Emily Bernard   Remember Me to Harlem  
Emily Bernard    
Reading by Emily Bernard

Interview with Emily Bernard

Read an excerpt from Remember Me to Harlem

  In 1924, Langston Hughes was a twenty-two year old poet, returning from Europe during an explosive period in the history of American arts and letters which would soon to be referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. New York's uptown literati expected great things from Hughes, even at his young age, but Hughes lacked the professional and financial connections he would need to thrive as an artist. Enter the forty-four year old Carl Van Vechten, a critic, novelist, and socialite who was, if not the earliest, then perhaps the most inventive white appreciator of black art forms dominating the urban scene: spirituals, jazz, blues and dance. After meeting for the second time, the two men began a friendship-by-correspondence that lasted until Van Vechten's passing in 1964.

As Emily Bernard notes in her introduction, correspondence by mail was one of few opportunities for an interracial friendship to develop during the first half of the century. Over the many years that their friendship persisted, Hughes's star rose as he gained fame as a poet, playwright, memoirist, and lecturer. Meanwhile, Van Vechten abandoned the relatively high-profile vocation of controversial novelist and became increasingly involved as the invisible hand behind cultural-history projects, most notably The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters. Their incongruent career arcs brought about interesting reversals in their correspondence, as Van Vechten went from Hughes's benefactor to his beneficiary. At the outset of the friendship, Van Vechten provided Hughes with (occasionally brutal) artistic guidance, financial support, and professional connections (for instance, Van Vechten's influential publishers, Alfred and Blanche Knopf). In the late letters, it was Hughes who gave his older friend insider advice: who to write to get admission into the writers' colony at Yaddo, or how to approach this or that black celebrity for a photograph. Occasionally a bit of gossip slips through in the letters, as when Van Vechten deduces the reason behind Hughes's conflict with Zora Neale Hurston:

"... I am convinced that this whole situation arises out of some feeling on Zora's part of which you are wholly unconscious."

Generally speaking, what impresses the reader most is what goes unsaid between the two men. Even when Hughes's fame is at its height, and Van Vechten's pestering at its most persistent, Hughes protects his older friend's feelings. By the time he reached old age, Van Vechten had earned the disdain of prominent black authors like Ralph Ellison as well as other figures in the literary world, including Hughes's own editor at Knopf. Mindful of Van Vechten's early generosity, Hughes kept the extent of their dislike from Van Vechten's knowledge, as the two men continued to congratulate each other on their achievements and share the love of music, theater and poetry that had been the basis of their friendship years before.

In this issue of Bold Type, Remember Me To Harlem's editor Emily Bernard reads from letters which followed a bizarre conflict between Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. She also sets the stage for Hughes's and Van Vechten's friendship in an interview about the cultural significance of the Harlem Renaissance, and shares an excerpt from the book in which Hughes and Van Vechten have a friendly argument over hair-styles.

--Anson Lang
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  Photo credit: Samuel Winch

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