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Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964
     

Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964

3.0 1
by Langston Hughes, Carl Van Vechten, Emily Bernard (Editor)
 

These engaging and wonderfully alive letters paint an intimate portrait of two of the most important and influential figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Carl Van Vechten—older, established, and white—was at first a mentor to the younger, gifted, and black Langston Hughes. But the relationship quickly grew into a great friendship—and for nearly four

Overview

These engaging and wonderfully alive letters paint an intimate portrait of two of the most important and influential figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Carl Van Vechten—older, established, and white—was at first a mentor to the younger, gifted, and black Langston Hughes. But the relationship quickly grew into a great friendship—and for nearly four decades the two men wrote to each other expressively and constantly.

They discussed literature and publishing. They exchanged favorite blues lyrics ("So now I know what Bessie Smith really meant by 'Thirty days in jail / With ma back turned to de wall,'" Hughes wrote Van Vechten after a stay in a Cleveland jail on trumped-up charges). They traded stories about the hottest parties and the wildest speakeasies. They argued politics. They gossiped about the people they knew in common—James Baldwin, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, H. L. Mencken. They wrote from near (of racism in Scottsboro) and far (of dancing in Cuba and trekking across the Soviet Union), and always with playfulness and mutual affection.

Today Van Vechten is a controversial figure; some consider him exploitative, at best peripheral to the Harlem Renaissance—or, indeed, as the author of the novel Nigger Heaven, a blemish upon it, and upon Hughes by association. The letters tell a different, more subtle and complex story: Van Vechten did, in fact, help Hughes (and many other young black writers) to get published; Hughes in turn appreciated what Van Vechten was trying to do in Nigger Heaven and defended him, fiercely. For all their differences, Hughes and Van Vechten remained staunchly loyal to each other throughout their lives.

A correspondence of great cultural significance, judiciously gathered together here for the first time and annotated by the insightful young scholar Emily Bernard, Remember Me to Harlem shows us an unlikely friendship, one that is essential to our understanding of literature and race relations in twentieth-century America.

Editorial Reviews

Rick Whitaker
The friendship described in this fascinating collection deserves close study. Much of the history of race relations -- and literary history -- in America during the first half of the 20th century is represented here, including the prickly business of white enthusiasm and intervention. This collection is a magnificent contribution to our understanding of an important friendship.
Washington Post
The Harlem Renaissance comes to life in this remarkable correspondence between Langston Hughes and his white, patrician mentor, Carl Van Vechten. In sixteen volumes of poetry, twenty plays, three autobiographies and two novels, Hughes celebrated, in blues and jazz-derived street-talk, the everyday heroism of his people. Van Vechten was a more ambiguous figure; terming his own fascination with black culture "an addiction," he both championed and exploited its poets, dancers and musicians in essays, a lugubrious novel with the even-then appalling title of Nigger Heaven and photography that both idealized and stereotyped his subjects. A closeted, married homosexual, Van Vechten was by turns lauded, vilified and forgotten by the African-American community. Despite this, the two men's bond, formed in the '20s, held strong until Van Vechten's death in the '60s; by then the younger star's fame had long eclipsed the old man's. Their letters are lively, affectionate, slangy ruminations about blues diva Bessie Smith and the book biz, leftist politics and society scandal, for starters. There's poignancy in Hughes' continuing support for the discredited Van Vechten—and not a little pathos, too.
—E. Beth Thomas

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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 decades--the 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.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Forty years of letter writing that encompasses the essence of a particular sociopolitical period is no small achievement. Add to that the powerful personalities of the writers a black man, Hughes, and a white man, Van Vechten and the achievement is vastly enriched. Noted poet Hughes is deservedly famous. Van Vechten, an author and a great benefactor of black artists (he was responsible for the publication of Hughes's first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, in 1926), was well known in his time but has since faded. These letters, coupled with the mighty contributions each has made toward the black literary and cultural scene, should remedy Van Vechten's omission from black cultural history. Both men loved Harlem its nightlife, its blues, its blackness but when Van Vechten published Nigger Heaven, some critics believed that he had exploited black culture. Hughes stood by Van Vechten, however, and the letters continued with stories of events, situations, and people (some famous) that will enlighten, warn, and sadden. The photographs included, many by Van Vechten, add just the right touch of interest. Robert L. Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., IN Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 artiststothe NewYork establishment—efforts, Bernard notes, that have too long been overlooked. All in all, a fine addition to American literary scholarship.

From the Publisher
“Meticulously annotated…serves up a textured, ribald and frequently poignant interracial friendship between two remarkable talents.”–The New York Times Book Review

“Much of the history of race relations–and literary history–in America during the first half of the 20th century is represented here. . . . A magnificent contribution to our understanding of an important friendship.”–The Washington Post

Remember Me to Harlem is not only a major contribution to our understanding of the Harlem Renaissance, it is also a delightful collection of gossipy correspondence between two of its leading–and most intriguing–characters.” — Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


“If you’re interested in the Harlem Renaissance, you can’t afford to miss this book.”–Vibe

Remember Me to Harlem serves up a textured, ribald and frequently poignant interracial friendship between two remarkable talents.” —David Levering Lewis, The New York Times Book Review

“A remarkable work that reveals a complicated relationship between two important U.S. literary figures whose long friendship reached across the racial divide” –The Miami Herald

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780679451136
Publisher:
Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/13/2001
Edition description:
1 ED
Pages:
400
Product dimensions:
6.65(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.26(d)

Read an Excerpt

Langston Hughes is widely remembered as a celebrated star of the Harlem Renaissance — a writer whose bluesy, lyrical poems and novels still have broad appeal. What's less well known about Hughes is that for much of his life he maintained a friendship with Carl Van Vechten, a flamboyant white critic, writer, and photographer whose ardent support of black artists was peerless.
Despite their differences — Van Vechten was forty-four to Hughes twenty-two when they met–Hughes’ and Van Vechten’s shared interest in black culture lead to a deeply-felt, if unconventional friendship that would span some forty years. Between them they knew everyone — from Zora Neale Hurston to Richard Wright, and their letters, lovingly and expertly collected here for the first time, are filled with gossip about the antics of the great and the forgotten, as well as with talk that ranged from race relations to blues lyrics to the nightspots of Harlem, which they both loved to prowl. It’s a correspondence that, as Emily Bernard notes in her introduction, provides “an unusual record of entertainment, politics, and culture as seen through the eyes of two fascinating and irreverent men.

Meet the Author

Emily Bernard lives in Burlington, Vermont.

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Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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