Bonhomie and the Blues
A hypothesis: Beneath every confident author is an insecure wreck of a human, desperately seeking approval through words on a page. A correspondence between writers often reveals these insecurities lingering beneath the bravado of a bold literary style: One artist often looks to another to fulfill a deep-seated need for approval. In Remember Me to Harlem, Emily Bernard's carefully edited volume of letters between Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, we peer into the lives of two working writers who bonded over a passion for black culture, pushing each other to produce richer work.
Although it's hard to imagine that a writer as gifted as Hughes would need reassurance, he relied on Van Vechten for creative and professional support. In a letter to the rising star in May of 1925, Van Vechten can be seen encouraging his friend: "I want you to play with this talent...Your sense of character is extremely picaresque...you have enough material in the back of your head to write forty books once you get started."
Over the next 40 years, Van Vechten served as a buffer, a listener, a promoter of and a friend to Hughes, despite vast differences between the two men's social stations. Van Vechten was born into a wealthy Kansas City family known for its commitment to the suffragist movement. Ambitious, impatient, and also gay, Van Vechten fled to New York and reinvented himself with rakish style, cranking out numerous novels and essay collections, which quickly adorned bestseller lists. An astringent if sensible critic, he was better known for lavish parties and dandy attire. He transformed his 55th Street apartment into a salon where black musicians and writers mingled with white publishers over vodka martinis.
Hughes entered this sophisticated world as a naif. Young, poor, and fatherless, he had shuttled from one relative to the next as his mother struggled to gain employment. The black poet's art emerged from the rigors of this experience, and was steeped in the blues and colored by sorrow. In contrast to Van Vechten's bonhomie, Hughes was a preternaturally private man: To this day scholars debate basic details about his life, such as his sexual orientation. But while Van Vechten was a mediocre talent, Hughes was a genius, turning the heads of Harlem's burgeoning literati when he published his first poem at age 19. Following an auspicious introduction at an NAACP dinner in 1925, Van Vechten courted Hughes like a lover, coaxing manuscripts from him to show Alfred A. Knopf (whose house also published this volume).
In their first exchange, Van Vechten is eager to bring Hughes into his circle: "I hope you haven't forgotten that you promised to send your book...I shall do my best to get it published...you must know that I like you very much."
As he promised, Van Vechten quickly secured a contract for the impoverished writer and helped him place poems in Vanity Fair. Van Vechten even coached Hughes on the road to publication, choosing a dust jacket for the poet's book and advising him to tone down his publicity. Hughes was clearly seduced by the prospect of literary stardom. Working as a bellhop at a ritzy Washington, D.C., hotel, he writes, "My book is going to be sold in the lobby and I need to be on display."
As Hughes's career took off, the two men celebrated their love of drink, dish, and literature. In this regard, Remember Me to Harlem reads like a journal of their busy social calendars, as they rehash parties, publications, and public spats. Writing on a train en route to Columbus, Ohio, Hughes fires off a typical report of a liquor-soaked evening: "Hunter Stagg's party was delightful...the cocktail shaker was never empty...Hunter made a new kind of cocktail of which no one knew the name, so it was christened then and there as the "Hard Daddy" after one of my blues. The recipe is: To a glass of whiskey add one-half glass of lemon juice and a half glass of maple syrup + ice and shake. It comes out with a sardonic taste like the blues and before the evening was over everybody felt like whooping--and some did." At times, more gin flowed than verse.
But as the letters beautifully portray, writers of this era fought for their ideas, sparring in a wide array of journals, from The Messenger to W.E.B. DuBois's The Crisis. The attitude was ebullient yet self-conscious. Zora Neale Hurston called their group the "Nigerati," while DuBois cringed, encouraging blacks to identify and elevate their own talented tenth. As Scott Malcomson observes in his recent book, One Drop of Blood, it was a time when blackness, and what that concept meant, was morphing radically.
In this milieu, Hughes's friendship with Van Vechten, no matter how valuable at the start, became an increasing burden for the black author. In 1928, Van Vechten published Nigger Heaven, a Harlem-set melodrama that sparked an uproar among both whites (Time ridiculed him for slumming) and blacks (who considered the book a form of minstrel show). Unfortunately, while Bernard provides footnotes to this controversy, the letters disclose little of how Hughes actually felt about his friend's "addiction," as Van Vechten once phrased it, to black culture.
Ultimately, while Van Vechten probed black culture intellectually, he distanced himself when the realities of black/white relations garnered headlines in newspapers, a disconnection palpable in the correspondence. When Hughes writes Van Vechten to ask for aid in protesting the Scottsboro boys' trial in 1933 ("The lynch temper is growing everywhere..."), the elder writer responds perfunctorily with a check, then quickly changes the subject to "good gossip." As the original White Negro, Van Vechten appropriated elements of black hipsterism only to retreat downtown for his cocktails and catnaps. But no matter how many jazz shows Van Vechten saw, he would never sing the blues like Hughes. This did not prevent Van Vechten from thinking he could. At the height of his self-delusion, he quips self-righteously, "You and I are the only colored people who really love niggers."
Unlike Hughes, who lived the African-American experience, Van Vechten could only explore that culture through his literary patronage. His Herculean efforts enabled writers such as James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston to reach wider audiences. He also donated money to Wallace Thurman's fledgling literary journal Fire!!, and helped to found the Johnson Collection of African-American letters at Yale University.
Yet a cloud shadows this correspondence, as the two men dance around the elephant in the room. Perhaps tiring of his friend's posturing, Hughes eventually pulled back, writing less and prompting Van Vechten to send a note that said, scoldingly, "Everybody else seems to hear from you but me." Remember Me to Harlem offers hints at how the gap between these men could become a gulf of difference, while suggesting that the temporary bridges from one culture to the next are often shaky at best.
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