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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

"Infants of the Spring" by Wallace Thurman-- A "Queer" book to consider

  I read  this incredible book a few months back for an African American Literature class that I am in and think that this books needs a mention here on this blog.  A great read, a must read in my opinion and what better time of year to read this than the spring.  The following is a response I wrote for class and hopefully it inspires you to read this incredible book.
  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. In this spirited satire, which mostly takes aim at Locke’s much-celebrated notion of “the New Negro,” a concept Thurman mocks as too serious and uplifting. But he also turns his sharp wit against the character who--- some would say-- most resembles himself, Raymond Taylor, a pretentious young writer who fancies himself a Nietzchean individualist, above mere racial concerns, and dedicated only to art. Thurman’s self-deprecating humor focuses on Taylor’s easy cynicism, as well as on his daily dissipation at “Niggerati Manor,” his name for the apartment building in Harlem where many of the story’s aspiring artists spend their time swilling gin.
            Raymond Taylor resides in that boardinghouse, nicknamed with a number of young blacks who pretend to be aspiring authors and artists. Thurman makes these pretenders the major fatalities of his satire, suggesting that they have destroyed their creativity by leading such decadent lives. Owned by good-hearted Euphoria Blake, a businesswoman who once harbored artistic aspirations of her own, the apartment house is also home to Paul Arbian, a decadent, bisexual artist dedicated to the spirit of Oscar Wilde; Eustace, a singer who prefers classical music to the spirituals everyone wants him to sing; and Pelham Gaylord, a servile wannabe, whose own pathetic poetry serves as evidence in a rape case that puts him in prison, and also underlines the pretense in the effusions of his role-models, Raymond and Paul.
            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 simply overrated. He vigorously attacks black writers patronized by whites, who praise everything black authors produce, regardless of quality, as novel and ingenious.  Infants of the Spring” received criticism with reviewers objecting to Thurman's examining too many issues and not presenting them clearly, and his not making a universal statement about the lifestyles presented. But “Infants of the Spring” was thought to be overly subjective and Thurman overly argumentative in this narrative.
            After a sober gathering of the literati, Euphoria decides to close the disorderly bawdy house, another victim of well-intentioned ideas. Thurman’s clever portrait gallery reflects many of the competing notions of its time—between the masses and individuality, between art and uplift, between civilization and primitivism, between separatism and assimilation. But what truly animates this smart fiction is the timeless belief that ideas have consequences.
            Yet some would praise him for his frank discussion of black society.  No other 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, some would consider “Infants of the Spring” one of the first books written expressly for black audiences and not white critics.  But is this clearly the case in which this book has been cast, merely to a black audience only?  Or is possible with the rise in “gay awareness” that this book once again is being looked at as an early submission into gay literature?  One can imagine that looking at this in regard to an early book to deal frankly and openly about homosexuality that there is still resistance in accepting Wallace Thurman as a “gay black man” even though there is proof supporting that very fact.
            Wallace Thurman, after encountering the same queer black-discrimination from both blacks and whites that Baldwin experiences—ends “Infants of the Spring” and his commitment to the gay Harlem Renaissance on a pessimistic note. The end of the Niggeratti Manor writers’ commune is the end of the Harlem Renaissance for the young gay black queer intelligentsia.  In many ways this also in my opinion is a recognition that Thurman himself would be dead in his early thirties after what many believe was a struggling with alcoholism and his struggle with his discomfort with society, his struggle with self, and finally his struggle with his sexuality.

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