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"The Epic of a Mood": Carl Van Vechten, Nigger Heaven, and the Harlem Renaissance
by Kimberlee Gillis-Bridges
Although Can Van Vechten had a long career as a music and drama critic for two major New York papers, it is his career as a novelist and literary patron of the Harlem Renaissance which marks him as a paradigmatic figure of the 1920s. A Nordic "struggling with Ethiopan psychology" (Kellner, Letters, 84), Van Vechten was viewed either as a benefactor genuinely concerned about the African-American writers whose careers he furthered or a voyeur who exploited Harlem culture for his own economic and literary benefit. Whatever his motives, however, Van Vechten’s style of patronage and his novel Nigger Heaven foreground the literary, socio-political and economic issues underlying the Harlem Renaissance. That a Caucasian novelist wrote such a well-received account of black New York life reveals the tenuous relationship between the "African-American" novel and its largely white audience. While the black writers of the 1920s certainly wrote for the African-American community, their work, in order to attain the commercial success essential to the Harlem Renaissance, had to appeal to a broader audience. Yet this audience, primarily because of Nigger Heaven, had particular notions regarding "acceptable" visions of African-American life. Hence, while Van Vechten sparked white America’s appetite for Harlem life, he set a literary machine in motion that proved problematic for the very people he wrote about.
Long before writing Nigger Heaven, Van Vechten had an interest in African-American artists. While at the University of Chicago in the early 1900s, he attended musical performances and minstrel shows at the Old Pekin Theater, encountering prominent black performers such as Bert Williams. Yet, it was not until he began working as a critic in New York that he had an opportunity to meet the important black artists of the day firsthand. Walter White, whose 1924 novel The Fire in the Flint had moved Van Vechten to seek his acquaintance, facilitated his introduction to important Harlem celebrities such as James Weldon Johnson. Because he had money and a friendship with the influential publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Van Vechten was able to assist several young writers, including Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen and Countee Cullen. As Hughes recalled in his autobiography, The Big Sea, "what Carl Van Vechten did for me was to submit my first book of poems to Alfred A. Knopf, . . . and otherwise aid in making life for me more profitable and entertaining" (272). Van Vechten also helped these writers publish in mainstream magazines such as Vanity Fair, often providing prefaces introducing their works to white readers.
Van Vechten also introduced Harlem to smaller groups of white Americans during the mid-1920s. By this time, he had been noted for the lavish parties at his West 55th Street apartment, attended by both African-American and Caucasian guests. These gatherings, according to Langston Hughes, were "so Negro" that they were reported "as a matter of course in the colored society columns, just as though they had occurred in Harlem" (251).1 Van Vechten also led white celebrities on his (in)famous "tours" of Harlem. He became such a fixture in the community that the lyrics of Andy Razaf’s popular "Go Harlem" encouraged listeners to "go inspectin’ like Van Vechten". Even Time magazine took notice, reporting in 1925 that "sullen-mouthed, silky-haired Author Van Vechten has been playing Negroes lately" (quoted in Kellner, Irreverent Decades, 195).
Although these images represent a sometimes humorous social milieu, David Levering Lewis, in his book When Harlem Was in Vogue, notes another side of the interaction between blacks and whites, particularly on artistic and economic levels: "white capital and influence were crucial, and the white presence, at least in the early years, hovered over the New Negro world of art and literature like a benevolent censor, politely but pervasively setting the outer limits of its creative boundaries" (98). Zora Neale Hurston termed such white patrons "Negrotarians." They came in many varieties, some genuinely concerned with African-American social uplift and others drawn to young black artists as "salon exotica." Van Vechten’s letters seem to display the latter element of voyeurism. On May 29, 1925, he informed H.L. Mencken that "jazz, the blues, Negro spirituals, all stimulate me enormously for the moment. Doubtless I shall discard them . . . in time" (Kellner, Letters, 78). Similarly, he reported to Gertrude Stein that he had spent "practically [his] whole winter in company with Negroes and [had] succeeded in getting into most of the important sets" (Kellner, Letters, 80). Letters such as these suggest that Van Vechten’s friendships with the young African-American artists he helped were superficial, that his interest in Harlem was transitory. David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue promotes this view of Van Vechten, citing evidence of his "racial insincerity."2
Cary Wintz, however, disagrees with Levering Lewis in his book Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance. He notes that Van Vechten was one of the few literary patrons who did not attach strings to his financial support. Furthermore, Van Vechten’s interest in African-American writers continued long after Harlem was in vogue. According to Wintz, "he was one of the handful of whites who deserve credit for helping to establish the movement" (187). What differentiated him from most patrons were the close friendships he maintained with Renaissance figures such as Langston Hughes, Walter White, and James Weldon Johnson, who Van Vechten considered a second father. Indeed, "a number of his friends joked that he was more black than white" (Wintz 188), and Vanity Fair even remarked on the "suntan" Van Vechten obtained in taxis speeding to Harlem in the night. Playing on these jokes, artist Miguel Covarrubias depicted Van Vechten with Negroid features in a portrait entitled "Carl Van Vechten: A Prediction."
No matter how sincere his assistance of the Harlem Renaissance, however, Van Vechten contributed to the establishment of exotic, primitive stereotypes of Harlem in his novel Nigger Heaven, published in 1926. Racing through nine printings within four months, the novel remains "the most important single event in creating the Negro craze and sending thousands of whites into Harlem’s speakeasies and clubs. . . looking for a sensual, exotic and primitive thrill" (Wintz 95). Van Vechten divided Nigger Heaven into two books and a prologue which introduced characters from the seamy side of Harlem. Book One concentrates on Mary Love, a mulatta librarian living in a middle-class Harlem populated by young professionals. Here, Van Vechten attempted to demonstrate the similarity between the black and white middle classes and to show the racial prejudice facing educated African Americans. In Book Two, Mary’s lover Byron Kasson becomes the focus. Kasson, a writer newly arrived in Harlem upon graduating from a predominantly white university, cannot obtain a job suitable to his education. The remainder of the novel charts his moral downfall, his loss of Mary, and his seduction by the sensual Lasca Sartoris. Nigger Heaven concludes as Byron is falsely arrested for the murder of Lasca’s new lover Randolph Petijohn. Ironically, he had wanted to commit the murder, but could not.
Van Vechten’s alternation between the high and low of Harlem life in Nigger Heaven accomplished his goal of instructing white America about the indignities faced by blacks remarkably similar to themselves. He had worked toward this end before the novel’s publication by asking Alfred A. Knopf to advertise the book long in advance. Recognizing that his portrait of educated blacks might "come as an actual shock" to white readers, Van Vechten informed Knopf of the necessity "to prepare the mind. . . [of] that public which lies outside New York. If they see the title, they will ask questions, or read ‘The New Negro’ or something" (Leuders 87). However, Van Vechten also satisfied the expectations of this public, who, in the words of Mary Love, "actually prefer[ed blacks] when [they were] not respectable." With his portraits of The Scarlet Creeper and The Bolito King gliding rhythmically through Harlem’s cabarets, Van Vechten demonstrated his belief that black culture contained an element of primitiveness "that the advent of civilization and the dependence on technology had refined out of Western civilization" (Wintz 98). Although Van Vechten viewed these characteristics as one way black culture could enrich white America, the majority of his white audience probably was them as typical African-American traits, mercifully confined to a race and a geographic area far removed from their lives.
Recognizing this stereotype, reviews in mainstream publications treated Nigger Heaven as a somewhat anthropological depiction of "the dominating sensual element of life in Harlem" (TLS 26 Dec. 1926), largely praising its "inside view" of black culture. Calling the novel "the epic of a mood," critic Eric Walrond noted that "no colored man, adept as he might be at self-observation and non-identification, could have written" as Van Vechten had about Harlem’s "heirlooms of a pale, dim ancestral past, mulatto aversion to black, a dominant tribal spirit, snobbishness, delightful crudity, neuroses [and] intellectuality" (Saturday Review of Literature 2 Oct. 1926). Not surprisingly, other black reviewers did not share Walrond’s enthusiasm for the novel. The Harlem community mirrored this disapproval; The Pittsburgh Courier temporarily refused to advertise the novel, and Van Vechten was permanently banned from Small’s Paradise, his favorite nightspot (Lewis 181). W.E.B. DuBois’s scathing review of Nigger Heaven in the December 1926 Crisis encapsulated the feelings of many Harlemites: "To [Van Vechten] there are no depths [to Harlem life]. It is the surface mud he slops about in. . . Life to him is just one damned orgy after another, with hate, hurt, gin and sadism" (82). James Weldon Johnson, along with Langston Hughes, was one of the few African Americans who liked Nigger Heaven, terming it a "modern novel" that "completely discarded and scrapped the old formula and machinery for a Negro novel" in its presentation of black characters who "meet and master their environment," independently of white culture (Opportunity, October 1926, 316).
Johnson’s review, with its justification of Van Vechten’s choice of subject matter, foregrounded the controversy over what aspects of African-American life should be portrayed in literature and who should depict them. This debate had existed before the publication of Nigger Heaven, as evidenced be a 1926 Crisis symposium entitled "The Negro in Art, How Shall He Be Portrayed?" In this symposium, "artists of the world" were asked about a writer’s responsibility to present certain types of black characters. Answering these questions, Van Vechten insisted on any writer’s right to use the "wealth of exotic, picturesque material" generated by "the squalor of Negro life" (219). His response also indicates surprise over black authors’ reluctance to use this material "while it [was] still fresh. . . [instead of] mak[ing] a free gift of it to white authors who [would] exploit it until not a drop of vitality remains" (219). His sentiments reflect those voiced in an earlier Vanity Fair piece, "Moanin’ Wid a Sword in Ma Han,’" in which he observed that, in order to combat stereotypes, the black artist had turned away from his culture, leaving "his great gifts to the exploitation of the white man without. . . making any attempt. . . to capitalize them himself" (102). Partially agreeing with Van Vechten in his November 1926 contribution to the symposium, Charles W. Chesnutt lamented the fact that African-American writers were more concerned with racial uplift than presenting all aspects of black life. Significantly, however, his piece never mentions white writers; Chesnutt wants "a man of Negro blood" to write "the really epical race novel" (29).3
This debate gains additional significance when viewed in terms of the overall economic environment of the Harlem Renaissance, which depended on white audiences, white magazines and white money. Regardless of the outcome of the artistic controversy, the success or failure of a particular literary work was ultimately determined by white America’s literary tastes. And Nigger Heaven had, in large part, formed these tastes. According to Cary Wintz, it "tended to establish stereotypes about the nature of black life that thrill-seeking white audiences would expect to be fulfilled when they visited ghetto nightspots or bought books written by black authors" (101). Thus, while Nigger Heaven’s popularity opened a market for books by African Americans, it also set boundaries for what was considered an "acceptable" version of black life. Considered as a mechanistic entity, the publishing enterprise operated by the dominant culture can be seen as extremely limiting for those of the non-dominant culture who try to produce literary works within it. Thus, in a milieu that allowed white writers relative freedom of subject choice while restricting black writers to writing what they knew or, in effect, were, the African-American community’s response to Nigger Heaven should not be surprising. Indeed, Van Vechten "was accused of ruining, distorting, polluting and corrupting every Negro writer" who produced literature after the publication of his novel (Hughes 271). Yet, far from any organic effect he may have had on African-American writing, Van Vechten was primarily responsible for turning the attention of the literary machine to black America.
For accounts of Van Vechten’s parties, see Hughes, The Big Sea, pages 251-255; Kellner, Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades, pages 200-201; and Lewis, When Harlem was in Vogue, pages 183-184. Kellner (198-199) and Lewis (183) also discuss Van Vechten’s activities as a tour guide of Harlem.
See pages 180-189.
Chesnutt’s comment is even more interesting considering that it appeared shortly after the publication of Nigger Heaven. By stating that the "really epical race novel" had not yet been written, Chesnutt implicitly discounts Nigger Heaven’s claim to this title.
Chesnutt, Charles W. "The Negro in Art: How Shall He Be Portrayed?" The Crisis (November 1926): 28-29.
DuBois, W.E.B. Review of Nigger Heaven. The Crisis (December 1926): 81-82.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. New York: Hill and Wang, 1940.
Johnson, James Weldon. "Romance and Tragedy in Harlem - A Review." Opportunity (October 1926): 316+.
Kellner, Bruce. Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.
Kellner, Bruce, ed. Letters of Carl Van Vechten. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
Lueders, Edward. Carl Van Vechten and the Twenties. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1955.
Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
"Nigger Heaven." The Times Literary Supplement 2 December 1926.
Van Vechten, Carl. "‘Moanin’ Wid A Sword In Ma Han: A Discussion of the Negro’s Reluctance to Develop and Exploit his Racial Gifts." Vanity Fair 25 (February 1926): 61+
____. "The Negro in Art: How Shall He Be Portrayed?" The Crisis (March 1926): 219-220.
Walrond, Eric. "The Epic of a Mood." The Saturday Review of Literature 2 October 1926.
Wintz, Cary D. Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance. Houston, TX: Rice University Press, 1988.