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"One of the best-selling novels of the Harlem Renaissance ... [this volume has been] out of print for much of the past seventy years... Van Vechten has long been a subject of fervid debate... He was committed to black achievement and creativity but also to the idea that that creativity and achievement only take certain, often racially exaggerated, forms... It seems increasingly incongruous that one of the era's most controversial texts should remain under wraps. 'We're ready now." -- Casey Greenfield, Lingua Franca
Nigger Heaven was mentioned in a bio of Dorothy Parker that I just read. So I thought I'd see what it was like. I just finished it and I am so glad that I could easily find it and read it. You'll learn a lot about history by reading it. Some commenter here thought it was a silly inconsequential book and I think exactly the opposite. First of all, it's not badly written. It's a good story that moves forward on its own. I think I can tell that a man wrote the female characters, but they're not completely devoid of instincts about the feminine psyche. The editor character that Byron gets lectured by must be Van Vechten himself: he's pretty animated, and his dialogue is a bit didactic. Naturally the style is old fashioned... it was written when my great grandmother was still alive! It's dated for sure, however, I sense that it was very very modern at the time. Reread the Sun Also Rises for old fashioned caricatures of Jews... read The Great Gatsby for some naive pacing... What I appreciate about this novel was setting as well as a sense of history of philosophy. The setting and dialogue was instructive: what people said, what they wore, and how they danced to the blues. The philosophy of that period, as rendered by VanVechten naturally, provided me with some humility for thinking that all the innovative ideas and civil action was discovered in the 1960's. Ha Ha. When in truth, history just keep recycling itself. This book was for sale in 1926! These stories were developed before that... and yet there were so many similar situations to life in 2013: the separation of classes within neighborhoods. It seems that people will forever be splintering themselves off into yet more finely separated groups: the question of whether jealously from within a group might hold their brethren back from affluence.Read more ›
Van Vechten's work, which gained its title from an old slang reffering to the back of the theatre, illuminated the complexity of "white Negrophilia" at a historical moment in which "white reconnaissance missions" to Harlem were becoming more popular. Ultimately, Nigger Heaven served not only "as a test-case for black attitudes about white Negrophilia," it also stood as a touchstone for the economic crisis facing black publishing. The publishing of Nigger Heaven signaled the importance of fostering Black literary venues and raised significant questions for Harlem Renaissance writers as to their audience, their tradition, and their relations within a community.
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The physical text is fine; the content of the novel is a little below what I expected, although I can see why it had the appeal it did at the time (1927). But I think it hardly falls into the category of "ghetto realism," with other Harlem novels of the period. Most of his characters were far ritzier than I am!
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