Thurman, Wallace Henry
American writer Wallace Henry Thurman (1902-1934) worked as a journalist, editor, novelist and playwright. His most famous novel is “The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life,” which depicts discrimination among black people based on degrees of skin color. A member of the Harlem Renaissance, Thurman became influential as the editor and publisher of black literary journals, including Fire!!
Thurman proved to be a better editor than writer, and his talent and influence helped support New York's young blacks who comprised the artistic movement. For the most part, his plays were not produced while he was alive, and his novels only generated lukewarm enthusiasm. Further, his literary criticism, while perceptive, could often be harsh and even bitter. Later, he would attack the movement he once supported, condemning its members for their standards and pretensions. Today, he is perhaps best known for the innovative, black-oriented literary publications he helped launch. Beset by illness throughout most of his life and troubled with alcohol problems as an adult, he died when he was only 32 years old.
Born in the West
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on August 16, 1902, Thurman was the son of Oscar and Beulah Thurman. Wallace Thurman never knew his father, who deserted his family and moved to California. He was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother, Emma Jackson, or “Ma Jack.”
While growing up in Salt Lake City, Thurman was a sickly child who spent a great deal of time reading. His remarkably precocious literary tastes included Friedrich Nietzsche, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire, Charles Saint-Beuve, Herbert Spencer, Henrik Ibsen, Thomas Hardy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Havelock Ellis, and Sigmund Freud. He aspired to be a writer and reportedly penned a novel when he was only ten years old.
Thurman attended public schools in Salt Lake City and graduated from high school in 1919. At the University of Utah, he studied medicine and chemistry. Following his graduation in 1922, he did some post-graduate work at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, at the time a predominately white academic institution. As a young man, Thurman began formulating personal attitudes that would later inform his writings. Described as a dark-skinned black, he came to resent “Negro society,” which at the time tended to favor lighter-skinned members of the race.
Became a Journalist and Publisher
Thurman never completed his graduate work. Instead, he set out to become a journalist, first working as a reporter for the Los Angeles Sentinel, an African-American newspaper. He also wrote a column for Inklings, another newspaper with a black readership. In 1924 Thurman founded a literary magazine called Outlet, which he hoped would help spark the kind of literary movement fostered by the Harlem Renaissance, which was taking place in New York City. However, the magazine only lasted six months.
The following year Thurman moved to New York City, where he became a reporter for The Looking Glass, a position he obtained with the help of Theophilus Lewis, a black writer who became his friend and mentor. Thurman also worked as an editor for the publication. The experience led to his becoming the managing editor of the Messenger in 1926. Established in 1917 by A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, the periodical focused on political and economic issues that impacted the black community. It was also known as “The World's Greatest Negro Monthly.” The co-founders also published short stories and poetry by emerging African-American writers. During his brief tenure as managing editor, Thurman published short works by poet/author Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, who were leading figures in the Harlem Renaissance. Thurman wrote a short story for the publication, titled “Grist in the Mill,” about a racist Southern aristocrat troubled by the fact that he received a life-saving blood transfusion from a black man.
That same year, Thurman left the magazine to take a position as circulation manager for The World Tomorrow, a white-owned monthly publication. During this period he also supported himself by writing stories for True Story, under the pen names “Ethel Bell Mandrake” and “Patrick Casey.”
A Squelched Fire
Thurman's second publishing venture (following Outlet) would make a more significant impression on the literary world. While living in New York City, Thurman developed a close friendship with Hughes. In the summer of 1926 Hughes asked Thurman to serve as editor of Fire!!, a magazine that Hughes was planning with writer Bruce Nugent. As it turned out, Thurman not only edited the publication, he provided much of its funding. Even though it lasted for only one issue, the literary journal is now recognized as the first truly influential African-American magazine of the twentieth century, and it established Thurman's reputation as a daring and unconventional publisher/editor/writer.
The journal's bold name indicated its purpose. In the foreword of the first and only issue (November 1926), Thurman wrote that Fire!! would make a vivid impression by “melting steel and iron bars, poking livid tongues between stone apertures and burning wooden opposition with a cackling chuckle of contempt,” according to Notable Black American Men. This matched the intentions of Hughes, who later revealed that he intended for the publication to “burn up a lot of old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past.” Further, he said, it would provide “younger Negro writers and artists” with an “outlet for publication not available.”
Appropriately, the avant-garde literary publication's single issue included short stories by Thurman, Hurston, and Gwendolyn Bennett, as well as poetry by Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Arna Bontemps, a play by Hurston, illustrations by Aaron Douglas, and the first part of a novel by Nugent. Despite the bold ambitions of its founders, the journal was quickly scuttled by financial and distribution problems. Moreover, its critical reception was disappointing: black readers found it too irreverent, old-guard black critics denounced it, and white critics simply ignored it.
Hobnobbed in the Harlem Renaissance
It took Thurman four years to pay for the printing expenses for Fire!! During this period of his life, he was often in debt and sometimes unemployed. In addition, his fragile health was worsening. At one point he suffered from a swollen thyroid and other infected glands, and eventually required surgery. Despite his physical condition, he reportedly drank heavily.
Because of his fondness for liquor and parties, Thurman became a popular figure in Harlem social circles, and he mingled with members of the Harlem Renaissance. This vibrant artistic movement included emerging black writers and artists such as Bennett, Bontemps, Cullen, John Davis, Douglas, Jessie Fauset, Rudolph Fisher, Hurston, Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, Nugent, Jean Toomer, and Dorothy West. While Thurman enjoyed the socializing, he did not hold the Renaissance writers in high regard. As far as he could tell, its ranks lacked any important, emerging authors. In turn, Thurman's contemporaries only considered him a marginal literary talent. Still, many of his articles appeared in prestigious publications such as The New Republic. This kind of exposure helped establish his reputation as a keen but caustic critic.
Undaunted by the failure of Fire!!, Thurman attempted to establish another literary publication that would provide a creative outlet for young black writers. Launched in 1928, the publication, titled Harlem, A Forum of Negro Life, folded after only two issues. The first issue included an essay by critic Alain Locke, a book review by Thurman, poetry by Alice Dunbar Nelson and Hughes, fiction by Hughes and George Schuyler, and a theater review by Lewis, who also served as the magazine's editor.
Toward the end of the decade, Thurman worked as an editorial staff member for McFadden Publications and the Macaulay Publishing Company, both located in New York City.
On August 22, 1928, Thurman married Louise Thompson, a teacher and writer, but the union would not last long. Thompson quickly became disenchanted by her husband's heavy drinking, as well as his homosexual tendencies, and she sought a divorce. However, they could not agree upon an alimony settlement. They never divorced, but remained separated.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Thurman also worked as a playwright, but his efforts met with little success. His first play, Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life in Harlem, was his most successful, although reviews were mixed. Thurman wrote the play in collaboration with William Jourdan Rapp, a white author and editor who would remain Thurman's lifelong friend. The work premiered on Broadway on February 20, 1929, at the Apollo Theater. It ran for 93 performances in New York and was also staged in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Canada.
Based on a short story Thurman had written and published in Fire!!, titled “Cordelia the Crude,” the drama focuses on a southern black family that moved to New York City to escape economic hardships, only to have trouble adjusting to the city's urban crime, unemployment, and racial tensions. Black playgoers criticized the work for its focus on the more lurid elements of Harlem life (gambling, drinking, illicit sex). Likewise, critics were put off by its sensationalism. In his review published in Commonweal, R. Dana Skinner indicated he was troubled by “the particular way in which this melodrama exploits the worst features of the Negro and depends for its effects solely on the explosions of lust and sensuality.” But, at the same time, Skinner found it entertaining and “captured the feel of life.”
Thurman again collaborated with Rapp on his second play, Jeremiah, the Magnificent (1930), a three-act drama influenced by Marcus Garvey's “back to Africa” movement. For a long time the play remained unpublished, and it was only performed once, after Thurman's death. Thurman wrote two more plays, Singing the Blues (1931) and Savage Rhythm (1932). Neither were performed or published during Thurman's lifetime.
Along with his publishing and dramatic endeavors, Thurman was a novelist. Today, he his best known for his first novel, The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life. Published in 1929, the work tackles themes of self-hatred and hypocrisy by targeting a peculiar prejudice existing within black society. The plot relates the story of Emma Lou, a dark-skinned girl denigrated by her more fairskinned friends and family members. She moves from Los Angeles to Harlem to escape the ostracization engendered by her darker color. When she encounters the same problems in her new environment, she resorts to using skin bleaches and hair straighteners and spurns the advances of darker colored males.
Despite its compelling plot, the book failed to impress critics. It garnered negative reviews in the New York Times Book Review and the New York Herald Tribune, but Thurman was applauded for his daring in tackling the sensitive subject matter.
Thurman's second novel, Infants of the Spring (1932), also set in Harlem, involves a young black writer named Raymond Taylor who lives in a boardinghouse populated by pretentious aspiring writers. Thurman directed satiric barbs at these secondary characters, lambasting their artistic poses and condemning their creativity-stifling decadent lifestyles. Critics suggested that Thurmon based these characters on real-life Harlem Renaissance figures such as Hughes, Hurston, Cullen, Nugent and Douglas. Critics also complained that Thurman tried to tackle too many issues, which ultimately harmed the clarity of the work. At the same time, they complimented Thurman on his candid, realistic depiction of a specific segment of black society.
Thurman wrote only one more novel, The Interne, a collaboration with Abraham L. Furman, a white writer whom Thurman met while working at Macaulay Publishing Company. Also published in 1932, the book depicts life at an urban hospital as seen through the eyes of main character Carl Armstrong, an idealistic young white doctor who becomes disillusioned with his profession.
Wrote Screenplays in California
In 1934 Thurman moved to California, where he wrote two screenplays for a film company headed by Bryan Foy, the son of famed vaudevillian Eddie Foy and producer of “B” movies. These screenplays were Tomorrow's Children (1934) and High School Girl (1935). The latter relates the story of a 17-year-old girl who supports her poor white family. Tomorrow's Children was considered a “road show” picture. These kinds of movies were not released through traditional film distribution channels. Because of their sensational subject matter, they were considered special attractions, and they were banned in many cities. Tomorrow's Children involved moral and ethical issues related to sterilization, and it featured an on-screen vasectomy. The film was banned in New York City because of its sexually explicit content.
Died in New York City
In California, Thurman continued his unhealthy lifestyle and drank heavily. Eventually he became ill and had to return to New York City in May of 1934, where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Despite his poor health, he still drank excessively. In July of that year, he collapsed during his reunion party. He was taken to City Hospital on Welfare Island in New York City. He lingered for six months in a ward for incurable tuberculosis patients. He died on December 21, 1934.
His funeral services were held in New York City on Christmas Eve. In attendance were his estranged wife, Louise Thompson, and members of the Harlem writing community, including Cullen, Douglas and West. He was buried in Silver Mount Cemetery on Staten Island.
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Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (October 20, 2007).