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Jean Toomer papers

Call Number: JWJ MSS 1

Scope and Contents

The Jean Toomer Papers contain correspondence; multiple drafts of unpublished books, essays, and other writings; and personal papers documenting the life of Jean Toomer. The papers span the years 1898-1963, but the bulk of the material dates from 1920-1954. Unfortunately, few manuscripts from Toomer's Harlem Renaissance period are preserved. Instead the papers are primarily drafts of his later, philosophical writings. Related papers written by his first wife, Margery Latimer, and transcripts of lectures given by his spiritual mentor, Georges Gurdjieff, as well as typescript drafts of Gurdjieff's Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson can also be found in the collection. The Jean Toomer Papers were donated to The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library by Marjorie Content Toomer in 1980 and transferred to Yale in 1985-88 from Fisk University, where they had been on deposit since 1962. Most of the papers were stamped, numbered, labelled, and annotated with dates and names at Fisk University.

Most drafts in the collection were written on highly acidic paper and are in poor condition. Preservation photocopies have been made of all fragile correspondence, notes, and final drafts. Newspaper clippings have also been copied.

Series I, Correspondence (Boxes 1-10) is divided into two sections: Jean Toomer and Margery Latimer Toomer. The correspondence of Jean Toomer includes letters from Margery Latimer Toomer, as well as letters to and from Marjorie Content Toomer. Correspondence from his mother, Nina Pinchback Toomer, contains a transcript of her letter to Nathan Toomer in 1897 asking for a divorce (Box 8, folder 262). Letters from Rachel Latimer Jones, Harry Content, James and Susan Loeb (Marjorie's children by her first husband, Harold Loeb), and other Latimer and Pinchback relatives are also found in the collection.

Waldo Frank was Toomer's literary mentor during the writing of Cane. Frank wrote the foreword (Box 26, folder 606) and handled the book's publication through Boni & Liveright. His correspondence and friendship with Toomer ended in 1924 after Toomer had an affair with Frank's wife, Margaret Naumburg. During this same period, 1920-24, Toomer's poems were accepted by such "little magazines" as The Double Dealer, The Liberator, The Little Review, and Broom, and he was discovered by Sherwood Anderson, Paul Rosenfeld, and Gorham Munson, all of whom became close friends and lifelong correspondents. Other literary and artistic correspondents include Melville Cane (Margaret Naumburg's brother-in-law), Hart Crane, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Alfred Stieglitz.

Before Toomer renounced his black identity, he corresponded with a few black writers such as Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois. He also contributed to black causes like Langston Hughes's defense of the Scottsboro boys (Box 4, folder 111) and the Writers' League Against Lynching (Box 9, folder 284).

From 1924-31, Toomer's center of gravity was the ideas and work of Georges Gurdjieff (Box 3, folder 96). There are no letters in Gurdjieff's hand, but his staff sent Toomer English typescripts of chapters from Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson to read to his Chicago Gurdjieff group and constantly asked him for money to maintain the Institute at Fontainebleau. Toomer's final break with Gurdjieff in the 1930s, in fact, was over money. In 1926 Mabel Dodge Luhan gave Toomer $14,000 to start a Gurdjieff center in Taos. Gurdjieff instructed Toomer to send the money to Fontainebleau instead, and there was a mix-up over the final two thousand dollars of the gift. According to Toomer's May 26, 1933 letter, the money "no longer exists." Other Gurdjieff disciples with whom Toomer corresponded include A. R. Orage, who was Gurdjieff's contact in New York; John G. Bennett, whose lectures on Gurdjieff in 1952 were responsible for Toomer's return to the movement; and Bernard Metz, a member of Ouspensky's London group. The rest of Toomer's Gurdjieff contacts were members of his two Gurdjieff groups: Dorothy Peterson from the Harlem group, Fred and Lucy Leighton, Caroline Bliss, Clare McLure, Elise Bunnell, Douglas and Berta Campbell, Evelyn Hood, Yvonne, Charles and Katherine Dupee, Max and Shirley Grove, Maxine Mitchell, and Jeremy and Betty Lane from his Chicago group. Most group members became close personal friends.

In 1940 Toomer joined the Society of Friends and remained active through the early fifties. He participated in four local Pennsylvania committees, including the Social Service Committee. On December 26, 1941, when asked by the Committee on Race Relations to outline the work his committees had done in the field of race relations, he responded, "[we] maintain friendly and helpful relations with negroes and members of other minority groups...there seems to be no acute racial problem in our community" (Box 7, folder 233). He also served on the Ministry and Counsel Committees of Bucks County Quarterly Meeting (1943-48) and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (1943-45, 1947-51), on the Religious Life Committee (1945-47), led workshops for Young Friends at General Conferences (1942-48), and lectured extensively to Friends groups. Most Quaker correspondence is arranged chronologically in ten folders under the heading Society of Friends. Rufus M. Jones, S. Rowland Morgan, and Denver Lindley have their own folders, as does the Friends Intelligencer.

Toomer's personal life was as interesting and varied as his public life. His first love was Mae Wright, a black teenager from Baltimore, to whom he wrote on August 4, 1922, about the tyranny of the Anglo-Saxon ideal: "we who have Negro blood in our veins, who are culturally and emotionally the most removed from Puritan tradition, are its most tenacious supporters" (Box 9, folder 283). After his affair with Margaret Naumburg came to an end in 1926, he became enamoured of Edith Taylor, an interior decorator, followed by two young socialites, Bay Meyers from Toronto and Emily Otis from Chicago.

Others with whom he corresponded include Mabel Dodge Luhan, Felix Greene, Harrison Smith, and Eugenia Walcott. General files contain letters of William Butler Yeats, Madame Ouspensky, and Margaret Mead.

Margery Latimer Toomer's correspondence consists primarily of carbons of letters by her and are arranged according to the names her correspondents used before 1932. Katherine Green, for example, later married Toomer's friend Charles Dupee, but is listed under her maiden name. The bulk of Margery's letters were written to her parents and to her good friend Meridel Le Sueur, to whom she complained about her domineering sponsor, Zona Gale, and praised her future husband, Jean Toomer. Toomer prepared Margery's letters for publication after her death. They are arranged chronologically in "The Letters of Margery Latimer" found in Boxes 34-35.

The bulk of the collection (Boxes 11-59) holds Writings, which are divided into seven subseries. The first subseries, Autobiographical Writings, includes both book-length and short autobiographical material. The manuscripts are arranged alphabetically by title, but concern three areas of Toomer's life: his racial background, his family upbringing, and his spiritual development. "Autobiographical Sketch" and the privately printed pamphlet, A Fiction and Some Facts, are two short essays that record Toomer's attitude toward his racial background. A longer, more complete account is contained in "On Being an American," which he discontinued November 19, 1934, because he realized he "could not really convey the part without conveying the whole, so interrelated is everything" (Box 20, folder 512). In January 1935, he began "Book X," in which he describes his family with the same language he used in "On Being an American." "Book X" also tells about his discovery of Gurdjieff. His 1936 untitled autobiography found in Box 22, folders 557-61 also contains information about his educational background.

The remaining six drafts concern either his family upbringing or his spiritual development. "Outline of the Story of the Autobiography" describes his youth and gives a good overview of the material covered in "Earth Being" and later in "Incredible Journey." Each of the eight books in the "Outline" is devoted to particular periods of his life from birth until 1930. "Earth Being," which concerns Toomer's formative years, is divided into three books: "The Book of Being," "The Book of Parents," and "The Book of Washington and Bacon Steet, 1894-1906." In 1941 this manuscript was revised and expanded as "Incredible Journey." The third book of "Earth Being," for example, appears as chapter II of "Incredible Journey" under the title, "Book of Garden, 1894-1906." The rest of "Incredible Journey" contains notes and draft fragments for five other chapters covering the period 1906-30.

Toomer had a mystical experience in 1926 while waiting for the train in New York City after which he lived for two weeks in a state of higher consciousness. Twelve years later he tried to describe this spiritual state in "From Exile into Being." Like his other drafts, "From Exile into Being" was rejected for publication. One reader report states, "This is a very dangerous book," while another says, "he repeats and repeats to the point of tedium" (Box 17, folder 472). In his 1943 revision of the manuscript entitled "The Second River," Toomer tightens the language, nearly cutting the manuscript in half, but it too was rejected. A completely different manuscript of "The Second River" (also called "Why I Entered the Gurdjieff Work") which describes the forces in Toomer's life that made him seek out and join the Gurdjieff movement, is filed in Box 22, folders 551-56.

The second subseries, Books, includes mostly unpublished novels; novellas; collections of aphorisms, essays, and letters; and fragments of unfinished books. Significantly different versions of books are listed separately, such as "Transatlantic" which was revised as "Eight-Day World" in 1933-35.

Toomer's first book-length work was Cane, which contains poems, short-stories, and one drama about Afro-American life in the rural South and in Washington, D. C. Early drafts of the short stories "Avey," "Bona and Paul," and "Rhobert," which were later incorporated into Cane, are filed with Short Stories (Box 57-58, folders 1335-36, 1371). Similarly, the poems "Beehive" and "Georgia Dusk," later added to Cane, can be found with Poetry (Box 55, folders 1263, 1275). Page proofs, corrections, and publication records are all that have survived of Cane.

In 1925 Toomer spent the summer with Paul Rosenfeld in Maine and wrote a novella, "York Beach," about the experience. It was later published in The New American Caravan. Other autobiographical events became subjects for his fiction. Crossing the Atlantic in 1929, for example, is the focus of "Transatlantic," which Toomer wrote in seventeen days at Gurdjieff's Chateau du Prieure (Box 42, folder 879). "Caromb," written in Carmel, California, after his marriage to Margery Latimer, is an idealized portrayal of their relationship, while "Portage Potential" is about their 1931 experiment in Portage, Wisconsin. Toomer's trip to India with his family in 1939 is the subject of "The Angel Begori," a fictionalized portrayal of his search for spiritual enlightenment. "Unholy" (Box 42, folder 886) and an untitled piece about "AJ" (Box 43, folder 907) are thinly disguised autobiographies about Toomer's early days.

After his immersion in Gurdjieff philosophy, Toomer tried writing aphorisms to sum up his spiritual wisdom and experience. His first collection of aphorisms and poems, called Essentials, was privately printed in 1931. A similar collection, "Remember and Return," was written in 1937, but not published. Toomer used Marjorie Content's transcripts of his conversations with a young house guest as another vehicle to transmit his Gurdjieff philosophy. During the summer of 1937, Peter Esherick stayed with the Toomers in Doylestown. Every afternoon over drinks, Toomer discussed such things as the higher levels of consciousness with Esherick. These talks became the basis of "Talks With Peter" (Box 41, folder 864), which was rejected by Norton, Dutton, and Macmillan. Shorter essays on the Gurdjieff philosophy are found in the Essays and Lectures subseries.

Toomer wrote his first book of essays concerning human values, race, and art in 1925 after returning from Fontainebleau. "Values and Fictions" marked the beginning of his Gurdjieff-style writing, which was never appreciated by publishers who were looking for sequels to Cane.

From 1935-40 he wrote several collections of psychological essays which he grouped under various titles: "As the World Revolves" (1935-37), "Psychologic" (1936), "Psychologic Papers" (1936-37), "A Way for a World" (1936-37), "Co-opposition" (1936-40), "A Book of Aims" (1937-38), and "The Possibilities of Human Growth." "As the World Revolves" was an attempt to address such issues as the man-woman relationship and education (Box 24, folder 586). Manuscript fragments for this work are arranged by date. Some pieces may also have been intended for inclusion in other books. "Psychologic" was probably an early version of "Psychologic Papers," his most complete collection of essays. Early drafts of "Psychologic Papers" are arranged alphabetically by title--"Art as a Means," "Labels and Realities," "Peas About to Pod," etc.--while later typescripts of these pieces are grouped as Toomer arranged them, by section or date. "A Way for a World" is grouped by chapter headings according to the table of contents. All unidentified loose fragments have been filed by date under "As the World Revolves." Essays in the three later collections--"Co-opposition," "A Book of Aims," and "The Possibilities of Human Growth"--have similar titles to "Psychologic Papers," although they contain new material.

Drama (Boxes 44-45), the third subseries of Toomer's Writings, covers a similar range of topics, from black culture in his early published plays, Balo and Natalie Mann, to Americans in India in one of his last plays, "The Colombo-Madras Mail." The characters in "The Gallonwerps," a dramatization of his novel by the same title (Boxes 32-34, folders 703-32), were probably modeled after members of his Chicago Gurdjieff group, while "The Sacred Factory" is a religious drama about life in the modern, mechanized world. After his break with Gurdjieff and marriage to Marjorie Content, Toomer spent the summer of 1935 in Taos where he wrote "A Drama of the Southwest." Many of the unidentified notes and drafts in Box 45, folder 939 were also written about this time and concern marriage and man's psychological development.

Essays and Lectures, the fourth subseries of the Writings series, is housed in Boxes 46-55. It contains outlines, notes, drafts, and printed copies of over 300 essays and lectures, covering the period 1922-54. The subseries has been divided into ten subjects which reflect many of Toomer's interests. Unidentified drafts and notes are filed at the end of each appropriate subject division.

Over 100 items concern the Society of Friends, including essays about or mentioning the Friends, lectures given to Friends groups (according to Toomer's annotations), and essays published in the Friends Intelligencer. For example, when Toomer taught the high school section of the 1944 General Conference at Cape May, the 250 members issued a goodwill statement "towards the young people of all groups, particularly the Negroes of our own country," which is preserved in Box 53, folder 1202. Perhaps his most important contribution to the Society was the William Penn Lecture which he delivered in 1949 at the Yearly Meeting in Philadelphia. Toomer's outline, draft, and published pamphlet for the lecture, "The Flavor of Man," is found in Box 53, folders 1174-75.

Toomer's involvement in the Gurdjieff movement is documented by the lectures which he gave in New York, Chicago, and Doylestown from 1936-37; by two Gurdjieff-style workshops he led in 1953-54 (Box 47, folder 981 and Box 48, folder 986); and by the essays he wrote about Gurdjieff, le Prieure, and Gurdjieff's teachings. Since most of Toomer's lectures are untitled, they have been arranged chronologically in Boxes 46-47, folders 955-80.

The ninety-odd essays about religious or psychological topics that do not mention the Friends or Gurdjieff and lectures that do not seem to have been given to Quaker or Gurdjieff groups are filed under the heading Psychology and Religion. They include pieces about male-female relationships (Box 49, folder 1036), free will (Box 48, folder 1016), religious awakenings (Box 49, folder 1048), and a newspaper article from the Carmel Pine Cone about the outcome of his psychological experiment in Portage "in which eight persons were placed in a three-room cottage for a scheduled period of two months" (Box 50, folder 1094). Also included are the texts of two sermons Toomer gave at Vassar (Box 50, folders 1070 and 1083), prayers (Box 50, folder 1071), and "Meditations" published in the New Mexico Sentinel in 1937. Two folders of untitled essays and unidentified notes, including quotations from Albert Einstein, Kant, Plotinus, and the Bhagavad Gita, complete the section.

Social history includes approximately twenty articles about Chicago, the 1933 World's Fair, war, advertising, Scott radios, and politics. "American Letter" in Box 51, folder 1127 is about the Hoover election.

A separate section contains nearly twenty titles concerning race relations. Most of the manuscripts seem to be notes and early drafts for prospective books on race relations, such as "The Individuals in America." "The Americans" may be an early draft for "A Crock of Problems," which Toomer condensed into an article entitled "Race Problems and Modern Society," published in Problems of Civilization. "Race & Homogeneity" is a study of the psychological causes of race problems, and "Thus It May Be Said" is Toomer's statement concerning the sensational press over his marriage to Margery Latimer.

The section on literature contains drafts of articles, such as "The South in Literature" about Cane and Waldo Frank's Holiday; printed articles in magazines, such as The Little Review, in which Toomer comments unfavorably on Kenneth Burke's writing (Box 48, folder 1004); and outlines of the eight lectures Toomer gave in 1930 about "The Psychology and Craft of Writing" (Box 48, folder 1007). A folder of unidentified fragments at the end of the section contains publicity for other lecture series, an untitled essay about the Harlem Renaissance, and notes on the writings of Yeats, Dante, and Dreiser. Essays about specific books are filed in Box 57 with reviews.

In the early 1920s Toomer's New York literary circle introduced him to Alfred Stieglitz and his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, who became lifelong friends. Paul Rosenfeld and Toomer often stayed with them at Lake George in their family house "The Hill." Toomer wrote an appreciative essay about Stieglitz which was published as "The Hill" in America and Alfred Stieglitz. There are three other essays about Stieglitz in the collection.

The remaining dozen essays are about Doylestown (Pennsylvania), India and China, and New Mexico.

The Poetry subseries follows in boxes 55-56. It contains drafts of Toomer's poems, one large collection called "The Wayward and the Seeking," a printed 1938 Christmas greeting (Box 56, folder 1285), and a few magazines of published poems. Only one quarter of the poems contained in "The Wayward and the Seeking" appear elsewhere in the subseries. In the early 1930s, Toomer planned to write another collection of poetry and prose called "Navarin." Only the preface is found with the papers (Box 56, folder 1287). A part of "Blue Meridian," probably Toomer's best-known poem, was published in the winter 1932 issue of Pagany as "Brown River Smile." In 1936 Paul Rosenfeld included the entire manuscript in the last American Caravan. Various drafts of the poem and notes for a prospective collection entitled "The Blue Meridian and Other Poems" can also be found in Box 55, folders 1264-65. Tables of contents for other planned collections have been placed at the beginning of the subseries in a folder of notes (Box 55, folder 1260) and unidentified drafts of poems are filed at the end (Box 56, folder 1309).

Reviews (Box 57), the sixth subseries, contains Toomer's reviews of books and plays, including The Vegetable by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It reflects Toomer's early interest in such writers as D. H. Lawrence, Lola Ridge, and Zona Gale and his collaboration with Paul Rosenfeld, Waldo Frank, and Gorham Munson. Toomer's review of Munson's book Waldo Frank: A Study, for example, is corrected in Munson's hand (Box 57, folder 1327). In the 1940s and 1950s, his taste changed to more religious authors, such as Gerald Heard and the writings of psychotherapists like John G. McKenzie.

The Writings series ends with three boxes of Short Stories. They include early drafts of "Avey," "Bona and Paul," and "Rhobert" and printed versions of "Fern," "Karintha," and "Kabnis," all of which were published in Cane. "Withered Skin of Berries," written in the same style as Cane, is found in Box 59, folder 1397. During his Chicago period, Toomer combined his early lyricism and Gurdjieffian thought to produce two collections of short stories: "Lost and Dominant" and "Winter on Earth and Short Stories." Three unidentified stories about Old Moses (a Negro farmer), New York City, and Martin Jones, the Mad King from Seattle, are filed at the end of the subseries (Box 59, folder 1398-99).

The Family Papers series contains over six boxes of Jean Toomer's personal papers, nearly two boxes of Margery Latimer Toomer's writings, and two folders of Bismark Pinchback's journals and poems. Uncle Bismark, who studied medicine briefly at Yale and later graduated from Howard University, first stimulated Toomer's interest in literature and art. A journal Bismark wrote in his early thirties containing "essays, letters, dreams, verse, and short stories" as well as a few loose poems comprise his personal papers found with the collection.

Approximately two-thirds of the Jean Toomer subseries consists of his journals. Those from 1920-26 contain notes on his reading of poetry (Box 60, folder 1411), P. D. Ouspensky (Box 60, folder 1412), and Herman Melville (Box 60, folder 1417); notes on friends, such as Hart Crane (Box 60, folder 1415), Georgia O'Keeffe, and Alfred Stieglitz (Box 60, folders 1413-14); and the result of the Gurdjieff work (Box 60, folder 1416).

Notebooks that do not relate to a specific writing were placed with Toomer's journals; however, a few have notes for books. His "autobiography" notebook (Box 61, folder 1420), for example, contains notes for "Transatlantic" and "Earth Being." His "Paris" notebook from the same 1929-30 period also considers the problems of an interracial marriage with Emily Otis (Box 61, folder 1419).

From 1935-41 Toomer faithfully recorded his daily thoughts, most of which are incorporated into journal-like books such as "Psychologic Papers." The rest are filed with his journals, including notes for a book called "The Self Behind Me" (Box 61, folder 1422) and a "psychological diary" for April-May 1938 (Box 61, folders 1427-32). There is also a notebook about his trip to India in 1939 (Box 62, folder 1435) and a few dated prayers from 1946-47 (Box 62, folder 1441).

In 1949 Toomer began Jungian analysis. Notes about his dreams and daily events, including the death of Gurdjieff, are filed with his journals from 1949-50 (Boxes 62-63, folders 1442-55). In the fall of 1950 he began studying dianetics. Four of his dianetic notebooks, in which he "audited" participants (Box 63, folders 1456-59), and seven case books (Box 64, folders 1461-67) are found with his journals. Toomer's journals also include notes on his physical condition from 1951-52 (Box 64, folders 1460 and 1468).

From 1953-54, Toomer attended Gurdjieff group meetings in New York. Many of his loose journal notes from these years are about these meetings, as well as the relaxation techniques he learned from John G. Bennett.

Some of his undated journals contain notes about New Mexico (Box 65, folder 1482), additional reading lists (Box 65, folder 1483), ideas for short stories (Box 64, folder 1480), and a list of the important men and women in his life (Box 64, folder 1479).

The rest of Jean Toomer's personal papers are arranged alphabetically by type of material or subject. School papers (Boxes 65-66, folders 1498-1504), a college scrapbook (Box 66, folder 1505), and a 1917 yearbook (Box 66, folder 1510) concern Toomer's formative years. Newspaper clippings discuss his literary career and marriage to Margery Latimer. There is also a folder of clippings about Toomer's friend Charles Dupee, whose wife filed for divorce after Dupee's participation in the Portage experiment (Box 60, folder 1406). A chalk drawing of Toomer as the Black Prince (Box 74, folder 1643), his 1924 membership certificate in the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man (Box 60, folder 1404), an agreement to practice as a dianetics auditor (Box 65, folder 1485), and four folders of photographs complete the subseries.

The Margery Latimer Toomer subseries of Family Papers contains primarily drafts and printed versions of her short stories, as well as a few photographs, newspaper clippings concerning her writings and tragic death, and a journal in which she mentions Katherine Mansfield, A. R. Orage, and Waldo Frank. In "The Ship," a story about the Portage experiment, Margery characterizes Jean as Chief Officer Navigass. Untitled drafts and unidentified fragments are filed at the end. The piece which begins, "Live in my body, O my town and my people!" is about her "perfect marriage" to Jean Toomer (Box 67, folder 1535).

The Related Papers series (Boxes 68-70) contains nearly two boxes of papers generated by Georges Gurdjieff, reports and publications of the Society of Friends that do not belong elsewhere, a box of Subject Files containing newspaper articles divided into ten subjects, and Writings of Others. The Gurdjieff material includes transcripts of some of his lectures from 1921-44, typed drafts from his book Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, including Toomer's notes (Box 68, folder 1551), a scenario for a ballet (Box 69, folder 1564), reviews of his other writings, Toomer's compilation of Gurdjieff's sayings (Box 68, folder 1546), and a pamphlet on the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. Also included are papers from three of Gurdjieff's disciples: John G. Bennett, A. R. Orage, and Toomer. Toomer's folder contains organizational information, such as membership lists of his groups in New York and Chicago.

The Society of Friends subseries contains odd issues of the Friends Intelligencer; pamphlets by Douglas V. Steere, Howard E. Collier, and others; and articles about Friends in Time and in Philadelphia newspapers. It also contains reports, newsletters, and articles on military training, peace, and nonviolence (Box 69, folder 1574).

The Subject Files reflect Toomer's lifelong interests in art and architecture, education, India, New Mexico, psychology and religion, science, social history, and World War II. A folder on literature primarily contains reviews of books by contemporary authors. Another on race relations contains articles on Jews as well as Negroes.

The last subseries, Writings of Others, contains manuscripts of literary friends like Hart Crane and Mabel Dodge Luhan, the writing assignments of students such as Caroline M. Bliss and Nadja Williams, newsletters from his Gurdjieff disciple, Jeremy Lane, and fiction by other friends including Fritz Peters. Interfiled with Morris's typescript on numerology is Toomer's analysis of his family and friends (Box 70, folder 1598).

Printed Works, the final series in the original accession, contains miscellaneous issues of magazines, books, pamphlets, and newsletters collected by Toomer. They cover topics ranging from raising pigeons to baseball. Publications include a pamphlet about Edgar Cayce and a brochure on the Walden School in New York, which was founded by Margaret Naumburg. Two printed works are inscribed to Margery Latimer or Jean Toomer by their authors: From Negro to Caucasin by Louis Baldwin and Black Man and White Ladyship by Nancy Cunard. The rest of the material is arranged alphabetically by author or title in Boxes 71-72.


  • 1898-1963 (inclusive)
  • Majority of material found within 1920 - 1956


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Restricted Fragile Papers in boxes 75-92 may only be consulted with permission of the appropriate curator. Preservation photocopies for reference use have been substituted in the main files.

Conditions Governing Use

The Jean Toomer Papers are the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Marjorie Content Toomer, 1980. The Toomer Papers were deposited at Fisk University in 1962, microfilmed by Fisk, were transferred to Yale University, 1985-88, and were processed at Beinecke Library 1987-88.

January 2022 acquisition: Transferred from the John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Fisk University, 2022.


43.50 Linear Feet (102 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The papers contain correspondence, drafts of unpublished books, essays, and other writings, together with personal papers documenting Toomer's life, primarily after his Harlem Renaissance period, and papers on Marjory Latimer Toomer. Correspondents include Charles Dupee, Waldo Front, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Margaret Naumberg, and Russell S. Walcott.

JEAN TOOMER, 1894-1967

After Jean Toomer became a leading literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance in 1923 with the publication of Cane, he turned to spiritual pursuits. These included attending Georges Gurdjieff's institute at Fontainebleau and later spreading the Russian-born spiritualist's teachings to groups in New York and Chicago from 1924-31, maintaining a long association with the Society of Friends from 1938-61, undergoing Jungian analysis from 1949-50, exploring dianetics in 1950-51, and returning to the Gurdjieff movement in 1953. He continued to write philosophical works during this period of self-development, but few were published. Essentials, a collection of aphorisms and poems, was privately printed in 1931.

Toomer was born Nathan Pinchback Toomer in Washington, D. C., on December 26, 1894, to Nathan and Nina Pinchback Toomer. When his father deserted the family less than a year later, he and his mother moved in with his famous grandfather, P. B. S. Pinchback, the son of a white planter and a mulatto former slave, who had briefly served as the governor of Louisiana. His family changed Toomer's first name to Eugene, after his godfather Eugene Laval. Although they lived in a white section of Washington, Toomer was sent to "colored" schools. From 1914-17, he attended the American College of Physical Training in Chicago, New York University, and City College of New York without taking a degree.

Except for a brief period during his mid-twenties when he was a clerk for the grocery firm of Acker, Merrill, and Condit Company and a substitute principal at the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute in Georgia, Toomer never held a formal job. Instead he devoted his life to writing, teaching, and lecturing. When he turned twenty-five, Eugene Pinchback Toomer changed his name to Jean after such literary heroes as Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean and Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe. Twenty years later he assumed the pen name of Nathan Jean Toomer or N. Jean Toomer, though he was called Jean by most of his family and friends throughout his life.

Toomer drew upon his Negro background and brief experience as principal of the all-black school in Georgia to write Cane. On September 29, 1923, his friend Countee Cullen wrote, "It's a real race contribution, a classical portrayal of things as they are." But as Toomer became more involved in the Gurdjieff philosophy, he resented being labelled a black writer. When James Weldon Johnson tried to include his work in a revised edition of The Book of American Negro Poetry, Toomer wrote on July 11, 1930, "My poems are not Negro poems...I see myself an American, simply an American." His racial affiliation, in fact, was an issue that haunted Toomer for the rest of his life. He continued to maintain that he was neither black nor white, but a member of a new race, a race of Americans. He wrote about this race in his only book on the subject, "The Crock of Problems."

On October 30, 1931, he married the successful writer Margery Latimer after they summered together in Portage, Wisconsin, at an experimental workshop for group living and self-observation. Their Gurdjieff-style experiment and interracial marriage received extensive adverse publicity. Margery died in 1932 after giving birth to their daughter, Margery Latimer Toomer ("Argie"). In 1934 Toomer married Marjorie Content, the white daughter of a wealthy stockbroker. They lived briefly in New York and Taos, New Mexico, before residing in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where Jean Toomer died on March 30, 1967.

Guide to the Jean Toomer Papers
by Karen V. Peltier
January 1988
Description rules
Beinecke Manuscript Unit Archival Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

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