20th Century African American Writers
Wilfred D. Samuels, Ph.D., Department of English, University of Utah
                 
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A Gift of Story/Encyclopedia of African-American Literature

Dr. Wilfred D. Samuels, General Editor

Sample Essays

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) Carl Van Vechten was a writer, critic, and photographer best known as a white promoter of African American cultural expression. Van Vechten initiated his career as an arts critic for such periodicals as the New York Times, the New York Press, and the New Music Review. After tiring of criticism in the early 1920s, Van Vechten authored a number of popular novels offering satirical explorations of the decadent lifestyle of his "modern" social circle; the most notable of these are Peter Whiffle (1922), The Blind Bow-Boy (1923), Firecrackers (1925), Spider Boy (1928), and Parties (1930). His most widely-read work both then and now, however, is his popular Harlem novel Nigger Heaven (1926)*, a highly controversial though sympathetic and candid account of the burgeoning New Negro Renaissance.*

Van Vechten was born into a progressive Victorian household in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Both parents taught him to respect individuals regardless of race or socioeconomic standing. He was deeply influenced by his father, Charles Duane Van Vechten, a founder of the Piney Woods School for African American children in Mississippi, who had an unorthodox concern for African Americans. Carl, or "Carlo" as he was later called by friends, learned to treat local black laborers in the same manner he treated middle-class whites (Bernard xviii). While attending the University of Chicago, Van Vechten explored black neighborhoods and spent time at churches and night clubs run by Chicago blacks. During this period he adopted an idealistic image of African Americans as a whole and later admitted that his early experiences may have made him more sympathetic to Blacks than any social grouping deserves. Writing to Chester Himes, Van Vechten, at the age of 76, explained that his youthful sympathy toward the black race, benign as it may have been, vanished after a revelation that, in fact, not all African Americans were the same: "one day I came home shouting, 'I HATE a Negro! I HATE a Negro!' It was my salvation and since then I've had no trouble at all. From that point on I understood that they were like everybody else, that is they were thieves and cut-throats, generous and pious, witty and wise, dumb and foolish…" (Letters 259).

In 1924, Van Vechten met writer and civil rights activist Walter White* at a party hosted by their publisher Alfred Knopf (Knopf had published White's novel, The Fire in the Flint, that year); they instantly became friends. Within weeks White introduced Van Vechten to life in Harlem, where he met and befriended many black intellectuals and celebrities, including Langston Hughes*, James Weldon Johnson*, Jessie Fauset*, Paul Robeson*, and Wallace Thurman*. The relationships became mutually beneficial: the writers provided Van Vechten with access to Black Manhattan and, in return, he promoted their works to the "great white" publishing market. Within three weeks of meeting Langston Hughes, for example, Van Vechten convinced Knopf to publish the 23-year-old Hughes's first book of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926).

Van Vechten was, in Ann Douglas's words, "a liaison and PR man extraordinaire between Harlem and white New York" (81).He was instrumental in securing publication for many key Harlem Renaissance texts, including a new edition of James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912, 1927), Nella Larsen's novels Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), and poetry by Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Van Vechten, who was older than many of the youthful talents he supported, assumed a paternal role in their career. After Paul Robeson's wife, Essie, referred to him as "godfather," the Herald Tribune adopted this appellation, reporting in 1925 that Carlo was "the beneficent godfather of all sophisticated Harlem" (qtd in Douglas 288).
Van Vechten's explorations of Harlem life were widely publicized; he hosted many salon parties for New York's cultural elite in his 5th Avenue apartment, singularly inviting both black and white guests. One Van Vechten soirée in June of 1925 was kicked off by George Gershwin playing show tunes at the piano; Paul Robeson then sang a number of Negro spirituals, and the evening concluded with James Weldon Johnson reciting "Go Down, Death" (Kellner 200-01). When his novel Nigger Heaven appeared in 1926, it sold more copies than all of the books by African American writers during the Harlem Renaissance combined (Worth 466). Hughes confirms this noting, "more Negroes bought [Nigger Heaven] than ever purchased a book by a Negro author" (qtd. in Worth 466). The original 16,000 copies sold out immediately, and it went through nine printings in its first four months.

A social novel more than a romance, Nigger Heaven revolves around two central characters, Mary Love and Byron Kasson, both of whom are doing their part for the New Negro movement, as they engage each other in discussions about culture and middle class values and the place of the 'race' as a criteria for evaluating the aesthetic value of a work of art. Although scenes are set in Harlem cabarets where jazz and gin flow, and dancers lindy hop to African rhythmic drum sounds, Nigger Heaven, in fact, contains few scandalizing scenes, a fact that adds an ironic punch to the sensationalist title. Van Vechten had merely borrowed a popular term for the title of his novel, as "Nigger Heaven" was most commonly used to refer to the balcony seats where African Americans were consigned in segregated theaters and movie palaces. Van Vechten used the expression metaphorically to connote both Harlem's location at the northern end of Manhattan and the irony of its application: readers are meant to see that Negro society in Harlem transcends racial stereotyping, transcendence even a white man could accomplish.

Regardless, the novel, particularly its title, predictably stirred up enormous controversy in the Black press. The most clearly cacophonous response came from W.E.B. Du Bois*, who hated it utterly; the most benign from James Weldon Johnson*, who vigorously defended it. Du Bois began his review in The Crisis* magazine with: "Carl Van Vechten's 'Nigger Heaven' is a blow in the face." "It is an affront to the hospitality of black folk and to the intelligence of the white" (81), he concluded. In contrast, the scenes Du Bois identified as "wildly barbaric drunken orgy," Johnson argued "set off in sharper relief the decent, cultured, intellectual life of Negro Harlem" (393). Whether in the cabaret or in the intellectual salon, Johnson argues, "It is all life. It is all reality" (393).

Criticism was not limited to the Black press. Van Vechten's father, who died seven months before Nigger Heaven appeared, was one of the first of the notorious title's long line of critics. In a letter to Carl he wrote, "Your 'Nigger Heaven' is a title I don't like... I have myself never spoken of a colored man as a 'nigger.' If you are trying to help the race, as I am assured you are, I think every word you write should be a respectable one towards the black" (qtd in Kellner 210-11).

If there is any consensus about Van Vechten, it is that he was not a racist. Perhaps his worst transgression with Nigger Heaven and his Harlem exploits was that he betrayed, as Emily Bernard describes it, "a combination of naiveté and arrogance [which] led him to believe he was unique, a white man who had transcended his whiteness" (xix). The defining contradiction of his race writing, and a cause for critical tension, is that his belief in collapsing racial boundaries is never reconciled with his celebration of Negro exceptionalism. This issue alone, with all of its relevant applications today, will ensure that Van Vechten criticism will continue to flourish. Van Vechten's final, pragmatic legacy to the African American literary tradition was his donation of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters to Yale University. The collection, named in his friend's honor, holds writings, letters, and memorabilia pertaining to African American life, which Van Vechten had compulsively amassed over the years. It remains one of the richest scholarly collections for American literary study. Van Vechten died in New York City on December 21, 1964.

Selected Bibliography:

Bernard, Emily, ed. Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes
and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964. With an Introduction by the editor. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Douglas, Ann. Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. 1995. New
York: Papermac, 1997.

Dowling, Robert M. "Slumming: Morality and Space in New York City from 'City
Mysteries' to the Harlem Renaissance." Ph.D. diss. City University of New York, 2001.

Helbling, Mark. "Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance." Negro
American Literature Forum 10 (Summer 1976): 39-47.

Kellner, Bruce. Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades. Norman: University
of Oklahoma Press, 1968.

Lueders, Edward. Carl Van Vechten and the Twenties. Albuquerque: University of
New Mexico Press, 1955.

---. Letters of Carl Van Vechten. Ed. Bruce Kellner. New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1987.

Worth, Robert F. "Nigger Heaven and the Harlem Renaissance." African
American Review. Fall 1995. 29 (3): 461-473.

Robert M. Dowling
U.S. Coast Guard Academy


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