The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
US: Feb 2014
Popular thought credits Norman Mailer, in his influential 1957 essay, “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster”, with inventing the White Negro. This person was a creation of post-World War II America, suffocating under the strains of conformity. He needed some way to explain and express his otherness, to reinvent himself as a heroic bastion against, among other things, “the socially monolithic ideas of the single mate, the solid family and the respectable love life.”
But where was such a person to find such a cloak of defiance? According to Mailer, deep in the heart of the ‘hood:
So no wonder that in certain cities of America, in New York of course, and New Orleans, in Chicago and San Francisco and Los Angeles, in such American cities as Paris and Mexico, D.F., this particular part of a generation was attracted to what the Negro had to offer … Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk. The cameos of security for the average white: mother and the home, lob and the family, are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible. The Negro has the simplest of alternatives: live a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger. In such a pass where paranoia is as vital to survival as blood, the Negro had stayed alive and begun to grow by following the need of his body where he could. Knowing in the cells of his existence that life was war, nothing but war, the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm. For jazz is orgasm, it is the music of orgasm, good orgasm and bad, and so it spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed, it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond, it was indeed a communication by art because it said, “I feel this, and now you do too.”
So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.
Mailer was referring to those young white men who took some of their rebellious spirit from the swagger of bebop, a departure from the jazz and pop mainstream as radical as could be thought of in the mid-‘40s, and a romance of the bebop musician who dared live his life and art apart from society’s convictions. Never mind that to cast what black artists do as instinctive and natural is not at all a compliment, if the end result is not acknowledged as the result of practice, study and planning. Never mind the fact that, when Mailer’s essay appeared, a good 12 years after bebop’s emergence, the image of a musician speaking indecipherable slang and looking weird had already been sealed as a caricature. Never mind that jazz itself had started to move in various directions beyond bebop by then. Mailer gave a catchy brand name to a meme that existed on the fringes of mainstream consciousness, and it stuck.
Over the years, it has also gotten stuck – on Elvis, on Eminem, and dang near any white musician partaking of au courant black style and sass. This is a stretch past what Mailer wrote; his White Negro wasn’t already a pop star or trying to be one, but wanted to rock it like one – a black star. And not a respectable, clean-cut star, but a rebellious-looking one, somebody who confused and/or shocked the bejeezus out of middle America. And as far as confusing and/or shocking middle America went back then (and for much if not all of middle America’s existence, in fact), nothing did the trick quite like pure, unadulterated blackness.
Numerous voices since then have taken Mailer to task for his simplistic reading of black life and culture. But to a certain respect, he’s only the messenger here. Whoever this mythical white hipster was, rooting his response to the soul-sucking drudgery of middle America by venerating the blackest signs of life he could find, Mailer did not create him.
In fact, such people prowled the earth while Mailer was a toddler. One of them, in fact, was quietly spending his final years, at the time of Mailer’s writing, arranging his papers and recollections, much of it accumulated doing exactly as Mailer described: an urban adventurer who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit his facts.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Carl Van Vechten, the original White Negro.
It should be noted that Van Vechten was not the first white American to have his curiosity piqued by black culture, nor was he the first to seek a direct involvement with it. And as Edward White’s new, detailed biography The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America reveals, there was much more to his life than just a deep fondness for blackness. But White reveals that Van Vechten’s trajectory shares much in common with Mailer’s archetype.
Born in Iowa in 1880 to well-to-do, respectable parents, he was always fascinated by the vitality and possibilities to be found in the big city. As a student at the University of Chicago, he pursued his passions for music, homosexual attraction, and – who would have guessed this from an Iowan? – black people. He found his way into the life and times of Chicago’s Black Belt, attending parties and church events, seemingly welcomed by the folks in attendance even those he often was the only white person there.
He entered journalism after college, filing crime stories for the William Randolph Hearst-owned Chicago American. But straight-ahead reporting was never his cup of tea, so it was probably inevitable that he’d head for the only place where he could indulge all his interests – New York City. He landed there just as a cultural explosion was about to hit America.
Van Vechten, as a music critic at the New York Times and essayist, routinely championed the new and the bold. Be it the American debut of the opera Salome, the dance of Isadora Duncan, or the writing of Gertrude Stein, Van Vechten lived for the now, both professionally and personally. Off hours, he continued his penchant for black culture, encountering folk performances during a trip to the Bahamas in 1915 with his wife (file that marriage under “it’s complicated”) and coming away totally transfixed.
And it’s here where we begin to see what anyone in our post-modern times who knew Van Vechten’s name before this bio knew about him – he sure did love him some black folk. Specifically, he loved the energy and release he saw in both black performance and social settings, wringing with abandon he felt lacking everywhere else his omnivorous eye turned.
Of the Bahamas experience, he couldn’t help noting the “essential Negro character”, as White quotes from Van Vechten’s journal:
“Wonderful in their lithe nudity, these Negroes, gleaming in their bronze perfection.” As witness to a evangelical service, he wrote of a young woman “…as if the girl lying prone was in a frenzy of delight. Every muscle twitched; her nerves were exposed; her fists clenched and unclenched. Uncontrollable and strange cries, unformed words struggled from her lips… and then a dull moaning, and she lay still.”
If all that sounds only a few steps shy of “I ain’t never seen nothin’ like these wild-ass darkies before,” White would likely concur. He argues that Van Vechten derived both personal and professional satisfaction from black culture, preferably those elements allegedly unfiltered by anything that would dilute its primitive Negroid essence.
In other words, he wanted the good stuff, or at least what he as an outsider perceived to be the good stuff. And when he came across it, he gushed about it in terms that never accounted for whatever craft or skill actually lay behind it. There is no denying that he was one of the first white journalists, if not the first, to take black culture seriously. But what was he really writing about: the culture as it existed in its own right, or how he viewed it through his own complicated prism?
Van Vechten never much troubled himself with such complexities, not when there was another party to hit, or another fey young man to seduce. His fascination with black culture never waned; he longed for a black theater scene that squared with what he observed to be the true black spirit, not a pale imitation of Old World tropes. But he might have been stuck chasing some mythic, primitive caricature were it not for a chance encounter with its total opposite.
By the ‘20s, Van Vechten had left the newspaper world and become a mildly successful novelist, churning out fables of the white social set. In 1924, he came across Fire in the Flint a protest novel by the black writer Walter White. Impressed by the novel’s rage against the whites-only machine, he contacted White, and the two struck up a friendship. Van Vechten had never come across a black person whose creativity – and blackness – was expressed some other way than physically, and White found a potential entrée to a larger audience. White escorted Van Vechten deep into the heart of Harlem, just as a certain Renaissance was gathering steam.
White Manhattanites had already taken to making nocturnal pilgrimages to Harlem, the capitol of black New York, to see how the other half lived, or at least partied. Van Vechten, ever the connoisseur, steered clear of tourist traps like the Cotton Club, which catered to the exotic strangeness whites expected of blacks. He wanted to see how black folk carried on in their own company, unconcerned with putting on a show for paying customers.
With White as his guide, Van Vechten met the Harlem populated by artists, performers, activists and everyday people. He ate where they ate, he drank where they drank. He had finally found the good stuff. He was instantly hooked.
He immersed himself in Harlem, and in black life in general. But he did not keep these riches to himself. He and his wife invited blacks to their parties, where they danced and socialized as equals. At one such affair in 1925, he asked a young baritone he’d heard sing spirituals at White’s home to give an encore performance. And thus did some of New York’s cultural movers and shakers make the formal acquaintance of Paul Robeson.
Van Vechten, who by now was convinced that spirituals represented the true essence of black art, championed the young singer and, later that spring, arranged for his first solo concert.
Robeson was not the only black artist Van Vechten would boost. At the first awards dinner of the National Urban League’s journal Opportunity, he heard the poetry of a young writer named Langston Hughes. Van Vechten became enthralled with Hughes’ bluesy, plain-spoken stories of typical black lives. It was a radical departure from what he considered the entirely too prim and proper depictions by writers such as W.E.B. DuBois. Again, Van Vechten had found the good stuff, and he ran with it – straight to his publisher, with a stack of Hughes’ poems. He’d even decided on a title for the book: The Weary Blues.
And thus was Van Vechten off and running in his new life as the Harlem Renaissance’s de facto hype man. His sincere appreciation, largesse and connections touched the careers of Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, Zora Neale Hurston and others. His own essays, especially in Vanity Fair, introduced audiences to the richness of the art bubbling up from Uptown. Not all blacks were approving of Van Vechten’s patronage, and some whites were disdainful of it too, but he had gained acceptance into this newfound world, as evidenced by being name-checked in a Fats Waller song.
By now, Van Vechten had gone past what Mailer would lay out as the White Negro’s blueprint. Mailer’s construction would extend only to the assumption of a certain strain of black style and attitude. Van Vechten dove into black Harlem wholeheartedly, and put his money where his mouth was (and vice versa). Yet even that wasn’t enough. Van Vechten came to see himself not as an outsider among friends, or even a prototypical White Negro, but as one with the Negro people himself.
As such, he sought to take his inspiration to the next level. He set about writing what he thought would be the Great American Novel of Negro Life, to give space to all his passions and observations from his days and nights among the Harlemites. Once he achieved traction, the writing went quickly; the novel was completed in just a few months. Van Vechten clearly meant the book to be provocative, but the reaction went well past that.
Let’s start with its title: Nigger Heaven.
Van Vechten had never been shy about deploying that word as an attention getter; he’d advised another (white) author, three years earlier, to change his opus’ title to Prancing Nigger, on the grounds that it would be good for sales. As he worked on Nigger Heaven, he sought the advice of black writers on using that title. Not receiving anything close to a co-sign, he went ahead with it anyway, declaring that he was only being ironic, and irony wasn’t something black folk typically deployed.
In the novel, Nigger Heaven is a place – a physical one, not a metaphysical one. Actually, it’s something of a metaphor for Harlem, as he puts it. It’s the balcony of a theater where blacks can’t sit on the lower level, bemoans one of the novel’s protagonists, a striving young writer named Byron. The folks down below can’t see “that Nigger Heaven is crowded, that there isn’t another seat, that something has to be done. It doesn’t seem to occur to them… that we sit above them, that we can drop things on them and crush them, that we can swoop down from this Nigger Heaven and take their seats. No, they have no fear of that!”
Van Vechten’s characters use “nigger” freely, and he offers this footnote by way of explanation: “While this informal epithet is freely used by Negroes among themselves, not only as a term of opprobrium but also actually as a term of endearment, its employment by a white person is always fiercely resented.”
Headstrong as ever, Van Vechten ignored his own caveat and kept the book’s title as is. Not surprisingly, many black people were pissed. That list included DuBois and most of the nation’s black press. If it wasn’t the title that angered these and other black voices, it was the reductive melodrama of the storyline, the adventures of that writer Byron and a lovelorn librarian named Mary.
The novel, while centered on their putative relationship, traverses all over the place – to fancy soirees, wild nights out, lengthy discussions on the merits of lighter-skinned black folks passing for white, and eventually tragedy on the dance floor. The novel’s black critics found this attempt at portraying black life ludicrous and patronizing, especially the scenes featuring less-than-flattering, seedier aspects of Harlem’s street life. (Strangely itself – or not – white critics found the book fascinating, thinking it reportage ripped from the dark city streets.)
The book became a lightening rod for a closer examination of Van Vechten’s relationship with all things black. Some of it was legitimate, some of it reeked with veiled homophobia, and some of it was self-righteous bluster. His friends rallied to the cause, but the damage was done. Van Vechten would continue to befriend and support black artists, but would no longer identify himself so closely with blackness, as if he were one with the people.
Nigger Heaven reads in 2014 like anything but the Great American Novel of Negro Life. It’s a well-crafted but pulpy potboiler, more concerned with social mores than social commentary, impressionistic scenes more than revealing character study. Van Vechten’s descriptions of parties and nightclubs in the novel read much like the ones he wrote in real life, which means in large part that despite all his exposure to the full range of Harlem’s culture, he remained fixated on the prurient and the physical.
It’s very much a roman a clef, even to the extent of the scene with a white book editor who tells Byron his writing isn’t black enough (however that editor defines “black”). It doesn’t hold up particularly well nearly 90 years later except as something of a time capsule; contemporary readers will wonder why its characters spend so much time speculating about trying to pass for white. The only thing likely to resonate all over again is the fuss about the title.
The controversy over Nigger Heaven was a turning point for Van Vechten. He would publish two more novels, but never delve so deeply into black culture in his writing. In fact, his muse shifted away from writing during the ‘30s and to photography. He spent many years inviting the famous and the attractive to his studio for portraits. Some were old friends and associates, others were among the new generation of the famous and notorious. One of those latter folks, White reports, was none other than Norman Mailer.
Although Van Vechten was ultimately much more than a cultural thrillseeker or racial poseur, his story is instructive for all those White Negroes and wannabees out here today. Yes, you can mix and match black signifiers in your walk, your talk, your dress, your choice of music. Yes, you can proclaim yourself in solidarity with black people, and black people may well take you into their hearts and homes. You can befriend them, you can love them, you can even marry one. Whatever you need to do to proclaim your non-middle American-ness, go for it. It’s a free country.
Just be mindful that there remains a line that can’t be crossed. You may identify with the black world, but you won’t ever actually be black (and thus have to face the daily societal indignities black skin begets). And in any circumstance, think long and hard before any permutation of the n-word passes through your lips.
In the end, Van Vechten’s contributions to the recognition and awareness of black culture cannot be overlooked or undersold. The artists he helped expose would still have been great artists, but their path to a mass audience would have been much different, and likely much harder, were it not for Van Vechten thinking he’d found his personal holy grail.
The notion of a white interloper into black culture is still cause for unease among many, especially after years of sanctioned government infiltration of black advocacy movements. But Van Vechten’s generosity and enthusiasm for black vitality, however misguided and ill-informed it was at times, did its specific beneficiaries much more good than it harmed the race as a whole. Like it or not, and not without some missteps, he indeed earned his ghetto pass.