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Harlem On His Mind
The Life and Work of Carl Van Vechten


by Jonah Raskin


Book Review



The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America, By Edward White; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 384 pages; $30; 38 black-and-white photos


(Swans - March 10, 2014)   American culture, perhaps more than any other, is populated by dazzling personalities that, for a brief time, dominate the scene, shape the conversation, and then are largely forgotten. In a society preoccupied with the new and the offbeat, neglect and oblivion seem to be the price one pays for fame and success. Carl Van Vechten illustrates that phenomenon as well if not better than any other twentieth-century figure.

When he died in 1964 at the age of eighty-four, he had long since passed into the pages of obscurity, though he had published best-selling novels, including the provocatively entitled Nigger Heaven (1926) that brought him national notoriety. In an article entitled "White Mischief" in a recent issue of The New Yorker, the critic Kelefa Sanneh insists that to write a good biography about Van Vechten one has to be a "tireless debunker." That's probably true and yet the debunking ought to be done without being mean or vindictive.

"Nigger Heaven! that's what Harlem is," one of the characters in the novel explains. "We sit in our places in the gallery of this New York theater and watch the white world sitting down below in the good seats in the orchestra. Occasionally they turn their faces up towards us, their hard cruel faces, to laugh or sneer, but they never beckon."

That Harlem no longer exists and "tastemakers" like Van Vechten no longer exist, either. For the most part they've been replaced by public relations firms, advertising agencies, and the industry of promotion.

Endowed with the rare ability to see the world from black balconies, and through the eyes of African Americans, Van Vechten stole some of the thunder that rightly belonged to black writers, and, not surprisingly, African Americans either embraced him or denounced him. Indeed, he was a mischievous thief in more ways than one. With his camera, he captured the likeness of nearly every noteworthy twentieth-century African American creative genius, from Billie Holiday to Mahalia Jackson and James Baldwin. Wherever he looked, Van Vechten saw the world in black and white. He was the opposite of color blind.

Then, too, he took stunning photos of nearly every famous American artist and writer in the 1920s and 1930s, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, but those portraits, they're less dramatic.

Edward White, an Englishman schooled at the BBC and The Times Literary Supplement, follows Van Vechten's controversial career as a writer, publicist, literary pioneer, and self-promoter in The Tastemaker, the first full-length biography about one of the twentieth-century's most curious cultural icons. A homosexual by nature and by nurture, he married two different women -- Anna Snyder and Fania Marinoff -- and lived most of his public life as a "straight" male. A white boy who grew up in Iowa, he stormed the literary citadels of Harlem and tried to pass as an African American or at least as a black man by cultural definitions.

Repeatedly, Van Vechten smashed taboos and then wrote about them in autobiographical fiction. Edward White presents his passions and prejudices, doesn't scold or mock, and treats him as a deft impresario who brought the avant-garde to Main Street. He may not have been responsible for the "birth of modern America" as the subtitle of this book suggests, but he nudged the United States toward modernity.

The Tastemaker recounts Van Vechten's flair for marketing avant-garde authors and the esteemed writers of the Harlem Renaissance. He did that in popular articles such as "How to Read Gertrude Stein" and "Introducing Langston Hughes to the Reader." A genius at recognizing the genius of others, he had few if any rivals in his own day, though whether he excelled as a novelist or not, his biographer doesn't really demonstrate. Representative passages from Nigger Heaven, The Tattooed Countess, and Firecracker might allow readers to taste, and to judge for themselves Van Vechten's literary concoctions.

Dozens of his black-and-white photographs, which are reproduced here, show that he knew how to draw-out his subjects, capture their personalities, and make art, too. White traces the development of Van Vechten's work with a Leica that started before World War I and continued into the 1960s. Bessie Smith, the blues singer, mugs for the camera, alongside a black mask. The expatriate Gertrude Stein poses in front of an American flag.

"His failing," White writes, was "his haughty disregard for complexity." To promote, he tended to simplify and streamline. Still, there's delight in viewing his photos and in reading excerpts from the advertisements for himself and the puff pieces for iconic places like Hollywood, where he found "more money," "more work," "more poverty," and "more automobiles" than anywhere else in the world. The Tastemaker gives readers the opportunity to appreciate the role of race and racism in American culture and to see that the Harlem Renaissance was the creation of both whites such as Van Vechten and the uniquely creative African Americans he adored.


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About the Author

Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman, and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the Beat Generation. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. He is the author of the booklet, A Few French Scenes, that was first published on Swans in November and December 2013 (see the Travelogue's archives). To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 10, 2014