Richard Bruce Nugent
Drawing by Nugent
If you prefer the pious potboilers of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker to the irreverent interrogations of Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed, better skip Richard Bruce Nugent’s Gentlemen Jigger, a fiction—written in the 1930s, but published here for the first time—which even in its title hints at its “incorrect” attitudes (the title, Thomas Wirth notes in his Introduction, “is a sardonic riff on an old racist ditty, ‘Looky, looky, Gentleman Jigger—half white and half nigger.’”) And Nugent, through his witty alter ego Stuartt Brennan, uses the “N” word enough, as did Whoppie Goldberg recently on the television show “The View,” to draw tears of frustration not only from Elizabeth Hasselbeck (a fellow panelist on that show who, after hearing Goldberg’s outburst, began to cry) but from any well-meaning correctionist.*
It was just as Stuartt was succumbing to the invitation of the food that Tony pointed to the table and said,
“There is Raymond Pelman.”
It was a distinctly unpleasant shock—so unpleasant that Stuartt lost all desire for food. Silent and empty-handed, he followed Tony to Pelman’s table. So this was the brilliant Raymond Pelman—the Negro from whom he had expected so much. This little black man with the charming smile and sneering nose, with sparkling, shifting eyes and an unpleasant laugh.
Returning to Thurman later, Nugent apologized for his behavior, and soon after the two became close friends, sharing a room in what they proclaimed as Niggeratti Manor, a rooming house owned by businesswoman Iolanthe Sydney, who charged many of the Harlem writers and artists little or no rent.
“We are cupids—thoughtfully, one of each color, one in each of your honors. Every young and beautiful love should have its quota of obstacles and chaperones. Consider us the more evil of these.”
“Did you bring the gin?” Rusty asked. “I see Myra brought our lunch.”
“I brought ‘green dawns’ after seeing what you were bringing to read aloud.” Stuartt turned toward Aeon and Myra. “Firbank and Proust,” he explained. “Dawns are wonderful,” he continued without pause. “One part absinthe, one part alcohol, tinted with crème de menthe and sparkled with lime and fizzy water—cool as lemonade potent as—"
“Let’s leave sex out of it,” breathed Rusty, “particularly such gutter and dialect as is mouthed by juveniles.”
“Oh, what you said!” Stuartt chattered as he poured several cups of the incredible pastel drink from a mammoth thermos. After handing one to each of them, he took another and started to the forward part
of the bus, saying over his shoulder, “Oats for the uniformed horse—he looks unhappy.” A few moments later he could be seen offering it to the bus driver.
But in the majority of these intellectualized Bouvard and Pecuchet-like interchanges, they are painfully self-aware of the political and racial issues surrounding their lives. In their first conversation with Bum, for example, when Thurman’s Canadian friend (full name Borjolfsen) admits that he has no knowledge at all about the Harlem Renaissance, he is “lectured” by the two:
“First of all, Bum, I suppose you have never known a Negro before. That’s the usual defense. And you expected to find us more or less uncivilized denizens of some great jungle city, believing in witch
doctors and black magic and all that. Well, you’re right. Or maybe you’ve read Harriet Beecher Stowe and feel sorry for us. Do. Or Octavius Roy Cohen and are amused, or Seabrook and are afraid. You know, Rusty, it really is too bad we aren’t more different. What a disappointment we must be.”
Rusty synchronized into the routine. “Well what can you expect. A group of people surrounded for a hundred years or so by a culture foreign to them. How long can you expect it to remain foreign?”
Later in the book, among the several long comic dialogues of Chapter 9, Stuartt takes issue with the group’s praise of fellow artist Howard (likely Aaron Douglas), dismissing their comments that Howard’s work is “essentially African” by noting the absurdity of describing anything as “African” and brilliantly expounding on the vital differences between a “Gabun full figure,” and art from Sudan, Congo, or by a Benin artist. Like a true didact Stuartt explores the complexity of this issue, remarking to Rusty, “Remember these things…if ever The Bookman wants an article on Negro art.” And, in this sense, Nugent’s fiction is less a recounting of the lives of him and his friends, than it is a quite complex discussion of various issues involving art, race, and sex.
Accordingly, for some readers Nugent’s dialogic writing will seem like a bumpy, baggy affair with what critic Northrup Frye has described in his Anatomy of Fiction as “violent dislocations in the customary logic of narrative.” Indeed, the editor of the Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader characterized Wallace Thurman’s fiction, Infants of the Spring—a work written at the same time as Nugent’s which often incorporates scenes similar to Gentleman Jigger (in the movie about Nugent, Brother to Brother, friends even accuse Thurman of copying from Nugent’s manuscript)—in terms that might equally apply to Nugent’s writing:
The novel was melodramatic and much too didactic, its talkative characters caricatures.
As Frye warns, however, in works such as Nugent’s (and Thurman’s) “the appearance of carelessness reflects only the carelessness of the reader or his tendency to judge by a novel-centered conception of fiction.” For both of these fictions are anatomies, not novels, a satiric form of fiction that “deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes.” The major figure (or in this case, figures) in such works are represented as “pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts”—all of which might describe Stuartt and Rusty (or Paul and Raymond in Thurman’s work)—who suffer the disease of the intellect. Here the country weekends of Thomas Love Peacock, Aldous Huxley, and Wyndham Lewis, where the pedant captures the attention of his guests over drinks and long dinners, is replaced by the raucous celebrations at Niggerati manor and dinner at Devores.**
Another structural aspect of anatomies is the tendency, as in Petronius’s Satyricon, to gather together individuals representing all social classes and/or to represent the pedant-hero undergoing a voyage that includes both the upper echelons of society and the underworld. It should come as no surprise, accordingly, that after Stuartt’s encounter with the Harlem underworld, ending, as does Thurman’s book, with dispersal and disillusionment, the second half of Gentleman Jigger takes us through another kind of underworld, the Mafia, in which the low-class figures live aside the wealthiest classes of U.S. society.
The Stuartt we encounter in part II, now living in Greenwich Village, is almost a new being who Rusty and Bum hardly recognize. He has grown his hair long, and, as Bum describes him, “the kid sparkles.” Whereas in the first half of the fiction, Stuartt has presented himself as a knowing wit, here we see him admitting to another Ray, a young handsome Italian vaguely connected with the mob, that he has never had a gay sexual experience before. His clumsy attempts at love are met with a feeling from Ray that he needs to protect and educate the innocent neophyte. This new Stuartt, moreover, although still very much a philosophus gloriosus, is far more modest and honest in expressing his ideas. Whereas in Niggerati manor, he lived without a job in utter poverty, he is now selling his art, and his own apartment has become a meeting place for Village artists, young hoodlums, and visiting out-of-town art patrons—the perfect location, of course, for his further musings on various subjects, sacred and profane.
With that, Stuartt’s career comes shattering down upon him, as racism wins the day. Unlike Thurman’s novel, however, in which the Nugent character Paul Arabian commits suicide and his entire manuscript is destroyed, Nugent turns the tables, so to speak, in his own fiction. To buy him out of his contracts, he is paid $100,000—the amount he has previously told Orini he would need to survive for the rest of his life!
Los Angeles, July 24, 2008
Reprinted from Rain Taxi [on-line edition] (August 2008).
*The discussion on “The View” about the “N” word is far more relevant to the issues above than one might imagine. This discussion, brought about by Jesse Jackson’s use of the word over what he thought was a closed mike, led Goldberg to argue that whites using that word meant something far different than its use in the Black community, where its hateful meanings had been transformed into something that was used in different contexts—perhaps akin to the gays’ reclamation of the word “queer.” At the time of Nugent’s novel, the white author and long time friend to many Harlem Blacks had just published his view of Harlem in Nigger Heaven; upon publication of the novel many of Van Vechten’s friends, Black and white, were outraged and hurt. Nugent’s use of the word in Gentlemen Jigger also makes his friends quite uncomfortable, although they recognize that he is being a provocateur.
**See also my discussions of the anatomy form in my essay on Bernadette Mayer in My Year 2001 and on Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood in My Year 2002. My discussion of Wyndham Lewis’s The Roaring Queen in My Year 2007 is also relevant to these concerns.
***Upon the publication of his story in FIRE!! many readers—including W. E. B. Du Bois—were angered, feeling Nugent’s purposeful aesthetizing of Black issues worked against the social changes they sought. As late as 1997-1998 Nugent was being ignored by scholars and critics as both an artist and an individual. In the noted travelling art show, Rhapsodies in Black: Art in the Harlem Renaissance, neither Nugent’s art nor his name appeared.