Eminent Biography: Emily Bernard on Carl Van Vechten

Emily Bernard, Credit Hilary Neroni

The friendships that formed the conversations of the Harlem Renaissance and the complex ideas of the relationships between art and race were the vein of black literary life of the early twentieth century. As editor of the volume of letters, Remember Me to Harlem: The Correspondence of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, Emily Bernard now writes on Carl Van Vechten, his notoriety as a white man with a passion for black people and culture, and his varied, interconnected role as advocate and patron for black art in Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White. In this first “Eminent Biography” installment for the Yale Press Log, “Hands Across Time,” Bernard traces her own relationship with Van Vechten and how his private relationships have transformed experiences of race, literary and historical alike.

Emily Bernard—

Hands Across Time

Carl Van Vechten detested “sincerely.”  He reprimanded Langston Hughes more than once for signing his correspondence that way.  For Van Vechten, letters were opportunities for affection and imagination.  Over the course of many years of snooping through his mail, I rarely came across a recycled valediction. Once he wished Hughes “768 white penguin feathers for 76 black swans.”  A few years later, it was “four brightcolored roosters to you and a hen to make them happy!”  In July 1941, when Hughes was in California for work, Van Vechten ended a letter with “hands across the states.”

I could wax on loftily about the challenges and rewards I have discovered in doing archival work, but for me it all comes down to the pleasures of poking around in other people’s private business.  Van Vechten lived his life under the cultural spotlight, and kept his papers with the understanding that they would be archived and eventually be viewed by others.  Maybe his letters were, as they say in academia, “performative acts.”  But I read them as authentic, spontaneous, and transparent evidence of Van Vechten’s deep and varied well of emotions.  He rages, coddles, laments, whines, brags and gossips.  He is hyperbolic and sober; bitter and solicitous.  He thunders at Hughes for ignoring him in the same year that he confesses his love to Chester Himes, a black novelist and memoirist– and former prison inmate.  It seems to me that Van Vechten’s affection for Himes, whom he discovered in his late 70s, may have outdistanced his affection for Hughes, with whom he began a friendship thirty years earlier.   What is certain is that his attraction to black culture, art and style never waned.  And in those later years, when his hearing failed and simply getting around became difficult, his commitment to friendship remained a vital part of who he was.  His letters testify to this.

There are concrete things to say about Van Vechten’s relationships with black people and to black culture; there are rational arguments to make about whether or not he appropriated black art and enforced racial stereotypes in his fiction and nonfiction.  There is reason, and there is mystery; I feel my book is ultimately about the latter.  Van Vechten’s passion for blackness makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and for good reason.  Some of the things he said about black artists were unsettling; more than once he made the argument that the black artist should, essentially, “stay in his place,” and stick to blues, jazz and spirituals—the “cultural birthright” of African Americans, he believed.

As I conducted research for my book, I didn’t so much ignore these troubling aspects of his attitude toward blackness as I followed them into deeper territory.  Van Vechten’s fixed ideas about black art represented facets of his public position on racial difference.  But in his private world, there were subtleties, nuances, contradictions and layers.  His bonds with black friends were sparked by his admiration of the art they presented to the public, but they were maintained by those ineffable qualities that sustain any deep bond.  Within the many thousands of pages of his correspondence are tender silences and gestures toward the things that do not have to be said between friends.

I started this book because I wanted to spend time with Van Vechten in private.  I probably would have bored him, honestly.  In all fairness to myself, however, who could really hold a candle to fabulous performers and personalities like Nora Holt and Ethel Waters (the subjects of my next post)?  But just like Van Vechten, I live as intensely as I can on the page; in my case, more intensely than I do in real life.

The ineffable.  My students tease me for how often I use that word.  For me, it is the word that most truly describes my own relationship with Carl Van Vechten, which has lasted for almost twenty-five years now.  I couldn’t fully commit to him for most of those years, but we made it legal several years ago in a contract with Yale University Press.  During all the years that I waffled, I was unfaithful: I put other books before this one.  But then I would find myself back at the Beinecke Library at Yale, elbow deep in the Carl Van Vechten papers, bursting with uncomfortable laughter at something he said to Walter White that was slightly—more than slightly—off-color, so to speak.  I finally gave in to curiosity, and the myriad feelings that reading his correspondence ignited in me.

Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White started essentially in the late nineties, when I was researching my first book Remember Me to Harlem: The Correspondence of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten.  Since snooping is my forte, it seemed natural to put that skill to more use as I began to conceive of another book, this one devoted entirely to Van Vechten and his friends, his black friends.  I was fascinated by the way race did and did not play a role in their intimacy.  It was so much the way I experienced the role that race plays in my own intimate relationships. When they did talk about it they did so with both irreverence and awe.  Blackness—style, culture, art–was wonderful and humorous to all of them.  They ignored conventional boundaries of decorum when they talked about race, just as they flouted the social logic of Jim Crow by enjoying each others’ company at all.  As a black woman writing a book about a white man—and not just any white man, but one with a uniquely bad reputation in African American cultural history—I felt I was continuing in their tradition.

It is a singular gift, to leave one’s private life behind.  Not the carefully manicured self one presents in articles, essays and books, but the messy and unattractive bits.  The self who can’t seem to stay sober, as is evident in Van Vechten’s on and off attempts to stop drinking, which recorded in his daybooks.  The self that gossips unkindly about friends, and fights—sometimes physically—with his wife.  Van Vechten left behind phonographs, manuscripts, photographs and books, and these I wrote about in Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance.  But his tender gifts of self, his penguin feathers and brightcolored roosters—this is really what the book is about, and his imperfections are the treasures I hold most dearly.

Emily Bernard
is an associate professor in the English Department and ALANA U.S. Ethnic Studies Program, University of Vermont. Her books include Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Follow Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance on Facebook to help us collect like Van Vechten, gathering the writing and images of the Harlem Renaissance online.

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