When Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten were introduced at a party in 1924, Hughes was a young and undiscovered African-American writer. Van Vechten was twice his age, white and well established. But from that introduction, the two formed a friendship which would span 40 years and an extensive correspondence consisting of over 1500 letters. In “Remember me to Harlem,” former Harvard fellow Emily Bernard has assembled a fraction of these letters in a historically important book.
Today, Carl Van Vechten is a disputed and somewhat inconspicuous figure. His interest, which could even be called an obsession, with African-American culture during the Harlem Renaissance, was once seen as an exception to the characteristic superficial white fascination with “downtown.”
During a time when blacks were not allowed to frequent the same clubs at which they performed, Van Vechten acted as a mentor and friend to several literary figures, including Hughes as well as Zora Neale Hurston. After the publication of his controversial novel, “Nigger Heaven,” however, his motives were more closely questioned. Hughes was one of those who stood staunchly in Van Vechten”s defense and Van Vechten was equally supportive after the publication of “Fine Clothes for the Jew.”
“Remember me to Harlem” is an invaluable reference for this controversy. Both Hughes and Van Vechten were name-droppers their letters offer animated portraits of dozens of other artists of that generation, such as Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, Countee Cullen and Arna Bontemps, to name a few. Bernard did an excellent job in selecting these letters. Her footnotes are exhaustive and incredibly useful. The letters are not, however, of an incredibly intimate character. The constant name-dropping becomes tedious at points and this contributes to a rather slow read.
One will not forget that these men were recognized literary figures and the letters reflect this in their spark and creativity. Most importantly, the book ultimately serves its purpose and offers the reader a genuine glimpse into the past, free from affectation.