Reviews — From the April 2014 issue

The Vampire

The fickle career of Carl Van Vechten

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Discussed in this essay:

The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America, by Edward White. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 400 pages. $30.

The reputation of the New York writer and salonnier Carl Van Vechten is best cherished today, almost in spite of what he published in his lifetime, in departments of African-American studies. From the 1910s through the 1940s, Van Vechten was the most outspoken white go-between connecting black performers and writers to the New York City press. He helped launch the careers of Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes at more or less the same time, in the mid-1920s, and even before that he systematically brought the rhythm of the blues to American high culture. Van Vechten also meticulously photographed American artists from the 1930s until his death, in 1964 — especially black artists, anticipating the country’s growing fascination with both visual culture and its multiracial identity. But for a well-to-do white man who wrote best-selling fiction and was a key delineator of American modernist tastes in music, art, dance, and literature, Van Vechten’s designation today as a “Negrotarian,” as Zora Neale Hurston once called him, is very nearly a defeat.

“Carl Van Vechten in profile,” by Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy Carl Van Vechten Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

“Carl Van Vechten in profile,” by Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy Carl Van Vechten Papers,
Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Van Vechten, who in an unpublished piece of college prose wrote that when he crashed turn-of-the-century black American circles in Chicago he was “invariably taken for a coon” (by other “coons,” that is), has finally crossed the color line. His reputation, affected perhaps by his personal character — hedonistic and whimsical, grandiloquent and narcissistic — has suffered the behind-the-scenes fate of his adopted people, the same fate reserved for such musicians as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker and for the novelists Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, John Edgar Wideman, and Toni Morrison, among others. Despite the renown and critical purchase of these artists, the real powers in American cultural life consider them a tad purplish when they start blowing — virtuosic but vain, overindulgent if spirited, campy and straining. They shine the penny too brightly, blurring the distinction between fad and tradition.

Van Vechten lived the kind of life outside the lines that appeals to Americans and Europeans today as romantic and devil-may-care. Edward White, in his breezy and enjoyable new biography, argues that Van Vechten was quintessentially American — that is, part entrepreneur, part inventor and pragmatic innovator, and part sideshow gimcrack barker. “Famous for his frivolity and elegance,” Van Vechten possessed modest gifts but excelled in his willingness to make a splash, to prick convention. And his adult life coincided with one of the most artificial public conventions established in the modern Western world — Jim Crow segregation, which reached its peak in the mid-1920s, when Van Vechten himself approached his full power. It isn’t hard to see Van Vechten, when pitted against such strident racism, as a kind of color-line-bending shaman. But Van Vechten did not create multiracial America; he simply recognized what was already there. His courage derived from his willingness to battle, with such weapons as he had, the whitewash under way during the first half of the twentieth century.

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is a professor at Emory University. His book Chronicles of the Absurd: The Life and Times of Chester B. Himes will be published next year by W.W.Norton.

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