Wallace Thurman Biography


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...

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Gaither, Renoir W. “The Moment of Revision: A Reappraisal of Wallace Thurman’s Aesthetics in The Blacker the Berry and Infants of the Spring.” CLA Journal 37, no. 1 (1993). A reevaluation that is worth reading.

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 1940. Reprint. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002. Hughes presents in his autobiography a fascinating character sketch of Thurman.

Notten-Krepel, Eleonore van. Wallace Thurman’s Harlem Renaissance. Leiden, the Netherlands: Author, 1994. A full-length study.

Walden, Daniel. “The Canker Galls . . . Or, The Short Promising Life of Wallace Thurman.” In The Harlem Renaissance Re-examined, edited by Victor A. Kramer and Robert A. Russ. Rev. and expanded ed. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1997. A close look at Thurman’s life.