Richard Bruce Nugent is another one of those figures that we wished we saw more of. He’s been memorialized as somewhat of a dabbler/unserious writer. Cody C. St. Claire at the African American Review suggests that describing Nugent to be a dilettante for his lack of work is somewhat of a anti-queer. St. Claire claims that Bruce’s queerness bleeds out from just his sexuality into his ideas about creating. “ I argue, instead, that Nugent’s queerness embraced dilettantism as a political inactivity of the self that deconstructs racist stereotypes of the “lazy Negro” even as it rejects the classist and professionalist ideologies of racial uplift and black bourgeois respectability” (St. Claire, 2017).
The literary attitude toward Nugent is that he could have been excellent if he wrote more and wrote seriously but most fail to recognize that he had no social responsibility as an author to write for the social cause. Plenty of writers chose to do so during the Harlem Renaissance but purely because they wanted to. The assumption that every author during the Harlem Renaissance should’ve written as much as they could to counteract stereotypes is elitist and anti-Black. People who mourn Nugent’s lack of work are in some ways acknowledging that he failed to perform––instead of accepting his agency. Inactivity can be a choice but because Nugent was a Black author his inactivity is exchanged for incapability.
It’s almost as if those that critique Nugent’s small body of work never truly read him. “Smoke Lilies and Jade” is queer in an unconventional sense because of the stream of consciousness narrative and a constant pause within sentences engendered by ellipses. The style and the language of this story captures a desire to act that is inhibited by physical stillness and emotional interiority. The story begins, “He wanted to do something…to write or draw…or something…but it was so comfortable just to lay there on the bed… his shoes off…and think…think of everything,” (Nugent, 1926). His literature does not capture a spirit of tenacity; it is evocative of Romantic ideals of depth and introspection. “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade” doesn’t seem like a response to society or a conscious contribution to sculpting the New Negro image. It demonstrates humanity: to smoke, to wonder, to hurt.
Putting queer resistance against heteronormative thought about productivity often brings me back to Oscar Wilde and the Wildean conceptions of aestheticism. In the “Decay of Lying” Wilde says through a socratic dialogue between two characters:
Art begins with abstract decoration, with purely imaginative and pleasurable work dealing with what is unreal and non-existent . This is the first stage. Then Life becomes fascinated with this new wonder, and asks to be admitted into the charmed circle. Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style, of decorative or ideal treatment. The third stage is when Life gets the upper hand, and drives Art out into the wilderness. This is the true decadence, and it is from this that we are now suffering. (Wilde, 1891)
Wilde believed in art existing at the will of the artist because it was beautiful not because it had to create counterculture or speak to a political moment. If art for art’s sake can be true then why must we hold the literature of Richard Bruce Nugent to the standard of being remarkably abundant? When honoring his work, we should start to voice that Nugent did not owe his art to the political moment––it was created upon his say so. It can be an act of queer resistance to be beautifully brief.