Wallace Thurman

A controversial writer and editor active during the Harlem Renaissance, Wallace Thurman was born on August 16, 1902 in Salt Lake City to Beula and Oscar Thurman. Thurman’s early life was marked by turmoil, as his father abandoned him and his mother when Thurman himself was less than a month old. His mother went on to remarry and move states several times over the course of Thurman's childhood. In between her relationships, however, Thurman and his mother lived in Salt Lake City with his maternal grandmother, Emma Jackson, who ran a saloon from her home, selling liquor without a license. 

Thurman’s family life was characterized by illness and instability. At age six, Thurman attended grade school in Boise, Idaho, but soon left due to his poor health, which led him and his mother to return to his grandmother in Salt Lake.  From 1910 to 1914, Thurman lived and studied in Chicago, but finished grammar school in Omaha, Nebraska, where he moved again with his mother. During this time, Thurman suffered from frequent heart attacks. With his mother, Thurman moved again to Pasadena, California, where, in the winter of 1918, Thurman caught influenza during the global Influenza Pandemic. Thurman recovered in the spring and returned to Salt Lake, where he finished high school. He attended the University of Utah between 1919-1920 as a pre-med student, before transferring to the University of Southern California in 1922. He left without finishing his degree. 

It was in Los Angeles that Thurman, a voracious reader, established himself as a writer. Thurman worked as a reporter and wrote a column, "Inklings," for a black-owned newspaper, then founded the magazine Outlet, which he’d hoped to be the West Coast equivalent of the NAACP’s magazine The CrisisOutlet lasted only six months, and in 1925 Thurman settled in New York City, where he worked as a reporter and editor at The Looking Glass. Eventually, Thurman became managing editor of Messenger, a political and literary journal, where he published the writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. In 1926, he co-founded, along with a number of prominent black writers, a magazine called Fire!!, which published younger black writers who were aesthetically and politically critical of their older, more established peers. Fire!! was generally disliked by the black middle class because of its raw, unvarnished portrayals of black life. It folded after one issue. Thurman then joined the staff of a white-owned periodical, World Tomorrow

Thurman’s time in New York coincided with the Harlem Renaissance, a period of robust African American literary and cultural production that flourished during the 1920’s. Thurman’s proclivities for parties made him a popular, if not prominent, literary figure in black artistic circles, as Thurman’s own ideas about black literature often challenged the beliefs of writers such as W.E.B. DuBois, who argued for social equality and racial integration. Thurman used satire to point out the hypocrisy of black prejudice against darker-skinned African Americans, something Thurman himself experienced often both in the black community and in the white West. Likewise, Thurman critiqued what he saw as the black literati’s penchant for whitewashing the more complex realities of black life in order to show white Americans that African Americans were racially equal and respectable, thus pandering to what Thurman saw as white American aesthetic and social expectations.  So long as black writers wrote for white approval, Thurman argued, they would produce inferior work. Thus Thurman publicly decried the Harlem Renaissance, arguing that it had produced mediocre writers who had allowed themselves to be exploited and patronized by whites.

Thurman’s own creative output was, if briefly, widely popular. In 1929, Thurman collaborated with the white playwright William Jourdan Rapp to write and produce Harlem, a highly successful play that ran for 93 performances on Broadway. He also published his novel The Blacker the Berry, whose protagonist, Emma Lou, experiences many of Thurman’s own difficulties as a black Westerner. Like Thurman, Emma Lou suffers the painful reality of racial segregation both in Idaho and in New York, as well as experiences of colorism within the African American community. But Thurman’s portrayal of Emma Lou’s sexuality is what, at the time, proved to be most startling to readers: Emma Lou not only seeks out but enjoys sex out of wedlock, without any sense of shame. 

Thurman’s own sexuality was the subject of much speculation and prejudice among other artists and middle class African Americans in his milieu.  In 1925, Thurman was briefly jailed for being caught in a sexual act with a man in a public bathroom. Thurman had been married at the time to Louise Thompson: a marriage that lasted six months. The scandal of this affair traveled back even to Utah, leading Thurman to tell his collaborator Rapp that his ostracization from the black middle class of New York and what he called “the polite colored circles in Salt Lake [was] now complete.” 

Though The Blacker the Berry is now largely forgotten, Thurman’s cultural influence remains significant, as it was Thurman’s editorial shepherding of younger African American writers into publication that helped the Harlem Renaissance flourish. Langston Hughes once called Wallace Thurman “a strangely brilliant Black boy who had read everything, and whose critical mind could find something wrong with everything he read.” 

It is perhaps Thurman’s intellectual contrariness, along with his commitment to unvarnished realism that most distinguishes his career today, a career cut short by tuberculosis, from which Thurman died on December 22, 1934, a few months after a visit to his grandmother in Salt Lake.

Work

Bibliography

The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life, 1929

Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life in Harlem, written in collaboration with William Jourdan Rapp, 1929.

Infants of the Spring, 1932

The Inferne, with A.L. Furman, 1932

The Collected Writings of Wallace Thurman: A Harlem Renaissance Reader, ed Amritjit Singh, Daniel M. Scott III, Rutgers University Press, 2003.