Did you know that Van V. was one of the NYC intellectuals who helped resuscitate Herman Melville’s dead reputation with two essays in 1921? Van V. was also the guy behind breaking Stravinsky in the States, and he was the first serious dance critic in America. Zelig-like—I like that image. Actually, Van V. was a throw-back to the 1890s aesthetes, people like Oscar Wilde, Stephen Mallarme, and that other French poet, Baudelaire. Only difference, Carlo wore an assortment of masks and traveled freely in the highest stratum of society, lunching with grouchy Theodore Dreiser, having George Gershwin as his nightly piano player, and being one of the best friends to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Besides which, he was James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Ethel Waters’ closest white friend. And I don’t think those people (excepting Johnson) had many friends, period. Added to which, he was one of the few people to remain loyal to two complete rebels, Zora Hurston and Chester Himes. Carlo was a mighty, mighty cultural force in this republic’s artistic history.
This is why Americans should be interested in Carl Van Vechten. For my part, I’m interested in him because he’s from Iowa, because, like the early jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, he was a well-off white boy from Iowa, although not only that. He was a well-off white boy from Iowa who made his mark through black culture, a dangerous proposition in the 1920s. And, in retrospect, they both had an uncertain and equally dangerous sexual life. (Now throw in Grant Wood . . .)
Despite being married, Van Vechten was clearly gay, and a new study of his homoerotic photography has just been published. In it, James Smalls expertly addresses VV’s various boundary-crossings:
In a review of Van Vechten’s notoriously salacious novel Nigger Heaven, which appeared in 1926, the playwright Avery Hopwood went so far as to jokingly alert readers to the possibility that Van Vechten was an imposter and not white at all [. . .] What Hopwood was hinting at was Van Vechten’s indulgence in what has been termed “racechange”—that is, the “traversing of race boundaries, racial imitation or impersonation, cross-racial mimicry or mutability, white posing as black passing as white, pan-racial mutuality.” The phenomenon, as forming a critical nexus in the birth and shifting foundations of American modernism, both unveils and questions interracial contacts and cross-cultural mixings. The dynamics of these cross currents are volatile, ongoing, incomplete, and, like identity itself, can not be denied, ignored, or oversimplified. As Van Vechten’s theatrical metaphor for Van Vechten who, in his social life, consciously played multiple roles through which he projected himself as avid guardian, artist, patron, victim, and savior to black America. His multiple social, literary, and artistic activities garnered him a key position in the social and cultural imagination of both whites and African Americans. The calculated and impassioned exploitation of African Americans and their culture was to become Van Vechten’s ticket to notoriety and fame.
Crossing. Passing. Traversing. A colleague at work once told me that, despite the prevailing stereotypes, he was convinced that Iowans are more cosmopolitan than many other Americans. It’s right in the middle of everything, he said. People are always passing through. Iowans are always leaving and always returning. Iowa, in other words, has propinquity.
Patron, victim, and savior. These words suggest that Van Vechten’s life was as complicated personally as it was socially. Michael Eric Dyson combines the two (the social & the personal) when he slams Bix Beiderbecke for stealing black culture: “A major way many white youth articulated their alienation, and affirmed their sanity, authenticity, and legitimacy, was by latching hold of the mores mediated through the artistic values of black culture as expressed in the imaginations and visions of its great artists. What happens is predictable: Bix becomes better known . . .” blah blah blah. It’s not true, but that hardly matters.
Of course, the more things change . . . Look at the stink over Sasha Frere-Jones & Stephin Merritt. The former is a music critic for The New Yorker. He thinks (bizarrely) that the latter, of the band The Magnetic Fields, is a “cracker.” Why? Because he is “intent on diminishing or excluding the work of African-American musicians.” How? He thinks hip hop sucks. “I think it’s shocking that we’re not allowed to play coon songs anymore,” Merritt has said, “but people both black and white, behave in more vicious caricatures of African-Americans than they had in the 19th century. It’s grotesque.”
I think Merritt’s right. It is grotesque. But that’s the point, or at least part of the point. This is black posing as white passing as black. Hip hop is dangerous stuff, and whether you go there, whether you cross that boundary or decide, for whatever reason, not to, still matters.
PREVIOUSLY: Van Vechten in these pages . . .
IMAGE: Untitled by Carl Van Vechten