Remember Me To Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964 by Emily Bertr


By Maurice Bottomley

A Rainbow Of Memories

Two photographs adorn the dust jacket of this fascinating book. Above the title, Langston Hughes smiles appealingly, if somewhat nervously. Below, Carl Van Vechten looks solemn and grumpy. In some sense the pictures represent the current fortunes of these two central figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes is now a truly canonised figure — the unassuming patron saint of African-American poetry. Van Vechten, if he is remembered at all, is an awkward and embarrassing reminder of the pitfalls of both patronage and patronisation. The gifted black writer has triumphed but the white devotee of African-American culture has long since fallen from grace. But while Hughes’ status will probably be made even safer by Emily Bernard’s painstaking project, one possible spin-off might be a reassessment of Van Vechten’s place in twentieth-century letters. What is certain is that this book will prove invaluable to readers wishing to broaden either their understanding of the literary scene in the twenties or of the subsequent career of Hughes and many other African-American writers and artists.

When the two men first met, Hughes was just another struggling poet trying to establish himself on the literary stage. Van Vechten was at the peak of his commercial success as a writer and was a powerful figure in the critical and publishing world. Hughes was poor, young, and black, while Van Vechten was wealthy, approaching middle age, and, despite his best efforts, very white. Theirs, Bernard points out, was a relationship that thrived on difference. And thrive it did. They corresponded with remarkable regularity over 40 years and despite innumerable disagreements, aesthetically and politically, they remained — as these letters demonstrate so clearly — genuinely close.

If it were nothing more, this book would be valuable as a record of a deep and at times moving friendship, but in fact that friendship is simply a warm, human heart around which the more intriguing body of the text is built. Thanks to a sterling editorial job, both Hughes’ and Van Vechten’s many enthusiasms and their fondness for celebrity, gossip, and shameless name-dropping turn into a unique and singularly enjoyable historical archive. By carefully annotating almost every reference to person, place, and event, Bernard uses the letters to recapture the whole cultural terrain that Van Vechten and Hughes both occupied and scrutinised. It is a landscape rich in characters and incident which seldom fails to captivate.

Van Vechten and Hughes “knew everybody.” Personalities such as Bessie Smith, Zora Neal Hurston, and Paul Robeson, plus the full Renaissance cast, stalk the pages as the two correspondents swap tales and lavish praise or denunciations. Van Vechten was a great collector — of art and people — and Hughes had the same voracious interest in the world around him. Books, plays, and records rightfully dominate. Have you read this? You must see that. Have you any new blues songs? Such is the tenor of many of the exchanges. Neither writer is given to deep philosophising - the tone is intelligent but epicurean. The arts, high and low, are savoured with relish and any accompanying anecdote adds spice to the dish. Forgotten cabaret acts rub shoulders with staples of the modern college syllabus and both gain from the encounter.

Much of the collection is therefore suitably upbeat and celebratory, but there are some serious issues raised by this project, as well as by the letters themselves. The key controversy that surrounds the two figures is determined by Van Vechten’s perceived place in history. When Hughes met Carlo (as he calls him), the older man held a unique position as the link between Harlem and the wider literary world. Within two years Van Vechten had made the fatal mistake of entitling his exotic novel of Harlem life Nigger Heaven. It was to haunt him to the grave and beyond. He gradually became the prime example of the primitivising, exploitative white “liberal” and all the ills of the Renaissance have been laid at his door. Not the least interesting side of this book is the insight it gives into certain white attitudes to African-Americans, while raising the question of whether one holder of those attitudes is worth rescuing from the ignominy which now surrounds him.

The answers are quite complex. Undeniably, Hughes admired Van Vechten, defended him, and in later life protected him from some of the more hurtful opinions that others held about him. Yet the letters show his friend to some extent to be guilty as charged. He was repeatedly warned against giving his novel a title guaranteed to offend most black people. We also learn that Van Vechten encouraged Ronald Firbank to change his 1924 novel Sorrow In Sunlight to Prancing Nigger, thus ensuring that that “camp” classic never received the readership it deserves. A strange mixture of naivety and a belief that people would recognise some putative “honorary Blackness” clouded his judgement on many occasions. He was entranced by African-Americans and African-American culture, but undoubtedly he viewed both through exoticist and at times voyeuristic eyes. This seems true particularly of popular culture and the “low life.”

What emerges, surprisingly, from this book is that Hughes perhaps shared some of those attitudes. The poet comes across as loyal and very likeable from the letters, but their mutual glee in recounting incidents of razor-fights and their constant search for bawdy blues lyrics seem prurient and puerile. It would appear that Hughes also had to learn about “the people” and their modes of statement. He did so, of course, and to some extent became their literary voice. When, in the 1930s, he moves to the left the two men start to differ considerably in their views. A telling incident is in their discussion of the Harlem riots of the early 1940s. Hughes is sympathetic and humorously dismisses the horror felt by “respectable” African-Americans, but Van Vechten is shocked and condemnatory — like many rich folk he liked his lower orders to be rogues or rascals but he didn’t want them militant.

As a contrast the book offers more than ample evidence of Van Vechten’s crucial support of African-American writers, not least Hughes himself. Also, his role as photographer and amateur archivist is foregrounded. We should all be grateful for the material he collected and donated to various libraries. He was, first and foremost, a real “fan.” He was also a pretty good critic — his opinions are often sounder than Hughes, especially regarding Hughes’ own work. He was perhaps doomed to remain in the 1920s, as the later letters show him to have been rather bypassed by events, but as we follow one writer growing in confidence and success while the other slips into the shadows, we see that both, in each other’s eyes, remain equals.

There are some things you won’t learn from these exchanges. Most significantly the issue of sexuality remains relatively hidden. Van Vechten was openly homosexual (a possible reason for his especial vilification) and Hughes is, these days, assumed also to have been gay, but not one scrap of additional information can be gained from these letters. Neither write overtly about their own sex lives and Hughes is particularly tight-lipped — as in his poetry and prose, Hughes is biographical rather than confessional (the letters confirm, however, that his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea is more accurate than has sometimes been suggested, and they also show how much Van Vechten encouraged such prose projects). The letters are personal and intimate in every other way — the two argue and joke, share hopes and disappointments — but if you want to get into the bedroom with either figure, tough.

No one should feel short-changed, though. Scholars will find plenty of debates to explore, ancient and modern. Lovers of poetry, jazz, and African-American culture will renew some old acquaintances and make some fresh ones. Those fond of reading between the lines will have a field day. Best of all, the two men grow in stature from these letters while remaining endearingly and fallibly human. Hopefully, people will listen to those Jazz Age records differently, view Aaron Douglas with fresh eyes, and read The Weary Blues in a more informed way after reading this collection. We may even want to re-think a few things about race and culture.

It is as a record of the social and cultural observations of two unique — and uniquely positioned — figures that Remember Me to Harlem finally triumphs. If Van Vechten has dominated this review it is because he is the more problematic figure, but the balance in the text is fittingly even. In 1964 Hughes closed his funeral eulogy to Van Vechten by stating that he had left a “rainbow of memories.” Actually, both of them had, and this book allows us to live a few of them.

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