Salt Lakers might be surprised to learn that their city was the birthplace of a black, bisexual writer who was, in his time, a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance. While Wallace Thurman’s name is largely forgotten today, this young writer from the West was once a force to be reckoned with.
Wallace Henry Thurman was born Aug. 16, 1902, in Salt Lake City. His father soon abandoned his family and for Thurman that began a life of constant travels in the wake of his mother’s series of marriages.
Thurman’s early life was punctuated by illnesses, often severe. He managed to get a diploma from West High School and, in 1920, enrolled as a pre-med student at the University of Utah, but suffered a nervous breakdown.
Thurman’s thoughts on Salt Lake in a 1926 piece would not exactly thrill the Utah Booster’s Club. He was an equal-opportunity satirist and savaged the Mormons, the “Gentiles” and the 1,800 or so African Americans he estimated lived in Salt Lake.
His views of his birthplace are an interesting gauge of the more open and less intellectually provincial city of today. Compared to the excitement of Harlem, Thurman found Salt Lake an intellectual desert. He noted that Utah had already produced the lynching of two African Americans, the latest the year before his 1926 trip. Yet, he mused, “The fates were not so unkind after all — I might have been born in Texas, or Georgia, or Tennessee, or Nevada, or Idaho.”
His real home, in fact, was literature.
In 1925, Thurman arrived in Harlem, ambitious, restless and, above all, opinionated.
“He was a strange kind of fellow,” his friend Langston Hughes said, “who liked to drink gin, but didn’t like to drink gin; who liked being a Negro, but felt it a great handicap; who adored bohemianism, but thought it wrong to be a bohemian. He liked to waste a lot of time, but he always felt guilty for wasting time. He loathed crowds, yet he hated to be alone. He almost always felt bad, yet he didn’t write poetry.”
For Thurman, Harlem was “a dream city pregnant with wide awake realities. ... It is a masterpiece of contradictory elements and surprising types. It is a mad medley.”
But, under the intellectual excitement of the 1920s and early 1930s, there was another Harlem, impoverished and often brutal, and he wrote of speakeasies and steamy rent parties, raucous vaudeville shows and “sweetback” men living off their women.
Nor, he knew, did issues of class and color stop at 135th Street. This put him at odds with the Harlem Establishment, who believed African American writers should document the positive side of black life and that their work should be morally and racially uplifting.
Thurman’s first novel, “The Blacker the Berry,” took on the controversial topic of color prejudice within the black community. His second novel, “Infants of the Spring,” begins as a brisk and amusing satire of a handful of arty bohemians. Readers who know the territory can recognize in his caricatures figures such as the effervescent Zora Neale Hurston and Thurman himself.
The rapid descent of a number of his bohemians from their Black Parnassus into gin, despair and suicide reflect Thurman’s own doubts that the Harlem Renaissance had lived up to its promise, but especially — and this was emotionally devastating — that he had himself.
Langston Hughes said Thurman “wanted to be a very great writer, like Gorki or Thomas Mann ... and he found his own pages vastly wanting.”
It is sad that this funny and immensely gifted man from Salt Lake City could never overcome his self-destructive despair or write the great book he always wanted to write. Wallace Thurman died in 1934 in the tuberculosis ward of the New York City charity hospital on Welfare Island.
For more about Thurman’s life and work see, “The Collected Writings of Wallace Thurman: A Harlem Renaissance Reader,” edited by Amritijit Singh and Daniel M. Scott III. As incisive social documents Thurman’s two novels, “The Blacker the Berry” (1929) and “Infants of the Spring” (1932) are still well worth reading.
Zeese Papanikolas, Oakland, Calif., was born in Salt Lake City, was a Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford and is the author of, most recently, “An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World,” published by Stanford University Press.