Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901
Wallace Henry Thurman may have seen the death of the Harlem Renaissance after Infants of the Spring, but while it was alive his imagination and critical attention helped to keep it healthy. Thurman was born on August 16, 1902, in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Beulah and Oscar Thurman. His parents soon separated, and he was raised by his maternal grandmother, Emma Jackson, to whom he dedicated his first novel, The Blacker the Berry. Thurman enrolled briefly at the University of Utah, then moved to California and started a premedical curriculum at the University of Southern California. He did not finish his studies because he became involved in the type of work that was to absorb his energies for the rest of Thurman’s brief life: He began to write a column for a black Los Angeles newspaper, and he edited a magazine. The magazine lasted six months, the longest any of Thurman’s independent editorial projects would last.
Thurman arrived in Harlem in 1925 and worked for meals as a jack-of-all-trades on a small magazine whose editor knew the staff of the black-radical magazine The Messenger; Thurman was later hired as managing editor of The Messenger. Editorial and administrative work suited Thurman, and he continued in it throughout the renaissance; he was, in fact, one of the few younger renaissance figures who had a steady, predictable source of income.
By the time he began work on The Messenger, he had been around Harlem enough to know all the major figures of the renaissance. His most important acquaintance was the poet, novelist, and playwright Langston Hughes, who roomed across the hall from him in the boardinghouse that served as the model for “Niggerati Manor” in Infants of the Spring. Hughes brought to Thurman in 1927 a request to serve as editor of a new magazine for publishing experimental and unconventional literature by younger black writers. Black magazines which published art and literature (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s The Crisis and the Urban League’s Opportunity, for example) were not primarily literary magazines, and the idea of Hughes and his friends was that a strictly literary magazine with solely artistic criteria was necessary. The new magazine, Fire!!, was visually stunning (designed by African American artist Aaron Douglas) and editorially adventurous, a tribute to Thurman’s abilities. Unfortunately the magazine was too adventurous for most of the readers who bought that first issue (more than one short story, for example, contained sexually unorthodox characters), and the final blow for the project was that the remaining copies of the first issue were destroyed by a fire in the apartment where they were stored. With no inventory and no income, the group could not continue publication. Thurman took it upon himself to repay the debt for the paper, printing, and binding of this high quality publication; repayment took about four years.
The next year Thurman founded a general interest magazine, which he called Harlem. Again the magazine was well designed and edited; moreover it was not so controversial as Fire!!, but it, too, failed after one issue. Thurman did not have time to mourn the failure because he was busy writing and working on the editorial staff of Macauley Publishing Company, the company that published The Blacker the Berry in 1929. This novel, which details the effects of color prejudice and self-hatred among African Americans, received mixed reviews. Thurman was more successful in February, 1929, with a production of the play Harlem, written with William Jourdan Rapp and based on one of the controversial short stories in the defunct Fire!! The play ran at the Apollo Theatre in New York City for ninety-three performances, had successful road company tours, and was revived on Broadway in October of 1929.
Thurman briefly tried his hand at writing “social problem” screenplays for an independent filmmaker in Hollywood, then went back to Harlem, where he wrote his most important work, Infants of the Spring, also published by his employer, Macauley. The title is taken from a passage in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet which summarizes Thurman’s view of the Harlem Renaissance; he believed that it had been killed before it had flowered. He also believed that the “canker” was internal: The Harlem Renaissance, in his opinion, died of too much self-consciousness and self-indulgence. This harsh evaluation was not fully accepted in 1932 when the novel was published, nor has it been since, but the novel has been recognized as a skillfully satirical roman à clef. The novel, which follows the lives of black writers and artists living in a rooming house called Niggerati Manor, includes deftly drawn (and quartered) characters such as Tony Crews (Langston Hughes) and Sweetie Mae Carr (Zora Neale Hurston).
Thurman contracted tuberculosis in the early 1930’s and died of it in New York City on December 22, 1934. In his autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), Hughes affectionately and critically limns Thurman as a man whose critical bent caused him to see flaws in everything, including his own writing. According to Hughes, Thurman wanted to be a great literary figure and believed that he was “merely” a journalist. With Infants of the Spring, Thurman’s literary ambitions and his journalistic talent work together; the result is a satirical novel that is still read with enjoyment, long after both the satirist and the objects of his satire have passed from the scene. Posterity seems to have judged Thurman more kindly than he judged himself.