These engaging and wonderfully alive letters paint an intimate portrait of two of the most important and influential figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Carl Van Vechten--older, established, and white--was at first a mentor to the younger, gifted, and black Langston Hughes. But the relationship quickly grew into a great friendship--and for nearly four decades the two men wrote to each other expressively and constantly.
They discussed literature and publishing. They exchanged favorite blues lyrics ("So now I know what Bessie Smith really meant by 'Thirty days in jail / With ma back turned to de wall,'" Hughes wrote Van Vechten after a stay in a Cleveland jail on trumped-up charges). They traded stories about the hottest parties and the wildest speakeasies. They argued politics. They gossiped about the people they knew in common--James Baldwin, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, H. L. Mencken. They wrote from near (of racism in Scottsboro) and far (of dancing in Cuba and trekking across the Soviet Union), and always with playfulness and mutual affection.
Today Van Vechten is a controversial figure; some consider him exploitative, at best peripheral to the Harlem Renaissance--or, indeed, as the author of the novel Nigger Heaven, a blemish upon it, and upon Hughes by association. The letters tell a different, more subtle and complex story: Van Vechten did, in fact, help Hughes (and many other young black writers) to get published; Hughes in turn appreciated what Van Vechten was trying to do in Nigger Heaven and defended him, fiercely. For all their differences, Hughes and Van Vechten remained staunchly loyal to each other throughout their lives.
A correspondence of great cultural significance, judiciously gathered together here for the first time and annotated by the insightful young scholar Emily Bernard, Remember Me to Harlem shows us an unlikely friendship, one that is essential to our understanding of literature and race relations in twentieth-century America.
As the Harlem Renaissance unfolded in the 1920s, few were closer to its hub than the black poet and playwright Langston Hughes and his white friend and mentor, the writer, photographer and patron of the arts Carl Van Vechten. They met in 1924, as Hughes was first exploding into literary celebrity, and quickly became friends and correspondents; between them, they knew everyone of note among Harlem's cultural figures. Marked by a shared irreverence and taste for the good life, their correspondence offers snapshots of vastly different worlds. Hughes comes across as a true adventurer, finding poetry in the world's byways and forgotten corners; Van Vechten is the quintessential bon vivant, whose refinements emanated from the comfort of his own home. The letters offer heartrending insights into the two men's contributions to a variety of political firestorms over four decadesAthe trial of the Scottsboro boys, Van Vechten's publication of his controversial Nigger Heaven, Hughes's branding as a Communist. Bernard's painstakingly assembled edition provides comprehensive background notes and a complete guide to the procession of famous and obscure personages appearing in the letters, as well as a graceful introduction briefly sketching the correspondents' lives and the arc of the Harlem Renaissance. Readers' interest may flag in the later letters, which occasionally devolve into lists of names and accounts of professional obligations; Bernard also says nothing about Hughes's final years after Van Vechten's death in 1964. However, these are minor shortcomings in an otherwise engaging volume, which effectively captures the rare world of two men whose friendship was emblematic of the complex racial entente offered by that extraordinary moment in history. This will be required reading for anyone interested in the Harlem Renaissance, and in black literature and the world of American letters generally; a reading tour by the editor will help bring it to wide attention. (Jan.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 04, 2002
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Excerpt from Remember Me to Harlem by Langston Hughes
When the correspondence between Carl Van Vechten and Langston Hughes began, Van Vechten was in New York, tirelessly cultivating an expertise on Harlem life. Hughes was in Washington, D.C., living with his mother and working as a personal assistant for the "father of Negro history," Carter G. Woodson, who founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. Hughes performed secretarial chores and worked on Woodson's massive study, Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830.
After hours, Hughes would head for Seventh Street, where he found "sweet relief." There, "ordinary Negroes . . . played the blues, ate watermelon, barbecue, and fish sandwiches, shot pool, told tall tales, looked at the dome of the Capitol and laughed out loud," he recalled in his 1940 autobiography, The Big Sea. The life there inspired his poetry. "I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street-gay songs, because you had to be gay or die; sad songs, because you couldn't help being sad sometimes. But gay or sad, you kept on living and you kept on going. Their songs-those of Seventh Street-had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going."
During his time in Washington, Hughes wrote and published more poetry than he had since he started writing at the age of thirteen.
carl van vechten to langston hughes, may 6, 1925
I haven't heard from you since your return;1 I hope you haven't forgotten that you promised to send your book2 back as soon as it is rearranged. I shall do my best to get it published, and that should be easy because it is a beautiful book. Also, please don't forget the Frankie song3 (if it was a Frankie song), and you spoke of a better book about Hayti4 than the one I have: can you dig out the name of it for me? I trust that it will not be very long before you visit New York again: you must know that I like you very much.
1.After his visit to Van Vechten's home on Sunday, May 3, Hughes returned to Washington. This is Van Vechten's first letter to Hughes.
2.Hughes's manuscript would become his first published collection of verse, The Weary Blues (1926).
3.Van Vechten refers to the legendary ballad, "Frankie and Johnny," about a St. Louis prostitute who shoots her unfaithful lover.
4.Once common spelling of Haiti, now obsolete.
langston hughes to carl van vechten, may 7, 1925
1749 S Street, N.W.
May 7, 1925
What a delightful surprise, your letter! I didn't think you would write me first as I've had you in mind all week for a note. I typed "Frankie Baker" for you on Monday but have been waiting for a chance to write a few explanations about it. I've been busy.
Perhaps you have heard "Frankie" before. It's a very old song, and is supposed to have originated in Omaha after Frankie Baker, a colored sporting-woman famous in the West, had shot her lover, Albert. The whole song runs to a blues tune, the chorus very blue, but the tune of each verse varies slightly, better to express the sentiment; the last two verses are sung like a blues dirge. And Bruce, the giant one-eyed cook in Paris, used to give elaborate characterizations of the bar-tender, Frankie, and the judge, while I kept the hot cakes turning.1 He was as much an entertainer as a cook, and had been everywhere bumming and sailing. He knew all kinds of "rounders" tunes and "low-down" Negro songs.2 There was a particularly good one celebrating the sexual charms of a certain worthless rounder who was
A total loss
But a sweet from Henrico.
And another lament called "Sugar-babe,-you don't love me now." You ought to be able to find some old-timer around Harlem to sing "Frankie" for you. It has a number of versions,-some more interesting (and dirtier) than the one I remember. Obscenity doesn't stick in my head, though.
No, I didn't say anything concerning a book about Hayti. I just said I would like to go there this summer. (And I may go yet if the index to "Free Negro Heads of Families" continues to bore me as it did today).
I am going to rearrange the book Sunday. I can work on poetry only when it amuses me, and this week it didn't amuse me: I was too sleepy.
I do want to come up to New York again soon. And remember your promise: a whole day to look at your beautiful things. And talk with you.
1.In late February of 1924, Hughes deserted his ten-week old job as a messboy on a ship called the McKeesport as soon as it reached Holland. He caught the night train for Paris, "a dream come true," he recalled in The Big Sea. Bruce was famous as the cook at Le Grand Duc, a Parisian nightclub where Hughes worked as dishwasher and learned to become a jazz poet. He stayed in Europe until the end of November.