Books: The Tastemaker, Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America

tastemakerThe Tastemaker explores the many lives of Carl Van Vechten, the most influential cultural impresario of the early twentieth century: a patron and dealmaker of the Harlem Renaissance, a photographer who captured the era’s icons, and a novelist who created some of the Jazz Age’s most salacious stories. A close confidant of Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, George Gershwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the Knopfs, Van Vechten frolicked in the 1920s Manhattan demimonde, finding himself in Harlem’s jazz clubs, Hell’s Kitchen’s speakeasies, and Greenwich Village’s underground gay scene. New York City was a hotbed of vice as well as creativity, and Van Vechten was at the center of it all.

Edward White’s biography—the first comprehensive biography of Carl Van Vechten in nearly half a century, and the first to fully explore Van Vechten’s tangled relationship to race and sexuality—depicts a controversial figure who defined an age. Embodying many of the contradictions of modern America, Van Vechten was a devoted husband with a coterie of boys by his side, a supporter of difficult art who also loved lowbrow entertainment, and a promoter of the Harlem Renaissance whose bestselling novel—and especially its title—infuriated many of the same African-American artists he championed. Van Vechten’s defense of what many Americans considered bad taste—modernist literature, African-American culture, and sexual self-expression—created a popular appetite for these quintessential elements of American art.

Michael Dirda writes in the Washington Post that:

Van Vechten published several collections of his journalism, notably “Music and Bad Manners” (1916) and “Interpreters and Interpretations” (1917). But after World War I, he turned to fictionalizing the Jazz Age in novels, such as the autobiographical “Peter Whiffle” (1922) and the somewhat world-weary “Parties” (1930). During this time, he also became a tireless crusader for African American culture.

In fact, he remains one of the key figures behind the Harlem Renaissance. After reading Walter White’s fierce novel “Fire in the Flint,” Van Vechten asked to meet White, then the secretary of the NAACP. The two men quickly hit it off, so much so that White named his son Carl. Before long, Van Vechten’s circle of black friends included Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes (whose poems he convinced Knopf to publish). Van Vechten even helped organize Paul Robeson’s first solo concert in Greenwich Village and later acted as “creative consultant” on “La Revue Nègre,” the cabaret extravaganza that made Josephine Baker an international star. Typically, his three groundbreaking essays for Vanity Fair celebrated black theater, spirituals and the blues in the same respectful language he used when reviewing opera and ballet.

 

And then Van Vechten decided to write a novel about Harlem. It was to be a tragic love story between a mousy librarian and an educated young intellectual, set against a backdrop of parties and nightclubs, with a femme fatale named Lasca Sartoris and a wonderfully stylish ladies’ man known as the Scarlet Creeper. The book is, in fact, a wildly melodramatic entertainment, full of digressions and lively conversations about black culture. Unfortunately, Van Vechten insisted on the title “Nigger Heaven.” This was the term then used for the high-up balcony seats in segregated theaters, and it captured, he believed, the shock and irony he wanted to emphasize. In the book, a young woman adopts the offensive phrase as a nickname for Harlem itself.

Van Vechten’s novel divided the African American community. W.E.B. Du Bois attacked the book as exploitative and racist, but Walter White defended it, and Alain Locke and Robeson sent its author letters of congratulation.Hughes coolly suggested that people actually read what Van Vechten had written rather than simply react to his deliberately provocative title.

The clash between Van Vechten’s supporters and detractors highlights what Edward White calls a question that has “twisted itself through twentieth-century American culture: Is positing the notion of racial difference in itself fundamentally racist, or is it a greater act of intolerance to reduce the uniqueness of racial groups by suggesting they all are essentially the same? To Van Vechten the answer was axiomatic. He not only believed in racial difference as a self-evident fact but thought it a blessing, part of the rich diversity that made urban life in the United States such a thrilling experience.”

 

By the end of the 1920s, Van Vechten’s career as an influential critic and best-selling novelist was over. No matter. In the 1930s, he enthusiastically reinvented himself as a portrait photographer, gradually winning the admiration of such camera giants as Edward Steichen and Man Ray. Actually, Van Vechten may be most widely known today for his iconic images of the many artists and celebrities he knew, among them actress Anna May Wong, playwright Eugene O’Neill, blues legends Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday and, in his last years, the young Marlon Brando, Truman Capote and Gore Vidal.

 

Throughout his life, Carl Van Vechten championed an American culture that transcended all walls and boundaries. It is thus characteristic of the man that he would help establish, with donations from his own voluminous archives, the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters at Yale and the George Gershwin Memorial Collection of Music and Musical Literature at Fisk University.

The Tastemaker encompasses its subject’s private fears and longings, as well as Manhattan’s raucous, taboo-busting social scene of which he was such a central part.

Price: $21.95

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