31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 10: “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” by Richard Bruce Nugent

May 10, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader

Richard Bruce Nugent is one of the Harlem Renaissance’s lesser-known figures, but he was also one of the most groundbreaking. As Tom Wirth writes, Nugent “was a phenomenon that was not supposed to exist – an African-American artist influenced by Michelangelo, Beardsley, and Erte who devoured the novels of Firbank and Huysmans and wrote stream-of-consciousness prose – a black man trespassing in white Elysian Fields.” He was the roommate of Wallace Thurman, and later a resident of the notorious “Niggerati Manor” (“Niggerati” being Thurman’s name for the group of artists, writers, and bohemians who formed the Harlem intelligentsia of the time). He counted among his circle of friends the more recognizable Harlem Renaissance figures Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, and Countee Cullen. An actor and visual artist as well as a writer, Nugent suffered a kind of double marginalization: he was both African-American and gay.

It is because of the latter that “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” became such a cause célèbre, and is arguably one of the reasons why its author didn’t receive the same attention as his contemporaries from American publishers or scholars. Quite simply, Nugent was the first African-American writer to treat themes of homosexuality openly and explicitly in his work.

“Smoke, Lilies and Jade” is an impressionistic piece about Alex, a 19-year-old black man in New York who feels the artistic impulse tug so insistently that he eschews gainful employment to devote himself to the pursuit of intellectual and aesthetic pleasures, much to the chagrin of his mother:

he wondered why he couldn’t find work … a job … when he had first come to New York he had … and he had only been fourteen then was it because he was nineteen now that he felt so idle … and contented … or because he was an artist … but was he an artist … was one an artist until one became known … of course he was an artist … and strangely enough so were all his friends … he should be ashamed that he didn’t work … but … was it five years in New York … or the fact that he was an artist … when his mother said she couldn’t understand him … why did he vaguely pity her instead of being ashamed … he should be … his mother and his relatives all said so …

Indeed, his mother rebukes him harshly, calling him “lazy and shiftless,” saying that he “won’t do anything to make money,” and that he thinks he’s above having to earn a living “just because [he’s] tried to write one or two little poems and stories that no one understands.” All of which prompts Alex to wonder, “did Wilde’s parents or Shelley’s or Goya’s talk to them like that …”

Alex has a girlfriend named Melva, but while out walking one night, with the street “so long and narrow … and blue … in the distance it reached the stars,” he meets a stranger who “walked music” and “knew the beauty of the narrow blue.” Alex is attracted to the man and takes him home:

Alex turned in his doorway … up the stairs and the stranger waited for him to light the room … no need for words … they had always known each other ……… as they undressed by the blue dawn … Alex knew he had never seen a more perfect being … his body was all symmetry and music … and Alex called him Beauty … long they lay … blowing smoke and exchanging thoughts … and Alex swallowed with difficulty …  he felt a glow of tremor … and they talked and … slept …

The writing is sexually charged even by today’s permissive standards – there are worlds of meaning and innuendo in the spaces containing those ellipses marks – and it would certainly have proved shocking to a reader of Nugent’s time. The shock was, of course, calculated: Nugent cherished his mantle as the enfant terrible of the Harlem Renaissance, and did what he could to cultivate it.

Beyond the sexual nature of his material, it should be clear by now that Nugent wrote with a kind of unbridled romanticism, which is absolutely appropriate for the character he created; Alex aestheticizes every experience – be it the footsteps on a city sidewalk or Beauty, “all symmetry and music,” undressing in the blue dawn. Beauty himself has no such impulse, saying at one point, “I wonder why I like to look at such things […] things like smoke and cats … and you …” Alex, by contrast, knows precisely why he is attracted to symmetry and music and beauty, and is able to articulate these things in language that is shot through with lush imagery and sensuousness:

Alex’s pulse no longer hammered from … wrist to finger tip … wrist to finger tip … the rose dusk had become blue night … and soon … soon they would go out into the blue …….

Alex spends much of the story’s second half pining for Beauty (and pining for beauty) and wondering whether it is possible to love both the young man and his girlfriend simultaneously. (He concludes that this is entirely possible, although the last three words of the story – “… To Be Continued …” – suggest that he has not come to a final resolution about his situation or his desires.)

Nugent’s story explores themes of class and homosexuality, but it is not a didactic work. It does not seek to proselytize or to advance a political message. It is a work of aesthetics, not of propaganda. It is, in short, the kind of work that W.E.B. Du Bois felt African-American writers of his time had no business writing. In “Criteria of Negro Art,” Du Bois wrote:

[A]ll art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.

Elsewhere Du Bois argued that embracing aesthetics over propaganda would “turn the Negro renaissance into decadence.” For his part, Nugent was perfectly happy to scandalize the ideological leadership of the Harlem Renaissance, but the lack of a didactic message in “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” does not diminish it as a political piece. Published in 1926, at the height of Jazz Age America, it represented a technically ambitious, thematically challenging work from an African-American artist who refused to censor himself to please sensibilities on either side of the colour line. That, to me, seems like the very definition of a political writer.