Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black & White
By Emily Bernard
Yale University Press368 pages
The Crisis MagazineSummer 2012
The Mexican visual artist Miguel Covarrubias once presented Carl Van Vechten, his friend and patron, with a caricature called “A Prediction.” The drawing presents Van Vechten, an Iowan of Dutch ancestry, in profile, with a rounded jaw-line and chin, pronounced forehead, puffed and thickened lips around buck-teeth, and browned skin. The artist’s prediction illustrated Van Vechten shifting from being simply a “White Negro” to becoming Negro. Emily Bernard’s close reading of Van Vechten’s career doesn’t confirm Covarrubias’ prediction, but it’s hard to read her substantial new work, Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black & White, without imagining that Van Vechten, at some point, wanted to be an African American.
Posed as literary study, Bernard’s book is actually a meditative culmination of her 20-year obsession — call it “archive fever” — with Van Vechten. Presenting him as a significant maker of the New Negro Movement/Harlem Renaissance, Bernard pulls Van Vechten from its narrative margin to center stage. She offers her subject through three portraits, each examining Van Vechten’s investment in Black American arts; there is Van Vechten acting as critical agent on behalf of African American artists and cultural workers; Van Vechten creating as controversial “White Negro” novelist; and Van Vechten collecting, preserving and canonizing African American literary and cultural artifacts.
As a cultural critic and aficionado, Van Vechten promoted African American experience and culture as central to American life. His “passion for Blackness,” as Bernard puts it, allowed him to create a niche as an advocate, befriending and sponsoring many of the foundational figures of twentieth-century African American arts: Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Aaron Douglas, Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters, Rudolph Fisher and Langston Hughes. Bernard’s first book, Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten (2001), is a strong initial explanation of Van Vechten’s prowess. Beginning with Hughes’ first poetry collection, The Weary Blues (1926), Van Vechten encouraged his publisher to usher young New Negro literary artists like Fisher and Larsen into the literary mainstream.
Van Vechten’s “negrophilia” drew the ire of some prominent African American critics who were dubious of Van Vechten, thinking his influence led Black artists to exoticize Negro life as primarily carnal and primitive. As significant as this worry was, Bernard explains, was the realization that “without this White man, Hughes may not have emerged as the celebrated Black poet he came to be.”
Hard feelings against Van Vechten are largely due to his infamous fifth novel, Nigger Heaven (1926). Known across Manhattan as a hard-drinking socialite, Van Vechten massaged access into the homes of Harlem’s social elite, making mental notes for his theories on Negro life. This is Bernard’s most important portrait because she illustrates how Nigger Heaven, the best selling novel of the Harlem Renaissance, inspired writers like Claude McKay and Nella Larsen to seek commercial attention by creating audacious fictions modeled after Van Vechten’s novel. At the end of this middle portrait, Bernard offers a personal narrative about teaching Nigger Heaven and the powder keg qualities of “nigger”; this is a fine gesture. However, Bernard’s whole meditation would have been bolstered had she reprinted the whole of her superb essay, “Teaching the N-Word,” within it. Bernard’s piece would counterweigh her history with the book and the word against Van Vechten’s intentions.
|Carl Van Vechten|
After the stinging criticism surrounding Nigger Heaven, Van Vechten gave up writing in favor of creating The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters. After Johnson’s death in a 1938 car accident, Van Vechten was determined to maintain his close friend’s legacy, compelling the historically White Yale University to become the repository for Johnson’s manuscripts, those of other African American artists, and his own personal archive of Negro artifacts, including his vast photographic record of American and Black American artists. Fixed on mixing Black and White artists together through institutional endowments, Van Vechten spent the last 24 years of his life developing racial crossed archives at Yale, Fisk, and the Library of Congress.
One of Van Vechten’s best images is his portrait of 25-year-old Norman Mailer. As if predicting Mailer’s future theories of Black jazzmen and White hipsters, the photographer situates the subject so that his thick wavy hair and shaded facial features seem to evoke an American Negro genealogy: The White Negro making the White Negro. Bernard’s Carl Van Vechten, written in clear, elegant prose, makes her subject too. Though one could quibble, desiring more straightforward literary critique of Nigger Heaven or expanded art-historical analysis of Van Vechten’s photographs, Bernard’s book is a compelling, challenging addition to the ongoing racial remixing of American literary history.