U.S. Intellectual History Blog

With Friends like these… (or, is it possible to be too hip?)

Two weeks ago I wrote about the strange career of white moderates. Let me continue that discussion by introducing Carl Van Vechten. I’m in the midst of considering his friendship with Eslanda (and Paul) Robeson for a new chapter I’m writing for my book (Yay Spring Break!). I have their letters to each other and there is much mutual affection and admiration. “Essie” wrote to “Carlo” about Paul’s triumphs, their experiences abroad, and her own literary attempts. When many people were owed letters, it seems that Van Vechten was at the top of Essie’s list. In order to understand Essie (I use her first name to distinguish her from Paul), I need to also understand Van Vechten.

Who was Van Vechten? He was an important literary figure in New York during the Roaring Twenties. He was a linking point between the Lost Generation and the New Negro Renaissance. Emily Bernard gives a short synopsis:

 “Initially, Carl Van Vechten’s interest in black culture seemed to be an exception to the general shallowness of white voyeurism uptown. His signature Harlem tours were rites of passage for white sophisticates, but Van Vechten’s fascination with black culture far outdistanced the curiosity of those he shepherded to Harlem. He wrote articles for Vanity Fair and other mainstream magazines extolling the virtues of spirituals and the blues, arguing for their recognition as authentic American art forms. He threw parties as a way of introducing struggling artists to influential whites. These parties became legendary in black circles and were written up regularly in the society pages of the Amsterdam News. Van Vechten loved his nights at the Savoy, but he was also a dedicated and serious patron of black arts and letters.

“Things changed after August 1926, when Carl Van Vechten published his notorious novel Nigger Heaven. After that, his name became synonymous with white exploitation of black culture…” (Bernard, xiv-xv)

I wonder about the tone of his enthusiasm. Sometimes it is possible to think you are so hip and with it that you don’t have to follow the racial rules anymore….but white people are rarely, if ever, that hip. Still….he’s an interesting figure and a dedicated friend to the Robeson’s long after the publication of his book–and the relationship seems entirely mutual in its affection. For instance, the Robeson’s also became friendly with Emma Goldman. Essie Robeson did not write of her marital problems in letters to Goldman, though Goldman seemed to pant for a closer relationship with the Robesons, but she poured out the whole affair(s) to Van Vechten.

Did Van Vechten practice a different kind of language around blacks than he did around whites? Did he “code switch”?  In his Reminiscences, he wrote that he began to get “‘violently interested in Negroes,’ so that it was ‘almost an addiction.” (emphasis mine) (Coleman, 79) Is this the way you talk about friends? 

In 1924, just before becoming involved with the Harlem Renaissance, he was relieved to find himself hating a particular black person, because he realized that he had been thinking of all black people as the same.

He sought out African Americans on his own, first going uptown to Lafayette Theater in Harlem and then contacting Walter White for introductions to the “black intelligentsia.” He didn’t wait for African Americans to come to him. And then he invited his new acquaintances into his home for his famous parties.

Not surprisingly (given the title of his novel), it is his relationship to the N-word which is particularly revealing for me.  He often found an audience for obscure authors, like Ronald Firbank. “In 1922 Van Vechten arranged for the American publication of a new novel by Firbank, the first of his works published in this country. The novel, originally titled, Sorrow in Sunlight, was prefaced by Van Vechten and, at his suggestion, the title was changed to Prancing Nigger. “  (This anecdote changes the controversy surrounding Van Vechten’s own novel, which many blacks rejected based on the title alone, while most of his friends defended the book.)

Gertrude Stein and Van Vechten were frequent correspondents. When urging her to meet Paul Robeson and other African Americans headed to Paris, Van Vechten always used the term “Negro,” while Stein used “Negro” (capitalized) and “nigger” interchangeably (before VV had titled the book, she wrote “I am looking forward enormously to the nigger book”). Van Vechten did not suggest that her language could be insulting. He described the Robesons to Stein, “He is a lamb of God; I like him better than almost anyone I ever met and I think you will too and he will love you and you will like his wife just as much.” He repeated the phrase “lamb of God” in another letter. I wonder what he meant by it?

In March, 1927, Langston Hughes defended his own “right to portray any side of Negro life I wish to” and applauded Van Vechten for his “‘sincere, friendly, and helpful interest in things Negro.” Van Vechten replied, “The situation is easy to explain: You and I are the only colored people who really love niggers.” (emphasis in original) (Bernard, 46). Hughes did not respond to this claim in his next letter. Hughes used the n-word in his poetry, but in writing to Van Vechten he always used Negro, except for once–“Just made a speech asking the Student YMCA what they are doing about colleges like this one (Franklin and Marshall) that ‘doesn’t encourage the attendance of Negroes.’ One of the delegates said that he joined the Ku Klux Klan on account of niggers like me!!” (Bernard, 50)

Coleman explains why he thinks the book title was appropriate. “In view of the point that he was trying to make, the title was appropriate. Harlem, the city of refuge and the Mecca of the New Negro, could be considered a ‘heaven’ in comparison to the South, where lynching and peonage were still commonplace. Langston Hughes had once written to Van Vechten that he would rather be ‘a lamp post in Harlem’ than an important man anywhere else. But on the other hand, Harlem was like a segregated gallery in a white theater. I twas separated by white prejudice and hostility from the rest of New York. Van Vechten recalled that at the Cedar Rapids opera house, the balcony seats of ‘nigger heaven,’ in contrast to the seats of the main floor, were not upholstered at all.’ In considering the positive and negative aspects of Harlem, Van Vechten felt that the title was symbolic, ironic, even tragic. Approval of the book and its title were given by James Weldon Johnson, Rudolph Fisher, and Walter White, all of whom read the galley proofs. Van Vechten’s father, however, advised against using the title and called it disrespectful to the black race. Van Vechten attempted to disarm criticism by including in a footnote the explanation that ‘Nigger’ was not only a term of opprobrium among Negroes, themselves, but was also one of endearment, although whenever used by a white person it was fiercely resented. His own case was to be no exception. In later years, he recalled, ruefully, that ‘the word ‘nigger’ shocked personally, a lot of people,’ and he added,’ Of course, I don’t use the word myself.'” (Coleman, 111)

To me, I still think that there is an element of Van Vechten thinking he was hip and with it enough to use the n-word, perhaps without consequences, or perhaps accepting of the consequences. But in the end, the question that matters is about the quality of friendship between Essie Robeson and Van Vechten, because after all, the point of the chapter is Essie Robeson, not Van Vechten. Her letters to him are one of the biggest sources I have, so knowing how free she felt to be herself with him is important.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. FYI: Van Vechten receives some attention in Paul Murphy’s new book, The New Era (pp. 55, 138-139, 142-43, 145), particularly chapter 4 “Mulatto America.” – TL

  2. Very interesting piece. Van Vechten came up at the recent Port Huron Statement Conference at UC Santa Barbara during Grace Hale’s talk on affect and the history of the US white left’s investment in African American experience. Given the expanding literature on cabaret culture ( e.g., great recent works by Shane Vogel, Roderick Ferguson, and Kevin Mumford), I wouldn’t be surprised if Van Vechten and the politics of affect becomes an increasingly hot topic. On this theme, it should be noted that Sianne Ngai’s important recent work Ugly Feelings has some very provocative insights into Van Vechten (mostly in the context of a discussion of Nella Larsen).

  3. Kurt–thank you so much for the sources. I will be investigating them! I’m writing about the Harlem women’s community that paralleled the cabaret culture right now–they were more likely to have teas, card parties, and balls than go to a cabaret. But I’d like to read as much as I can about Harlem during the Renaissance.

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