Letters illuminating the lives of the great African-American poet and his forgotten literary champion.
Hughes had published only in a few newspapers and literary journals when, at a Harlem party in 1924, he met the flamboyant arts critic Van Vechten—who, though born into a well-heeled white Midwestern family, sometimes thought of himself as “colored” and in any event labored vigorously to publicize the African-American writers, artists, and musicians who participated in the Harlem Renaissance. He introduced Hughes’s work to Alfred Knopf, who brought out The Weary Blues in 1925; by way of returning the favor, Hughes gingerly defended Van Vechten’s novel Nigger Heaven (which made liberal use of a word forbidden to whites then as now). Their friendship blossomed, and Van Vechten continued to promote Hughes’s work—and to help Hughes in moments of financial crisis—even after Hughes became internationally famous and Van Vechten slid into obscurity. The letters, thoughtfully edited and annotated by Bernard (African-American Studies/Smith Coll.), are often unremarkable exchanges of cordiality and gossip between two men who obviously cared a great deal for one another; they are, however, highly useful as adjuncts to Hughes’s autobiography and other life studies, posted as they are from such far-flung places as Hollywood and Central Asia. Moreover, they abound in references to the work of contemporaries, such as Countee Cullen and Bessie Smith, so that the volume makes useful reading for students of African-American literature and culture generally. The collection brings recognition to Van Vechten’s many efforts to connect African-American artists to the New York establishment—efforts, Bernard notes, that have too long been overlooked.
All in all, a fine addition to American literary scholarship.