When their correspondence began in 1925, Carl Van Vechten
(1880-1964) was the nation's leading Caucasian enthusiast for African American culture, and Langston Hughes
(1902-67) was a struggling poet who lived with his mother in Washington, D.C., and plaintively closed one letter, "Remember me to Harlem." Over the four-decade-long friendship that's captured engagingly in these warm, funny letters, Hughes would become more famous, and Van Vechten less so, but their mutual affection and respect only would deepen. Editor Emily Bernard, a professor at Smith College, sensibly decided to include only a fraction of the letters that the pair exchanged, but to print those in their entirety, so that readers might get a vivid sense of each man's personality. Van Vechten is lighthearted, flirtatious, gossipy, effusive in his appreciation for Hughes' writing, and frank when he finds it not to his taste. Despite his unflinching commitment to civil rights, he's considerably less political than Hughes, whose equally witty correspondence has an underlying seriousness that's commensurate with a personal history that's far more turbulent and painful than that of his affluent friend. They share a dislike for "uplift-the-race" sanctimoniousness and a zest for African American folk culture; their letters are rife with references to the music of Bessie Smith and other great blues singers, as well as to the many Harlem Renaissance artists who were their personal acquaintances. The correspondence also provides a sustained chronicle of the working writer's life: they swap news of assignments and story ideas; Van Vechten generously makes his book-publishing and magazine contacts available to Hughes; and the poet loyally defends his friend's controversial novel, Nigger Heaven
, against its numerous detractors. Helpfully, everyone is identified in Bernard's copious footnotes, which make this a handy reference work, as well as a delightful record of an extraordinary relationship between two uniquely gifted figures in American letters. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
As the Harlem Renaissance unfolded in the 1920s, few were closer to its hub than the black poet and playwright Langston Hughes and his white friend and mentor, the writer, photographer and patron of the arts Carl Van Vechten. They met in 1924, as Hughes was first exploding into literary celebrity, and quickly became friends and correspondents; between them, they knew everyone of note among Harlem's cultural figures. Marked by a shared irreverence and taste for the good life, their correspondence offers snapshots of vastly different worlds. Hughes comes across as a true adventurer, finding poetry in the world's byways and forgotten corners; Van Vechten is the quintessential bon vivant, whose refinements emanated from the comfort of his own home. The letters offer heartrending insights into the two men's contributions to a variety of political firestorms over four decadesAthe trial of the Scottsboro boys, Van Vechten's publication of his controversial Nigger Heaven, Hughes's branding as a Communist. Bernard's painstakingly assembled edition provides comprehensive background notes and a complete guide to the procession of famous and obscure personages appearing in the letters, as well as a graceful introduction briefly sketching the correspondents' lives and the arc of the Harlem Renaissance. Readers' interest may flag in the later letters, which occasionally devolve into lists of names and accounts of professional obligations; Bernard also says nothing about Hughes's final years after Van Vechten's death in 1964. However, these are minor shortcomings in an otherwise engaging volume, which effectively captures the rare world of two men whose friendship was emblematic of the complex racial entente offered by that extraordinary moment in history. This will be required reading for anyone interested in the Harlem Renaissance, and in black literature and the world of American letters generally; a reading tour by the editor will help bring it to wide attention. (Jan.)
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