- The Blind Bow-Boy ed. by Kirsten MacLeod
Carl Van Vechten’s The Blind Bow-Boy (1923) is a book about pleasure — about the kinds of pleasure taken by 1920s dandies in literature, performance, perfumes, fashion, cocktails, Coney Island, and car rides; about sexual pleasures and the pleasure of solitude; about fads and the short shelf-life of certain kinds of pleasure; about whether one can learn from things that are pleasurable and whether one can learn to take pleasure. It is a modernist novel written in a Decadent register. The cataloguing of interiors frequently stands in for character development. The reader comes to understand who people are according to the kinds of tableware with which they surround themselves or in which they are able to find joy. The text speaks in commodity code, mixing the high and the low, mass and high culture, addressing itself to a readership who knows their French literature and avant-garde art and music as well as their fashion houses, perfumiers, and parlor songs. It expects from its audience a deep awareness of literary history as well as an up-to-date savvy concerning bestsellers and modern-ist trends. One is meant to feel whipped about by the whirlwind of things one might enjoy in 1920s New York by visiting certain neighborhoods, booksellers, and beautifully outfitted apartments. In conveying so much detail about the richness of modern pleasure, however, Van Vechten constructed a novel that demands a certain kind of cultural literacy. The Blind Bow-Boy is rooted absolutely in what Decadent modernist epicureanism felt like in Manhattan in 1923. It is, consequently, exactly the kind of book that becomes infinitely more pleasurable when experienced as a scholarly edition.
Kirsten MacLeod’s new MHRA Critical Texts edition of The Blind Bow-Boy makes it possible and attractive to bring Van Vechten into both the undergraduate and graduate classroom by illuminating the novel’s complex recipe for hedonism. As MacLeod notes in her introduction, while Van Vechten was a major figure during the early-twentieth century with ties to the key figures of high modernism, such as Gertrude Stein and Langston Hughes, as well as an entire network of camp or queer modernists, such as Ronald Firbank and Harold Acton, he is at this point “virtually unknown outside of academia” (vii). When his name surfaces, it has most often to do with his support of members of the Harlem Renaissance or his photographic portraits of modernist celebrities, but the majority of his literary works, which were quite commercially successful on publication, remain [End Page 144] out of print. Because he stands at the point of connection between so many key figures associated with queer and Black modernism, however, he should be brought back into the critical conversation. Indeed, the new modernist studies as well as increased contact between scholars of modernism and Decadence call for renewed attentiveness to writers like Van Vechten. And MacLeod, whose work straddles the boundary between Decadence and modernism and focuses on the reading habits, popular literature, and little magazines of this period, possesses the appropriate expertise to bring Van Vechten and his allusions into focus.
MacLeod’s introduction makes the stakes of reading Van Vechten’s work immediately and forcefully clear. The narrative focuses on a young man, Harold Prewett, whose absent father has paid a dissolute dandy to tutor him in the pleasures on offer in modern New York, and MacLeod demonstrates what this scenario has to say about early twentieth-century visions of queer identity and the new Decadence. MacLeod links these elements of the novel to its practice of a form of what she refers to as “arched brow modernism”, “modernism that approaches its subject matter in a blithely sophisticated manner typified by characteristics associated with the body language of the arched brow — knowing, wry, cynical, and sardonic” (xiii). This sensibility operates at the foundation of camp aesthetics, which, as MacLeod notes, might be the most useful framework for understanding how Van Vechten “played...