How do you solve a problem like Carl Van Vechten? How do you explain that the most important patron and publicist of the signal moment in the cultural history of black America was a white man, one whose attraction to black life was at times baldly erotic and at others deeply “essentialist”? How do you account for the title he gave his novel about black life: Nigger Heaven? Van Vechten bedeviled students and fans of the Harlem Renaissance from its start. The power of his story to divide opinion and, as Emily Bernard explains in her incisive, careful and illuminating book Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White (Yale; $30), to cut to the core of critical debates about the role of race in American modernism, has hardly cooled since.
Born in 1880 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Van Vechten grew up abnormally tall, with an epicene bearing and big buck-teeth—but also the sort of personality that led him to grow a pinky fingernail long, wear his collars high and don boots with pointy toes. He didn’t shrink from his oddness; he cultivated it. After he left the Midwest for Manhattan to make his way as a journalist, he was so drawn to Harlem, whose residents’ spectacular difference was so alluringly scandalous to Midtown whites, that he became an ofay habitué.
In the city’s wider literary world, Van Vechten gained notice as an arts critic for the New York Times: he was America’s first serious writer on ballet and its first prominent champion of Gertrude Stein. In 1922 he published his first novel, the bestseller Peter Whiffle. Three years (and novels) later, he informed Stein that his next book would “be about NEGROES, as they live now in the new city of Harlem.”
Nigger Heaven, published in 1926, is an innocent-enough love story about a struggling writer. Its title borrowed the slang name for the all-Negro balcony sections of Jim Crow movie houses, but the phrase’s power to provoke was clearly Van Vechten’s main reason for using it. Ignoring warnings that the title might cause offense, the author instructed his friend Alfred A. Knopf, who published the book, not to alter it.
Nigger Heaven made a spectacle of Van Vechten’s insider status and prompted W.E.B. Du Bois, writing in The Crisis, the house organ of the NAACP, to dub the novel “an affront to the hospitality of black folk.” But among the literary black folk with whom Van Vechten had caroused and conferred while composing the book were younger backers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, who saw his work as a “declaration of his right to write about black Harlem life just as he pleased,” states Bernard, “and of their right to do the same.” The long middle section of Bernard’s study is devoted to a subtle reading of the knotty questions about race and art that Nigger Heaven, whatever its merits as art, was likely better at stirring than any other book of its era.
What Van Vechten came to love more than defending his book after its stormy release was finding the friends who’d inspired him a hearing for their work beyond Harlem. Among those whose larger careers he helped launch were Paul Robeson (whose first public gig he produced); James Weldon Johnson (whose great 1912 novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, Van Vechten succeeded in having re-released under Johnson’s name); and Langston Hughes, whose first volume of poems, The Weary Blues (1926), he lobbied Knopf to publish. For these and other figures of the Harlem Renaissance, the parlor of the apartment on West Fifty-fifth Street that Van Vechten shared with his wife, the Russian actress Fania Marinoff, became a haven.
Van Vechten, notwithstanding his affectionate fifty-year marriage, was as omnivorous sexually as he was socially. He enjoyed amorous affairs with not a few of the men he admired, and also nurtured enduringly close bonds with women like Hurston and the retiring novelist Nella Larsen. By the time Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing, appeared, he was growing weary of writing books of his own. After the publication of the autobiographical Sacred and Profane Memories in 1932, he turned to another pursuit—taking photographs—that was arguably an even better match for his talents (and address book).
His oeuvre of pictures grew to include candid portraits of anyone and everyone from the world of black arts and achievement who lived in or passed through New York during the next quarter-century. All of Van Vechten’s writer pals sat before his lens. So too did such performer-eminences as Bessie Smith and—after Smith’s blues-heroine death in a 1937 car crash—the young Billie Holiday. Even Du Bois sat for his camera, in 1946. A septuagenarian at the time, Du Bois wears not his familiar Teutonic frown in Van Vechten’s portraits but a twinkly half-smile. Whatever the pair’s old quarrels, they had gained the mutual respect of foes joined by arguments worth having.
During the war years and after, as his friends began dying, Van Vechten’s work turned to commemoration. Especially anguished by the death of Johnson, he sought to honor his friend’s memory with a statue he hoped to erect at Central Park’s 110th Street entrance. But the idea was quashed by the park commission once it learned the statue would feature nude genitalia. His second effort was more successful: the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, whose donation to Yale occupied Van Vechten until his death in 1964, is housed in the Beinecke Library. It includes all of his thousands of photos, the personal papers of many of his august friends, and his own voluminous correspondence and daybooks. An unexampled archive of the world in which Van Vechten played such a vexing and crucial role, it deserves to stand, as Bernard insists in a fine book drawn from the collection’s riches, as his most lasting legacy.