Richard Bruce Nugent´s "Smoke, Lilies and Jade": The Relation to the Oscar Wilde Tradition and its Significance for "Fire!!"

Seminar Paper, 2006

21 Pages, Grade: 13




1. Oscar Wilde´s Heritage

2. Harlem on Fire !!

3. Oscar Wilde´s Successor (?)
3.1 His Life
3.2 His Work

4. The Controversy of Smoke, Lilies and Jade
4.1 Contextualizing Smoke, Lilies and Jade
4.2 Smoke, Lilies and Jade and the Oscar Wilde Tradition
4.3 Smoke, Lilies and Jade and Modernism

5. The Reception of Fire!! and Smoke



Works cited


Langston Hughes, probably the most famous of all Harlem Renaissance writers, played an very important role in Richard Bruce Nugent´s life, especially in regard to his career as an artist. He introduced him to Harlem´s artistic circles; through Hughes, Nugent made acquaintance with many contemporary luminaries, was introduced to the movement´s elite (Wirth, 4). Hughes, amongst others, an temporary inhabitant of “Niggeratti manor” and also directly involved in the creation of Fire!!, made the following remark about the Niggeratti´s landmark publication (Wirth, 15):

None of the older Negro intellectuals would have anything to do with Fire [sic]. Dr. Du Bois in the Crisis roasted it. The negro press called it all sorts of bad names, largely because of a green and purple story by Bruce Nugent, in the Oscar Wilde tradition, which we had included. (Wirth, 83, emphasis added)

Hughes quintessential statement about Fire!! clearly places the responsibility for the reception of the magazine on Nugent. But did Fire!! / Smoke, Lilies and Jade really have such a negative impact on the black community? Is it due to the fact, that Nugent´s short story stands in the Oscar Wilde tradition? In how far does it actually stand in the Oscar Wilde tradition? In order to fully comprehend the statement by Hughes, these questions need to be answered. Thus, I will point out the consequences of the publication of Fire!! with special regard to Nugent´s short story. In doing so, I will arrange the paper starting from the quotation above.

Hence, I will first explain the components of the quote, meaning to give an definition of the Oscar Wilde tradition, as well as some background information and contextualizing of Fire!!; moreover a live and work acount on Richard Bruce Nugent, limited to the information that is necessary for the scope of this paper. Having established this information, I will return to the quote again and discuss the literary influence on and the significance of Smoke, Liles and Jade, as well as the reception of Fire!! and Smoke,Lilies and Jade in relation to the results obtained by analyzing the short story.

1. Oscar Wilde´s Heritage

Although often mentioned in academic context, there is no general definition of the Oscar Wilde tradition in existence. He is mainly rooted in the literary movements of Aestheticism and Decadence; though not to be considered a pioneer, he is widely regarded as a leading and outstanding figure of these movements, especially in Britain (Beckson, 2). However, Wilde´s conception of homosexuality plays also an important role in the reception of his works.

Aestheticism was a literary movement with roots in the 19th century. The movement´s

main goal was to “avoid social , political or moral instruction, for art was autonomous with its own internal laws” (Beckson, 2). Thus Edgar Allan Poe´s postulate for “art for art´s sake” proved to be the Aesthetes leading principle (ibid, 2). By the end of the 19th-century, Walter pater played an important role in promoting the development of the movement, and his “Studies in the History of Renaissance (1873) became the golden book for such figures as Wilde […] “ (Beckson, 2). Oscar Wilde himself[i] was convinced that “Aestheticism sought to eliminate moral questions from art […] “ (Beckson, 3), which led to a “global struggle” (3). A similar reaction, yet to a lesser extent, is to be seen in the reception of Nugent´s contribution to Fire!!, which I will discuss later. The Aesthetic movement definitely shares elements of the Decadence; Beckson assumes a “affinit[y]” (4) between the movements.

The formation of the Decadent movement can be traced back to France in the early 19th-century (Beckson, 63). Decadence describes a literary movement rejecting the ideals of Romanticism and “transform[ing] the pejorative meanings of decadence into a startling term of positive value” (Beckson, 63). Thus, in opposition to the Romantics, Decadent writers “celebrate[d] artifice and depict states of mind at variance with bourgeois properties” (Beckson, 63). In terms of style, imagery, its anti-bourgeois stance, etc. Decadence is considered quite similar to Aestheticism. However, Decadence represents a stronger form of the latter; Beckson regards it as “the dark side” (64) of Aestheticism.

Both movements are characteriezed by particular conventions, as pointed out by George P. Landow on his website. Concerning the mood and tone of Decadent and Aesthetic works, “incompleteness, nostalgia, sense of loss, exile, or isolation” (Landow) are dominating. Regarding symbols, dream/trance and flower imagery is very common, as well as the depiction of jewels and “other instances of extreme artifice” (ibid). Besides, many works deal with the theme of the “[i]ncomplete and unsuccessful attempt to escape the human condition by means of posing, artifice” (ibid).

Dandyism is the form of lifestyle common to both movements; a “self-concious” pose, characterized by “boredom” and “indifference” (Beckson, 64). The Dandy, by paying particular attention to his manners, elaborated language and outer appearance , focusses upon the artificial devices of life; thus, he is perfectly in accord with the contemporary literary movements of Aestheticism and Decadence (Beckson, 60).

Furthermore, when talking about the Oscar Wilde tradition, homosexuality plays a role that should not be underestimated. Already as a undergraduate at Oxford, Wilde composed poems with homoerotic content (Beckson, 392). Later on, he also contributed to the Uranian (homosexual) periodicals Spirit Lamp and Chameleon (Beckson, 392). Moreover, at least some of Wilde´s major works contain, apart from the Decadent imagery,a gay reading[ii].

2. Harlem on Fire!!

There are argueably only a few magazines that caused such an outrage with so little effort[iii], as Fire!! did in the 1920s. It was Langston Hughes who developed the idea of an African American magazin devoted to younger artists during one of his evening strolls with Nugent in Washington (Wirth, 13). Designed as a magazin to break with the black establishment´s conventions and to create a new Negro aesthetic, it was named after a spiritual written by Hughes. Thurman, Hughes and Hurston were the editors, John P. Davis the buisness manager (Garber, 218-20). Nugent was a coediter of this quarterly literary magazine. His contributions consisted of drawings, as well as his short story “Smoke, Lilies and Jade”, which was considered semi-auto-biographical, as well as the most explicit homoerotic text of the Harlem Renaissance (Sample, 349). Moreover, Aaron Douglas designed the cover, Cullen , Bontemps and Bennet contributed poetry and stories (Garber, 218-20). The artists around Fire!! called themselves “the Niggeratti”, “an irreverent take-off on the pretentiously literate white audience for whose enlightment the older impresarios (Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Charles S. Johnson, and Alain Locke) were showcasing African American talent” (Wirth, 13).

Printed in November 1926, its content totally opposed the established magazines such as Crisis or Oppurtunity; although both magazines offered a forum for free writers, they basically belonged to civil-rights organizations, who promoted racial uplift and whose readers were members of the black –middle class. As the readers were also members of these organizations, they could put a certain amount of pressure on the magazine´s editors. Such “anti-bourgeois” content as in Fire!! would not have been possible in Crisis or Oppurtunity (Wirth, 14). In terms of their highly propagated racial uplift, there was nothing to be found in Fire!!: “Hughes´ Elevator Boy quits his job, displaying none of the heroic initiative associated with racial uplift.” (Wirth, 14), not to speak of Nugent´s and Thurman´s short stories.

Editor Wallace Thurman insisted on a story about prostitution and one about homosexuality, thus Nugent wrote “Smoke, Lilies and Jade”.”He and Nugent had flipped a coin to determine who would write what” (Garber, 220). Thurman wrote a story about a sixteen year old prostitute titled Cordelia the Crude, causing a similar outrageous reaction as Nugent´s piece (Garber, 220).

The financial aspect was the major problem of Fire!!. The production of the magazine cost more than expected, the printer has never been paid. Nugent, in charge of distribution wasted much of the profit, by spending the money earned for his own good (Garber, 220). Besides, many copies were, ironically, destroyed by a fire (Silberman, 256).

The magazine was intended to be financed by contributions, but in the end, Thurman himself had to pay the costs, which ruined him for years (Garber, 218).

Concerning the scope of Fire!!, its inventor himself, Langston Huges made two important remarks:

,the idea that it would burn up a lot of the old, dead, conventional Negro-white ideas of the past, epater le bourgeois into a realization of the existence of the younger Negro writers and artists, and provide us with an outlet for publication not available in the limited pages of the small Negro magazines then existing, the Crisis, Opportunity, and the Messenger -the first two being the house organs of inter-racial organizations, and the latter being God knows what. (qtd. in Cobb[iv], 330)

Furthermore, Hughes announced the Niggeratti´s manifesto:

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves. (qtd. in Wirth[v], 14)

Concerning this scope of Fire!!, scholar Michael Cobb points out, that “ the new magazine was intended to be a way to register the need for other literary and artistic concerns not attended to by the available creative outlets encouraging the black artists during a time of complicated but noticeable interest in African-American literary production” (Cobb, 330). Besides Cobb, two other scholars commented on the purpose of Fire!!, especially with regard to Nugent´s short story: For Garber, Smoke, Lilies and Jade proved the magazine to be controversial. Hence, it displays “a rebellion against Black elites desire to only portray the uplifting sides of Black Life” (220). Schwarz argues that “Fire!! constituted the epitome of the Niggeratti´s transgressive efforts” (37). In her opinion, it was clearly designed to offend black bourgeoisie: “Smoke was ensured to provoke with more than homosexuality: Alex spending his time doing nothing apart from smoking, thinking , and indulging in sex and sexual visions” ( 41-42).



[i] Wilde underlined his attiude towards the moral and didactic function of art in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: “All art is quite useless.”

[ii] For a gay interpretation of The Picture of Dorian Gray see Jeffry Meyers, Homosexuality and Literature 1890- 1930, (London: The Athlone Press, 1977).

[iii] Fire!! was a completely self-reliant project; it was privately organized and published (Schwarz, 89).

[iv] For the original source, please see: Langston Hughes, “The Big Sea” (excerpt). The Norton Anthology of North American Literature,1290.

[v] For the original source, please see: Langston Hughes, “The Negro Articst and the Racial Mountain,” Nation 122 (23 June 1926): 694.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Richard Bruce Nugent´s "Smoke, Lilies and Jade": The Relation to the Oscar Wilde Tradition and its Significance for "Fire!!"
Saarland University  (Philosophische Fakultät II: Fachrichtung 4.3. :Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Anglophone Kulturen)
Proseminar "Harlem Renaissance"
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The "Grade Sheet" by the instructor is enclosed.
Richard, Bruce, Nugent´s, Smoke, Lilies, Jade, Relation, Oscar, Wilde, Tradition, Significance, Fire, Proseminar, Harlem, Renaissance
Quote paper
Christoph Ruffing (Author), 2006, Richard Bruce Nugent´s "Smoke, Lilies and Jade": The Relation to the Oscar Wilde Tradition and its Significance for "Fire!!", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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