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.

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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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