Carl Van Vechten.  Selected Writings about Black Art and Letters  (Bruce Kellner, Ed.).   (Greenwood Press)
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Carl Van Vechten.  Selected Writings about Black Art and Letters  (Bruce Kellner, Ed.).   (Greenwood Press)
B0057. CARL VAN VECHTEN. Selected Writings about Black Art and Letters (Bruce Kellner, Ed.). Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1979. 300pp. Index; Correspondence; Advertisements & Accolades; Ceremonies & Salutations; Photos; Photos. Superb copy has very few pages which are very slightly 'crunched' at edge. - 0-313-21091-8


“Back in the nineteen-twenties, Van Vechten sometimes portrayed himself as a dilettante, whose interest in Negro culture was just a phase. In a letter to H. L. Mencken, in 1925, he wrote, ‘Jazz, the blues, Negro spirituals, all stimulate me enormously for the moment. Doubtless, I shall discard them too in time�. Of course, he never did - in this and other ways, he was far more loyal and earnest than he sometimes pretended to be. Much as he loved photography, his true life’s work was the Yale Library archive, and he pestered his old friend Hughes with endless requests for material to add to the historical record. In 1963, a year before Van Vechten’s death, a reporter from THE NEW YORKER went to visit him at his apartment; he had moved from West Fifty-fifth Street to Central Park West, but his interests hadn’t changed. He showed off some recent photographs, held forth on his favorite foods, shared his enthusiasm for foreign films, and bragged about the friends he still had in Harlem. ‘I still get about twenty-five letters a day from Negroes�, he said. He never had children, although White raises the possibility of one or more secret births and quiet adoptions. His life was his obsessions, which is why he held them so tight - he was, in the end, the opposite of a dilettante. He said, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever lost interest in anything�.�

- THE NEW YORKER, 17 & 24 Feb., 2014

“Van Vechten had buck teeth - so big that he refused to smile broadly in photographs. He was gangly and strange; gauche, domineering, and boorish. He was rude and bullheaded. He captured my affections immediately�.Undeniably, Carl Van Vechten was a fascinating person. But to me he has always been most fascinating as an occasion - he himself served as a kind of canvas, onto which black artists and intellectuals created images of themselves as both artists and black artists.

Before he died in 1964, Carl Van Vechten had been a far-sighted journalist, a best-selling novelist, an exquisite host, an exhaustive archivist, a prescient photographer, and one of the most controversial figures in the history of African American culture. He was born in 1880 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was reborn in 1920s New York, a setting for the period known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Van Vechten’s relationship to the Harlem Renaissance began with a single friendship. Van Vechten met the black novelist and journalist Walter White in 1924. The two men had been introduced by their mutual publisher, Alfred Knopf, upon the publication of THE FIRE IN THE FLINT, a novel about the lynching of a black physician and war veteran. ‘In about a week after that I knew practically every famous Negro in New York because Walter was a hustler�, Van Vechten recalled in 1960. At the time, he and his wife, Odessa-born actress Fania Marinoff, were living in an apartment on West 55th Street, which Walter White dubbed the mid-town office of the NAACP.

By the mid-1920s, Carl’s passion for black people and culture had taken full hold of him. Because it was an unusual road for a white person of his era to take, it was not, in fact, unusual for Carl Van Vechten, considering his background. His childhood had prepared him to go against the current.

Early on, he had learned from his parents to respect black people and to challenge the cultural conventions that considered blacks and whites to be naturally and forever separate. Carl would always remember how his father instructed him to refer to the black people who worked on their property as Mr. and Mrs. at a time when it was uncommon for whites to refer to blacks with honorifics. Charles helped found the Piney Woods School in Mississippi, an elementary school for black children, which was established in 1909 and remains in operation. In 1960, Carl described his father as sober and kindhearted, a man with ‘no prejudice whatever�.

Carl Van Vechten took great pride in discovering new talent, and during the Harlem Renaissance, publicizing new black talent was nearly a vocation. He was a powerful ‘fan� and a very useful friend to have. He was famous for his parties, events at which powerful whites were able to meet black artists on the most intimate terms. All of Harlem was aware of these parties. Black newspapers and magazines reported on them regularly. A Harlem legend goes like this: a porter greets Mrs. Vincent Astor at Union Station with a curious familiarity. ‘How do you know my name, young man?� She asks. ‘Why, I met you last weekend at Carl Van Vechten’s�, he responded.

Van Vechten was a dedicated and serious patron of black arts and letters, but his genius as a host led to a brand of ‘social work� that not only helped secure support for black artists, it also helped break down racial barriers in essential, interpersonal ways, an achievement that legal changes alone simply cannot accomplish. At Van Vechten’s West 55th street home, cocktails were garnished with race uplift.

Learning the hustle � la Walter White enabled Van Vechten to appreciate the difference between black people as he had imagined them from a distance, and black people as they existed in the flesh. ‘I use the word deliberately. Van Vechten and Marinoff were married for fifty years. Yet Van Vechten was enamored of the black male body. The fact that Van Vechten was gay rankled blacks that were suspicious of his motives for going uptown, where there was a relatively more tolerant attitude toward homosexuality. It was an oasis for its own gay population, as well for white homosexuals who traveled uptown for sanctuary and excitement�, explains Kevin Mumford. Just as often as Carl Van Vechten feted Harlem in his midtown home, he conducted tours of Harlem for white visitors who would have been too timid to go on their own.

Van Vechten was a white man who loved blackness, in general. There were other whites that enjoyed and fostered Harlem and the artists we have come to associate with the Harlem Renaissance. But Carl was singular in the depth and breadth of his passion for all things black. As I said, this fervent longing for blackness has always been considered questionable. He loved black bodies, and he loved the spectacle of blackness, just like any other white pleasure-seekers who made pilgrimages uptown. Like those he spirited uptown, Van Vechten was attracted to the tolerant atmosphere toward homosexuality that colored Harlem nightlife.

While Carl’s early interest in blackness may have been inspired by sexual desire and his fascination with primitivism, these features were not what sustained his interest in black people and black culture, and his beliefs changed and expanded over the course of his forty-year love affair with black art.

The boundary between white and black New York was porous and opaque. Van Vechten moved between these borders with reckless irreverence. He crossed other lines, as well, expressly those having to do with language, conventions about what white people can and cannot say about black people. Van Vechten was unabashedly enchanted with fantasies of primitivism, which he considered the birthright of all black people, and he wrote with reverence with what he saw as the ‘squalor of Negro life, the vice of Negro life�. He understood the nasty implications of these stereotypes, but he was pragmatic. He wrote: ‘Are Negro writers going to write about this exotic material while it is still fresh or will they continue to make a free gift of it to white authors who will exploit it until not a drop remains?’”