Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

Although in the 1920’s Wallace Thurman was considered the central figure in Harlem’s black bohemia, his works are marred by an evident inability to accept himself, his race, and the intellectual circle of which he was a part. While Thurman’s contemporaries found much to praise in his first novel, The...

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Although in the 1920’s Wallace Thurman was considered the central figure in Harlem’s black bohemia, his works are marred by an evident inability to accept himself, his race, and the intellectual circle of which he was a part. While Thurman’s contemporaries found much to praise in his first novel, The Blacker the Berry, which they saw as an effective attack on intraracial prejudice, some felt that because the author had projected his own self-hatred onto his protagonist, he had failed to bring her to life. Others believed that the story was exaggerated; moreover, some African American critics resented any work that presented African Americans in a less than favorable light. According to critic Mae Gwendolyn Henderson, Thurman himself was not pleased with his novel, feeling that in order to make his point he had produced propaganda, not art.

It is generally agreed that the bitter autobiographical novel that followed, Infants of the Spring (1932), is an artistic failure. While from a historical standpoint the work is interesting, with its acidic descriptions of such major Harlem Renaissance writers as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Countée Cullen, it lacks the narrative structure of The Blacker the Berry. Instead, it is little more than a prolonged discussion, a book-length version of the kind of argument among intellectuals that for a time halts the action in “The Rent Party.” Thurman’s only other novel, a collaborative effort called The Interne (1932), is negligible.

Despite the author’s reservations about The Blacker the Berry, later critics have tended to find the novel more complex and more profound than either Thurman or his contemporaries thought it to be. Pointing out how effectively the author dealt with the issues of gender and of identity, critics now see The Blacker the Berry as one of the Harlem Renaissance’s more interesting novels.

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Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)