Photo Credit Thomas H. Wirth
(Richard) Bruce Nugent was an acclaimed writer and artist of the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural enlightenment movement, which began in 1919 and lasted through the mid 1930’s. Nugent published several poems and articles on the subjects of race and sexuality including “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” a short story which is widely considered to be the first publication by an African American to depict gay acts. In 1926, Nugent along with Wallace Thurman, Aaron Douglas, Zora Neale Hurston, John P. Davis, Lewis Grandison Alexander, Gwendolyn Bennett, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes founded the literary magazine ”FIRE!!” . We spoke with Thomas H. Wirth, a collector of literary memorabilia by African American authors and Publisher of The Fire Press, which reproduces FIRE!! Wirth talks why he became interested in black literature, Langston Hughes and Nugent.
PRIDEINDEX (PI): I’m so excited that I have connected with the person that has ”FIRE!!” Magazine and other works by the late (Richard) Bruce Nugent.
TOM WIRTH (TW): It’s a pleasure to be here.
PI: How did you become interested in the Harlem Renaissance, ”FIRE!!” and Bruce Nugent?
TW: I became interested in the African American culture as a result of the influence of James Baldwin back in 1960s. He was a very eloquent spokesperson for the Civil Rights movement and African American thinking, as a result of that I ended up teach at three Historically Black Colleges/Universities. They were South Carolina State in Orangeburg, SC; Southern University in Baton Rouge, LA; and Mary Holmes Junior College in West Point, MS. I was living in the black community at the time in the rather fiercely segregated South. When I left the community I began to collect books as a way to maintain that connection. I was interested in history and literature by black writers. I chose to focus on Langston Hughes. He was the most important African American writer of that period of the 21st Century. It was not because of any single thing that he’d written, he started at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance in the early 1920s and continued until he died in 1967. He was actively involved in nurturing younger artists and writers because he was interested in maintaining a black literary tradition. I went to a conference about Langston Hughes at Lincoln University where I’d met Arnold Rampersad who was working on the biography of Langston Hughes. Rampersad later came to see my collection. I was living in Central New Jersey at that time and he suggested that we go to see Bruce Nugent who was living in Hoboken, NJ. I was sort of terrified and impressed with Nugent, from my perspective he was the most interesting character. I had no idea what I was going to say to this eminent and historic person. We all went to dinner at the Madison Café around the corner from Bruce’s apartment. Bruce and I connected instantly. We often went to brunch where he shared stories about many personalities of black literature. (LAUGHS) It was great because I knew all the people who he’d talked about because I was reading all their books. Bruce became very important to me, like a father figure and mentor.
PI: Does your collection include any recorded interviews of Bruce Nugent or of any of the other writers from the Harlem Renaissance?
TW: None other than with Bruce. I did extensive interviews of Bruce, one summer I recorded 23 hours of worth of tapes. I wish I’d done more. (LAUGHS) We didn’t even put a dent into his entire story. Bruce had a very eventful life and there’s an awful lot of interesting people that he knew. He was a very colorful and fascinating person. I have copies of those tapes; the originals are going to the Beinecke Library at Yale University. I believe there are copies at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.
PI: What did you think about the movie, “Brother to Brother” starring Anthony Mackie? Do you think that was an accurate portrayal of Bruce?
TW: It caught Bruce’s spirit well however there were numerical historical inaccuracies which was understandable because they were mostly in the service of creating the story. They were done at the filmmaker’s liberty; in film it’s very common. From my point of view it’s a little unfortunate to have inaccuracies because there are many people that were not acquainted with the Harlem Renaissance, so to have these inaccuracies in their first encounter is not good. I was not too happy about them; nonetheless I thought it was a wonderful film because it portrayed gay black men and gay people as honest, sincere and caring people, not as the stereotypes. It made a great contribution in that regard.
PI: Have you considered writing a screenplay or documentary based on what you know about the Harlem Renaissance or the memorabilia from your collection?
TW: Well with respect to Bruce I wrote an extended introduction to his book which I tried to put together after he’d passed away. The book is called “Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance, Selections from the work of Richard Bruce Nugent,” I edited it from manuscripts that he’d left. My introduction contains the story of his life and where he fit in the scheme of things in the Harlem Renaissance. I thought about doing a full biography but I was not up to it; it’s a little hard to think about. It’s hard to write Bruce’s story because the Harlem Renaissance was the high point of his life. How does one write a book from the beginning which was also the climax? It could be done by someone who knew what they doing.
PI: Tell us about the response of the African American and LGBT communities’ to your collection and to “FIRE!!”
TW: It’s been very positive; everyone has been most complimentary. There are great efforts involved in keeping “FIRE!!” going. Bruce’s book has been widely praised; I’m very grateful. The introduction is among the first extended discussions of gay writers of the Harlem Renaissance; in that regard it broke new ground.
PI: What are some of the items include in your collection? Does it have photos?
TW: Most of my collection is made up of first edition books. I generally don’t collect other things but with respect to Langston Hughes I have copies of his yearbooks from Cleveland Central High School. (However these were not Hughes’ personal copies.)
Apparently high school was a wonderful experience for Hughes. Cleveland Central High School was predominantly white at the time, however Hughes was very popular. In Hughes was the school’s yearbook editor. I obtained a copy of someone else’s yearbook who knew him well because Hughes identified this person as a good friend. I have letters that Hughes wrote to various people. My collection also contains a scrapbook on Hughes that was put together by a college fraternity brother. And I have Hughes’ first magazine appearance. He wrote a lot of short poems, stories, and essays that were published in all kinds of magazines.
My collection also contains some newsletters, not a large number of them.
PI: Are you available for lectures, workshops or panel discussions on Hughes, Nugent or the Harlem Renaissance? If so, tell me a little bit more about where you’re scheduled to appear next?
TW: I am going to Bates College in Maine to talk about Bruce and Langston Hughes. It’s sort of interesting to look at Hughes through the prism of materials he’d left behind that are part of my collection. I usually start off lectures of Hughes by showing pictures to tell the story of his life. Interested parties should visit my website and email me at tw@firePress.com.
PI: Have you learned anything from this experience?
TW: I’ve learning so much from Bruce and his “FIRE!!”co-writers. Where do I start? “Fire!!” was published by the younger generation of Harlem Renaissance writers. The older generation of African American writers like W.E.B. Dubois and Alain Locke had their more conventional ideas about what was proper to publish, but the younger generation decided to get together and publish something for themselves. The younger writers had a different way of thinking.
PI: Tell us what you’re doing in terms of scanning or other preservation methods used to ensure that future generations will have access to Bruce’s work? Or your collection for that matter?
TW: Bruce’s papers are going to the Beinecke Library at Yale University. I’m negotiating with another library for the other items in my collection. I’m very firm in my beliefs with regards to taking care of where my collection will ultimately go while I am still around. You just don’t leave these sort things to your heirs. Anyone with an accumulation of a valuable, cherished collection of this particular kind should know, they should not expect for their children to take care of these sort of things once there gone. You must find a place for these items to be housed permanently especially if you’re gay because it is unbelievable how much gay historical stuff has been lost due to the items being tossed, burned, not taken care of or simply discarded.
PI: There’s only one issue of “FIRE!!” do you plan on re-starting it again in a different form?
TW: No. It’s a different world now. There have been magazines that were in some respects similar. Negro Digest published by Johnson Publications, Black World and Transitions were all somewhat similar to “FIRE!!” The all had stories, poems, literary selections, and criticism on essays. Each publication had wide readerships beyond the academic audience. They were all wonderful successor in terms of having a forum for conversation about African American life but each one was ultimately discontinued.
GENTLEMAN JIGGER by Richard Bruce Nugent (Da Capo, 2008) is a roman a clef set in the Harlem Renaissance. Like Wallace Thurman’s INFANTS OF THE SPRING, it records the high jinx at “Niggeratti Manor,” where Nugent, Thurman, and several others lived. After the group disperses, Stuartt, the protagonist and stand-in for Nugent, moves to Greenwich Village and becomes sexually involved with a young hoodlum. Charming and audacious, Stuartt eventually seduces one of gangland’s top bosses, before his friendships with the young heiress Wayne Traveller and Orini’s “moll” Bebe set them all spinning in a whirlwind of jazz-age glamor and celebrity . . . that ends in an ironic denouement.