Exploding the Canon: A Re-Examination of Wallace Thurman's Assault on the Harlem Renaissance

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Abstract

Although Wallace Thurman is a well-recognized figure of the Harlem Renaissance, scholarly treatments of him tend to misinterpret his role in the period. Thurman's life is usually used as an example of the tragic end of the era or he is characterized as a bright, yet demonic, cynic who was devoured by his inability to live up to his own high expectations.(1) While there is validity in each of these portrayals, they both divert attention from Thurman's role as the ideological leader of the younger set of Renaissance artists. These depictions also minimize the effects his efforts had on developing unencumbered creative space for writers whose works fell outside of the proposed literary canon.

Many scholars misconstrue Thurman and his contributions to the Harlem Renaissance because they concentrate their inquiries on his characterization in Langston Hughes' autobiography The Big Sea. Hughes described Thurman as a "strangely brilliant black boy" who "wanted to be a great writer, but none of his own work ever made him happy" (234). To deal with his own shortcomings and depression Thurman, in Hughes view, "contented himself by writing a great deal for money ... drinking more and more gin, and then threatening to jump out of windows at people's parties and kill himself" (235). When coupled with Interne and Infants of the Spring, Thurman's two depressing last novels, Hughes' depiction highlights the cynicism and despair which were so much a part of the young genius' last years. But, if one looks closely at Wallace Thurman's creative production of the 1920's, the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, another image presents itself.

Prior to his arrival in New York, Thurman wrote a column called "Inklings" in a local Los Angeles newspaper. In an effort to jump start a Negro Renaissance on the West Coast he even published and personally financed a magazine, The Outlet, for almost half a year (Henderson 149). At this point in his life, he was not the depressed cynic so often alluded to in historical interpretations. Rather, he was a young man who was so impressed by Jean Toomer's Cane and the literary ferment of Harlem, that he dedicated his life to fulfilling the promise which these opportunities engendered. Simply heating that H.L. Menken, Fannie Hurst, and Carl Van Vecten were discussing literature with Black artists no older than himself caused him to get excited and "to feel inspired" (West 77-78).

Thurman came to Harlem on Labor Day 1925 in hopes of finding the "New Negro" (Henderson 147). Commenting on his arrival, he explained, "I lived out in Los Angeles ... and I heard about the `new negro' but I didn't see any signs of him on the Pacific Coast. I tried to be a movement all by myself ... Then I began to think about Harlem for that seemed to be the home of this `new negro' and soon after I graduated from the University of Southern California I came here" (Hicks 10). During his initial years in Harlem, Thurman was the epitome of youthful exuberance and idealism. His demeanor was that of an individual who felt an extreme level of optimism towards the opportunities and responsibilities which the Harlem Renaissance presented for young Black artists. As his good friend Dorothy West noted, "he wanted to get in on the ground floor and not get off the crowded lift until it banged the roof off and skyrocketed him ... to the stars" (77).

When Thurman did not find the creative space he had envisioned in Harlem, his idealism drove him to create it. On one side, he confronted a White literary community so consumed with sycophantic praise that it could neither distinguish quality art, nor adequately promote it. On the other, he faced a Black establishment which he saw as overly sensitive, elitist, and mired in the maintenance of a social hierarchy based on skin colon Given this context, a person exhibiting the pessimism and defeatism normally associated with Thurman would have simply packed his bags and gone back to his Post Office job in California. …

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