- The Scandal of a Black Ulysses: Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, and the Harlem Reception of Joyce
Wallace Thurman’s 1932 novel Infants of the Spring is a Harlem Renaissance roman-à-clef focalized through Raymond Taylor, Thurman’s figure for himself. At the center of the novel, a disconsolate Ray agonizes over what he sees as his failure to produce a work that could justify what Langston Hughes famously named the national “vogue” for Negro art:
The struggle to free himself from race consciousness had been hailed before actually accomplished. The effort to formulate a new attitude toward life had become a seeking for a red badge of courage. That which might have emerged normally, if given time, had been forcibly and prematurely exposed to the light. It now seemed as if the Caesarian operation was going to prove fatal both to the parent and to the child.1
Although this monologue in one sense reads as a reproach of his own literary writing, in a larger sense it represents Ray’s meditation both on his individual authorship and on the New Negro movement as such—a movement in which Thurman, and Thurman’s Ray, serve important organizing functions as writer, editor, promoter, impresario, conspirator. Ray is committed to the possibilities of “maneuvering . . . friends,” as one character describes it (77).
In addition to its conspicuous employment of free indirect discourse—which both confirms and ironizes the connection between Ray and Thurman—this passage contains multiple literary references, which further emphasize the sociality of Ray’s monologue. Most obvious is the ostentatious citation of Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage (1895), which figures the racialized cultural field as a zone of conflict. Slightly less obvious is a complex invocation of the passage in Hamlet from which Thurman draws the book’s title and epigraph: [End Page 741]
“The canker galls the infants of the spring” Too oft before their buttons be disclosed, And in the morn and liquid dew of youth Contagious blastments are most imminent.2
These are Laertes’s lines warning Ophelia against the seductive praise of Prince Hamlet, praise which Laertes suggests is fundamentally corrupting, because it has at its root a political function.3 Part of the logic of Thurman’s reference consists in the way it connects Hamlet’s approving words with what Scott Herring has called the “conundrum of publicity” that involved black artists in the 1920s (Hughes’s “vogue for the Negro”).4 In Herring’s gloss “[w]hat should [have] open[ed] up avenues to artistic success” creates instead a “racial panopticon”; in Ray’s terms, a premature exposure to the “light” has hailed, but by the same token inhibited, an unrealized social and artistic freedom.5
Thurman’s interest in the Hamlet passage, however, is not only thematic but figural as well, and his improvisation on Laertes’s speech exemplifies the way Infants of the Spring represents a complex sociology of artistic production, in which flattering publicity is only one among many elements. In Shakespeare, the image “infants of the spring” conveys the fragility of Ophelia’s youth through its association with flower buds. Thurman evacuates the phrase of that association, and uses it instead to allude literally and garishly to an actual infant, whose untimely death in turn represents the fate of New Negro artworks, and the careers of their authors. In a figure that speaks as much about the internal functioning of the movement as it does about the light of mass publicity, the Caesarian section, stillbirth, and mother’s death describe the failure of Harlem Renaissance agents and institutions to have elicited a new literature and psychology (“attitude”). Thurman not only appropriates a figure from the English Renaissance to mourn the failure of the New Negro Renaissance, he explodes the figure to show how thoroughly it imbricates and overdetermines the larger project of the minority revival, renaissance, or rebirth. This obstetric metaphor, moreover, proves to be one of the most sustained devices in the novel. In its penultimate scene, Ray’s friend Lucille chooses to have an abortion, after which she and Ray together agree to sacrifice artistic ambition, and bohemian experimentation, for a...