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American poet and novelist Jean Toomer was born of mixed racial and ethnic decent in 1894. He spent most of his childhood life in an affluent white section of Washington, which had lower rates of racial prejudice.(Andrews, Foster & Harris 397-398). He attended both all white and all black segregated schools in his childhood years. During his early days, he resisted racial classifications. He insisted to be identified only as an American after attending to an all black school in Washington D.C. then he attended New Rochelle N.Y and then an all black in Washington D.C.another time. Between 1914 and 1917, he attended six institutions of higher learning. He attended Massachusetts college of Agriculture, the American College of Physical training in Chicago, University of Chicago, New York University and City College of New York (Toomer & Rusch xxi). He studied agriculture, biology, history and sociology, but despite all the studies, he did not complete a degree. His direction in his writing was shaped by the readings he undertook and the lectures that he attended during his college years. He published short stories, devoted some times to study Eastern philosophies and became a principle in Sparta Georgia. As a result of the segregation, that he experienced in the southern parts made him identify himself more as an African American. He continued in his work until his death in 1967.
His work is one of the most respected literary collections of the Harlem renaissance period. This is a period in the 1920’s, which experienced a flowering of the American culture. He published many essays, poems and stories in small press periodicals in his more than thirty years of his writing, but he never sold any other book to a commercial publisher.
In 1923, he published the novel Cane that revolved around the origins and the experiences of the blacks in the United States of America. The novel structure included narrative prose, poetry and play like passages of dialogue. This novel is classified as composite novel. The novel has a nontraditional structure, which made it make great impacts on the future generations of writers helped gain the status of high modernism novel. The novel depicts themes such as slavery, sexuality and has the main theme of self-identity (Brennan 30-31). His work is praised for the use of symbol and myth and its experimentation in language and form. The novel is also an important work of the Harlem Renaissance and the lost generation. Despite this praises that he received from the novel he never matched that success in his later works.
The work is subdivided into three sections, which reflect his impressions of African American life in both rural south and the urban neighborhoods of Washington D.C. and Chicago. He employs structure compared to musical composition especially gospel and blues music. He uses this musical structure in unifying the various pieces in Cane with recurring themes and motives. (Jones 70-71). He interweaves six stories with twelve poems with imagery drawn from nature in order to create lyrical and mystical portraits of six southern women. The women convey the essence of the southern life, which was later encroached cultural change (Andrews, Foster & Harris 397-398).
In his work, he succeeds in illustrating dignity as well as the pain and the suffering that these people. He also shows how the people in the urban environments of Washington D.C. and Chicago have become spiritually bankrupt. This was as a result of abandoning their natural heritage and adapted to the stifling values of the society (Scruggs & VanDemarr 214-215). His work is criticized for being more of a lyrical, passionate and artistic creation. His work did not have strident reformist doctrine, as were many works of Harlem Renaissance writers. Most of his short fiction works are criticized for lack of passion and insight.