Thurman, Wallace 1902–1934
Wallace Thurman 1902–1934
Writer, journalist, playwright
One of the most gifted editors and critics of the Harlem Renaissance, Wallace Thurman, though an initial supporter of the flourishing African American art scene of the 1920s, became one of its most virulent critics. Arriving in New York in 1925, during the second phase of the Harlem Renaissance, he helped launch two short-lived periodicals dedicated to black artists and wrote three novels and several plays. The leading bohemian figure of Harlem’s literary circle, Thurman envisioned an African American literary movement owing itself, not to the patronage of elitist black intellectuals and white philanthropists, but to the individual genius whose art reflected images of everyday life of Black America. Disillusioned by the cult of the Renaissance and the “New Negro” movement, Thurman and his colleague Zora Neale Hurston deemed their fellow African American intellectuals and writers as “Niggeratti”, and scorned them for creating mediocre works filled with exotic images which attracted white critics and publishers. Thurman’s critical view of his own works—which never lived up to his expectations or high standards of literature—led him to drink incessantly, and contributed to a self-destructive path which ended in his death of alcoholism and tuberculosis at the age of thirty-two.
Wallace Henry Thurman was born the son of Beulah and Oscar Thurman in Salt Lake City, Utah, on August 16, 1902 (Thurman claimed to have met his father once during the early 1930s). Though he lived in several cities—including Boise, Idaho and Omaha, Nebraska—under his mother’s care (she married six times), Thurman expressed a closer affection for “Ma Jack,” his maternal grandmother Emma Jackson. A sickly child, Thurman spent many hours of his youth reading a wide variety of literature and watching Saturday matinee films which inspired him to write his own Hollywood scenarios. Thurman later satirized his early years in Utah by writing, as quoted in Black Writers in America, that “there has been and is certainly nothing about him [the Utah Black] to inspire anyone to do anything perhaps drink gin with gusto, and develop new technique for the contravention of virginity.”
In 1919 Thurman worked for a short time at the Utah Hotel Cafe, and, the following year, became a premedical student at the University of Utah. After suffering a nervous breakdown, he transferred to the University of Southern California and entered a program preparing him for medical school. Without finishing his education, Thurman turned his attention to writing the column “Inklings” for a black Los Angeles newspaper, and founding the short-lived magazine Outlet —a publication intended to initiate a literary movement on the West coast like that of New York City’s Harlem Renaissance. In the early 1920s Thurman divided his time between journalistic endeavors and working as a part time postal clerk. In Harlem Remembered, Arna Bontemps—Thurman’s co-worker at the post office—admitted that his literary-minded friend was “more knowledgeable about current writing and more worldly wise,” than he
Born Wallace Henry Thurman, August 16, 1902, in Salt lake City, Utah; son of Oscar and Beulah Thurman; died December 21, 1934, in New York City; married Louise Thompson August 22, 1928 (separated); Education: attended University of Utah 1920-1922; University of Southern California 1922-1923.
Worked as writer and assistant on the periodical The Looking Class, 1925; in 1926 became managing editor of the Messenger, and launched publication Fire!!; m 1927 served as the circulation manager of World Tomorrow, and wrote articles for the New Republic, The Independent, and Dance; published novel Blacker the Berry, 1929; on February 20, 1929, play Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life in Harlem debuted at the Apollo Theatre; in 1932 published novels Infants of the Spring, and The Interne, 1932; wrote Hollywood screen-plays Tomorrow’s Children, 1934, and High School Girl, 1934, released by studio in 1935.
and his colleagues.
Thurman arrived in New York City in 1925 and lived with Bontemps in a rooming house. Initially, Thurman sought work at the New York Customs House, but instead found employment as an elevator operator a few blocks from Harlem. Despite his interest in pursuing a writing career, he gained notoriety as a talented editor who could read several lines of copy at once. In New York City he worked as a reporter and editor for the magazine, The Looking Glass, published by noted Harlem theater critic Theophilus Lewis. Around this time, he also served as a reader for Macauly Publishing Company which, according to Langston Hughes, made him the only African American of the Harlem Renaissance to hold such a position.
In 1926 Thurman temporarily replaced George Schuyler as managing editor for the Messenger, also known as “The World’s Greatest Negro Monthly.” Though founded as a radical magazine, the Messenger had become, by the time Thurman joined its staff, a bourgeois society publication, a periodical dependent, as Thurman cynically told Langston Hughes, in his colleague’s memoir The Big Sea, on “the policy of whoever paid off best at the time.” Along with works by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, the magazine featured several of Thurman’s essays, reviews, and short stories. Thur-man’s Messenger short story “Grist in the Mill,” dealt with Colonel Charles Summers, a racist Southern aristocrat who is haunted by the realization that his life had been saved by a transfusion of blood from a black man. In the fall of 1926, Thurman left the Messenger to become circulation manager of a white religious magazine, World Tomorrow, and eventually he supported himself by writing short stories for True Stori, under the pseudonyms “Ethel Belle Mandrake” and “Patrick Casey.”
The leader of the Harlem Renaissance’s bohemian inner circle, Thurman gathered around him such luminaries of the period as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Richard Bruce Nugent, Rudolph Fisher, and Dorothy West. At his rent-free apartment at 267 West 136th Street, known as “Niggeratti Manor,” Thurman and his coterie mocked the older African American intellectuals and the Victorian values imitated by blacks who seemed, according to Thurman’s circle, more intent on the show finery and cultivated manners than of integrity and originality. As David Levering Lewis pointed out, in When Harlem Was In Vogue, Wallace’s gatherings were “the cradle of revolt against establishment art,” and Thurman its leading spokesman for “immoral independence.” Thurman also befriended an odd assortment of characters, those who had little in common with the talented and respected artists of his Harlem group. As Richard Bruce Nugent stated in Before and Beyond Harlem, Thurman had “a fascination for people that only the devil could have—an almost diabolical power.”
In 1926 Thurman and several members gathered to plan the publication of Fire!!, an avant garde periodical dedicated strictly to black literary works. “Sweltering nights we met to plan Fire!!,” recounted Langston in his autobiography The Big Sea. “Each of us agreed to give fifty dollars to finance the first issue. Thurman was to edit it, John P. Davis to handle the business end, and Bruce Nugent to take charge of distribution. The rest of us were to serve as an editorial board to collect material, contribute our own work, and act in any useful way we could,” he continued. Each of the seven members of the board were to contribute fifty dollars each, but only Hughes and two others provided money. Undaunted, Thurman advanced a large portion of the publication money, causing him to fall in debt to the point that his co-workers at the World Tomorrow had to loan him money for a winter overcoat. He spent hours meeting with writers Richard Bruce Nugent, Zora Neale Hurston, and visual artist Aaron Douglas, laying out the magazine. The debut issue featured the work of Hughes, Countee Cullen, Arna Bontemps, and a play by Hurston. Thur-man’s literary contribution, the short story “Cordelia the Crude,” centered on a rebellious sixteen-year-old Southern migrant girl’s path to prostitution. Despite the fact that the publication contained some of Thurman’s finest prose, Fire!! received mediocre reviews and was harshly criticized by black intellectuals. Despite its negative reception, the publication represented a bold and rebellious venture, what David Levering Lewis described, in When Harlem Was In Vogue, as a “flawed folk-centered masterpiece.”
Thurman’s growing cynicism of the Renaissance was reflected in an article, “Negro Artists and the Negro,” written for the August issue of The New Republic in 1927. As quoted in Jervis Anderson’s work This Was Harlem, Thurman’s article strongly denounced the moving forces behind the Harlem Renaissance, “When the Negro art fad first came into being and Negro poets, novelists, musicians, and painters became good copy, literate and semi-illiterate Negro America began to strut and shout, Negro newspapers reprinted every item published anywhere concerning a Negro whose work had found favor with critics, editors, or publishers. Negro journals conducted contests to encourage embryonic geniuses. Negro ministers preached sermons, Negro lecturers made speeches, and Negro club women read papers—all about the great new Negro art. Everyone was having a grand time. The millennium was about to dawn.” Thurman rejected the celebratory literary prize dinners held by the Urban League and awards bestowed by NAACP’s publication, Crisis; contrary to these organization’s leaders he did not ascribe to the idea, as did race leaders like Charles S. Johnson, that art could open the door to assimilation and respectability for the Negro in America. Such a “faddistic” movement, as Thurman alluded in his novel Blacker the Berry, could do nothing more than entertain the white race’s “Explore Harlem; know the Negro crusade.”
In the fall of 1927 Thurman contributed the pieces “Nephews of Uncle Remus” to The Independent and “Harlem Facets” to the World Tomorrow. In the following year, he wrote the essay “Negro Poets and Their Poetry” for the Bookman, and contributed a piece for Dance Magazine. In the same year, he launched the publication Harlem: A Forum of Negro Life. Broader focused than Fire!!, the magazine contained discussions of art and politics—racial and non-racial—and sought a cross generational readership. The first volume contained works by philosopher Alain Locke, George Dunbar, Hughes, Schuyler, and theater critic Theophilus Lewis. Unfortunately, Harlem experienced the same fate as Fire!!, and never saw a second issue.
In the fall of 1928, Thurman embarked on another short-lived venture. On August 22, 1928, he married educator and writer Louise Thompson who, like Thurman, grew up in several Western towns and cities. Upon discovery of her husband’s homosexual proclivities, and frustrated by his excessive use of alcohol, Thompson soon sought a divorce. The couple fought over an alimony settlement. Despite an offer of twenty-five hundred dollars and a Reno divorce, Thompson declined the offer in order to be with her ailing mother so the two separated, but never divorced.
In March of 1929 Macauly published Thurman’s first novel, Blacker the Berry, which he dedicated to his grandmother Emma Jackson. Despite its journalistic tone and loose plot development, the book was one of the earliest American novels which dealt with the subject of interracial prejudice. As David Levering contended, in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, the book “although talky and awkward in spots, (Thurman had hoped to write the Great African American Novel), was a breakthrough novel.” As Lewis added, “For the first time in African American fiction, color prejudice within the race was the central theme of a novel. Emma Lou, its heroine (like the author very dark and conventual unattractive), is obsessed with respectability as well as tortured by her pigment, for Thurman makes the point on every page that Afro-America’s aesthetic and spiritual center resides in the unaffected, unblended, noisome common folk and the liberated, unconventional artists.” In describing the novel’s main character, S.P. Fullinwider observed, in The Mind and Mood of Black America, “She was too black. She tried the various expedients—skin cream, the hair straightener, etc.—but all failed her. It finally dawned on her (as it apparently had dawned on Thurman) that her problem lay not with her color but with her psyche. The only viable solution was to accept herself for what she was,” an individual possessed of pride, education, and beauty.
On February 20, 1929, Thurman’s play, Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life in Harlem, (originally titled Black Belt) opened at the Apollo Theatre, and eventually completed a successful run on broadway. Loosely based on Thurman’s short story “Cordelia the Crude,” Harlem was written in collaboration with Thurman’s white associate and lifelong friend, William Jourdan Rapp. Harlem centered on the experiences of a migrant family who, coming to New York with bright hopes of a better life, discover further hardship in adjusting to city life and the problems of unemployment. In his 1930 work Black Manhattan, James Weldon Johnson noted the impact of the play on the Harlem scene: “It was a portrayal of life in a Harlem railroad flat, of rental parties, of the ‘sweetback,’ of the ‘hot stuff man,’ of the ‘number king,’ and the number racket. And it also portrayed a distracted migrant mother from the South caught in this whirlpool and struggling to save herself, her husband, and her children from being submerged. The play depicted a low level of life, but it had vitality and power. The cast was large, sixty in number, all Negroes except one.... It was a success.” In 1930 Thurman again collaborated with Rapp to write the three-act play Jeremiah, the Magnificent. It remained unpublished and received only one posthumous performance. Among Thurman’s other unpublished plays were the 1931 work Singing the Blues, and Savage Rhythm, written in 1932.
Thurman’s satire of the Harlem Renaissance emerged in his 1932 novel, Infants of the Spring (a title taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet). The book’s “Niggeratti Manor” (modeled after Thurman’s former place of residence) is filled with thinly disguised portrayals of his Harlem circle: Thurman Raymond Taylor (Thurman) Sweetie Mae Carr (Zora Neale, Hurston), Dr. Parks (Alain Locke), Tony Crews (Langston Hughes), Cedric Williams (Eric Walrond)—none of whom escaped his criticism as mediocre artists. The book received mixed reviews and continued to be judged variously by scholars. In his work Harlem Renaissance Irvin Huggins considered it “one of the finest bits of prose writing to come out of Harlem,” and likened Euphoria Blake’s [the fictitious owner of Niggeratti Manor] story to “a good sermon.” In The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader David Levering Lewis considered the book’s prose “generally disappointing,” but also stressed that the ending was “conceptually poignant.” Infants of the Spring, however, remains an important work—one that Amritjit Singh wrote, in The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance, “deserves a close look for its value in indicating the aesthetic and critical milieu of the Harlem Renaissance.” In The Mind and Mood of Black America, S.P. Fullinwider considered Infants of the Spring a polemic which treated the Renaissance “as an exercise in self-delusion. It was not necessarily that the Negro writers were barren of talent, but that they were so busy posing at being literary that there was little time left for writing.”
Thurman’s third novel, The Interne —written with a white colleague Abraham L. Furman whom Thurman met while working at Macauly’s—saw publication in 1932. Centering on the corruption in an urban hospital, The Interne, unlike Thurman’s earlier works, dealt with white characters and did not address the subject of race. After the book’s commercial and critical failure, Thurman traveled to California in 1934 and wrote screen plays of the “adults only” variety. His screenplays included two Bryan Foy Productions: the 1934 film Tomorrow’s Children —a controversial work banned in New York for its use of the term “vasectomy” in the explanation of the procedure of male sterilization—and the studio’s 1935 release High School Girl. Thurman found screenwriting dull and artistically unrewarding, and continued his path of heavy drinking which, along with the effects of tuberculosis, forced him to seek medical treatment. Upon his return to New York in May of 1934, Thurman, as Faith Berry wrote in Before and Beyond Harlem, had “wasted away to skin and bones.” A month later, he collapsed during a drinking spree with Harlem friends and was admitted to the charity ward of City Hospital on Welfare Island. On the evening of December 21, Thurman sat up in his hospital bed, and according to Berry in Before and After Harlem, laughed “in tragic mockery,” during a toast to his demise, and then suddenly died.
Thurman’s long-time friend and fellow writer, Arna Bontemps stated, in Harlem Renaissance Remembered, that Thurman’s life resembled “a flame which burned so intensely, it could not last long, but quickly consumed itself.” In his short story “Grist in the Mill,” included in the work Black Writers of America, Thurman revealed an autobiographical sense of fatalism, “This is indeed an accidental cosmos, so much so, that even the most divine mechanism takes an occasional opportunity to slip a cog and intensify the reigning chaos. And to make matters intriguing, more terrifying, there seems to be a universal accompaniment of mocking laughter, coming from the ethereal regions as well as from the more mundane spheres, to each mishap whether that mishap be experienced by a dislodged meteor, a moon-bound planet, a sun-shrunken comet, or a determined man.” Thurman lived and died a talented and “determined man” whose mocking laughter failed to shield him from his own sense of failure and self-hatred.
“The Last Citadel,” Opportunity, August, 1926.
“Confession,” Messenger, June 1926.
“God’s Edict,” Opportunity, July 1926.
Blacker the Berry (novel), Macauly, 1929.
Infants of the Spring, Macauly, 1932.
The Interne, Macauly, 1932.
“You Never Can Tell Part 1,” Outlet, 1924.
“You Never Can Tell Part 2,” Outlet, 1924.
“Grist For the Mill,” Messenger, 1926.
“Cordelia the Crude,” Fire!!, 1926.
“Eugene O’Neill’s ‘All God’s Chilluns Got Wings,” Outlet, October, 1924.
“Quoth Brigham Young:—This is the Place,” Messenger, August, 1926.
“Singers at the Crossroads,” Greenwich Village Quill, March, 1927.
“Negro Artists and the Negro,” New Republic, August 31, 1927.
“Nephews of Uncle Remus,” Independent, September 24, 1927.
“Harlem Facets,” World Tomorrow, November 1927.
“Negro Poets and Their Poetry,” Bookman, July 1928.
“Harlem’s Place in the Sun,” Dance Magazine, May, 1928.
Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life in Harlem, co-written with William Jourdan Rapp, 1928.
Jeremiah the Magnificent, co-written with W.J. Rapp, 1930.
Savage Rhythm, 1932.
Singing the Blues, 1932.
Tomorrow’s Children, Bryan Foy Productions (screenplay), 1934.
High School Girl, Bryan Foy Productions (screenplay), 1935.
Anderson, Jervis, This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait 1900-1950, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1982.
Berry, Faith, Before and Beyond Harlem: Langston Hughes, A Biography, Citadel Press, 1983.
Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology, edited by Arthur P. Davis and Ulysses Lee, pp. 604-611.
Fullinwider, S.P., The Mind and Mood of Black America, Dorsey Press, 1969. Gloster, Hugh M., Negro Voices in America, Russell & Russell, 1965, p. 168-172.
Harlem Renaissance Remembered: Essays Edited with Memoir, by Arna Bontemps, Dodd Mead & Co., 1973, (contains Mae Gwendolyn Henderson’s essay, “Portrait of Wallace Thurman”).
Huggins, Nathan Irvin, Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1971.
Hughes, Langston, The Big Sea, An Autobiography, Hill and Wang, 1940.
Johnson, James Weldon, Black Metropolis, Da Capo, 1930.
Lewis, David Levering, The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, Penguin Books, 1994.
Lewis, David Levering, When Harlem Was in Vogue, Oxford University Press, 1981.
Ramapersad, Arnold, The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume I 1902-1941, I Too Sing America, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Singh, Amritjit, The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance: Twelve Black Writers 1923-1933, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976, p. 2-36.
"Thurman, Wallace 1902–1934." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/thurman-wallace-1902-1934
"Thurman, Wallace 1902–1934." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/thurman-wallace-1902-1934
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
August 16, 1902
December 22, 1934
Writer Wallace Thurman was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. His literary career began shortly after he left the University of Utah to study at the University of Southern California. Although his intent was to study medicine, Thurman soon rediscovered an earlier enthusiasm for writing. According to Arna Bontemps, whom he first met during this period, Thurman "lost sight of degrees" and began to pursue courses related to his interest in literature and writing. In Los Angeles he also wrote a column called "Inklings" for a local black newspaper. Having heard about the New Negro movement in New York, Thurman attempted to establish a West Coast counterpart to the Harlem Renaissance and began editing his own literary magazine, the Outlet. The publication lasted for only six months but was described by his friend Theophilus Lewis, the Harlem theater critic, as Thurman's "first and most successful venture at the editorial desk."
Dissatisfied, Thurman left for New York where, as he put it, he "began to live on Labor Day, 1925." Later he became known for his declaration that he was a man who hated "every damned spot in these United States outside of Manhattan Island." In New York Thurman secured his first position, as an editorial assistant at the Looking Glass, another small, short-lived review. His first important position was as temporary editor for the leftist Messenger, published by A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen. When the managing editor, George Schuyler, went on leave,
When Schuyler returned, Thurman became associated with a white publication, the World Tomorrow, and at the same time joined a group of young black writers and artists—Hurston, Hughes, Aaron Douglas, John P. Davis, Bruce Nugent, and Gwendolyn Bennett—to launch "a new experimental quarterly," Fire, in 1926. The purpose of Fire, according to its founders, was to "burn up a lot of the old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past, épater la bourgeoisie into the realization of the existence of the younger Negro writers and artists." Yet Thurman's enduring ambition to become editor of "a financially secure magazine" seemed ill fated. Fire itself became a casualty of a real fire in a basement where several hundred copies had been stored, and the disaster led to its demise after the first issue. Thurman's next editorial venture came two years later, when he began publishing Harlem, a Forum of Negro Life. Although the magazine lasted a little longer than its predecessor, it too folded due to a lack of funds.
Thurman also wrote critical articles on African-American life and culture for such magazines as the New Republic, the Independent, the Bookman, and Dance Magazine. The black writer, he contended, had left a "great deal of fresh, vital material untouched" because of his tendency to view his own people as "sociological problems rather than as human beings." Like Hughes, he criticized those writers who felt "that they must always exhibit specimens from the college rather than from the kindergarten, specimens from the parlor rather than from the pantry." He exhorted black writers to exploit those authentic and unique aspects of black life and culture ignored by writers who suppressed the seamy or sordid or low-down, common aspects of black existence.
Thurman published his first novel, The Blacker the Berry (1929) while on the staff of MacFadden Publications. Although the book was acclaimed by the critics, the author remained characteristically skeptical of his own efforts. Doubtless invoking some of his own experiences, Thurman's novel deals with the problems of a dark-skinned woman who struggles with intraracial schisms caused by colorism. Later that same year Thurman collaborated with a white writer, William Jourdan Rapp, on the play Harlem, which opened at the Apollo Theater. Thurman based the plot and dialogue on his short story "Cordelia the Crude," which was originally published in Fire. The play was described by Hughes as "a compelling study … of the impact of Harlem on a Negro family fresh from the south." After its production Thurman continued to write prolifically, sometimes ghostwriting popular "true confessions" fiction.
In 1932 Thurman published his second novel, Infants of the Spring, an autobiographical roman à clef, documenting the period from a contemporary perspective. The novel is a biting satire and poignant critique of the Harlem Renaissance. For Thurman, the failure of the movement lay in the race consciousness emanating from the literary propagandists on the one hand and the assimilationists on the other, both undermining any expression of racial authenticity and individuality.
His final novel, The Interne, written in collaboration with Abraham L. Furman, was also published in 1932. It was a muckraking novel exposing the corrupt conditions in City Hospital in New York. Both of these novels were published by Macaulay, where Thurman became editor in chief in 1932. Two years later he negotiated a contract with Foy Productions to write scenarios for two films, High School Girl and Tomorrow's Children. But the strain of life in Hollywood took its toll on Thurman, who became ill and returned to New York in the spring of 1934. Not only had he been marked by a certain physical fragility, he had also been plagued with chronic alcoholism. Shortly after his return Thurman was taken to City Hospital, the very institution he had written about in The Interne. After remaining for six months in the incurable ward, he died of consumption on December 22, 1934.
Thurman had arrived in New York in 1925 at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, whose rise and ebb paralleled his own life and career. He early became one of the leading critics of the older bourgeoisie, both black and white; his lifestyle and literary criticism were calculated to outrage their sensibilities and articulate a New Negro attitude toward the black arts. His importance to the Harlem Renaissance can be measured in terms of both his literary contributions and his influence on younger and perhaps more successful writers of the period. His criticism also set a standard of judgment for subsequent scholars of the Harlem Renaissance. Perhaps his evaluation of Alain Locke's The New Negro (1925), a collection inaugurating the movement, best summarizes his own life and contribution: "In [The New Negro ] are exemplified all the virtues and all the faults of this new movement." Thurman's life itself became a symbol of the possibilities and limitations of the Harlem Renaissance.
Beckman, Wendy Hart. Artists and Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2002.
Bloom, Harold, ed. The Harlem Renaissance. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.
Huggins, Nathan I. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Huggins, Nathan I., ed. Voices from the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Vintage, 1981.
mae g. henderson (1996)
"Thurman, Wallace." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/thurman-wallace
"Thurman, Wallace." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/thurman-wallace
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Born August 16, 1902
Salt Lake City, Utah
Died December 21, 1934
American novelist, playwright, editor, essayist, short story writer, and poet
Editor of the daring one-issue literary magazine Fire!!, Wallace Thurman was also a talented writer.
One of the most active, energetic, and multitalented participants in the Harlem Renaissance, Wallace Thurman was considered a leader of the group of young writers and artists who formed its most daring core. In addition to his own literary works, Thurman contributed to the movement through his editorial efforts and his sometimes biting—or even bitter—criticism of its excesses. Central to his work and, indeed, to his own personal life was the issue of color-consciousness and prejudice within African American society: Thurman felt that many blacks looked down upon those among them with the darker shades of skin (including himself). Despite his impressive achievements, Thurman always doubted his own talents; his death at the age of only thirty-two made him an even more tragic figure.
Reading and writing at an early age
Thurman was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, a city with a very small African American community. His father, Oscar, left the family when Thurman was very young (Thurman met him only once again, much later in life), and his mother, Beulah, had five other husbands during her lifetime. Thurman seems to have been more attached to his grandmother, "Ma Jack" (Emma Jackson), than to anyone else in his early life.
A nervous boy who was often ill, Thurman loved to read and developed an early sense of himself as a writer, producing his first novel at the age of ten. During his high school years he read many different kinds of books, from classic literature by authors like English playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616), French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) to works by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (pronounced NEE-chuh; 1844–1900) and Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Thurman also enjoyed watching movies, a passion he would retain all his life.
In 1919 Thurman enrolled at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, but he soon transferred to the University of Southern California, where he planned to pursue a medical degree. Instead, he ended up following his own earlier desire to become a writer, and he left the university in 1923 without even earning his undergraduate degree. For the next year and a half he wrote a column called "Inklings" for a black newspaper and also worked at the U.S. post office, where he met another young black writer, Arna Bontemps (1902–1973), who became his close friend. Thurman then edited a magazine called the Outlet, but it was discontinued after six months. When Bontemps announced his plan to go to New York City and join the new literary movement developing in Harlem, Thurman decided to go with him.
Making his way in Harlem
Thurman arrived in Harlem in September 1925. At first he supported himself through odd jobs (including working as an elevator operator), but finally he went to work for a publication called the Looking Glass; the editor, Theophilus Lewis, could not afford to pay Thurman a salary but gave him a place to stay and food to eat. Thurman performed a number of tasks, and he did so well (he was said to be able to read eleven lines of text at once) that Lewis recommended him to the Messenger—a prominent black journal—for a job as literary editor.
In this position Thurman was able to promote the work of the young writers he had met since arriving in New York, among them poet Langston Hughes (1902–1967; see biographical entry), whose first published short stories appeared in the Messenger. While working at the Messenger, Thurman sometimes expressed a rebellious attitude toward the older leaders of the African American community (especially civil rights advocate and Crisis editor W.E.B. Du Bois [1868–1963; see biographical entry]), who he felt were more eager to imitate whites than to support and appreciate real, ordinary black people.
A leader of the younger artists
Meanwhile, Thurman was leading the kind of life that conservative people like Du Bois found offensive. Along with some of his artistic friends—including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960; see biographical entry), and artist Richard Bruce Nugent (1906–1987)—he was staying in the wildly decorated and always lively boarding house of Iolanthe Sydney, the proprietor of a Harlem employment agency who supported her tenants' creative efforts by letting them stay rent-free. This group of young African Americans believed they were creating something new and daring as they explored their racial heritage through their art and struck out on their own individual paths, and they saw Thurman as their leader.
A slender young man with a slightly feminine manner and a high-pitched laugh, Thurman had a rapid-fire way of talking, and what he said was often brilliant. Due to his heavy drinking, sexual confusion (he was probably homosexual and seems to have felt guilty about it), and lack of money, his personal life was usually in disarray, but he worked very hard. He believed in creating art for its own sake, rather than using it to achieve political ends such as racial equality, and he held his own and others' writing to a high standard. Despite his popularity with the friends among whom he worked and played, Thurman always felt like an outsider—an attitude that was apparently connected with his very dark skin. He believed that lighter-skinned blacks considered him and other darker-complected people inferior.
The short, bright life of Fire!!
Thurman's first big achievement of the Harlem Renaissance was his editorship of the daring, high-quality, but short-lived journal Fire!! Hughes and Nugent had come up with the idea of a publication that would showcase the spirited, and sometimes experimental, work of the period's younger writers and that would thumb its nose, so to speak, at the "proper," conservative members of the Talented Tenth (Du Bois's term for the upper crust of African American society, whose members were expected to promote racial progress through their accomplishments and respectability). Hughes and Nugent asked Thurman to edit the journal, and he dove into the project with his usual energy.
The least of Thurman's problems was the content of Fire!!, for all the members of the magazine's editorial board (including Thurman, Hughes, Nugent, Hurston, artist Aaron Douglas [1898–1979; see biographical entry], poet Gwendolyn Bennett, and Harvard undergraduate John Davis) would contribute work, and pieces also came from poets Countee Cullen (1903–1946; see biographical entry), Helene Johnson (1907–1995; see Chapter 3), and Arna Bontemps, along with an essay by Arthur Huff Fauset (1889–1983). Fire!!'s foreword announced in a poem format its bold intentions: "FIRE ... flaming, burning, searing, and penetrating far beneath the superficial items of the flesh to boil the sluggish blood / FIRE ... a cry of conquest in the night, warning those who sleep and revitalizing those who linger in the quiet places dozing."
Thurman's biggest challenge was raising the money needed to produce the high-quality publication he envisioned. He wanted Fire!! to be printed on slick paper that would show off the contents in their best light. Hard-pressed to collect much money from the equally impoverished members of the editorial board, Thurman borrowed one thousand dollars to publish Fire!!, and in the end he was personally responsible for this debt (which took him four years to pay off). His colleagues at the magazine World Tomorrow, where he was now working , felt sorry for him in his penniless condition and gave him a check to buy a winter overcoat.
Fire!! generates heat
The publication of Fire!! in November, 1926 did indeed generate the heat its creators had intended. All of the brightest stars of the Harlem Renaissance (who were then known as members of the New Negro movement) were represented, and several contributions were clearly meant to shock the magazine's more stodgy readers. Richard Bruce Nugent's impressionistic short story "Smoke, Lilies and Jade" contained references to homosexuality, and Thurman's story "Cordelia the Crude" offered an alarmingly realistic view of Harlem life, complete with rent parties, gambling, drinking, prostitution, and murder.
It's not surprising, then, that most of the Talented Tenth expressed disgust for this publication of the younger generation. The well-known African American critic Benjamin Brawley (1882–1939) reported that he had tossed Fire!! into the fire, and W.E.B. Du Bois was said to be offended by the mere mention of the magazine. Fire!! would not, however, prove to be a long-term irritation, for the journal ceased publication after one issue. Its high cost—one dollar per copy, which was very expensive in the 1920s—caused many readers to borrow Fire!! from friends rather than buy it themselves. Getting the magazine distributed was also a problem that its editor failed to solve; in addition, many copies were destroyed when an apartment where they were being stored caught on fire, giving a new and ironic meaning to the name Fire!!
A marriage and a new project
After working for some time as circulation manager at the white magazine World Tomorrow, Thurman was hired as an editor by the Macauley publishing company, becoming the first African American to hold such a position in a white firm. In September 1928 he surprised his friends (who believed him to be homosexual, or at least not interested in marriage) by marrying Louise Thompson. Two months later Thurman launched a new project called Harlem: A Forum of Negro Life, which was supposed to be a general-interest magazine with both literary works and essays and articles on a variety of topics.
This time Thurman was not financially responsible. And, unlike Fire!!, Harlem was not meant to shock. Among its offerings were short fiction and poetry by Hughes, poetry by Georgia Douglas Johnson (1886–1966) and Helene Johnson, essays by Alain Locke (1886–1954; see biographcal entry) and Walter White (1893–1955), illustrations and sketches by Aaron Douglas , theater and book reviews, and a guide to where to go and what to do in Harlem. This new publication proved no more successful than Fire!!, but at least in this case Thurman had not gone into debt to get it published.
A play about Harlem's seamy side
At the same time, Thurman was working with a white collaborator, William Jourdan Rapp (an editor of True Story magazine), on a play based on his short story "Cordelia the Crude." With a cast of sixty actors, most of whom were not professionals, the play—called Harlem—opened on Broadway on February 20, 1929. Harlem centers on what happens to a black family that moves from the rural South to a northern city. The parents, Pa and Ma Williams, are hardworking people with three children, two of whom work to help support the family and one, Cordelia, who gets involved with Harlem's shadiest people and activities.
Forthright in its portrayal of such topics as gambling, gang warfare, and prostitution, Harlem got negative reviews from some critics, especially those who represented the Talented Tenth. They claimed that Thurman's highlighting of this underside of African American life would give white society the wrong impression. Other critics, however, praised Thurman for presenting a slice of the real Harlem and for tackling controversial subjects head-on. The play ran for ninety-three performances, was taken on tour by three road companies, and returned for a second Broadway engagement. Thurman became a celebrity for a brief period.
By this time Thurman's marriage had collapsed, and he and Thompson became involved in a bitter battle over the financial support she would receive after their planned divorce. Thurman traveled to Hollywood to investigate the possibility of a film adaptation of Harlem, and there he also worked on two more plays that were to be part of the trilogy he and Rapp had envisioned. Harlem was to be followed by Jeremiah the Magnificent, based on the real-life story of Jamaican-born activist Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), a charismatic, ambitious black leader who had encouraged many ordinary African Americans to be proud of their hertitage before being imprisoned for fraud. Thurman finished this play, but it was never produced during his lifetime, and he never finished writing the third play in the trilogy, Black Cinderella, about a color-obsessed black couple who favor their light-skinned daughter over her darker sister.
Writes The Blacker the Berry
While traveling in the West, Thurman visited his mother in Salt Lake City, and he later reported to his friends that members of her church who had heard about the racy content of his popular play had prayed over him, beseeching God to turn him from his evil ways. Thurman returned to New York downhearted for two reasons: he had not been able to drum up interest in adapting his play for film, and his dispute with his wife was no closer to being resolved. He was drinking heavily, and Harlem hostesses dreaded his arrival at parties, for invariably he would end his evenings by passing out.
Thurman's mood was not much lifted by the publication of his first novel, The Blacker the Berry, in early 1929, for as usual he felt that his work was not up to the high standards he had set for himself. The novel takes its title from an African American folk saying, "The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice," which Thurman uses as an ironic reference to the prejudice experienced by blacks with darker skin.
The central character, Emma Lou Morgan, is the only dark-skinned member of her family, and her parents openly favor her sister over her. She also experiences discrimination within her community of Boise, Idaho, and at the University of California. Emma Lou moves to Harlem, assuming that surely in this progressive center of black life her own lot will improve. But she is mistreated there as well and has a humiliating affair with a light-skinned man named Alva. After a disastrous attempt to lighten her skin with strong chemicals, she finally realizes that she must reject the false values of those around her and accept herself as she is.
The Blacker the Berry has often been described as an autobiographical novel, for Thurman too felt that his dark skin had prejudiced other blacks against him. Reviews of the novel at the time of its publication were mixed, but most critics now agree that although it is not of top-rate literary quality, The Blacker the Berry effectively portrays a problem that few African American writers were willing to confront.
Satirizing the Harlem Renaissance
Thurman's second novel, Infants of the Spring (1932), chronicles the experiences of a group of black writers in Harlem, all of whom closely resemble Thurman and his Harlem Renaissance friends. The novel is a satire that reveals the pretensions of these young people who think that they and their work will change the world. The story is told primarily through the character of Raymond Taylor, a writer who, like Thurman, wants to create high-quality literature that is neither decadent (in a state of moral decay or decline) nor too focused on racial issues.
Among Taylor's friends and colleagues are Dr. Parkes (modeled after Alain Locke), who tells the young writers that because of their work, "new vistas will be spread open to the entire race"; the rather mysterious poet Tony Crews (modeled after Langston Hughes); and Sweetie May Carr (modeled after Zora Neale Hurston), who is taking advantage of white people's new interest in African Americans for her own benefit. The novel ends with the suicide—carefully planned to have a dramatic effect—of the daring artist and writer Paul Arbian (modeled after Richard Bruce Nugent, although Nugent did not kill himself), who seems to embody all the faddishness of the New Negro movement.
Once again, Thurman's novel received mixed reviews. Some critics complained that Infants of the Spring contained too much conversation and too little action, while others praised its realism; in later years many reviewers would view the novel as a reflection of Thurman's personal bitterness and dissatisfaction. In any case, Thurman took the negative reviews to heart and continued to feel that he was not yet the writer he had hoped to become.
A third novel and two film scripts
In the course of his work at Macauley's, Thurman met a white writer named Abraham L. Furman, with whom he wroteThe Interne (1932). This novel about the training of young doctors at New York's City Hospital was intended to expose the sub-standard practices and behavior that went on there. Reviewers, however, found the novel poorly written and overly dramatic.
In 1934 Thurman was hired to write film scripts for the Hollywood production company of Bryan Foy, Jr., who was interested in making films about social issues. Thurman spent several months living in California and wrote two scripts, High School Girl (1935) and Tomorrow's Children (1934). The latter tale of a poor white family features a seventeen-year-old girl who supports her usually-pregnant mother and alcoholic, unemployed father, along with a number of siblings who are all either physically or mentally disabled. Social welfare authorities want to sterilize (make incapable of reproducing) the parents and daughter, but a priest intervenes to squelch this plan. The story raises the question of whether the state has the right to decide whether people may or may not have children, and it exposes the different kinds of justice available to rich and poor Americans.
" ... it all died with him."
Thurman returned to New York in May of 1934, exhausted and in ill health after many long, late nights of drinking in California. His doctor told him he should quit drinking, but he disregarded this warning and spent the month after his return in constant carousing. Many parties would end with Thurman either passing out or threatening to jump out of windows and kill himself. Finally he collapsed, and he was taken to City Hospital, the same institution he had vilified in The Interne. There he was diagnosed with tuberculosis (a life-threatening disease of the lungs), and he spent six months in the hospital, growing weaker and weaker with each passing day. Thurman died on December 21, 1934.
On Christmas Eve, Thurman's friends gathered for his funeral, an occasion that shocked these young people into an awareness of their own mortality. Some observers classify it among several events that marked the true end of the Harlem Renaissance. "[Thurman] was our leader," remembered writer Dorothy West in a 1970 article in Black World, "and when he died, it all died with him."
For More Information
Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. "Portrait of Wallace Thurman." In TheHarlem Renaissance Remembered. Edited by Arna Bontemps. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972.
Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Notten, Eleonore Van. Wallace Thurman's Harlem Renaissance. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.
O'Daniel, Therman B. Introduction to The Blacker the Berry, by Wallace Thurman. New York: Collier, 1970.
Walden, Daniel. "'The Canker Galls ...'; Or, The Short, Promising Life of Wallace Thurman." In The Harlem Renaissance Re-examined. Edited by Victor Kramer. New York: AMS, 1987.
Haslam, Gerald. "Wallace Thurman: Western Renaissance Man." WesternAmerican Literature (Spring 1971): 53–59.
Perkins, Huel D. "Renaissance 'Renegade'? Wallace Thurman." BlackWorld 25.4 (1976): 29–35.
West, Dorothy. "Elephant's Dance: A Memoir of Wallace Thurman." BlackWorld 20.1 (1970): 77–85.
"Thurman, Wallace." Harlem Renaissance. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/culture-magazines/thurman-wallace
"Thurman, Wallace." Harlem Renaissance. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/culture-magazines/thurman-wallace