New Voices on the Harlem Renaissance: Essays on Race, Gender, and Literary Discourse

By Australia Tarver; Barnes C. Paula | Go to book overview

Decadence, Sexuality, and the Bohemian
Vision of Wallace Thurman

GRANVILLE GANTER

DESPITE HIS DYNAMIC OUTPUT AS AN AUTHOR AND CRITIC OF THE Harlem Renaissance, Wallace Thurman has not often inspired critical admiration. Several generations of scholars have lamented the alcoholic excess of his lifestyle and the indecent content of his writing. From the beginning of his career, Thurman’s disinclination to celebrate his black heritage caused considerable anxiety among leaders of the New Negro movement. In his review of Thurman’s first novel, The Blacker the Berry, W. E. B. Du Bois expressed his regret at Thurman’s apparently “selfdespising” racial outlook and complained that Thurman seemed to “deride blackness” (250). Although later critics have acknowledged Thurman’s energy and promise, Du Bois’s verdict is still echoed today.1

The moralistic tones of the case against Thurman tend to invoke puritanical assumptions about sex and race, which continue to have powerful influence in the twenty-first century. Because assessments of the Harlem Renaissance have been often shaped by parochial—and laudable—beliefs that members of different races, classes, and sexual orientations should celebrate their communities as a matter of pride, the bohemian aspirations of Thurman’s role in the Renaissance have been underappreciated, if not outright rejected. Although Thurman broke many social taboos during his short brilliant career, one of his most challenging characteristics was his acerbic intractability. Thurman was neither a picture of heterosexual virility nor was he exclusively gay. Combined with his lukewarm interest in promoting his black identity, Thurman has not found a comfortable place amid the progressive identity politics of post1960s literary scholarship. In contrast to fey Richard Bruce Nugent, who has been welcomed by contemporary gay scholars, Thurman remains a wallflower, neither self-consciously black

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