Decadence, sexuality, and the Bohemian vision of Wallace Thurman

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Author: Granville Ganter
Date: Summer 2003
From: MELUS(Vol. 28, Issue 2)
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,681 words

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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 "self-despising" 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 that 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 oppressed 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 African American identity, Thurman has not found a comfortable place amidst the progressive identity politics of post-1960s literary scholarship. In contrast to fay Richard Bruce Nugent, who has been welcomed by contemporary gay scholars, Thurman remains a wallflower, neither self-consciously black enough, nor gay enough, to serve as a Renaissance poster-boy, although his literary output dwarfs Nugent's. As George Hutchinson has argued persuasively, several recent generations of scholars have balked at the complex interracial and interethnic politics of the Renaissance for lack of an adequate American discourse about hybrid identity (6-26). As a result, writers like Thurman, who actively sought to challenge the nationalist, racial, and sexual isolationisms of his day (and regrettably, ours), have yet to receive kindly treatment for their iconoclasm.

As many of his literary peers recognized, Thurman looked to Europe for aesthetic inspiration, not just America. Culturally stifled while growing up in Salt Lake City and Boise, Thurman apprenticed himself as a young writer to European artists of the Decadent movement. Identifying with figures such as Baudelaire, Huysmans, Wilde, and Gorky, Thurman imagined himself as part of an international avant-garde devoted to exploring the creative possibilities of the modern, the artificial, and the prohibited. In 1928, he wrote to a friend that he saw his generation as "Columbuses ... discovering things about themselves and about their environment which it seems to them their elders have been at pains to hide" (Van Notten 141-42). One of Thurman's patrons, Alain Locke, recognized the decadent, Frenchified spirit of the 1890s behind Thurman's work, but he did not think it black enough, or decent enough, to advance the political goals of the Renaissance (Locke 563)....

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Source Citation
Ganter, Granville. "Decadence, sexuality, and the Bohemian vision of Wallace Thurman." MELUS, vol. 28, no. 2, summer 2003, pp. 83+. Accessed 28 Nov. 2022.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A108114701