Infants of the Spring.
In 1923 Wallace Thurman briefly attended the School of Journalism (not Medicine, as Singh's introduction suggests) at USC, where his most important discovery was the work of H. L. Mencken. Mencken's appeal was, at least in part, based on the 1913 edition of his 1908 book The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. In Thurman's unpublished autobiographical portrait entitled "Notes on a Stepchild" (1929), he would report how "Mencken had caused [him] to become a confirmed Nietzschean." Yet as W. H. A. Williams points out, Mencken's interpretation of the German philosopher owes more to Mencken himself than to Nietzsche, whose concept of an ideal human society led by a master class became, for Mencken, a utopian vision of an intellectual aristocracy of artist-iconoclasts in search of Truth and Beauty (33).
To a man like Thurman, who enjoyed "pulling the pedestal out from under the plaster gods of other people," as his friend Dorothy West would recall, Mencken was irresistible. Not only was Thurman fascinated by Mencken's relentless assaults on the so-called American "booboisie," but he was also attracted to the idea of the artist-iconoclast. This figure of the solitary, detached observer at odds with the inherently stupid masses was perfectly suited to the specific circumstances of Thurman's life.
In "Notes on a Stepchild," Thurman depicts himself as a precocious, introspective child whose early sense of isolation was further exacerbated by frequent illnesses and a dark complexion. The object of both inter- and intra-racial prejudice, Thurman found, during his time at USC, that Mencken's concept helped him to redefine and redeem his precarious social position. It provided him not only with an intellectual framework for his criticism but, more importantly, with a rationale to perceive himself as a superior human being, only interested, as he pointed out in his autobiography, "in individuals in whom he could find germs of truth and beauty." Thurman's ultimate goal, he explained, was to achieve his own salvation by becoming "a beacon light on Mount Olympus" in the midst of "several million begging, cringing, moaning nonentities."
Thurman arrived in New York on September 7,1925, "with nothing but his nerve," as the critic Theophilus Lewis later recalled (10). Four months later he was working as an editor at The Messenger, one of the more influential black papers of the day. Through his editorial position, Thurman rapidly gained prominence among his literary peers, opening the pages of the magazine to such notables as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas, Dorothy West, Helene Johnson, and Bruce Nugent. Yet it was only as the editor-in-chief of Fire!!, a quarterly devoted to the younger generation of black writers and artists, that he became a leading force in Harlem's avant-garde bohemian milieu.
With the publication of Fire!!, "an adolescent pyromaniac's adventure," as Thurman would later call it, he and Nugent aligned themselves, at least in spirit, with their bohemian white counterparts in Greenwich Village and distanced themselves from illustrious elders whose artistic vision was rooted in the Genteel Tradition and concerned primarily with racial uplift. Only days after the publication of Fire!! in November 1926, Thurman and Nugent moved to a new address in Harlem--267 West 136th St., which came to be known as "Niggeratti Manor," the throbbing heart of black bohemia. Two years later, when the Manor's inhabitants had gone their separate ways, Thurman felt an inescapable compulsion to document the Niggeratti years in a novel, as did Nugent who, in 1930, was also writing a roman a clef about his life at the Manor.
Nugent's text, which was never published, displays remarkable similarities to Thurman's Infants of the Spring, which was published in 1932 by the Macaulay Company, Thurman's employer at the time. A comparative analysis of the two novels indicates that the authors made extensive use of the same people and the same events. Indeed, both texts could justifiably be classified as novelized eyewitness reports. Most of the characters in Nugent's novel can be identified, as can all of Thurman's "infants." Thurman's autobiographical persona is named Raymond Taylor; in Nugent's novel Thurman's fictional counterpart is called Raymond Pellman. Similarly, the black businesswoman Iolanthy Sidney, the owner of "Niggeratti Manor," appears in Thurman's text as Euphoria Blake, and in Nugent's alternately as Euphoria and Yolande. Alain Locke is Dr. Parke(s) in both novels. Furthermore, there are several instances in which segments of Nugent's novel appear almost verbatim in Thurman's text. Not surprisingly, Nugent would repeatedly accuse Thurman of plagiarism in later years.
Thurman's tendency to emulate the work of others, which was not limited to Nugent's writings, may be explained in the context of what he perceived as his authoritative position as artist-iconoclast. Thurman's somewhat inflated self-image was linked to artistic excellence, and the shortest route to a position of literary preeminence during the Harlem Renaissance was as a novelist. Focusing on the work of Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Proust, Mann, and other Europeans of similar literary stature, Thurman set himself standards which were difficult to meet. And though proficient as a journalist and a skilled editor, Thurman eventually had to acknowledge to his chagrin that he was not an accomplished writer of fiction.
In Infants of the Spring, Thurman's identification with his protagonist Raymond Taylor illustrates his sense of self-importance. The text is packed with Taylor's self-obsessed discussions of individualism, race relations, and art--topics close to Thurman's heart. The excessive use of dialogue and self-analysis to force information on the reader, however, makes for an unfocused plot and shallow characters--with the sole exception, of course, of Thurman's persona Raymond Taylor.
There are few purely fictional characters or events in Infants of the Spring. Even the rape case involving Pelham Gaylord has its base in a similar incident in the life of Rex Goreleigh, one of Niggeratti Manor's inhabitants who would later be associated with Augusta Savage's Art Center. Eustace Savoy is the spitting image of William Service Bell, future president of the Harlem Eclectic Club, whom Claude McKay describes in A Long Way From Home as "a cultivated artistic New England Negro . . . precious as a jewel" (114). The barely fictionalized character Samuel Carte based on one of Harlem's "negrotarians," Leland Petit, organist at the Grace Church on Broadway and model for the protagonist in Blair Niles's controversial novel Strange Brother (1931). It was Petit who introduced Thurman to the Canadian Harald Jan Slefansson-Stephen Jorgenson in Infants--who became Thurman's lover during the Niggeratti Manor years. Even one of the few fundamentally fictional events in the novel, the suicide of Paul Arbian (Nugent's persona), which brings the novel to its unexpected end, must be viewed in the context of Wallace Thurman's own adolescent fantasies. In "Notes on a Stepchild" Thurman explains how he had considered suicide mainly for its dramatic potential, and this is precisely what motivates Arbian's suicide in the text (the act, as Thurman's persona Raymond Taylor is quick to explain, is "the final stanza in his drama of beautiful gestures" ).
Infants of the Spring can no longer simply be interpreted as a parody of the Harlem Renaissance. Lacking vital information about Thurman's life, critics have focused too much on the novel's occasional satirical moments, particularly the ineffectual attempts of Dr. Parkes (Alain Locke) to bring coherence into the proceedings of Harlem's first literary "salon." This reading does not sufficiently take into account the essentially reportorial nature of the text. The characters in Infants of the Spring are mostly and without much alteration reflections of what Locke labeled "the lost wing of the younger generation movement" (16). In addition to reassessing Thurman's life and work in terms of his Menckenite-Nietzschean perception of the world, we must also study the documentary value of Infants of the Spring, a text which deals explicitly with Harlem's first avant-garde and America's first black bohemia.
Lewis, Theophilus. "Harlem Sketchbook." Amsterdam News (New York) 5 Jan. 1932: 10. Locke, Alain. "Black Truth and Black Beauty." Opportunity Jan. 1933: 16. Mckay, Claude. A Long Way From Home. 1937. New York: Harcourt, 1970. Williams, W. H. A. H. L. Mencken. Boston: Twayne, 1977.
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|Author:||van Notten, Eleonore|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1993|
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