Van Vechten, Carl

views updated May 21 2018

Carl Van Vechten

Born June 17, 1880

Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Died December 21, 1964

New York, New York

American literary and music critic, novelist, photographer, and patron of the Harlem Renaissance

"Like Van Vechten, start inspectin'..."

From Andy Razaf's hit 1930 song, "Go Harlem"

Although he is most famous as a participant in the Harlem Renaissance and a white supporter of the period's black writers, artists, and performers, Carl Van Vechten had a lifelong interest in African American culture. A literary and music critic, he wrote numerous reviews of black-authored books and plays, as well as essays designed to introduce the artistic achievements of African Americans to a wider (white) audience. Even though some critics have questioned the motives behind his active role in the Harlem Renaissance (it has been said that he and other white patrons benefited more, psychologically and materially, than the artists they supported), most have agreed that his participation was important. Van Vechten's closest black friend, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leader and writer James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), went so far as to write in a letter to Van Vechten: "Has anyone ever written it down—in black and white—that you have been one of the most vital forces in bringing about the artistic emergence of the Negro in America?"

An early appreciation for black culture

Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Van Vechten was raised in a family that respected and sympathized with black people, an attitude not at all common among whites in the late nineteenth century. His father was a cofounder of the Piney Woods School, the first school for African Americans in Mississippi, and young Carl was taught to address the family's two black servants as Mrs. Sercy and Mr. Oliphant, as did his parents. (It was more typical for all family members to call black servants by their first names.)

When he was about ten years old, Van Vechten went to a performance by black opera singer Sissieretta Jones (1869–1933), who was called "The Black Patti" after white opera star Adeline Patti. Later, he would be enthralled by George Walker (1873–1911) and Bert Williams (c. 1876–1922), renowned stars of the minstrel shows (music and comedy revues featuring performers in "blackface" makeup; see Chapter 4) that were very popular around the turn of the century. These experiences formed the basis of Van Vechten's deep and long-standing interest in African American culture.

Anxious to escape the confines of his small midwestern town, Van Vechten attended the University of Chicago, where he continued to attend and enjoy performances by black entertainers. He brought Carita Day, a black performer with a group called the Georgia Minstrels, to sing at his fraternity house, and every Sunday he escorted his fraternity's black housekeeper to her church, where he accompanied the choir on piano.

A young reporter and critic

Van Vechten's first job after graduation was as a general reporter for the Chicago American. Although he was assigned to report on a broad range of topics, he wrote about black entertainers whenever he could, sometimes supplying his own photos. In 1906 Van Vechten was hired by the New York Times as an assistant music critic. The next year he took a two-year leave of absence to study opera (another of his great interests) in Europe. During this period he married a friend from Cedar Rapids, Anna Snyder, from whom he was divorced in 1912.

Van Vechten returned to New York in 1909 and resumed his position at the New York Times, but in 1913 he moved to the New York Press, where he served as drama critic. During these years as a full-time journalist, Van Vechten gained a great deal of knowledge of music, theater, and dance and deepened his appreciation of black culture and artists. He was among the first to recognize the importance of jazz and blues music, and he reported on developments in African American theater (and on portrayals of black life in the white theater), publishing an essay called "The Negro Theater" (1919).

An even deeper interest awakened

After his marriage to actress Fania Marinoff, Van Vechten left his full-time job, but he continued to write essays and articles, and he published several collections of his writings on such topics as music, ballet, and cats. Van Vechten moved to a new level of interest in African Americans in the early 1920s, when he read a novel by NAACP leader Walter White (1893–1955). White's novel, The Fire in the Flint (1924), highlighted the horrors of southern racism. Van Vechten sought out and befriended White, who in turn introduced him to many of the talented young black writers who were gathering in Harlem, including Langston Hughes (1902–1967; see biographical entry), Wallace Thurman (1902–1934; see biographical entry), and Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960; see biographical entry). At this time Van Vechten also met James Weldon Johnson, who would become a close and lifelong friend.

A tall, pale-haired man with protruding teeth, Van Vechten became a familiar figure in Harlem. With his trendy clothing, jangling bracelets, fancy cigarettes, and silver-plated liquor flask, he was seen not only at expensive, elegant nightclubs like the Cotton Club but in speakeasies (illegal bars) and at rent parties (held in Harlem homes as a way to raise money for rent). Other white people who were curious about Harlem or who had caught "Harlemania"—the 1920s trend, also called "Going Uptown," that made it fashionable for well-heeled whites to explore the lively music, dancing, and other delights of Harlem—called on Van Vechten as a tour guide who knew the most "authentic" places to go.

Yet Van Vechten's role in what would become known as the Harlem Renaissance extended far beyond his partygoing. Over the next few years he wrote close to two dozen articles and essays about African American writers and performers. These pieces, which were published in mainstream white publications, included an important series of articles on black culture for Vanity Fair magazine in 1925 and 1926. Van Vechten championed Bessie Smith (1894–1937; see biographical entry) and other blues singers; he urged black actors and actresses to break out of the traditional limitations placed upon them; and he helped to fund singer and actor Paul Robeson's (1898–1976) first concert of spirituals (African American religious songs).

In addition, Van Vechten became a kind of press agent for the black writers and intellectuals he knew, not only touting their work in print but introducing them to people who could publish or otherwise help them. For example, it was through his influence that Langston Hughes's first volume of poems, The Weary Blues (1926), was published by Alfred A. Knopf, Van Vechten's own publisher. At parties hosted by Van Vechten and his wife in their swank, richly decorated Manhattan apartment, black and white guests mingled freely; as Marinoff explained in an interview published in the London Sunday Herald in 1927, the couple was "engaged in a crusade to break down the color bar." At a Van Vechten party, guests might hear Bessie Smith perform a song or listen to Langston Hughes recite a poem, and they might bump shoulders with such diverse figures as the famed Harlem dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878–1949; see sidebar on p. 90), composer George Gershwin (1898–1937), or novelist Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945).

A controversial novel

Van Vechten's flamboyant lifestyle had already made him something of a controversial figure when, in 1926, an event occurred to intensify this reputation. In the Spring 1926 issue of Crisis, Van Vechten had warned African Americans that they should be the first to draw inspiration and material from their own rich culture and not "continue to make a free gift of it to white authors who will exploit it until not a drop of vitality remains." Many who had read these words were surprised when, only three months later, Van Vechten's novelNigger Heaven appeared. Its author had clearly done exactly what he'd said other white writers might do: he'd used the racy, lively milieu of Harlem as the setting for his novel.

Part of the controversy caused by Nigger Heaven was due to its title. While Van Vechten claimed it was an ironic reference to the segregated balconies of movie theaters where black people were forced to sit (and it is also used by one of the characters as a name for Harlem itself, with its warm welcome to African Americans), many blacks were offended by his use of a racial slur. The novel's content also posed a problem for many readers—especially black ones—who cringed at the descriptions of Harlem's less reputable side, where gambling, drinking, prostitution, and illicit sex abounded. They claimed that Van Vechten was casting a negative light on black people and thus slowing up their progress toward equality.

Most commentators agree that the plot of Nigger Heaven is thin and its characters weak. The novel concerns a love affair between a prim librarian named Mary Love and a young, would-be writer named Byron Kasson. Consumed by doubts and self-pity, Byron has an affair with the beautiful Lasca Sartoris, who lives only for pleasure, and at the end of the novel he is wrongly arrested for shooting Lasca's new lover, Randall Pettijohn. Only about a third of the novel takes place in the nightclubs and bedrooms of Harlem; the rest is devoted to heady discussion between African American intellectuals. Many actual Harlem Renaissance figures appear in the novel under different names.

Van Vechten's defenders (including James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman) praised him for his realistic portrayal of Harlem, while his detractors (including Countee Cullen [1903–1946], Alain Locke [1886–1954], and the vast majority of black readers) agreed with W.E.B. Du Bois (writing in Crisis) that Nigger Heaven was "an affront to the hospitality of black folk and the intelligence of white." Van Vechten lost few of his closest friends, who saw in Nigger Heaven a reflection of its author's flamboyance as well as the same very artificial, mannered writing that characterized his other novels (he wrote seven altogether, none of them achieving as much attention as Nigger Heaven). But as a result of the fuss over the book, Van Vechten was banned from his favorite Harlem nightclub, Small's Paradise.

Becoming a photographer

With the arrival of the Great Depression (a severe economic downturn that began in the United States with the notorious stock market crash of 1929) at the end of the 1920s came a new mood of pessimism throughout the nation, and New York City was no exception. The once red-hot Harlem Renaissance fizzled out as the African American community struggled with unemployment and other hardships; even the rich people who had flocked to Harlem's nightclubs could no longer afford such diversions. Like others who had lived a fast-paced, gin-soaked life in the 1920s, Van Vechten turned to a more sedate existence in the years that followed. He quit drinking, smoking, and staying up all night club-hopping. And he shifted his focus from writing to photography.

In the early 1930s Van Vechten discovered that he had a talent for photography, a pastime that would bring him acclaim while allowing him to make a contribution to history. He did so through his memorable photographic portraits of a number of important figures, especially (but not limited to) African Americans. He photographed not only the stars of the Harlem Renaissance—including W.E.B. Du Bois, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, and Bessie Smith—but also famous white writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein and publisher Alfred Knopf. He also photographed some notable young blacks in the years before their talent was widely recognized; examples include entertainers Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte, actress Diahann Carroll, and opera singer Leontyne Price.

During the remaining decades of his life, Van Vechten's photographs were in demand as illustrations for books and were widely exhibited. In 1933 his work was featured in an exhibition at Bergdorf Goodman (an upscale New York department store) that also included prints by the more famous photographers Edward Steichen and Man Ray. More than a hundred of Van Vechten's photographs of theater personalities were shown at the Museum of the City of New York in 1942, and his work was exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1951.

In the years that followed the Harlem Renaissance, Van Vechten continued to correspond with many of its participants, and he believed strongly that the accomplishments of the period, and of African Americans in general, should be celebrated and preserved. In pursuit of this aim, he established special collections (places where manuscripts, letters, and other documents would be gathered) at several universities, including Yale (the site of the largest such collection), Fisk, Howard, and the University of New Mexico. In 1955 Van Vechten received an honorary degree from Fisk for his contributions to the recognition and preservation of African American culture. He died in 1964.

For More Information


Coleman, Leon. Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A CriticalAssessment. New York: Garland, 1999.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Knopf, 1981.

Lueders, Edward. Carl Van Vechten. New York: Twayne, 1965.

Watson, Steven. The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture,1920–1930. New York: Pantheon, 1995.


Helbling, Mark. "Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance." NegroAmerican Literature Forum (July 1976): 39–46.

Web sites

"Carl Van Vechten Biography and Chronology." [Online] (accessed March 15, 2000).

Carl Van Vechten

views updated Jun 08 2018

Carl Van Vechten

American author and photographer Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) was a champion of modern music and dance in the early years of the twentieth century, and went on to enjoy critical acclaim for his witty novels that chronicled a charmed set in 1920s New York and Paris. Van Vechten, however, may be best remembered for his interest in the creative output of African-Americans: through his support for its writers and performers, his financial assistance, and enthusiastic, insightful essays for mainstream publications, he served as an unofficial publicist for the cultural movement that came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Carl Van Vechten was born in 1880 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, into a prosperous and politically liberal family. He was tall and awkward in stature, and gifted with an above-average intelligence. Van Vechten stood out from his Midwestern peers in several ways and would later reflect upon Cedar Rapids and its mores with not a small amount of disdain. At the age of 19 he left Iowa for the more cosmopolitan world of Chicago, where he attended the prestigious University of Chicago. He enjoyed the standard fare of plays, galleries, and concerts that the city offered, but also became fascinated with the city's thriving African-American culture; he sometimes accompanied the housekeeper of his fraternity to chapel services, where Van Vechten-an accomplished musician-played the piano.

From the Tabloids to the Times

After graduation in 1903, loathe to return to Cedar Rapids and a post at his uncle's bank, Van Vechten obtained a job at the Chicago American, part of the Hearst newspaper chain. After a year, he was fired for writing a particularly barbed gossip column, and eventually moved to New York City in the spring of 1906. In an apartment house on West 39th Street that was also home to the more renowned writer Sinclair Lewis, he continued writing the short stories and essays he had first attempted in college. He also partook of Manhattan's rich cultural offerings.

Early in 1907 Van Vechten convinced the editor of Broadway Magazine, Theodore Dreiser, to buy his article on a controversial new musical drama at the Metropolitan Opera House, Richard Strauss's Salome. Later that year, having lived on funds borrowed from his father until that point, Van Vechten obtained a permanent job as a staff reporter at the New York Times. He was soon made an assistant to their music critic, and covered noteworthy new productions and symphonies premiering on New York's stages.

Paris Years

Van Vechten's passion for opera led him to convince his father to loan him money so that he might experience European opera in its own setting. Furthermore, he planned to marry a friend from Cedar Rapids, Wellesley graduate and fellow cosmopolitan Anna Snyder. The pair were wed in London around 1907 and spent months traveling the Continent and enjoying its cultural treasures, though they were sometimes short on funds. The next year, after returning to New York, they again left the country when Van Vechten was sent to Paris as the New York Times correspondent there, where he wrote on such topics as the Wright Brothers experimental flights in France.

The Van Vechtens divorced around 1912. That same year, he met the actress Fania Marinoff when he was back living in New York and working for the New York Press as its drama critic. They were wed in 1914 but Snyder filed charges for back alimony and he spent four months in the Ludlow Street jail; the incident would later appear in one of his novels. His first book, Music after the Great War, appeared in 1915 as a result of a publishing contact he had made as a Times reporter. The work was a collection of essays on music and ballet, some previously published. It marked him as an influential champion of modern music and dance, both forms then gaining ground in Europe. Van Vechten's first work included essays on Igor Stravinsky and the Russian ballet, among other topics.

Success as an Author

His second book, Music and Bad Manners, was also his first for the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf, with whom he would enjoy a long relationship. Over the next few years he continued to write on music and the theater for various publications, and during this time he also became acquainted with some prominent African-Americans, such as the writer and civil-rights personality Walter White. Van Vechten also wrote on seminal African-American works for the stage such as The Darktown Follies and Shuffle Along.

By 1920, Van Vechten's sixth and seventh titles appeared in print-Tiger in the House, about the domestic cat, one of his great loves, and the well-received In the Garrett, an erudite collection with essays on Oscar Hammerstein, the Yiddish theater, and the lack of a folk tradition in the American Midwest. His first novel, Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works, was published in 1922. The plot revolves around a young man and his adventures in Paris, and was clearly based on his own experiences. "This pseudo-biographical novel, " wrote Marvin Shaw in an essay in Gay & Lesbian Biography, "depicted the creation of a refined dilettante's temperament and wittily exposed the manners and morals of the author's era of elegant decadence."

The Harlem Renaissance

Van Vechten followed with another novel, The Blind Bow-Boy, in 1923, but remained an enthusiastic supporter of the arts. His tastes expanded to include the cultural offerings of Harlem, home to Manhattan's thriving black middle class, and by 1924 he had met the African-American novelist and diplomat James Weldon Johnson. Through this luminary, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Van Vechten met many other prominent names in the arts who would play important roles in the cultural movement that came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. These included novelist Zora Neale Hurston, and poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. It was through Van Vechten's intercession with Knopf on behalf of the latter that the groundbreaking collection of Hughes's verse, The Weary Blues, appeared in print in 1926.

Van Vechten became immersed in the Harlem Renaissance and its flowering of African-American culture. He wrote about its blues singers, such as Bessie Smith, in a series of articles for Vanity Fair beginning in 1925, and was also a backer for Paul Robeson's staging of African-American spirituals. Yet Van Vechten also led a profligate life-he could be a heavy drinker at times, and though married was known to enjoy the company of others. He would later suffer criticism for his championing of Harlem as a heady, intoxicating playground. It became a fashionable "thrill" for well-heeled white New Yorkers to venture into Harlem's integrated nightclubs to listen to the jazz or blues of performers such as Billie Holiday, or the racy shows of Josephine Baker.

Controversy over Novel

The height of Van Vechten's celebrity came with the publication of his fifth novel, Nigger Heaven. The title, shocking by contemporary standards, aroused controversy in 1926 as well. The phrase reflected both Harlem itself at the time, in the African-American vernacular, as well as a term for the top tier of seats in a segregated theater. The novel offered a love-triangle plot, but served more to educate mainstream readers about life in a hidden quarter of America's most cosmopolitan city. Furthermore, it introduced readers to facets of black political and social life heretofore unexplored in literature. Van Vechten biographer Bruce Kellner, in an essay in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, termed the novel "a deliberate attempt to educate Van Vechten's already large white reading public, the novel presents Harlem as a complex society fractured and united by individual and social groups of diverse interests, talents, and values."

The work was also quite racy, and its author was plagued by charges of sensationalism. The volume sold well, but endured harsh criticism. James Weldon Johnson was virtually its only champion among the black intelligentsia: he reviewed it for Opportunity, and opined that Van Vechten "pays colored people the rare tribute of writing about them as people rather than puppets." Others viewed it with far less admiration. In The Crisis, W.E.B. Du Bois called it "neither truthful nor artistic, " and found fault with its depiction of Harlem solely as a playground for the fatuous and amoral. D. H. Lawrence, in an essay titled "Literature and Art: Nigger Heaven, " found it "the usual old bones of hot stuff, warmed up with all the fervour the author can command-which isn't much." Nevertheless, it was a commercial success, and enhanced Van Vechten's reputation as a patron of the Harlem Renaissance.

Acclaimed as Photographer

Van Vechten continued to author articles for Vanity Fair and other publications, and wrote rather unkindly about his travels in Hollywood in essays which formed the basis for the 1928 novel Spider Boy: A Scenario for a Moving Picture. His last work of fiction, Parties: Scenes from Contemporary New York Life, was started just a few days after the Wall Street crash of 1929, a calamitous event which served to sober up the heady decade. The volume is the only one of Van Vechten's works "to stand as a terrible indictment of the period, " wrote Kellner in Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades. "The others had laughed at the foibles of the whole drunken generation; this one wept." Parties was met with derision by critics. Yet Van Vechten had wearied of fiction and essays and began to explore another creative pursuit-portrait photography. By 1932 he had dedicated himself exclusively to this, and his portraits of many luminaries of the day, as well as up-and-coming performers such as Lena Horne, Alvin Ailey, and Harry Belafonte, remain incisive glimpses into the era.

Van Vechten was already in his fifties when he gave up writing, and enjoyed his final years as a philanthropist. He founded the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters at Yale University, and willed his own archives to it; he also directed that any of posthumous royalties from his books be donated to its endowment fund. Also at Yale he established the Anna Marble Pollock Memorial Library of Books about Cats, dedicated to the wife of playwright Channing Pollock and one of his first friends in New York City. Van Vechten died in his sleep on December 21, 1964, and his ashes were scattered in Central Park's Shakespeare Gardens. Examples of Van Vechten's best photographic work were assembled and published in the 1978 volume Portraits: The Photography of Carl Van Vechten, and "Keep A-Inchin' Along": Selected Writings of Carl Van Vechten about Black Art and Letters, a collection of his work about African-American culture, was published in 1979.

Further Reading

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 33, Gale, 1985.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 51: Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, Gale, 1987.

Gay & Lesbian Biography, Gale, 1997.

Kellner, Bruce, Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades, University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.

Lawrence, D.H., Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D.H. Lawrence, edited by Edward D. McDonald, 1936, reprinted by William Heinemann, 1961.

Lueders, Edward, Carl Van Vechten, Twayne, 1965.

Crisis, December, 1926, pp. 81-82.

Opportunity, October, 1926, pp. 316-317, 330.

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