The Romantic Spirit of the Harlem Renaissance: Wallace Thurman

March 4, 2006 darnell

In Wallace Thurman’s short life and short artistic career, one can discern tragic circumstances even more devastating than those of Hurston. Thurman (1902–1934) was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and attended the University of California (Ferguson 729). He tried to create a literary movement in California like the one in Harlem through his establishment of Outlet, a “magazine similar to those being published” in Harlem (Ferguson 729). After the journal’s failure within six months, Thurman moved to Harlem in 1925, where he continued his artistic career in various forms: novelist, editor, poet, playwright, and literary critic (Ferguson 729).

Thurman’s dream was to “become editor of a financially secure magazine” (Henderson 150). He worked at several magazines in New York before becoming involved with Hughes, Hurston, and others to launch the journal Fire!! (1926), which was to stand in opposition to the mainly political and propagandist magazines being published currently: The Crisis, Opportunity, and The Messenger. Fire!! folded after one issue, leaving Thurman with a thousand dollar debt it took him four years to pay back (Ferguson 730). Thurman started another magazine in 1928, Harlem, A Forum of Negro Life; this journal had a longer life than Fire!! but it failed also (Ferguson 730).

Thurman then turned his talents to writing novels. His first novel, The Blacker the Berry (1929), contains “a variety of controversial themes including homosexuality, intraracial prejudice, abortion, and ethnic conflict between African Americans and Caribbean Americans” (Ferguson 730). His second novel, Infants of the Spring (1932), is a satiric evaluation of the Harlem Renaissance and the “judgment rendered is harsh and unsparing” (Ferguson 730). A third novel, written in collaboration with Abraham L. Furman, The Interne (1932) is “an expose of unethical behavior at City Hospital on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island)” (Ferguson 730). Ironically, City Hospital would be where Thurman would spend the last six months of his life just two years later.

Despite his literary successes and his being considered “spokesman for the younger group of black Renaissance writers,” Thurman was prone to bouts of depression and “self-hatred” (Henderson 167). Thurman’s “erotic, bohemian” lifestyle (as he described it) and excessive alcohol consumption wreaked havoc on his none too healthy body (Henderson 147). He died on December 22, 1934 at the age of 32. Thurman’s friend, Arna Bontemps, described Thurman as: “He was like a flame which burned so intensely, it could not last for long, but quickly consumed itself” (Henderson 147).

Bontemps’ description of Thurman could just as easily be seen as a description of the Harlem Renaissance itself. While African American literature and art existed before the Renaissance and continued after the Renaissance, during this period of time the nation’s attention was riveted on those several streets in New York City. Whether this attention by the white community was good or bad is a complex issue. Many white people were genuinely interested in the folk and modern culture of African Americans, but it is also true that many of them were only thrill-seekers. But however that may be, the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance still continues to intrigue modern America. It is an important part of our history and culture, both black and white. Many of the issues and themes explored by the Harlem writers, (a search for identity, crossing boundaries, desire and loss, repression and rebellion, nostalgia, etc) are inherent in all cultures, and thus is something everyone can identify with. In the end, the Harlem Renaissance succeeded in transcending racial barriers.

Bibilography

Ferguson, SallyAnn H. “Wallace Thurman.” The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 729-30.

Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. “Portrait of Wallace Thurman.” The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. Ed. Arna Bontemps. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1972. 147-170.

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