Skip to main content
Select Source:

Toomer, Jean 1894–1967

Jean Toomer 18941967

Author of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry

At a Glance

Inspired to Write Cane

Turned from Literature to Gurdjieff

Later Years

Selected writings


Jean Toomer, a writer of mixed racial heritage, was a complex and often misunderstood figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Although he frequently evaded the question of his racial identity, his initial fame in literary circlesfor the 1923 novel Cane was based largely on his reputation as an African American author who held great promise for changing the way white America viewed black artists.

Toomers grandfather, Pinckney B. S. Pinchback, was the son of a white plantation owner and Eliza Stewart, a former slave of mixed race, possibly including African and Native American blood. Pinchback didnt hesitate to identify himself as black and, in fact, made that identity very much a part of his career: by the 1860s, Pinchback had a broad public reputation as a black politician, including a brief career as the first black governor in the United States. Toomers mother, Nina, was Pinchbacks only daughter; his father, Nathan, was variously reported as English, Dutch, Spanish, African, and Native American. Toomers biographers, Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge, recorded Nathan and Ninas marriage license as listing both parents as colored.

Jean, legally named Nathan Pinchback Toomer, was born December 26, 1894, in Washington D.C., where Pinchback had moved his family in 1892. Nathan Toomer vanished as soon as financial problems set in, and Nina and her baby boy moved back into her fathers home. For much of his early childhood, Jean was an adventurous and assertive child, ruling the neighborhood gang with confidence. He attended the Garnet School, an elementary school for black students, where he threw crayons and erasers around, rolled inkwells up the aisles, sent notes, and teased the girls, according to Kerman and Eldridge in The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness. Straddling both the black and white worlds, Toomer was separated from his neighborhood crowd when he was at school, since the other families on his street in the nations capital were generally of white immigrant stock.

In 1905during a period he later described in one of his autobiographical pieces as a dark night streaked with nightmaresToomer experienced a year of illnesses that put him behind in school and toppled him from the leadership position among his neighborhood buddies. As he withdrew and became a solitary child, his enthusiasm for reading and study was nurtured by his Uncle Bismarck, a studious member of the Pinchbacks extended family. Toomer later recalled this time as a significant turning point in his life: I had been active

At a Glance

Born Nathan Pinchback Toomer, December 26, 1894, in Washington, DC; died March 30, 1967, in Doylestown, PA; son of Nathan and Nina (Pinchback) Toomer; married Margery Latimer (a writer), October 30, 1931 (died August 16, 1932); married Marjorie Content, September 1, 1934; children: Margery (with Latimer). Education: Attended University of Wisconsin, 1914; American College of Physical Education, Chicago, 1916; University of Chicago, 1916; City College of New York and New York University, 1917.

Moved between New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC, 1915-21, working as a car salesman, an assistant librarian at City College of New York, and a physical education director at a settlement home; began writing occasionally during college years; temporary head of the all-black Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute in Georgia, 1921; wrote series of sketches, which later became Cane, 1922; began involvement with Gurdjieff Institute, 1923; continued writing, but rarely published after 1930; suffered malicious media attack over marriage to first wife, 1932; settled in Doylestown, PA, with second wife, 1936; traveled to India, 1939. Showed interest in a variety of philosophies and teachings, including psychoanalysis, Quakerism, and dianetics.

mainly externally. Now I could not be so. I gradually became active mainly internally and built up an inner world of my own in which intangible things were more real than tangibles.

When Toomers mother moved to New York and remarried in 1906, young Jean had a brief opportunity to rebound. In a white school in New Rochelle, he succeeded with his studies and built his physical strength back up. But in 1909 Nina died from advanced appendicitis, and Jean went back to his grandparents. They had moved to a different part of Washington, and he discovered there his first opportunity to live in a black neighborhood. Toomer described in an autobiographical work his enthusiasm for this worldan aristocracysuch as never existed before and perhaps never will exist again in Americamidway between the white and Negro worlds. For the first time I lived in a colored world.

Enrolled in Dunbar High School in 1910, Toomer found himself enthusiastic about a variety of subjects, sports, and his social group. He and his best friend, Henry Kennedy, cut school to read books and took long walks reading Shakespeare and Milton aloud; Kerman and Eldridge surmised that Jean had a growing sense of himself as different from the other students.

When he graduated from high school in 1914, college applications required that Toomer classify his race; he chose to identify himself as white or not to identify himself at all. He apparently feared the discrimination he might experience if he enrolled in any predominantly white college as a colored student. Entering the agriculture program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he found himself again enthusiastic about an active social life and sports, which he indulged in much more than his studies. He quit Wisconsin after a semester, briefly entertained the possibility of enrolling in a similar program at the University of Massachusetts in the fall of 1915, but instead took some time out in New York City.

In January of 1916 he started studies at the American College of Physical Education in Chicago; soon after, he also enrolled in the University of Chicago. He enjoyed the course of study, but again found his greatest excitement and education outside of any formal training. As Kerman and Eldridge noted, Jeans intellectual horizons were expanding to the point of explosion. He began attending lectures onamong other topicssocialism, naturalism, and atheism, and eventually gave several talks of his own.

Toomer eventually put aside work at both colleges, choosing instead to drift through a variety of less orthodox learning experiences. He moved between New York City, Chicago, and Washington D.C. In New York and Chicago he proved himself in various jobs, including stints as a car salesman and an assistant librarian at City College of New York. In D.C., he tended to live off of his grandparents, which he could do for only so long before his grandfathers obvious disappointment made him anxious and restless. Throughout it all, he was reading voraciously, developing a broad intellectual background, and even beginning to write his own pieces.

Inspired to Write Cane

His belief in himself as an author blossomed in 1920, when he met one of his most important friends and his first mentor, author Waldo Frank, at a literary party in New York. With Franks encouragement, Toomer devoted himself to his writing, returning to his grandparents apartment in Washington, D.C. to work. He very quickly produced reams of manuscripts, none of which, however, he wanted to submit for publication. He claimed in one of his autobiographical pieces: Before I had even so much as glimpsed the possibility of writing Cane, I had a trunk full of manuscripts. The phrase trunk full is often used loosely. I mean it literally and exactly.

Just when he was beginning to feel too exhausted to keep working, he was offered an opportunity for a change: he took a temporary position as the substitute head at the all-black Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute in Georgia. He remained through the fall of 1921, seeing for the first time in his life the world of rural African Americans; it was this discovery, ultimately, that inspired Toomer to write the sketches that would eventually become Cane, one of the landmark experimental texts of early twentieth-century American literature. In a letter to Frank, quoted in Brian Joseph Benson and Mabel Mayle Dillards Jean Toomer, he wrote: The visit to Georgia last fall was the starting point of almost everything of worth that I have done. I heard folk-songs come from the lips of Negro peasants. I saw the rich dusk beauty that I heard many false accounts about, and of which, till then, I was somewhat skeptical. And a deep part of my nature, a part that I had repressed, sprang suddenly into life and responded to them.

In July of 1922, Toomer collected the sketches into a book; Cane, which takes its name from the harvesting of sugar cane in the southern states, was accepted for publication by Horace Liveright on January 2, 1923, and appeared in bookstores the following September. An intriguing blend of poetry, short stories, and drama, Cane contrasts the black experience in the rural South with that of the urban North and offers powerful insights into the nature of human frustration, alienation, and spiritual disconnection. The book did not actually sell wellno more than 1,000 copiesbut it became, nonetheless, a highly acclaimed modern novel.

Not surprisingly, the book and its author were received as part of the then astronomical rise in black American intellectual and artistic output known since as the Harlem Renaissance. Toomers talent was applauded by leaders of the black community, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and Countee Cullen; Kerman and Eldridge pointed out that Du Bois, Locke, and others were urging him to make an even more fruitful race contribution. Nathan Irvin Huggins, who wrote the first comprehensive study of the Harlem Renaissance in 1971, described Cane as more than other contemporary novels by black authors a conscious exploration of Negro identity.

Many of the Cane fragments, as well as other poems and short stories by Toomer, soon appeared in literary reviews, including Dial, Liberator, Broom, and the Little Review. The first of these contributions appeared in April of 1922, when the Crisis, the official journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), published Song of the Son, which would later appear in Cane. In response to both Cane and his shorter works, many editors insisted on identifying the author as black or, to use the terminology of the time, Negro; Toomer soon began expressing his discomfort with this.

Toomers rejection of race classification is thought to have stemmed largely from his commitment to art and to his idea of a new American race. These feelings prevail in a 1923 letter to his publishers from which Kerman and Eldridge quote: I have told you to make use of whatever racial factors you wish. Feature Negro if you wish, but do not expect me to feature it in advertisement for you.Whatever statement I give will inevitably come from a sympathetic human and art point of view; not from a racial one.

It was only after he married Margery Latimer, a white novelist from a wealthy midwestern family, on October 30, 1931, that Toomer confronted the kind of bigotry that white America could visit on a person of color. The Toomers had settled quietly in Carmel, California, when Toomer granted an interview to a San Francisco reporter who he assumed was interested in his philosophical work; when the article appeared, however, he discovered that the paper considered his race much more importantand not in the way that the New York literati had. The story began appearing in syndicated articles around the country with headlines such as Negro Who Wed White Writer Sees New Racedespite the fact that Toomer had listed himself on his marriage license as white.

Toomers own relationship to an African American identity, apart from his political feelings about the black population in general, is described in a seven-page pamphlet called A Fiction and Some Facts. Although the original manuscript is undated, Kerman and Eldridge guess its origin at around 1937; Benson and Dillard, however, assume that it was written in 1932, soon after the publicity began concerning his marriage.

The author asserted in the pamphlet that his grandfather came of stock predominantly Scotch, Welsh and German, adding, I am not prepared to state as a fact that there was, or that there was not, some Negro or Indian blood in the family. He suggested that his grandfathers predominant identity as black was, more than anything else, political opportunism: Whereas others would have thought it to their disadvantage to claim Negro blood, Pinchback thought it to his advantage. Toomer is often quoted as having said: I am I, for better or worse. If Negro blood is among the bloods that make me what I am, then the Negro blood, along with others, shares in producing whatever virtues I may have, and also shares in producing whatever vices I may have. Later, he insisted, In biological fact I am, as are all Americans, a member of a new people that is forming in this country. If we call this people the Americans, then biologically and racially I am an American.

Turned from Literature to Gurdjieff

Nearly a decade prior to his first marriage, around the time of Canes publication in 1923, Toomers search for intellectual and emotional wholeness led him to the works and method of George Gurdjieff, a Russian philosopher living in France who had articulated a way to spiritual realization that had, by the late 1920s, won a sizable following in New York. A disciples involvement consisted of classes, many of which included reading, attendance at lectures, and physical exercises that appealed to Toomers earlier work in physical education. A number of teachers led the classes in New York; Kerman and Eldridge described their work: Each in his own way was teaching Gurdjieffs complex cosmological system through an experiential process by which people could work on themselves to attain more awareness of that system, true individuality, the development of a higher consciousness. Toomer subsequently withdrew almost completely from the literary circles in New York.

Soon after immersing himself in the system, Toomer envisioned himself as a teacher, a role that had appealed to him since his childhood as leader of his neighborhood gang. He traveled to Gurdjieffs Institute for Mans Harmonious Development in France (where the guru himself taught), first in the summer of 1924 and again in 1926, 1927, and 1929. During this time, Toomer also started several groups in the United States. He had the most success with a branch in the MidwestGurdjieff felt that his word needed to travel beyond New Yorkwhere he started a Chicago group in 1926.

The Chicago group survived through 1931, the same year that Toomer married for the first time. Margery Latimer Toomer died less than a year after their wedding, on August 16, 1932, after the birth of their child. Toomer never really tried to revive the Chicago group after this blow. He eventually returned to New York, where he met Marjorie Content in 1934; they were married on September 1 in Mexico. The couple settled on a farm, which they christened Mill House, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania in 1936. By this time, Toomer had broken with Gurdjieff, who kept requiring money for support from his disciples. Toomer himself earned little money, aside from an occasional fee for his lectures and infrequent publications. He avoided taking on any kind of regular work, instead devoting himself to his writing, which had again become prolific.

By 1927 Toomer was writing quite steadily again, producing essays, fiction, and poetry, as well as longer manuscripts, but even his fiction at that time was largely determined by his spiritual work with Gurdjieff. He consistently submitted the work to publishers, both book publishers and small journals, but only a fraction of what he was writing would make it into print. Toomer was aware that this kind of work was not what his publishers expected of him; they were anticipating a follow-up to Cane. But the increasingly abstract nature of his writings limited his potential audience. The last piece of work Toomer had published by a major publication during his lifetime was in 1936, when The New American Caravan printed Blue Meridian, a long poem that focuses on the concept of identity and offers a vision of a single, harmonious human race.

Later Years

Toomer and his second wife set up a Mill House imprint, a small, private publishing operation that allowed him to distribute some of his work in pamphlet form. He continued to lecture as well, but neither of these efforts brought his family a viable income; they tended to live, instead, off of gifts from her wealthy father. Jean still felt that it was his primary purpose in life to find the way and to realize his being-consciousness. After his break with Gurdjieff, he pursued spiritual work in his own writing and tried a few other systems. In 1939 he, along with his reluctant wife and daughter, traveled through India looking for a teacher who could reveal a true system of self-realization; he returned, unsuccessful, after five months. In the 1940s he believed that he had found his answer in a small Quaker church in their area, where he and Marjorie became involved with the Friends until 1948. He flirted briefly with Jungian psychoanalysis in 1949 and gave dianetics a try in 1951. Finally, he returned to the Gurdjieff method, which maintained him through the rest of his life.

In the late 1940s Toomer began experiencing physical ailments, particularly digestive difficulty and abdominal pains. He tried to address the problem through diet and psychoanalysis, but throughout the 1950s the complications simply worsened; other physical problems gradually attacked him as well. He was so incapacitated by 1957 that he had to relinquish all involvement in group meetings, including his own lecturing and teaching. After moving into a nursing home in 1965, he died two years later on March 30. Toomer never saw the revitalization of Cane, which began with its republication in 1969; the book won the kind of sales and broad public recognition that would have made his life much easier. Benson and Dillard have described the reputation of the novel during Toomers lifetime as one of those classics kept alive by word of mouth and sheer admiration on the part of readership. By 1980, however, with the release of several paperback editions, Cane was reaching a much larger audience, [was proving to be] a financially successful venture, and [was] once againbeginning to exert a wide influence on readers.

Selected writings


Cane (a novel comprised of poetry, short stories, and drama), Boni and Liveright, 1923.

The Gallonwerps (unpublished), 1927.

Transatlantic (unpublished), 1929.

Essentials, Lakeside Press, 1931.

Caromb (unpublished), 1932.

Short stories

Easter, Little Review, Spring 1925.

Mr. Costyve Duditch, Dial, December 1928.

Winter on Earth, The Second American Caravan, edited by Alfred Kreymborg, Macauley Company, 1928.

York Beach, The New American Caravan, edited by Alfred Kreymborg, Macauley Company, 1929.

Withered Skin of Berries, written in 1930, first published in The Wayward and the Seeking, 1982.


Song of the Son, Crisis, April 1922.

Bride of Air (unpublished), 1931.

Brown River Smile, Pagany, January-March 1932.

As the Eagle Soars, Crisis, April 1932.

Blue Meridian, The New American Caravan, edited by Alfred Kreymborg, Norton, 1936.


Oxen Cart and Warfare, Little Review, Autumn-Winter 1924-25.

Reflections, Dial, April 1929.

Race Problems and Modern Society, Man and His World, edited by Baker Brownell, D. Van Nostrand, 1929.

A Fiction and Some Facts, c 1930s.


Balo, in Plays of Negro Life, edited by Alain Locke and Montgomery Gregory, Harpers, 1927.

Autobiographical works

Autobiographical manuscripts are extensive and largely unpublished, except for the excerpts included in The Wayward and the Seeking, which also includes some previously unpublished stories and poems.

Values and Fictions: A Psychological Record, 1925.

Earth Being, 1930.

Autobiography, 1936.

Incredible Journey, 1945.

Outline of an Autobiography, 1946.



Benson, Brian Joseph, and Mabel Mayle Dillard, Jean Toomer, Twayne, 1980.

Black Literary Criticism, Gale, 1992.

Bone, Robert, The Negro Novel in America, revised edition, Yale University Press, 1965, pp. 65-94.

Bontemps, Arna, editor, The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, Dodd, Mead, 1972, pp. 51-62.

Huggins, Nathan Irvin, Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1971.

Kerman, Cynthia Earl, and Richard Eldridge, The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness, Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

Kramer, Victor A., editor, The Harlem Renaissance Reexamined, AMS Press, 1987.

McKay, Nellie Y., Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936, University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

ODaniel, Therman B., editor, Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation, Howard University Press, 1988.

Turner, Darwin T., editor, The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer, Howard University Press, 1982.


Black American Literature Forum, Fall 1987, pp. 253-73.

Crisis, February 1924, pp. 161-63; September 1924, pp. 204-10.

Southern Review, July 1985, pp. 682-94.

Ondine E. Le Blanc

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Toomer, Jean 1894–1967." Contemporary Black Biography. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Toomer, Jean 1894–1967." Contemporary Black Biography. . (December 12, 2017).

"Toomer, Jean 1894–1967." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from

Racine, Jean (1639–1699)

RACINE, JEAN (16391699)

RACINE, JEAN (16391699), French playwright and author. Racine was born in La Ferté-Milon, northeast of Paris. His parents died when he was very young, and he was therefore raised mostly by his maternal grandmother, Marie Desmoulins. As his mother's family had close connections with the Jansenists of Port-Royal, Racine came under their influence from an early age, and their rigorous Augustinian theology would be central to his work. After beginning his education at the Collège de Beauvais, he studied at the Petites Écoles de Port-Royal, where he absorbed both Jansenist doctrine and a solid classical education, becoming a particularly fine scholar of Greek. From 1658 Racine began to lead a more worldly life, rejecting his austere upbringing in favor of writing poetry and party-hopping with his cousin Nicolas Vitart, the writer of fables Jean de La Fontaine (also a distant relation), and other figures on the Parisian literary scene. His family sent him (16611663) to Uzès in an effort to make a churchman of him, but his letters from this time show us how little this sort of life appealed to him. By 1663 he was back in Paris, where he met Molière and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, and (despite criticism from his family) began to write for the theater.

Racine's first play to be produced was La Thébaïde (The Thebiad), which had its premiere on 20 June 1664, inspiring both popular and critical acclaim. This was followed by Alexandre le grand (1665), in whose preface Racine somewhat ungratefully repudiated his teachers at Port-Royal. The first few performances were given by Molière's theater company; then, however, Racine took both the play and its leading lady, Thérèse du Parc, away from Molière, and arranged for further performances to be given by the rival troupe of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, a move that Racine thought (correctly) would augment both his fame and his boxoffice receipts. Such machinations made Racine few friends, and indeed he seems to have been, at least in his professional life, a difficult man: vain, humorless, quick to take offense, and ungenerous toward fellow artists, even if his scathing attacks on his enemies were sometimes justified.

There followed Racine's first real masterpiece, Andromaque (1667, written for Du Parc); his only comedy, Les plaideurs (1668; The litigants); Britannicus (1669); Bérénice (1670); Bajazet (1672); and Louis XIV's personal favorite, Mithridate (1673, the year in which Racine was elected to the Académie Française). Du Parc having died in 1668, by 1670 Racine had joined the crowd of lovers of another leading actress, Marie de Champmeslé, for whom he wrote the title roles of Bérénice and his two last plays on classical subjects, Iphigénie en Aulide (1674) and Phèdre (1677). After Phèdre he suddenly abandoned the theater, probably less because of any spiritual crisis than because Louis XIV made him (with Boileau, one of the few friends Racine had managed to keep) his official historiographer. He married Catherine de Romanet, a distant relation by marriage, and settled down to a life as a respectable courtier and the devoted father of seven children. For the next twelve years Racine busied himself with his official duties, only returning to the theater in 1689 at the request of Louis's wife Madame de Maintenon, for whose girls' school at Saint-Cyr he wrote Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691). In 1695 he produced his Cantiques spirituels (Spiritual songs), and thereafter entered semi-retirement, interpreted by some as the result of falling from Louis's favor. After writing the Abrégéde l'histoire de Port-Royal (Summary of the history of Port-Royal), which was not published until 1767, Racine died on 21 April 1699.

Racine's theater uses extreme economy of means to generate an intensity of tragic feeling rivaled only by his classical Greek models and by Shakespeare. The unusually small vocabulary of the plays (just under 3,000 words) and his strict adherence to the three unities (codified by his rival Pierre Corneille) give his tragedies the sharpest possible focus. He is a poetic craftsman of the first order, and the austere, oblique elegance of his verse serves to heighten, through ironic contrast, the horror of his characters' torments. His themes and plots, too, while more varied than commonly supposed, are rigorously organized, and their inexorable unfolding shows how well he has absorbed both the theatrical technique and the tragic outlook of the Greeks; but the ruthlessness of his tragedy often surpasses even that of Sophocles or Euripides. This is because Racine adds to the tragic equation a harsh pessimism, derived from Jansenist theology, according to which humans are not merely liable to error, but doomed to self-destructive transgression. In the absence of redemptive grace, even the greatest and noblest souls are driven by their own passionsincestuous lust, hunger for power, murderous vengefulness, sadistic crueltyto crimes that destroy victim and perpetrator alike. Racine displays an almost clinical fascination with this process, especially as embodied in his tormented female protagonists. Of the sufferings of an Iphigénie or a Phèdre, perhaps none is more exquisite than their terrible lucidity, their claustrophobic awareness of a fate they can do nothing to avoid. The psychological complexity Racine gives to these roles has made them coveted by generations of actresses.

In the immaculate music of his verse, Racine expresses passions of a perverse, even blasphemous ferocity; the result is powerful theater that has continued to fascinate audiences and scholars alike from the seventeenth century to the present. Save for a period of disfavor in the nineteenth century, when the Romantics preferred Shakespeare, Racine's work has remained the benchmark for tragic theater, in France and elsewhere. He claimed to be writing for the sophisticated few, but his immense success belies his intention. The literature on Racine is enormous and still growing; historicists, Marxists, psychoanalytic critics, poststructuralists, and the philosophically or theologically inclined all find that Racine has as much to say as ever.

See also Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas ; Classicism ; Corneille, Pierre ; French Literature and Language ; Jansenism ; La Fontaine, Jean de ; Molière .


Primary Sources

Racine, Jean. Andromache, Britannicus, Bérénice. Translated by John Cairncross. Baltimore, 1967.

. Five Plays. Translated by Kenneth Muir. New York, 1960.

. Iphigenia, Phaedra, Athaliah. Translated by John Cairncross. Baltimore, 1963.

. Oeuvres complètes. Edited by Raymond Picard. 2 vols. Paris, 19501966.

. Oeuvres complètes. Edited by Georges Forestier. Paris, 1999.

Secondary Sources

Barthes, Roland. On Racine. Translated by Richard Howard. New York, 1964.

Bénichou, Paul. Morales du Grand Siècle. Paris, 1948.

Goldmann, Lucien. The Hidden God: A Study of Tragic Vision in the Pensées of Pascal and the Tragedies of Racine. Translated by Philip Thody. London, 1964.

Jasinki, René. Vers le vrai Racine. Paris, 1958.

Picard, Raymond. La carrière de Jean Racine. Paris, 1961.

Pommier, Jean. Aspects de Racine, suivi de l'histoire littéraire d'un couple tragique. Paris, 1954.

Rohou, Jacques. Avez-vous lu Racine? Mise au point polémique. Paris, 2000.

Viala, Alain. Racine, la stratégie du caméléon. Paris, 1990.

David M. Posner

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Racine, Jean (1639–1699)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Racine, Jean (1639–1699)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . (December 12, 2017).

"Racine, Jean (1639–1699)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from

Racine, Jean

Jean Racine (zhäN räsēn´), 1639–99, French dramatist. Racine is the prime exemplar of French classicism. The nobility of his Alexandrine verse, the simplicity of his diction, the psychological realism of his characters, and the skill of his dramatic construction contribute to the continued popularity of his plays. Educated at Port-Royal, he broke with his Jansenist masters over his love for the theater. His first dramatic attempts, La Thébaïde (1664) and Alexandre le Grand (1665), were imitations of Corneille. With Andromaque (1667), a tragedy after Euripides, Racine supplanted Corneille as France's leading tragic dramatist. Corneille's friends, including Racine's former friend Molière, tried to ruin the young playwright, but the backing of Louis XIV and later of Boileau saved him. Racine's next play, Les Plaideurs (1668), wittily satirizes the law courts. His subsequent plays are milestones in French literature—Britannicus (1669); Bérénice (1670); Bajazet (1672); Mithridate (1673); Iphigénie en Aulide (1674); Phèdre (1677). After a concerted attack on Phèdre, Racine, in a revulsion against his irregular life, gave up the theater. In the same year he married and was appointed official historiographer by Louis XIV. Mme de Maintenon persuaded him to write Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691) for performance at Saint-Cyr. These differ from the earlier plays in their biblical subjects and use of a chorus and in the length of Esther, which has three acts instead of five. There are many English translations of Racine, among them those of John Masefield, Lacy Lockert, Kenneth Muir, and Robert Lowell.

See biography by G. Brereton (rev. ed. 1974); studies by R. Barthes (tr. 1964), P. France (1966), M. Turnell (1972), P. J. Yarrow (1978), and L. Goldman (1981).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Racine, Jean." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Racine, Jean." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 12, 2017).

"Racine, Jean." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from

Racine, Jean Baptiste

Racine, Jean Baptiste (1639–99) French classical dramatist whose early plays, such as La Thebaïde (1664) and Alexandre le Grand (1665), were influenced by contemporaries such as Corneille. Racine's later plays, such as Britannicus (1669), Bérénice (1670), Mithridate (1673), and Phèdre (1677), are cornerstones of French literature.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Racine, Jean Baptiste." World Encyclopedia. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Racine, Jean Baptiste." World Encyclopedia. . (December 12, 2017).

"Racine, Jean Baptiste." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from