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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: October 2019

Chapter 4 - Wallace Thurman’s Judgment and the Rush toward Modernism


This chapter examines the criticism and fiction of Wallace Thurman, who aligned himself with the Harlem Renaissance in 1926 and became one of its harshest critics. It analyzes the contradictory nature of that ambition as expressed in his unpublished autobiographical essay “Notes on a Stepchild.” The chapter goes on to situate Thurman’s efforts to create an avant-garde wing of Harlem writers, which culminated in the creation of the journal Fire!, in the context of 1926 debates about the nature of African American literature represented by the Crisis symposium and by landmark essays by W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and George Schuyler. It also explains his notoriously negative criticism of African American literature in terms of his aim of steering it away from literary parochialism and toward international modernism. Thurman embraced a mode of literary decadence, the chapter finally argues, as a means of repudiating the realist race problem novel and putting African American literature on the same track that led to a full-fledged modernism, but he recognized the futility of this in his novel Infants of the Spring, which is analyzed here as the story of two failed African American writers. The chapter ends by recognizing the irony inherent in Thurman’s devotion to Jean Toomer, which implies that the great African American writing he was calling for was already written.