- Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White by Emily Bernard
Emily Bernard has written a highly readable, long-overdue portrait of Harlem Renaissance “Negrotarian” Carl Van Vechten. While Van Vechten assisted many of the writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance in getting their works published, he is best known for the unfortunate publication of the novel Nigger Heaven in 1926, a work that, though well intentioned, set off a major firestorm among [End Page 678] African Americans that still burns to this day, nearly a century after its publication. In producing her portrait, Bernard draws on many of the manuscripts that are contained in the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale and the Carl Van Vechten Papers at the New York Public Library. She draws on a vast amount of correspondence between Van Vechten and Harlem Renaissance figures such as Harold Jackman, Dorothy Petersen, Nella Larsen, and of course, Langston Hughes, whose letters between himself and Van Vechten have already been collected by Bernard in an earlier volume, Remember Me to Harlem. In addition, she provides a probing and sobering review of Van Vechten’s notorious novel, weighing carefully the author’s intentions against the ire that it raised against Van Vechten and his black supporters among many African Americans, such as W. E. B. Du Bois.
Bernard’s book is divided neatly into three parts. The first of these parts is a portrait of Van Vechten’s Iowa upbringing, including his parents’ progressive attitudes about race and gender. Moreover, it focuses on Van Vechten’s search to find a place for himself in the scheme of things, leaving Iowa for Chicago and then for New York, where he quickly became a well-known music and book critic, one who gave favorable reviews of works by African Americans. Bernard also touches upon Van Vechten’s homosexuality and his desire to find a “niche” for himself as a gay man, though he nevertheless married the Russian actress Fania Marinoff, who knew of his sexual preference. The second part of Bernard’s book focuses on the publication of Nigger Heaven, the forays into Harlem that led to Van Vechten’s writing it, and, more troubling, his presumption that the book would be accepted wholesale by African Americans as an accurate picture of Harlem life. Bernard offers keen analysis of the age-old problem of whites writing about blacks and suggests that often in nonfiction, whites have difficulty being objective, while when writing fiction they miss altogether many of the nuances that are present and operative in understanding African American culture. One of the more interesting parts of Bernard’s discussion is her concern with how to teach Nigger Heaven to our present generation of students, many of whom—black or white—cannot bring themselves to speak the offending N-word, even if it seems permissible to use it as part of an intellectual exchange. She offers examples from her own students at the University of Vermont. Moreover, Bernard herself is clearly troubled by the title, a clear indication of continued trauma brought by the use of the word in whatever context it appears. This trauma results in her own reluctance to teach the novel even in a supposed liberal, post-racial America. Traditional scholars may consider Bernard’s anecdotal evidence too much of a departure, but I would argue that it further underscores just how problematic the book’s title was and is for many African Americans.
In part three, Bernard examines letters between Van Vechten and his Harlem Renaissance friends and others, as Van Vechten sought to recover his reputation after the disastrous titling. Apparently, he never did. In fact, many accused him of taking unfair advantage of black hospitality by assuming both privilege and agency, and many felt that his influence on Harlem Renaissance writers, especially Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, really went too far. Though Van Vechten’s close friends, Hughes, Hurston, Larsen, and Walter White among them, remained loyal to him, many others...