Wallace Thurman

Infants of the Spring

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Infants of the Spring Summary

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Infants of the Spring is a satirical novel by American author Wallace Thurman, first published in 1932. It is a skewering of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance and the people and personalities who populated that time and place. With the book’s story and tone fueled largely by Thurman’s own disillusionment with the era and with the fellow African Americans he viewed as snobbish “elites,” many scholars consider Infants of the Spring to be a roman à clef, thinly concealing the author’s own experiences and viewpoints in a fictional guise.

The novel is less an intricately plotted story and more of a stream-of-consciousness manifesto espousing Thurman’s perspective of African American culture in 1920s Harlem. Much of this perspective takes the shape of conversations between the various characters, all of whom live in a sort of large bohemian household. The central figure in this cast list is Raymond Taylor, a writer and, arguably, the most talented member of the home.

Raymond’s white friend, Sam Carter, brings another white man, a Dane named Stephen Jorgenson, over to Raymond’s place for a visit. Stephen has come from the University of Toronto on his first visit to the United States. Sam views himself as something of an ally to the African American community, devoting himself to social justice work and black activism, but, deep down, he harbors a deeply entrenched racism and is really little more than an ineffectual loser without any notable accomplishments in life.
After commenting on the erotic art hanging in Raymond’s apartment, Stephen and Raymond hit it off. They seem to have the same tastes and the same interests. Based on this mutual kinship, Raymond invites Stephen to stay at his place.

From here, the other denizens of the household move in and out of the narrative. Paul Arbian is an artist and the creator of the works that hang on Raymond’s walls. Other than Raymond, Paul is the only member of the home with any discernible talent. Unfortunately, he stifles his abilities under a constant stream of personal dramas and traumas, not the least of which is his tumultuous relationships with both women and men.

Eustace Savoy is a professional singer—at least, he tries to be. He can’t seem to book any auditions. Which may have something to do with the fact that he refuses to sing old African American spirituals.

Pelham Gaylord is the de facto servant of the household. Raised in the Deep South, he was ostensibly an adopted member of a white family. But, in reality, he was mostly raised by the family’s black servant, Grandma Mack. Before the Civil War, the white family had enslaved Grandma Mack. After the Emancipation Proclamation, she willingly chose to stay behind and continue a life of servitude. In Thurman’s words, Grandma Mack believed black folks “were made to be servants. God has willed it. And only through a life of servitude could they hope to obtain an entry into heaven.” This viewpoint obviously had a huge impact on Pelham. He could never shake himself of the idea that he, as a black person, was meant to spend his life as a servant. So, in the household where he now lives, Pelham serves drinks at their parties and spends most of his time in the kitchen.

The ironically-named landlady, Euphoria Blake, has known more than her fair share of tragedy. Still, she wants to nurse the up-and-coming artists of her community,
so she provides them with this home where they can live, work, and create.

Yet most of what happens in the house is little more than one long, wild party. Drunken revelries are more common among the housemates than any true artistic work or dedication. And where there is out-of-control partying, trouble inevitably follows. Stephen starts a sexual relationship with one of the women in the house, Aline, which causes her roommate, Janet, to fly into a jealous rage; Janet has her own sights set on Stephen. Subsequently, Stephen and Raymond have a falling out, and Sam grows alienated from both of them. Pelham flees the house after being accused of rape. And Euphoria, fed up with endless wild festivities and the shockingly little artistic output of her tenants, eventually evicts everyone.

The novel ends with Paul deciding the only honorable way out is suicide. He goes into the bath to slit his wrists. But before he does, he wants to create one final, great work of art. Reclining in the tub, he makes a pencil sketch and sets it on the floor nearby: his suicide note and his legacy all in one. But after he slits his wrists and sinks down into the water, the bathtub overflows—washing away all remnants of his last pencil sketch.

The characters in Infants of the Spring are based on actual figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Raymond embodies Thurman himself. Other lightly-obscured characterizations are Thurman’s versions of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alain Locke, among others.