Wallace Thurman: The story of the great African-American novelist

Wallace Thurman: The story of the great African-American novelist

Wallace Thurman, born Wallace Henry Thurman, was a novelist, essayist, editor, and playwright that was a big part of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was the development of the Harlem neighbourhood in New York City into a centre of excellence. This took place in the early 20th century, and the social and artistic greatness that resulted from it made this period a golden age in African American culture. Thurman was one of the initial supporters of the movement but later became one of its harshest critics.

Wallace Thurman
Wallace Thurman. Photo: @washinformer
Source: Instagram

Why is Wallace Thurman important? Thurman actively campaigned against the prejudice against darker-skinned black people. His dark skin colour attracted comments from both his white and black counterparts, which fueled his writing.

Who is Wallace Thurman?

Where was Wallace Thurman born? Thurman was born in Salt Lake City to Beulah and Oscar Thurman. He was born on 16th August 1902, and less than a month after his birth, his father abandoned them.

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After this, Thurman’s mother remarried several times, which meant that his early life was marked by instability. Through all of this, he found solace in reading and writing and wrote his first novel at 10.

While he was young, Thurman’s health was an ever-present challenge and heavily interfered with his schooling. After he began grade school at age 6, his poor health led him to take a few years off school. He, however, managed to finish grammar school despite suffering from persistent heart attacks during this time.

In 1918 he caught influenza during the worldwide pandemic. He managed to recover and finished his high school education. After high school, Thurman attended the University of Utah as a premedical student from 1919 to 1920. He transferred to the University of South California in 1922, but he left without earning a degree.

Rising to fame

Wallace left the world of academia to become a reporter and a columnist for a black-owned newspaper. He later began a magazine named ‘Outlet,’ which he intended to make the West Coast equivalent of the ‘Crisis’ periodical operated by the NAACP.

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In 1925, Thurman moved to Harlem, the heart of the renaissance. He worked there as a ghostwriter, publisher, editor, and writer. His hard work got him a post as the editor of The Messenger, a socialist journal that was addressed to black people. He was the first to publish the adult-themed stories of Langston Hughes.

After that, he left The Magazine to become the editor of World Tomorrow. He later collaborated in founding a literary magazine called Fire!! Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists. He managed to publish only one issue of this magazine, in which he called out African Americans who were working for social and racial integration.

He felt that they spent too much energy trying to prove to White people that they were not inferior. During this time, Thurman’s house at 267 West 136th Street in Harlem became the central meeting place for African American literary and visual artists.

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Wallace Thurman books

Wallace Thurman
Wallace Thurman. Photo: @kogbewe7
Source: Instagram

In 1929, Thurman wrote Harlem, which debuted on Broadway and got mixed reviews from audiences. In the same year, he published his first novel, The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life. In this book, Thurman focused on intraracial prejudice and the colourism within the black community, where people with lighter skin have historically been favoured.

In 1932, Thurman published Infants of the Spring, a satire of the overrated people who were part of the Harlem Renaissance. His final novel, The Interne, was co-authored with Abraham L. Furman, a white man.

Popular Wallace Thurman quotes

As a literary giant, it is obvious that Thurman’s books contained some powerful one-liners that were shared over and over again by his readers that they became quotes. Some of Thurman’s best quotes include the following:

  • We are mere journeymen, planting seeds for someone else to harvest.
  • Colour prejudice and religion are akin in one respect. Some folks have it, and some don’t, and the kernel that is responsible for it is present in us all.
  • If but a few live coals are found in a mountain of ashes, no one should be disappointed. Genius is a rare quality in this world, and there is no reason why it should be more ubiquitous among Blacks than Whites.
  • I cannot bear to associate with the ordinary run of people. I have to surround myself with individuals who, for the most part, are more than a trifle insane.
  • I am reminded again that the greatest phrase ever written is words, words, words.
  • It was Emma Lou’s way to create her worlds within her own mind without considering that other people and other elements, not contained within herself, would also have to aid in their moulding.
  • Perhaps if she were to live with a homey type of family, they could introduce her to “the right sort of people.

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Why did Wallace Thurman eventually criticize Harlem in his novel infants of spring?

The Infants of the Spring criticized the African American socialites who wrote for political reasons or rejected art that did not conform to the ideals set by the ablest percentage of black Americans. Thurman believed that the famous writers in the movement allowed themselves to be patronized by whites.

When did Wallace Thurman die?

Wallace had a history of illnesses and on December 26th, 1934, in New York City, he died after a battle with Tuberculosis. Many believed that his illness was worsened by his long fight with alcoholism. Wallace Thurman death came as a shock to the people to whom he had become a face of the revolution. At the age of 32, he had a lot more left to offer.

Wallace Thurman was a talented writer whose talents were evident to his friends and fellow writers. Poet Langston Hughes described him as “a strangely brilliant black boy who had read everything and whose critical mind could find something wrong with everything he had read.”

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