toomer for the spectacle. When he first saw Gurdjieff, Toomer, who had already studied the Alexander Technique of physical integration , said,

"I saw this man in motion, a unit in motion. He was completely of one piece. From the crown of his head down the back and down the legs, there was a remarkable line. Shall I call it a gathered line? It suggested coordination, integration, knitness, power.... I was fascinated by the way the man walked. As his feet touched the floor there seemed to be no weight on them at all - a glide, a stride, a weightless walk." He wrote, "There was no printed program. You were not given in advance the slightest idea of what to expect. You were in no way helped to label and classify. [Yet] the movements ... [of] the dancers caught hold of me, fascinated me, spoke to me in a language strange to my experience but not unknown to a deeper center of my being ... Though I could have listened to it again and again, I had a sense from the very first that the music had not been composed to be listened to, but to be enacted. It was a call to action in those very moments that were being performed on stage, or in a march of men and women towards a destiny not even foreshadowed in the ordinary world. And so it moved me."

Jean Toomer joined Orage's practitioners of the Gurdjieff system. (Some others influenced by Gurdjieff are, according to author Kathleen Speeth, Jane Heap, Margaret Anderson, Rudyard Kipling, Olga and Frank Lloyd Wright, Katherine Hulme, Katherine Mansfield, Minor White, Georgia O'Keefe, Zona Gale, Gorham Munson, Moshe Feldenkreiss, Alexandro Jodorowsky, J.B. Priestly, Peter Brooks[5])

This began a process connected to Toomer for most of the next 30 years. July of 1924 found Toomer at the Prieuré, Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fountainbleau, France. The highly structured, enervating regimen of the institute was not designed for the lazy. Further, the rich, the distinguished, and the famous did not receive special consideration. Unaccustomed to strenuous physical effort, Toomer found the first few days extremely taxing. He recalls completely losing contact with his purpose for beng there, and could only think of leaving. But within a month, he wrote

"... more effort and experience were packed into a day at the institute than in an ordinary month. It gave you a measure of man's reserve power, a standard of human capacity. Manual work is usually done for the sake of outward results, the products, that is a farmer works to grow crops, a carpenter to build a house. Here at the Prieuré we were to work chiefly for the sake of purification, growth, increased ability and consciousness. Work standards were anything but lax, ... [and] tools and materials were to be cared for as real craftment take care of them. But we were not to be attached to the fruits of our labor. People who became overly egotistical about their accomplishments were likely to find their pet projects mysteriously disrupted."

One of the aphorisms on the wall of the Prieuré Study House reads:

You are here having realized that you have only yourself chiefly to content with. Therefore, thank those who give you the opportunity.

- Toomer upon reading this says,

The saying took hold of me, found purchase in my very roots; for it crystallized practice that I had engaged in, none to consistently at all, but very ernestly, off and on, ever since that boyhood illness. The new slant was the unmistakable pointing to oneself, the emphasis put on contending with oneself, not with others. The entirely new angle was the allure of actually thanking those who gave us the opportunity... Thank everyone who calls out your faults, your anger, your impatience, your egotism; do this consciously, voluntarily ...."

1924 Toomer

However, in September 1924, Gurdjieff closes the Institute. Writes Toomer,

"Most of us were shot straight into the air, and stayed there, suspended, an uncomfortable length of time. Gurdjieff said I might stay on. But had I come here only to go away in a few months? Where would I go? What would I do? Finally, after quite a struggle something clicked in me and I decided to return to New York.

Toomer returned to New York in October 1924 thinking he would soon become a king of Africa (misunderstanding Gurdjieff's words). Without authorization and unable to resist his premature desire to be a teacher, Toomer begins his own Gurdjieff study group, imitating Gurdjieff, affecting his mannerisms, even using Russian words. Says his friend Gorham Munson, "Jean had a lot nerve to do that; he was really not qualified to do it." Soon the group disintegrates and Toomer asks to join Orage's Gurdjieff system group.

4. in Harlem

In the spring of 1925, he set up, with Orage's permission, a Gurdjieff group in Harlem. Toomer's appearance and his new attitude toward life and art, were treated with curiosity if not awe. Reader remember, Cane is one of the most important and seminal works in the African American canon. It is as if Toomer calculated his employment of African-American art forms, and the context of thought and action. His, in Cane , patient evocation, of other African-American works, and intense identitification with and portrayal of African-American history and experience. What Negro at that time, and in some cases now, could not know the intense bigotry experienced in Becky ? How many of us males have known a Fern ? Thus, in a measured way, the older generation of African-Americans such as W.E.B. duBois and Alaine Locke, praised Toomer for realizing a new way for the treatment of African-American subjects.

In 1925 Jean Toomer's story Easter appeared in Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap's avante garde literary magazine Little Review, though it received little attention inspite of Gorham Munson's assertion that it surpassed Cane. {note that Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, and many others also published in the Little Review and James Joyce's Ulysses was first serialized there.}

For nearly one year, under the auspices of Orage, Toomer lectured on Gurdjieff's methods in Harlem. Toomer's appearance and his new attitude toward life and art, were treated with curiosity if not awe. The lectures attracted stars of the Harlem Renaissance including writers Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Nella Larsen, Harold Jackman (a teacher and activist), Rudolph Fisher, Dorothy West (writer), Dorothy Peterson (teacher and arts patron who remained close to Toomer for 10 years), and Aaron Douglass (the painter). Langston Hughes writes in his Gurdjieff in Harlem (a chapter in The Big Sea), "He had an evolved soul and that soul made him feel that nothing mattered, not even writing."

Harlem wasn't the only site of Toomer's lectures in New York. His sharp mind, lecturing abilities, and, perhaps, good looks, brought wealthy adherents to the Gurdjieff system, many of whom were female. In the summer of 1926, Jean Toomer returned to Gurdjieff and Fountainebleau, this time in the company of longtime lover Margie Naumberg Frank.

In April of 1926, awaiting a subway train, Toomer has an out-of-body experience. It is described later in an autobiography From Exile into Being :

"I was startled by an uncommon inward event. It was as though I had been touched from within in an extraordinary quiet way that stilled my functioning and momentarily suspended me between what had been and what was to come... My body and my life were in the power of a Power....I was losing my life."

June 1926, the affair between Toomer and Waldo Frank's wife Margaret Naumberg ends. She had financed his spiritual quest. He would find others. As Gorham Munson says, "all his life he was successful in getting people to support him." Together, Toomer and Munson travel to France and are admitted into the Prieuré.

5. West & Portage

Upon his return to the U.S. in the fall of 1926, Toomer moved to Chicago with Gurdjieff's charge to set up what became the most important American center for the Gurdjieff work outside of New York. Again Toomer imitates Gurdjieff, passing off as an Eastern mystic or mystery man. Gorham said,

"... a good deal of Jean's life after he went to Chicago was the leading of a life of lying, lying ... Jean pretended to be more than he was. He assumed the development and psychology beyond the point that he had ever reached; he ascribed to himself powers and knowledge which he had not really attained. Some would say he had a fantasy which he truly believed about himself as a master of psychological teaching, psychological knowledge. It doesn't seem to me that he could have deceived himself to that extent. He play acts as a spiritual leader.

Toomer finishes the novel Caromb in 1927.

Contrary to the oft stated non-productivity of Toomer, during the years, 1923-1936, when he was most active in the Gurdjieff work, Jean Toomer wrote more novels, plays, poems, sketches, and essays than at any other period in his life. Values and Frictions , The Gallonwerps , Mr. Limp Krok's , Famous Ride , Transatlantic and Essentials: Definitions and Aphorisms were also written at this time. A common feature of these works is his use of literary forms to promote and inspire human development. As Toomer said, "I'd rather form a man than form a book." This has prompted his (non-spiritually oriented) critics to complain of the lack of body of work fortold by Cane to which Toomer responds:

"The folk-spirit was walking in to die on the modern desert. That spirit was beautiful. Its death was so tragic. Just this seemed to sum life for me. And this was the fealing I put into Cane. Cane was a swan-song. It was a song of an end. And why no one has seen and felt that, why people have expected me to write a second and a third and a fourth book like Cane, is one of the queer misunderstandings of my life."

"Half-an-hour-Toomer" (Gurdjieff's name for Jean indicating the length of time he inserted between sentences or in response to a question) returned to Fountainbleau in the summer of 1927. Orage has him "oversee" the Americans at the Prieuré; this includes Waldo Frank and his new wife Alma (remember Toomer and Frank's first wife Margaret had an affair while Margaret and Waldo were still married), Gorham Munson, Schuyler Jackson, Payson Loomis and others.

Because the Gurdjieff system does not emphasize race; after 1923, Jean Toomer avoided racial fiction reflecting the complexity of his own racial background or of American society. Specifically, at the Prieuré there is no talk of race and, filled with energy and with ideas pouring through him, Toomer writes why he calls his best novel, Transatlantic (also called Eight Day World and a thinly veiled autobiographical account of the 1927 voyage to Europe) in seventeen days. [note: he also rode the transatlantic liners to Europe and 1927, and 1929.] Gurdjieff, as appears in Fritz Peters account, visited the Chicago group early in 1930 and in 1931.

Kerman and Eldridge quote Toomer in 1930-31 as saying: "All my life I have dressed well, in fact, have looked like a million dollars." [13] However, the printed word they read did not convey the whimsal tone in which it was made [14]. Here is a 1930 poem in which he expresses a realization that his Vanity blocked his Aim toward an Objective existence:

A certain man wishes to be a prince
Of this earth; he also wants to be
A saint and master of the being-world.
Conscience cannot exist in the first.:
The second cannot exist without conscience
To be disturbed but not enough to be
Compelled, van neither reject the one
Nor follow the other...[11]

Jean Toomer privately publishes Essentials in 1931. This is a collection of nearly three hundred aphorisms and definitions largely influenced by Gurdjieff's teaching. The aphorisms are linked together such as in aphorism 40:

Each of us has in himself a fool who says I am wise.

Most novices picture themselves as masters and are content with the picture. This is why there are so few masters.

When I speak, I am persuaded.

People mistake their limitations for high standards.

Ordinarily, each person is a cartoon of himself.

During the Spring of 1931 Jean Toomer meets Margery [no mispelling] Latimer, a descendent of the poetess Ann Bradstreet and clergyman John Cotton, a well-known author [most notably This Is My Body (1930) and Guardian Angel and Other Stories (1932)], and, herself, a member of Orage's New York Gurdjieff group. In a letter to a friend she writes, "Toomer I couldn't bear to look at. He sat at the head of the table and I was next to him. I felt he was so tainted with his master Gurdjieff." So initially she was turned off, but few women could withstand the magnetic personality of Toomer and they began intimacy. Toomer's public reputation was often tarnished by inuendos of sex. His relations with white women became supreme scandals for the newspapers.

It is not clear to me exactly where or when in the twenties, Jean Toomer made contact with the well-known architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller. However, it can be documented that both knew Gurdjieff. Further, it is known that Toomer provided Fuller with the earliest public audience by arranging the first presentation of his "futurist" 4 D- House in Chicago. Perhaps, Jean Toomer understood the radical cultural agenda of the house (and its social-therapeutic value); on the other hand, Fuller must have been equally attracted to the "racial" constitution of Toomer -- Toomer as living creative exemplar of "cross-road of mixed races" in the New World. On the other hand, Wright's wife Olga was a student of Gurdjieff, and the Frank Lloyd Wright school Taliesin ran on principles quite close to those of many Gurdjieff schools.

After Gurdjieff's last visit to Chicago, in 1931, Jean Toomer began the first of many psychological "experiments" - attempts at providing Fountainbleau-like conditions on a smaller scale with people who, due to requirements of their personal lives, could only participate under limited conditions. This first and successful "experiment" in living was located near Portage Wisconsin, where a core group including Margery and six other unmarried people, supplemented with repeated visitors (sometimes as many as two dozen) from nearby Chicago, lived in and around an isolated cottage. Toomer's stated aim is to see if artificial societal barriers can be transcended through living in close quarters and the sharing of work and play. Through a combination of work assignments, exercises, games, and discussion, Toomer brings to life what he regarded as the essentials of the Gurdjieff teaching. By summer's end, Toomer feels the experiement is a success.

"I am satisfied that it is entirely possible to eradicate the false veneer of civilization, with its unnatural inhibition, its selfishness, petty meaness and unnatural behavior, under proper conditions. Adults can be re-educated to become as natural as little children, before civilization stamps out their true or subconscious instincts.

(I do not know if there was a relation between Portage and the Frank Lloyd Wright school of architecture in Wisconsin known as Taliesin also founded upon principles of the Gurdjieff teaching).

In Portage, he wrote Brown River, Smile (which appeared in Pagany). However there was bad press from the local citizens of Portage - rumors of Communism, nudity, and sexual license abound. It was this public reputation grown from local to national that surrounded the Portage experiment with rumors of sex and ultimately caused its failure as documented in Toomer's Portage Potential.

In October of 1931, Jean and Margery married, and Margery becomes pregnant. He now commences to write at breakneck speed Portage Potential about the experiement. As friend and fellow Gurdjieffian Gorham Munson tells him, Toomer's writing has become a 'teaching' and his once fluid and poetic style is now didactic.; however, Toomer does not see this.

Margery and Jean left Chicago to avoid the bad publicity and stopped in a benefactor's California home.

In August 16, 1932 during childbirth of their daughter Margery (Jean nicknamed Argie), complications arise and Margery Latimer Toomer died A touching account of their year of marriage is given in The Lives of Jean Toomer.

Toomer and Margery, 1932

In Carmel California, Jean finishes Portage Potential. Margery says, "[The book] is really a remarkable thing, not involved with people's pains and frustrations but with their growth. I hope there are enough people in America interested in growth rather than the opposite to make its publication and success outstanding." Gorham Munson says the book "... is very interesting material for the followers of Gurdjieff, but for the world it won't do" Further, Clfton Fadiman, a highly regarded literary critic and editor, says about Portage Potential

There are definite reasons for the rejection [of the book]; but I hardly know how to list them in a letter. I believe very deeply that since Cane , which had genius in it, you have traversed the wrong road. Perhaps this post-Gurdjieff period is necessary for your development. In that case, I prefer to look upon books like Portage as mere entries in your personal journal rather than as works of art destined for an audience. Unless I speak to you at length, it is difficult to explain. Be assured that I read - and with close attention - every word of Portage. I am sorry it is no go with us.

Clearly, with the Chicago group and the Portage experiment, Jean Toomer was very important to Gurdjieff's work in America [9]. With Margery began a Gurdjieff group in Carmel, California, and in the southwest to where Toomer traveled following Margery's death. In Taos, New Mexico he wrote Eight Day World . He also met and became paramour of Georgia O'Keefe (with whom he remained friends for life) during a weak period of her marriage to Alfred Steiglitz and added "prominent converts to the Gurdjieff system." According to Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes' poem A House in Taos was inspired by Toomer's experiences in New Mexico and Nevada.

6. Millhouse

In the Spring of 1934 Jean Toomer meets Marjorie Content, the daughter of a very wealthy member of the New York Stock Exchange, and friend of his former lover Georgia O'Keefe, and soon to be famous photographer. Marjorie had already been married three times - her second husband was Harold Loeb, whom Ernest Hemingway portayed as the infamous Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises. In 1924 Content had been a partner of the Sunwise Turn bookstore, the location of Orage's first New York talk on the Gurdjieff System. However, Content is no longer interested in Gurdjieff and to win her, Toomer acts as though he is no longer interested in Gurdjieff. Of course the press didn't miss the similarity of names of Toomer's women, Maragaret, Margery, and Marjorie. They marry in Taos, New Mexico that year in September at the home of Toomer's wealthy friend Mabel Dodge Luhan and her Navajo husband.

content photo in Taos

The newly-weds return to New York City and convene a salon to which Georgia O'Keefe and many of his Gurdjieff friends visit. In December they buy a large farm in Bucks County, Pensylvania near Doylestown. Gurdjieff soon visits New York again but responds to Toomer as he would to a student who is not making serious effort. Toomer put off by this fallen position decides Gurdjieff's teaching is dead, no longer what he learned 10 years earlier. Yet his ties to Gurdjieff disciples remain alive.

With his daughter Margery, Jean Toomer and Marjorie moved in Spring of 1935 to Doylestown (in Bucks county Pennsylvania). In late 1935, five year old Paul Beekman Taylor, whose mother was a Gurdjieff student, an ex-lover of Toomer, and a friend of Marjorie, goes to live with the Toomers as a friend/playmate of Margery [14]. Jean Toomer's last great poem, The Blue Meridian , was published in The New Caravan in 1936

Contrary to Marjorie's wishes, Jean Toomer again tries an experiment in communal living in 1936 - the Millhouse Experiment.. Using residents and visitors to the Mill House, Toomer developed and practiced the concepts published in two Gurdjieff system books Living is Developing (1936) and Work Ideas (1937). Working individually and in groups, Toomer's students restore an abandoned grist mill and also farm large tracts of land. Toomer continues to womanize. His wife, determined to make the marriage work, overlooks it.

Faced with deteriorating kidneys imparing his hewalth, along with his wife's rising ire at the cost of upkeep of a farm that can't pay for itself, Jean Toomer is forced to give up the communal experiement. It will mark his last attempt to replicate life at the Prieuré.

By 1939, Jean Toomer began to wonder if the Gurdjieff method he had been learning and practicing needed supplanting or supplementing, but he was reluctant to jump paths without a wise teacher. About this time, Marjorie Content Toomer met, by coincidence, a member of the small religious sect called the Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers) in a Doylestown fish market. Soon after, Jean's daughter Marjery was attending the Friends School and the family began attending meetings of the Quakers.

In June 1939 came a lengthy trip to India for Toomer to find the aforementioned teacher and where he visited Monks, Lamas, theosophists, and the poet Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan. Though at the time he suffered from the feeling of personal and profession failure, he could not express it. "He thought," his wife recounts, "that maybe the mystics could find the answers." But the answers were Toomer's to find. The trip to took nine months, much of that time in travel to and from India, and cost the equivalent of several times an average annual salary.

Upon their March 1940 return, Marjorie said, :We went here, we went there. Usually I stayed in our lodgings with Argie, but sometimes, if I went, Jean would start talking with somebody inside while we were left sitting out in that God-awful heat. And he would stay as long as it pleased them. Says Jean, "It took India to bring me to my senses .. What hopes I went there with! India did not destroy them; she simply did not fulfill them." In June of 1940 Toomer has an unsuccessful blocked kidney operation and he must either stand or lie down. Then arthritis comes.

Jean turned down longtime friend C. Stanley Nott's invitation to attend a concert of Gurdjieff-de Hartmann music, and turned down the New York Public Library's invitation to attend a special Langston Hughes' reading of his Big Sea. in which Toomer plays a part.

7. Toomer & the Quakers

In August 1940, Toomer formally becomes a Quaker, a member of the Religious Society of Friends and becomes a much sought after lecturer. In 1941 Marjorie's father Harry dies, but leaving the bulk of his money to a new wife. So Jean and Marjorie have only the Doylestown house.

In retrospect, Jean and Marjory Toomer's fifteen year participation in the Society of Friends resembles a bell curve peaking about 1947, when he was invited to lecture or lead religious efforts at special congregations in New Jersey, Philadelphia, Indiana, and Illinois. He was especially gifted in working with high school students. He was a frequent member of committees local and larger and occasionally writing for the Friends Intelligencer.

In 1943 Jean Toomer seeks out the psychic Edgar Cayce about the failure of his operation, his lack of stamina, and insomina. Cayce recommends a purification of his alimentary canal, X-ray treatments on the sides of the spinal column, and a diet. This helped for a while but the pain returned in 1943.

Sally Fell said, "What he said was probably in essence not all that different from what we had grown up with in the Society of Friends, but he was saying it in new ways, with a fresh approach ... more than anything I was used to. It was more really on openess, and the living close to God."
Marian Darnell Fusion, the executive secretary from 1943 to 1945, speaks of a similar impact: "I think the big thing was his great respect for the resources which come out of silence, or which are trapped in silence. . . It was great to work with Jean; he was very strong; he knew where he was. Besides he was fun to be with - had a sort of dry sense of humor, the kind that wasn't exclusive, the kind that wasn't cutting."
Ruth Millar remembers Jean from that time as "a very deeply spiritual person", one to whom they could go with any questions. "At times he talked on a level deeper or higher than the young people could comprehend, but ... being aware that there was a more profound level, was important to their growth."

In 1947 and 1949, Toomer was invited by the Friends General Conference to write long statements to be published as pamphlets. An Interpretation of Friends Worship was called, by the Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends, "a significant contribution to the literature on Quaker worship." 1949's The Flavor of Man received a similar reception. In 1949, he gave the Quaker's prestigious William Penn lecture.

There is some natural overlap of the Gurdjieffian system and Quakerism, though Gurdjieff's formulation is much more specific, complex, and is staggering in its difficulty, while stages and dangers are identified, and the exercises and activities designed for each stage are tailored for the individual by a teacher who has made significant progress on the scale. While Gurdjieff insisted no one take what is taught without trying it for themselves, the Quakers, emphasizing direct experience, were taught not to take teachings secondhand, on hearsay, but should live in direct contact with the spirit that guided the teachers. A foundation of all effort in both systems is a reach for a level of consciousness beyond that on which people ordinarily live. In addition, the individual's responsibility for his own development is a tenet of both traditions - there is no priest or intermediary who can achieve one's improvement, though there is a point, after sufficient effort, when a kind of divine force may intervene.

Almost everything in Jean's writing and speaking to the Society of Friends was an echo of something Gurdjieff taught. After intense study of the great thinkers of the tradition, Toomer translated what he had learned (and in some cases distilled or distorted) from Gurdjieff and Orage into the language of the Quakers. Some examples approved by the Friends are:
(1945) "Human beings naturally live in three worlds, the physical, the emotional, and mental. . . Man's primary need is to find the roots of his life in a fourth world, the spiritual. For us, man's natural habitat is not enough. We are moved towards our divine home."
(1945) In the Friends Intelligencer article "Keep the Inward Watch" prescribes a process similar to Gurdjieffian self-observation.
(1946) In the Friends Intelligencer article "Uncommon Man" Toomer describes a rough equivalent to Gurdjieff's ideas of personality and essence.
The Flavor of Man he shows that the great Quaker writer George Fox indicated three levels of existence and the process of spiritual birth that marks the passage from one level to another. Attaining even the second level, all that most of us aspire to, involves tremendous struggle against the "knot of darkness in each of us, composed of indifference, inertia, prejudice . . . tied tight by fear, and by the self-willed, self-sufficient ego."
(1951) "Perhaps ... our lot on earth is to seek and to search. Now and again we find just enough to enable us to carry on. I now doubt that any of us will completely find and be found in this life."

There are, as well, many differences or even contradictory notions in the system of Gurdjieff known to Jean Toomer and that of the Quakers. Some of these, he might have gleaned from discussions with Rufus Jones, the recognized spiritual leader of the Friends in the first half of the twentieth century, but there is no indication that such discussions took place. It seems that Toomer simply ignored other contrasts as he ignored various portions of the Gurdjieff system he did not understand.

Though Toomer's external activities during the Quaker years seem as full as ever, his internal life seems weak. He suffered, perhaps not unrelated, physical and psychical illnesses. Physically, there were re-occuring eye problems, gall bladder problems, insomnia, congestion, impeded breathing, kidney problems. Psychically, there remained continual blindness to delusions of grandeur - Jean Toomer as teacher without need to be taught. There remained continual unresolved problems with the African heritage of his racial make-up (his daughter Marjery was not told any of her racial heritage). Thus, a procession of doctors passed through his life, as well as, non-traditional techniques of Edgar Cayce, the Alexander technique, and of Jungian Analysis. So of course, Gurdjieff's notion of internal considering exhibited outwardly. In the Spring in 1948 in New York Jean Toomer meets Gurdjieff again. Afterwards Toomer writes,

"I do not really know myself, who I am, my selfhood, my spiritual identity, or what I am. [After 25 years] I have some information about it, but also some misinformation, some misunderstanding, but much illusion. Real motivations? What is my aim, assuming that I have but one aim? I do not really know my wife, my child, my closest friends. I do not know anyone or anything."

On October 30, 1949, Gurdjieff dies of cancer.

In 1950 Toomer felt he was "discounted" by Gurdjieffians, by Quakers, by even longtime friends such as Gorham Munson. His diaries report he resented the fact that Gerald Heard and Paul Tillich, instead of Jean Toomer, had been asked to speak to the upcoming Conference of Religion and Psychology. This conference was an annual gathering, begun about ten years earlier by a group of Friends interested in Karl Jung's psychology and held at Haverford College. Jean felt that he was the expert on the interplay of psychology and religion, and his first reaction to this imagined snub was an aggressive "I'll show them all!" But in time reasoning and associations led him to the inner blockage which started his search 28 years earlier: "I cannot get what I want to have (what belongs to me) because I cannot give (fully) what I have to give." He did have some awareness that something in him did not want him to physically and psychically well.

8. the last 15 years

In 1952's November, Marjorie and Jean made casual plans to go to New York for several days, visit friends and see a show. Fred Leighton, a student from the Chicago Gurdjieff group days, wrote that John G. Bennett, an Englishman who worked with Gurdjieff towards the end of the master's life, was beginning a series of lectures the very night of the Toomer's arrival. Jean attended the first lecture and received an overwhelming impression of Bennett's "inner freedom" and "quietly sustained feeling of joy" and "a level sensibly higher and much more stable than my own." Next day, when Toomer, Fred Leighton, and Gorham Munson met for lunch with Bennett, Jean learned that Gurdjieff, seven years before his death, had begun in 1942 to develop some rather specific teachings in Paris and trained several people to transmit them. Jean was irresistably drawn to catch up with what he had missed, to "be given another chance to be. To evolve. To become of use to myself and others."

He began immediately, learning voraciously from Bennett for the two weeks before the latter returned to London. Under the leadership of Mme. Jeanne de Salzmann, to whom Gurdjieff had given the care of The Work, some sixty people of the hundreds who applied were selected to meet regularly and learn more about the system. Toomer was in a group lead directly by Mme. de Salzmann and then Louise Welch, when de Salzmann returned to Paris. Welch, who had worked with Orage and Gurdjieff, and with Ouspensky, and Mme. Ouspensky at their center in Mendham, New Jersey.

Though Jean Toomer's health had often prevented him from attending nearby meetings of the Friends, he managed to travel to New York and Louise Welch's Gurdjieff meetings every week, without missing a meeting for six months. Toomer's work on combating mechanicalness in himself brought him by midsummer of1953 to some real insights: that in his earlier teaching he had lacked inner strength, unity, dependability, and that he lacked genuine understanding, though sometimes, as if by accident, real teaching happened through him. "There was the real thing - and, there was the mere role. And back and forth I'd pass, from the sincere ability into the pretense. . . Back and forth, with my awareness too sluggish to detect change from one to the other, most often."

To aid his insomnia, and problems with alcohol, Toomer learned a way to practice "deep relaxation" of the autonomic nervous system. When his health problems again began to sap his energy, he began, in December of 1953, to see Welch's doctor husband (also in the Gurdjieff Work) who correctly diagnosed the problem and healed him.

What resulted from this remarkable re-beginning was, according to Louise Welch, a time when there was a real change in both Jean and Marjorie: "Marjorie looked like a young girl," and both seemed young and happy after having regularly looking exhausted. It was at this time the Marjorie was invited to take part in Welch's Princeton meetings, and, for the first time, Marjorie was willing to be in a Gurdjieff group.

Jean resisted J. G. Bennett's early urgings for Toomer to lead Gurdjieff groups, and in the summer of 1954, he asked Mme. de Salzmann who agreed provided he only read : if anything more were to be done, he must ask someone else to help. From this, the seed of a group began meeting at Jean and Marjorie's home, later with the help of Louise and William Welch. In time he was assigning exercises individually. However, in 1957 Jean became too ill and the Welches moved to New York City. Thus, the Princeton and Doylestown Gurdjieff groups ended.

As Jean's health continued downward, he pulled more inward. Even his notes and journals, extraordinarily prolific, dried up at this time. Toomer's last literary effort (1953) was, at the request of William Welch, an account of his first visit to Fountainbleau. When, in 1958, John Bennett came to New York in order to lecture on a special method for only longtime Gurdjieff students, Toomer was too ill to attend. Reports on his final years claim an extreme negative personality was dominant. He died, at the age of 71, in 1967.

9. Summary

There is a saying I learned from a friend Hyak Charbel of his tumultuous youth in Beirut: "I against my brother. My brother and I against the neighborhood. I and my neighborhood against the Muslims. I and the Muslims against the world." It is shockingly sad to me to realize that most of humanity lives under a very similar rule and are proud, when conscious, of it. Jean Toomer attempted to reverse the rule. He believed he was a human first, then an American, then colored or Negro. In 1924 he says to his publisher, "Whatever statements I give will inevitably come from a synthetic human and art point of view; not from a racial one." His attempts to live as a human FIRST seems to have caused, in my opiniopn, myriads of critics to missinterpret his motivations as denial of his racial foundations.

I hope after reading the mini-biography above, you will view samples of his work. I drew on many sources for this web page, see the Toomer bibliography page, as well as my personal interest. Your study of Jean Toomer will not be complete unless you see photographs of Jean Toomer. For more complete details on the life of Jean Toomer and a wealth of photos, I suggest: The Lives of Jean Toomer (subtitled A Hunger for Wholeness ) by Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge. For an integrated and excellent, though fragmented, account of his connection with the Gurdjieff System read William Patrick Patterson's Struggle of the Magicians (subtitled Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship ).


Any suggestions or comments on its structure can be sent to me. Contact me. Please mention the name of this page in your letter. This is the Toomer page formerly on AOL.

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Notes:[Was Toomer's father Caucasion? See Note below on Jean Toomer's Father]

1. Jean Toomer's Father: From Lois K.  <MaAisha@aol.com>: I received the following, not yet verified, email about Jean Toomer's father:

Are you sure Toomer's father was Caucasian? He was the second husband of Amanda America Dickson (and she was his second wife), and in the book Woman of Color, Daughter of Priviledge by Kent Anderson Leslie, he is said to be mixed, as was Amanda. In fact, a Toomer genealogy chart is offered, giving his mother as Kit, a mulatto slave, father ?. Nathan Toomer had four children by his first wife Harriet, none by Amanda, and Jean by Nina Pinchback Toomer. He seems to have been something of an aristocratic con, at least with Nina. Amanda's life story will be the topic of a Showcase special on July 30 - A House Divided: the Life of Amanda America Dickson.

The Jean Toomer Pages

Jean Toomer Biography

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Jean Toomer's Poetry

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