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Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance

First Published in the Times Literary Supplement (May 4, 2012).

In 1926 Carl Van Vechten, a white music and dance critic turned popular novelist, published a novel whose title would cast a shadow over his long life and career. Nigger Heaven, which quickly became a bestseller, was denounced by many who had not read it, caustically reviewed by others who had read and disliked it, including the influential editor of The Crisis, W. E. B. Du Bois, and just as ardently defended by Van Vechten’s literary friends in the black community, including the most gifted among them, Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. His elderly father, who had brought him up to be free of colour prejudice, had warned him against the title, and the book itself included a cautionary footnote on the word “nigger,” a reminder that though “freely used” by Negroes themselves, sometimes as a term of endearment, “its employment by a white person is always fiercely resented.” Was Van Vechten deliberately courting controversy by violating this taboo, or had he come to consider himself such an insider, an honorary Negro, that he felt licensed to do so?

“Nigger heaven,” so we’re told, is a slang term for the balcony of a segregated theatre, a place that confines spectators to a second-class location yet affords them a bird’s-eye view of the spectacle below. Van Vechten uses it as a metaphor for Harlem, the uptown scene where a vast migration of blacks from the South, the West, and the Caribbean had created a city within a city, 400,000 strong, often likened to Mecca, the emerging capital of black America. Yet the phrase was also ironic, perhaps more than Van Vechten intended, for it was anything but heaven for the mass of impoverished people who were penned in there. These ordinary Negroes scarcely figure in Van Vechten’s stylish novel. Only a few years earlier this dandified, eccentric writer, bisexual, bohemian, had grown “violently interested” in Negro culture and Harlem life, especially its night life, and had quickly gotten to know everyone there, from civil rights leaders like Du Bois, Johnson, and Walter White at the NAACP to upcoming young writers like Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston. He led slumming visitors such as Somerset Maugham on exotic tours, cruised the streets and cabarets till dawn, and invited his new black friends to dazzling parties at his home on West 55th Street, breaking down social barriers at a time when New York was anything but an integrated city. As a renowned trend-spotter with impeccably modern taste, Van Vechten promoted their work in articles for Vanity Fair and read their manuscripts as a trusted advisor to his publisher, Alfred Knopf. He prompted Knopf to publish the blues-based early poems of Hughes and arresting novels of Nella Larsen just as he’d convinced them to bring out Wallace Stevens’s first collection of poems, Harmonium. Despite the opprobrium that Nigger Heaven brought down on his head, he was undoubtedly one of the midwives of the Harlem Renaissance, which raised the vexing question of the effects of white patronage on that proud but short-lived cultural movement.

Emily Bernard’s penetrating book Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance confronts this issue from every conceivable angle while writing the largely forgotten Van Vechten back into the story. She first undertook this job of recovery a decade ago with Remember Me to Harlem, a finely edited selection from some fifteen hundred lively, gossipy letters exchanged between Van Vechten and Hughes over nearly four decades. The new book, an interpretive study rather than a full-scale biography, extends that dialogue to the whole Harlem Renaissance and beyond. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how and when this movement took off. It could be seen as a wishful fiction, since it embraced only an elite core of artists and activists, but it was first announced, at a large “coming out” dinner of the Harlem elect on March 21, 1924. The master of revels was Alain Locke, a philosopher who didn’t even live in Harlem but intimately knew the scene. He followed up by editing a magazine issue, soon enlarged into a landmark volume, The New Negro, that became a virtual census of black achievement in every corner of the arts.

This path had been cleared by James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 Book of American Negro Poetry, prefaced by a ringing assertion that “the final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced.” Johnson, like Du Bois, firmly believed that artistic recognition would contribute to social progress by raising the status of the race. The book’s purpose, Bernard comments, “was to establish the humanity of black people.” As Johnson insists, “no people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior.” The same quixotic conviction motivated the advocates of the New Negro and the Harlem Renaissance. They believed that the work of what Du Bois had famously called the “talented tenth,” especially in the high arts, would not only gain respect but serve as the engine for ameliorating the condition of Negroes in general.

On this shaky terrain Van Vechten’s novel landed like a bomb, widening a fault line between then older and younger generation. It stirred up a hornet’s nest of reviews, polemic, and feverish new writing that is at the core of Bernard’s engrossing book. One critic charged that Van Vechten “wallows in a sewer and calls it Harlem” (140). Nigger Heaven is a knowing roman clef, with minor characters, some quite notorious, who were recognizable figures on the Harlem scene. They spend much of their time at parties or in cabarets, the scene Van Vechten knew best, but alongside this light social comedy the book explores a failed love affair between two specimens of the New Negro. Mary Love, well-read, intelligent, emotionally detached, works in the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. (Nella Larsen, herself a librarian, put just such a protagonist at the center of Quicksand.) Even her friends consider Mary cold, unable to let herself go, until she meets an aspiring but thwarted writer, Byron Kasson, who arouses her dormant sexuality. (Knopf’s editors and lawyers carefully vetted the details.) A bit risibly, he stirs up the “pagan” and the “savage” in her coloured blood. Byron, at once proud and touchy, easily wounded, is too uncomfortable in his own skin to stay with Mary or decide what he ought to write about. Finding his own work “spineless”, he falls into racial melodrama, cheap protest writing, and endures well-meaning advice from Mary and a dressing-down from a Mencken-like editor bent on setting him straight. Unhinged by sheer rage, a condition James Baldwin and Chester Himes would one day depict with surgical precision, he falls into a torrid affair with a wealthy femme fatale, an embodiment of sheer amoral vitality, who quickly devours and discards him. The kind of sexual awakening he brought to Mary proves his own undoing.

It’s not hard to see why this relatively slight though finely written novel caused such a commotion in Harlem. The title was incendiary, the author was white, famous, and well-connected, and the book, stocked with serious conversation (some of it in French), was an outsider’s bold intervention in the churning cultural politics of the New Negro. Like Alain Locke, Van Vechten saw Harlem not as a dumping ground for the destitute but as a complex social scene, enlivened by the diverse migration. “In the very process of being transplanted, the Negro is becoming transformed,” Locke had written. Locke aimed to show that the young Negro artists were not outliers but represented the awakened consciousness of the black masses, though few Harlemites had heard of them. Van Vechten’s view, reiterated in many essays, was simpler: if black artists failed to exploit “the wealth of novel, exotic, picturesque material” in their rich culture, others would. According to Bernard, he felt that “black artists should manipulate white stereotypes, fears, and fantasies about black people for their own benefit.” This sounds suspiciously like black performers donning blackface to meet the demands of the market. The message Byron gets from the lecturing editor is more straightforward: stay authentic, don’t write to please, write what you know, today’s mantra in creative writing programs. Nigger Heaven was Van Vechten’s reckless attempt to show them the way. It was also, adds Bernard, “a stage on which Van Vechten exhibited himself as a white insider to black culture.” When Hughes was attacked for his bluesy, lowdown, syncopated lyrics, Van Vechten told him that “you and I are the only colored people who really love niggers,” a line that still shocks today.

In the pleasure-loving 1920s, Van Vechten was not alone in being drawn to black culture for what many saw as its naturalness, spontaneity, and sensuality. Picasso and other modern artists had turned to African art for its stark geometrical simplicity and ritual power. White patrons flocked to the Cotton Club in Harlem to take in Duke Ellington’s “jungle music,” as they did to Josephine Baker’s racy Revue Ngre to the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. Simplified versions of Freud and D. H. Lawrence as sexual liberators became the decade’s battle cries against gentility and bourgeois repression. In Winesburg, Ohio (1919) Sherwood Anderson had inscribed this evangel of personal rebellion into American fiction and excited a whole literary generation. Nigger Heaven projected the message onto Harlem, to the mischievous pleasure of many young writers, who took up his example, much to the horror of an older black leadership.

From his pulpit at The Crisis, Du Bois denounced the book as superficial, soulless, and nasty. He bridled at its attraction to lowlife and night life, with their sensational appeal to whites, rather than the decent respectability of most blacks in Harlem. “The average colored man in Harlem is an everyday laborer, attending church, lodge and movie and is conservative and as conventional as ordinary working folk everywhere.” Du Bois had little feeling for aesthetics. He saw all art as propaganda, its primary purpose as social uplift. Yet the lurid material in Nigger Heaven is almost mainly on the periphery, in a prologue and denouement that belong almost to a different book . The focus is mainly on middle-class blacks, their ambitions and daily frustrations in a city infected with casual racism and discrimination, but like Anderson he also made much of their own conflicts and inhibitions.

The issue for Du Bois was not simply the portrayal of Harlem but the implied agenda that Nigger Heaven laid down for black writers, promoting (as he saw it) stereotypes of coloured people that pandered to white readers’ taste for the primitive and the prurient. (D. H. Lawrence disliked the book for exactly the opposite reason: he found it too tame: “The whole coloured thing is peculiarly colourless, a second-hand dish barely warmed up.”) The Renaissance writers had a limited black audience, so their work was sustained by white patrons like those they met at Van Vechten’s parties, like Van Vechten himself. His own friendships with blacks were remarkably free of self-consciousness or exploitation, and they were warmly reciprocated. Harold Jackman, a writer who served as a model for Byron, wrote that Van Vechten was “the first white man with whom I have felt perfectly at ease.” With his generous, sometimes critical enthusiasm for their work he remained on the most cordial terms with writers who could barely stand each other: the diffident, private Hughes, the flamboyant Hurston, the shy, guarded Larsen, the redoubtable Johnson, who became his closest friend. His unguarded admiration, his empathy for the slights they regularly encountered, overcame the wariness of performers like Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters (a lifelong friend), and even the difficult, damaged Bessie Smith.

There was a less attractive side that mattered as well. Bernard notes “his considerable need for adulation,” for what the writer Bruce Nugent called “knee-bending,” and the need of black artists “to please a powerful man who had the resources at his disposal to promote their careers.” But with refreshing insight she adds that “many friendships, regardless of race, are complicated by imbalances in power at one point or another,”and hence “may generate excessive gratitude or bitter resentment.” Van Vechten’s dealings with individual black artists, she says, “were inconsistent, changeable, and complicated, just like the relationship between black art and white influence itself.” She sums up his unique role in the New Negro movement as that of “an opportunist, an exception, a co-conspirator, and a friend.”

The Harlem Renaissance sputtered out in the early 1930s under the impact of the Depression, though a few of its writers like Hughes, with his rare common touch, and the late-blooming Hurston continued to produce remarkable work. Others died young, stopped writing, or (in Nella Larsen’s case) vanished altogether, much to Van Vechten’s dismay – he had coaxed her to write fiction in the first place. The dominant new black writers like Richard Wright and his protégés, Baldwin and Ellison, cut their teeth on Marxism or modernism, successfully navigated the cultural mainstream, and felt few links with their Harlem predecessors, whom they scarcely mentioned. Wright’s radical 1937 manifesto “Blueprint for Negro Writing” mocked earlier writers “dressed in the knee-pants of servility, curtsying to show that the Negro was not inferior, that he was human, and that he had a life comparable to other people.” Van Vechten disliked the political turn in Hughes’s work in the thirties but the decline of the movement did not diminish his identification with black artists. He found new ways cement his allegiance to them, first by becoming a portrait photographer, in many ways a great one, and then by working tirelessly to create prestigious university archives housing their work, along with his own. Both were ways of making up a permanent register of their careers and weaving them into the recalcitrant fabric of American culture. With unshakable loyalty and tenacity, he did the same for Gertrude Stein, serving as her most enthusiastic fan, her unofficial American agent, her editor and archivist.

From the moment Van Vechten turned seriously to photography in 1932, he set about to capture the image of every important black artist, along with a legion of other cultural celebrities. (He also became a pioneering dance photographer.) He chose the backdrops, fiddled endlessly with the poses, developed, cropped, printed, and enlarged the photos himself, and by the time of his death in 1964 at the age of 84 he had taken over fifteen thousand pictures, itself an indispensable archive of those decades in the arts. It would be hard to find better images of Hughes, Johnson, Waters, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Marian Anderson, and the young James Earl Jones and Leontyne Price than the ones he took. They come across as dramatic without being intrusively psychological, or even sexual, since he was more interested in the cultural iconography – the roles they played, the persona they projected – than in who they really were. The pictures, devised with theatrical flair, enabled him to find a place in their world as he probed their stardom; playing both director and set-designer, he could shape their image while keeping discreetly offstage. They appealed to what Keith F. Davis, a photography critic, called “his mania for collecting and cataloging,” which also figured in the literary archives he created, above the matchless James Weldon Johnson Collection of American Negro Arts and Letters at Yale. Without this immense research tool, books like Bernard’s could never have been written.

Like Van Vechten’s life, her study slows down in its last lap as she traces his full-time obsession with building up the collection, beginning with interminable negotiations with Yale as it hesitated to appoint a black archivist. It bore his friend’s name as a memorial tribute but also because his own was still too controversial. There were protests when a paperback publisher brought out a cheap edition of Nigger Heaven in 1951, and it was quickly withdrawn. In 1957 a Knopf editor dismissed Hughes’s suggestion that Van Vechten contribute an introduction to his selected poems, as he had done for his first volume, The Weary Blues, thirty years before. As his fame waned and the racial atmosphere changed, a new generation of black artists found his spell resistible; Ralph Ellison and Sidney Poitier refused outright to sit for him. Van Vechten was enthralled by Ellison’s Invisible Man but the feeling was not mutual. “I despised his photography,” Ellison told Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad. “In fact, I didn’t care for the whole Van Vechten influence. It introduced a note of decadence into Afro-American literary matters.” Ellison must have recoiled from Van Vechten’s homosexuality, spying a Camp sensibility in his books and pictures, marked by his fascination with costume and decor, with artifice and poses. On the other hand, one young black writer, Darryl Pinckney, later celebrated his “enthusiasms for art, beauty, youth, rich eccentrics, great ladies, exquisite settings, clothes, and the ‘forbidden’.”

Van Vechten’s ultimate importance lay elsewhere. His sponsorship of black culture was astonishing for its time, unusual in its scope and depth of feeling, and historically momentous. Amid the uproar over Nigger Heaven, James Weldon Johnson defended him as “the first well-known American novelist to include in a story a cultured Negro class without making it burlesque or without implying reservations and apologies.” Charles S. Johnson, the president of Fisk University, a premier black institution, echoed the point at the official opening of the Yale collection in 1950, saluting his “introduction to American literature of the Negro as a person rather than a type.” Quite a few notable black writers had accomplished this before him, including Charles W. Chesnutt in his turn-of-the-century stories, James Weldon Johnson himself in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and Jean Toomer in Cane, but this seems like an apt epitaph. Bernard’s book, obviously a labor of love, makes it entirely convincing.

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