Wallace Henry Thurman (Pseudonym: Patrick Casey and Ethel B) Thurman was born August 16, 1902, in Salt Lake City, Utah, the son of Oscar and Beulah Thurman.
Born and raised in the American West, Thurman attended the University of Utah for a year before transferring in 1922 to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. While in Los Angeles Thurman wrote a column, "Inklings," for a black-oriented newspaper. He then founded a magazine, Outlet, hoping to initate on the West Coast a literary renaissance like the one happening in Harlem. Outlet lasted only six months, and in 1925 Thurman went east. In New York City he took a job as a reporter and editor at The Looking Glass, then became managing editor of the Messenger , where his editorial expertise earned him notoriety. He published short works by the poet and author Langston Hughes--not because Thurman thought them good but because they were the best available--and pieces by the writer Zora Neale Hurston. He left in the autumn of 1926 to join the staff of a white-owned periodical, World Tomorrow.
In the summer of 1926 Hughes asked Thurman to edit Fire!!, a magazine that Hughes and artist and writer Bruce Nugent were planning. Hurston, the author Gwendolyn Bennett, and another artist, Aaron Douglas, were members of the editorial board. The board intended Fire!! to "satisfy pagan thirst for beauty unadorned," as was stated in the foreword to the first issue. Fire!! would offer a forum for younger black writers who wanted to stand apart from the older, venerated black literati, and it would be strictly literary, with no focus on contemporary social issues. Thurman agreed to edit the magazine and advanced a good deal of the publication money. The first issue featured short stories by Thurman, Hurston, and Bennett, poetry by Hughes, Countre Cullen, and Arna Bontemps, a play by Hurston, illustrations by Douglas, and the first part of a novel by Nugent. But Fire!! folded after one issue; it was plagued by financial and distribution problems and received mediocre reviews. It was also ignored by a number of white critics and harshly criticized by some blacks who thought it irreverent.
Two years later Thurman published Harlem: A Forum of Negro Life, a more moderate, broader-focused magazine, also devoted to displaying works by younger writers. The new effort, unlike the avant-garde Fire!!, would appeal to all age groups and was "to be a general magazine... on current events and debates on racial and non racial issues," Thurman wrote to the critic Alain Locke. The first volume contained an essay by Locke, a book review by Thurman, poetry by Alice Dunbar Nelson and Hughes, fiction by Hughes and George Schuyler, a theater review by the editor Theophilus Lewis, and a directory of New York City churches and nightclubs. But Harlem, too, failed after its premier issue.
Thurman's first play was entitled "Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life in Harlem." It opened on Broadway February 20, 1929, at the Apollo Theater, bringing Thurman immediate success. He collaborated on the drama with William Jourdan Rapp, a white man who later became the editor of True Story and would remain Thurman's lifelong friend. "Harlem" centers on the Williams family, who relocate in New York City to escape economic difficulties at the time of the "great migration" of Southerners to the North during the first two decades of the twentieth century. But instead of finding the city a promised land, they encounter many of the problems that often plagued the families of the migration: unemployment and tensions between generations heightened by difficulties in adjusting to city life.
"Harlem" received mixed reviews--ranging from "exciting" to "vulgar"--but was generally considered interesting. It was criticized by blacks who did not care for its focus on the seedier elements of life, like illicit sex, liquor, wild parties thrown to collect rent money, and gambling. R. Dana Skinner stated in a 1929Commonweal review of "Harlem" that he was especially upset by "the particular way in which this melodrama exploits the worst features of the Negro and depends for its effects solely on the explosions of lust and sensuality." Nevertheless, many critics felt it "captured the feel of life" and was "constantly entertaining.""Harlem" played for an impressive ninety-three performances in what was considered a poor theater season and was taken on tour to the West Coast, the Midwest, and Canada.
In 1930 Thurman again collaborated with Rapp on a three-act play,"Jeremiah, the Magnificent," based on black nationalist Marcus Garvey's "back to Africa" movement of the early 1900s. Garvey had called for an exodus of blacks to Africa so that there they could create their own country and attain personal freedoms in a society where they would be in the majority. Although Thurman portrayed Garvey as a vain and unwise man, the playwright thought Garvey did much to promote the black ideal in the hope of fostering Negro unity worldwide. The play remained unpublished and was only performed once, after Thurman had died. Thurman's other unproduced and unpublished plays include "Singing the Blues," written in 1931, and"Savage Rhythm," written the following year.
Thurman's first novel, The Blacker the Berry, was published in 1929. Taken from the folk-saying "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice," its title was ironic, for the novel was an attack on prejudice within the race. Emma Lou, the protagonist, is a dark-skinned girl from Boise who is looked down upon by her fairer family members and friends. When she attends school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles she again is scorned, so she travels to Harlem, where she believes that she won't be snubbed because of her dark coloring. But like the Williamses in"Harlem" and Thurman in his own life, Emma Lou is disillusioned with the city. She becomes unhappy with her work, her love affairs, and the pronounced discrimination in the nightclubs, where lighterskinned females starred in extravagant productions while darkerskinned performers were forced to sing off stage. She uses hair straighteners and skin bleachers, and takes on the appearance and attitudes of the fairer-skinned people who degrade her. She in turn snubs darker men, whom she thinks inferior, and takes up with Alva, a man who is light-skinned but cruel. After viewing Alva in a lovers' embrace with an other man, Emma Lou realizes how hypocritical she's become. Critics praised Thurman for devoting a novel to the plight of the dark-skinned black girl, but they faulted him for being too objective: he recounted Emma Lou's tale without handing down any judgment on the world in which she lived. They also criticized Thurman for trying to do too much with The Blacker the Berry, accusing him of crafting a choppy, and occasionally incoherent, narrative by touching on too many themes.
Thurman's next novel, Infants of the Spring, also is set in 1920s Harlem. The story revolves around Raymond Taylor, a young black author who is trying to write a weighty novel in a decadent, race-oriented atmosphere. Taylor resides in a boardinghouse, nicknamed "Niggeratti Manor," with a number of young blacks who pretend to be aspiring authors. Thurman makes these pretenders the major victims of his satire, suggesting that they have destroyed their creativity by leading such decadent lives. Critics contend that Thurman based his characters on well-known figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including Hughes, Locke, Hurston, Cullen, Nugent, and Douglas.
In Infants of the Spring Thurman suggests that all American artists and writers--black and white--are overrated. He vigorously attacks black writers patronized by whites, who praise everything black authors produce, regardless of quality, as novel and ingenious.Infants received criticism similar to that of The Blacker the Berry. Reviewers objected to Thurman's examining too many issues and not presenting them clearly, and his not making a universal statement about the lifestyles presented. But unlike Thurman's first novel, which was considered too objective, Infants was thought to be overly subjective and Thurman overly argumentative. Yet critics praised him for his frank discussion of black society. Assessed Martha Gruening in the Saturday Review: "No other Negro writer has so unflinchingly told the truth about color snobbery within the color line, the ins and outs of `passing' and other vagaries of prejudice.... [Infants of the Spring's] quota of truth is just that which Negro writers, under the stress of propaganda and counterpropaganda, have generally and quite understandably omitted from their picture." In addition, critics considered Infants of the Spring one of the first books written expressly for black audiences and not white critics.
Thurman's third and final novel, The Interne, was a collaboration with Abraham L. Furman, a white man Thurman met while working at Macaulay's Publishing Company. The novel portrays medical life at an urban hospital as seen through the eyes of a young white doctor, Carl Armstrong. In his first three months at the hospital, Armstrong's ideals are shattered, during which time he witnesses staff members' corrupt behavior and comes in contact with bureaucratic red tape. Armstrong himself participates in the vice but soon realizes his own loss of ethics and saves himself by taking up doctoring in the country. Critics could not agree whether Thurman's accounts of medical wrongdoing were based on fact; many claimed that the novel had no semblance of reality while others stressed that incidents were actual, if unusual.
In 1934 Thurman returned to the West Coast to write screenplays. While in California he continued to lead a decadent lifestyle, drank excessively, and wrote two screenplays for Bryan Foy Productions,"Tomorrow's Children," released in 1934, and "High School Girl," released the following year. "Tomorrow's Children" was a production about the Masons, a poor white family supported by the seventeen-year-old daughter. She takes care of her younger brothers and sisters, who are either mentally or physically impaired, her drunken father, and her constantly pregnant mother. Two social workers, sent by a compassionate doctor, declare that if they wish to receive welfare money, the mother, father, and daughter must be sterilized. "Tomorrow's Children" was based on circumstances rarely explored in Hollywood at that time, and was considered groundbreaking because it used the medical term "vasectomy" to explain the procedure of male sterilization. Because of its revolutionary subject matter, "Tomorrow's Children" was banned in New York when it was released.
In ill health, Thurman returned to New York City in May, 1934, and went on one last drinking binge with his Harlem friends. He collapsed in the middle of the reunion party and was taken, ironically, to City Hospital, on Welfare Island, New York, the institution he condemned inThe Interne . After spending half a year in the ward for incurables diagnosed with tuberculosis, he died there on December 22, 1934. His funeral services were held in New York City on Christmas Eve. Information provided under copyright by Gale Research.