Gurdjieff International Review

Jean Toomer

Ellen Reynard

J

ean Toomer was born in Washington, DC on December 26, 1894. A year after his birth, his father abandoned his family, and Jean was raised by his single mother until her death when he was fifteen, at which time he went to live with his grandparents. An African American, Toomer was educated at both black and white schools. He attended several Universities, studying a variety of subjects, but never earned a degree. When he left college and returned to Washington, he began his career as a writer. His most successful book, Cane,[1] published in 1923 when he moved to New York, focused on African Americans living in the rural South and the urban areas of the North. Well received by both black and white critics, Cane established Toomer as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. But in the years that followed, he sought to be known, not as a black writer, but as a writer and as an American.

While in New York, Toomer became interested in the teaching of Mr. Gurdjieff. In January 1924, he attended a series of demonstrations of the Gurdjieff Movements and lectures by Alfred Orage, where he encountered Mr. Gurdjieff himself for the first time. Toomer described his first view of his future teacher as follows:

His head was shaved. You could not miss the shape of it. His forehead was high and wide. His dark eyes looked. His nose was finely moulded [sic] and almost delicate in comparison to the strong jaw. And then his mustache, most unusual and large, curving down and sweeping up to the tips. His complexion was dark. He wore a tuxedo. . .

All of him came together. He was a unit, a unit of senseable [sic] but unknown power. As he moved around ... there was something panther-like about him.[2]

In the months that followed, Toomer attended Orage’s meetings, and that summer he went to Fontainebleau to work directly with Mr. Gurdjieff at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at the Prieuré. His timing was unfortunate, because when he arrived, Mr. Gurdjieff was recovering from his near fatal automobile accident and the atmosphere at the Prieuré was subdued. Nevertheless, he participated in the work there, and when Mr. Gurdjieff recovered enough to again make an appearance, Toomer had the opportunity to experience first-hand the work of the master.

Of this time, Toomer wrote, “Each day was a full day. Indeed, more effort and more experience were packed into a day at the Institute than in any ordinary month. It gave you a measure of man’s reserve power, a standard of human capacity.”[3] But soon, Mr. Gurdjieff announced that the Institute would close, though the Prieuré would remain open, and he began to write his magnum opus, All and Everything. At this point, Toomer returned to New York to continue his studies with Orage.

Soon Orage encouraged Toomer to start a group in Harlem among the white and black intelligentsia of the time. Toomer was extremely successful in attracting a large following of writers, artists and activists, with whom he worked for a year. He then turned his attention to the possibility of establishing a Western branch of Gurdjieff’s Institute in Taos, New Mexico, where a wealthy Orage pupil and patron of the arts named Mabel Dodge Luhan lived. Luhan advanced a large sum of money to Toomer for the project, and when he reported this income to Mr. Gurdjieff, he was instructed to send the funds directly to France for the Prieuré. Toomer sent most of the money to Gurdjieff, and held back some of it to fund the publication of Mr. Gurdjieff’s writing. This financial arrangement was the root of a tragic misunderstanding between Toomer and Mr. Gurdjieff which eventually was the primary cause of the break between them in the 1930s.

After a second visit to the Prieuré in 1926, on the suggestion of Mr. Gurdjieff, Toomer moved to Chicago to establish a group there. He gave a series of lectures, and once again succeeded in attracting a large following, including the poet Mark Turbyfill, the dancer Diana Huebert, and Fred Leighton, a successful importer of Southwestern and Mexican textiles, pottery and jewelry.

Toomer’s unique style of speaking and responding to questions, in which he would make long pauses between sentences as he gathered his thoughts, earned him the nickname of “Half an Hour Toomer” from Mr. Gurdjieff. Toomer also had a strong appeal, particularly to women, and was therefore able to attract a large number of people to his talks.

The five Chicago years were a productive time for Toomer as a writer, when he wrote four plays, four novels, a collection of short stories, countless poems and essays, and his autobiography. But Cane remained his only success during his lifetime; he was unable to find publishers for any of his Chicago work, and for his writings in subsequent years.

The Chicago group languished when Toomer traveled, as he did often, making two more trips to the Prieuré in 1927 and 1929, but in spite of that, new people continued to come. One of these pupils, the writer Margery Latimer, invited Toomer and members of the Chicago group to her home in Portage, Wisconsin. For several months in the summer of 1931, under Toomer’s leadership, a small group of men and women lived together with the aim, in Toomer’s words, “to explore the individual’s ability to break away from behavioral patterns that by cultural expectations or by personal habit had constrained human potential”[4] This modern experiment in communal living caused more than raised eyebrows among the neighbors.

During that summer, Toomer and Latimer fell in love and were married that fall. Margery became pregnant, knowing that she had a heart condition. She died giving birth to their daughter, little Margery.

Two years later, Toomer married the photographer, Marjorie Content. They had no children of their own and together they raised Toomer’s daughter Margery.

In the years following, Toomer’s relationship with Mr. Gurdjieff became more and more strained, and in 1936 Toomer cut off completely from his former teacher. He went on to teach the Gurdjieff ideas on his own, writing and lecturing extensively. During this time, at his and Marjorie’s home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Toomer again experimented with conditions of communal living duplicating those of the Prieuré which he had experienced in the 1920s. His health having begun to deteriorate, Toomer brought the experiment to an end in the early 1940s. At that time, he put aside his teaching and he and Marjorie began to attend Quaker meetings in Doylestown.

In 1952, Toomer returned to the Gurdjieff Work through the Bennett lectures in New York City. He became part of a group in New York led by Jeanne de Salzmann, then by Louise Welch in Princeton, New Jersey, which he attended until 1957.

During the following years, Toomer’s health continued to fail as he suffered from kidney disease that eventually resulted in the removal of one kidney. Towards the end of his life, his remaining kidney failed, and suffering also from severe arthritis in his back, and stomach and gallbladder problems resulting from alcohol and drug abuse, he died on March 30, 1967.

Jean Toomer’s lifelong struggle with himself is well documented in his writings, most of which remain unpublished, and are accessible in special collections in the libraries of Yale and Fisk Universities. Of his literary output and how that related to the influence of Gurdjieff, Rudolph Byrd has written, “it is in Gurdjieff’s theories on human development that Toomer discovered the ‘intelligible scheme’ that gives precision structure and authority to his ‘ideal of Man,’ and it is only through these theories that the large body of work Toomer produced after Cane can be understood.”[5]

Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge, in their definitive and respectful biography, The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness, sum up his impact as follows:

Blessed with powerful gifts and bound with a special set of physical, psychological, and cultural chains, Jean Toomer freely took on himself the task of breaking those chains and broke himself in the striving, leaving all about him luminous fragments of life.[6]

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Ellen Reynard, former editor at Parabola Magazine, has been in the Gurdjieff work her whole life. She currently lives in Nevada City, California where she is a member of the Sierra Gurdjieff Study Group.


[1] Jean Toomer, Cane (1923) New York: Boni & Liveright.

[2] Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge, The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness (1987) Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, p. 127.

[3] Toomer Collection, Fisk University, Nashville, TN, Box 67, Folder No. 3.

[4] Jean Toomer, “Portage Potential,” p. 10. A summary of the day-to-day proceedings and a description of lectures given by Katherine Green in taped interviews by Robert Twombly, March 21–22, 1975, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison.

[5] Rudolph P. Byrd, Jean Toomer’s Years with Gurdjieff: Portrait of an Artist 1923–1936 (1990) Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, p. xv.

[6] Ibid, The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness, p. 392.

 

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Featured: Spring 2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (2)
Revision: October 1, 2019