A significant reappraisal of a cultural icon and crucial booster of modern artists, especially African-American artists.
Reading British journalist and historian White’s account of the extraordinary life of Chicago-born critic, novelist and photographer Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964), one is struck by how he toiled over many decades under a very fortunate star. He had not only the good luck to be in the right place at the right time—New York City during the Jazz Age—but also the prescience to grasp the significance of this modernist iconoclasm for American culture. As a Chicago novice newspaperman relocated to New York, Van Vechten cut his journalistic teeth on music criticism—e.g., covering Richard Strauss’ seminal Salome (adapted from Oscar Wilde’s play) at the Metropolitan Opera in 1907. In 1909, notes White, he intuited Isadora Duncan’s barefoot ballet as an “exuberant manifestation of a new type of art” without knowing anything about dance. From the exotic, unconventional Mabel Dodge, Van Vechten learned how to “bolster one’s own profile by championing the work of others”—e.g., their shared discovery of Gertrude Stein. Van Vechten published a series of “heretical” books throughout the 1920s about music and arts criticism, elevating the lowbrow or vulgar (ragtime, jazz, African-American art) and teaching the American public how to reappraise it. His novels were wildly popular, scandalous and largely forgotten; all the while, he had access to the rich gay bohemian underground, and he embarked in the 1930s on a fresh career as a portrait photographer just at the moment that photojournalism took off in America. In orderly chapters, White tackles this complicated, multifaceted, tremendously fascinating and contradictory subject: a married gay man, an alcoholic and always a “catalyst for outrage and argument.”
A vigorous, fully fleshed biography of an important contributor to American culture.