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Remember Me to Harlem

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The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten

Written by Langston HughesAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Langston Hughes and Carl Van VechtenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Carl Van Vechten
Edited by Emily BernardAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Emily Bernard

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 400 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42744-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

1925-1926

When the correspondence between Carl Van Vechten and Langston Hughes began, Van Vechten was in New York, tirelessly cultivating an expertise on Harlem life. Hughes was in Washington, D.C., living with his mother and working as a personal assistant for the "father of Negro history," Carter G. Woodson, who founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. Hughes performed secretarial chores and worked on Woodson's massive study, Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830.

After hours, Hughes would head for Seventh Street, where he found "sweet relief." There, "ordinary Negroes . . . played the blues, ate watermelon, barbecue, and fish sandwiches, shot pool, told tall tales, looked at the dome of the Capitol and laughed out loud," he recalled in his 1940 autobiography, The Big Sea. The life there inspired his poetry. "I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street-gay songs, because you had to be gay or die; sad songs, because you couldn't help being sad sometimes. But gay or sad, you kept on living and you kept on going. Their songs-those of Seventh Street-had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going."

During his time in Washington, Hughes wrote and published more poetry than he had since he started writing at the age of thirteen.

carl van vechten to langston hughes, may 6, 1925

Dear Langston,

I haven't heard from you since your return;1 I hope you haven't forgotten that you promised to send your book2 back as soon as it is rearranged. I shall do my best to get it published, and that should be easy because it is a beautiful book. Also, please don't forget the Frankie song3 (if it was a Frankie song), and you spoke of a better book about Hayti4 than the one I have: can you dig out the name of it for me? I trust that it will not be very long before you visit New York again: you must know that I like you very much.

sincerely

Wednesday

1.After his visit to Van Vechten's home on Sunday, May 3, Hughes returned to Washington. This is Van Vechten's first letter to Hughes.

2.Hughes's manuscript would become his first published collection of verse, The Weary Blues (1926).

3.Van Vechten refers to the legendary ballad, "Frankie and Johnny," about a St. Louis prostitute who shoots her unfaithful lover.

4.Once common spelling of Haiti, now obsolete.

langston hughes to carl van vechten, may 7, 1925

1749 S Street, N.W.

Washington, D.C.

May 7, 1925

Dear Carl,

What a delightful surprise, your letter! I didn't think you would write me first as I've had you in mind all week for a note. I typed "Frankie Baker" for you on Monday but have been waiting for a chance to write a few explanations about it. I've been busy.

Perhaps you have heard "Frankie" before. It's a very old song, and is supposed to have originated in Omaha after Frankie Baker, a colored sporting-woman famous in the West, had shot her lover, Albert. The whole song runs to a blues tune, the chorus very blue, but the tune of each verse varies slightly, better to express the sentiment; the last two verses are sung like a blues dirge. And Bruce, the giant one-eyed cook in Paris, used to give elaborate characterizations of the bar-tender, Frankie, and the judge, while I kept the hot cakes turning.1 He was as much an entertainer as a cook, and had been everywhere bumming and sailing. He knew all kinds of "rounders" tunes and "low-down" Negro songs.2 There was a particularly good one celebrating the sexual charms of a certain worthless rounder who was

A total loss

But a sweet from Henrico.

And another lament called "Sugar-babe,-you don't love me now." You ought to be able to find some old-timer around Harlem to sing "Frankie" for you. It has a number of versions,-some more interesting (and dirtier) than the one I remember. Obscenity doesn't stick in my head, though.

No, I didn't say anything concerning a book about Hayti. I just said I would like to go there this summer. (And I may go yet if the index to "Free Negro Heads of Families" continues to bore me as it did today).

I am going to rearrange the book Sunday. I can work on poetry only when it amuses me, and this week it didn't amuse me: I was too sleepy.

I do want to come up to New York again soon. And remember your promise: a whole day to look at your beautiful things. And talk with you.

Sincerely,

Langston Hughes

1.In late February of 1924, Hughes deserted his ten-week old job as a messboy on a ship called the McKeesport as soon as it reached Holland. He caught the night train for Paris, "a dream come true," he recalled in The Big Sea. Bruce was famous as the cook at Le Grand Duc, a Parisian nightclub where Hughes worked as dishwasher and learned to become a jazz poet. He stayed in Europe until the end of November.

2.A "rounder" is a narrative song in which each verse is rounded off with a repeated line. A rounder can also be a ne'er-do-well, a wastrel.

langston hughes to carl van vechten, may 10, 1925

1749 S Street, N.W.

Washington, D.C.

May 10, 1925

Dear Friend,

I am mailing my book to you in the morning. It has been rearranged and thirty poems have been taken out. It can stand even more cutting but I can't decide myself which others to take out; however, if you'd like to remove some more for the betterment of the book, go to it. I hope you'll like the new arrangement. Tell me about it when you write.

Did you get the Frankie song? And have you been to Harlem this week? I met Rudolph Fisher‡ again at a little party over here and he shows no traces of conceit. He is a most interesting young fellow, talks and sings well, and can entertain a whole room full of company. Clarissa Scott1 was there, too,-that charming young lady I told you about. And she asked all sorts of questions about you.

I got one poem at least out of my New York trip,-the To a Black Dancer in the "Little Savoy." (It's in the book.) There was a perfectly divine black girl there one night drunk on joy (and gin, too, perhaps.) If you've never been to the Little Savoy, don't go, though.2 It's a rummy place frequented by Jew-boys and clerks who don't have a good time. I just happened to run into adventure that once. A lady pianist from another cabaret known as "Piano-playin' Miss Viola" dropped in and sat down beside me. I bought her a drink, and immediately she declared that she loved me and insisted on paying for all the following drinks,-bottle after bottle of gin! Two or three other colored fellows and a high-yellow girl came to our table and at five in the morning we were having such a gay time that everybody else gathered around to look on. And then someone started a fight. And if you've never seen a fight in one of those little cabarets, you've missed some excitement! I missed the piano-playin' lady so the party broke up.

The Blind Bow Boy has a most interesting beginning,3 but I am anxious to see what happens to Harold under his sophisticated new tutor. That ought to be entertaining. I haven't had a chance to read anything this week.

I like your letters. Write to me again.

Sincerely,

Langston

1.A poet, educator, and essayist.

2.A popular Harlem speakeasy.

3.The Bind Bow-Boy was Carl Van Vechten's second novel, published in 1923.

carl van vechten to langston hughes, may 13, 1925

Your letters are so very charming, dear Langston, that I look forward every morning to finding one under the door. I have been lucky during the past week! The poems came this morning and I looked them over again. Your work has such a subtle sensitiveness that it improves with every reading. The poems are very beautiful, and I think the book gains greatly by the new arrangement and the title. Knopf‡ is lunching with me today and I shall ask him to publish them and if he doesn't some one else will. Would you permit me to do an introduction? I want to.

Frankie came, and thank you. I know the song, but with different words. There are, I suppose, two thousand versions. This is a good one. It's too bad that you didn't take down every syllable that fell from the lips of that holy cook.

I'm glad you liked The Blind Bow-Boy. I think you'd better read Peter Whiffle next,1 if you really want to read any more; I'll send it to you.

Of course, I got the Gulf Coast Blues at once. I'm doing a paper about the Blues for Vanity Fair and anything you know about them, or if you even know the names of any other good ones, will help.2

I've never even heard of the Little Savoy; I wish I had been with you that night. I have never, in my experience of twenty-five years, seen a fight in a Negro cabaret; on the other hand I've never been in a white place when there wasn't one. The difference, I suppose, is that white people almost invariably become quarrelsome when they are drunk, while Negroes usually become gay and are not inclined to fight unless they want to kill some one. I'm going on a Harlem party tonight; if you were here we'd take you with us.

I hope to meet Rudolph Fisher some time. I read Ringtail and found it full of picturesque detail,3 but not as good, on the whole, as The City of Refuge.4

You will find your name, by the way, in the note I have written about Countee Cullen‡ in the June Vanity Fair, not yet out.5

Will you do something for me? I want you, if you will, to write me out the story of your life-detailing as many of your pregrinations and jobs as you can remember. Is this too much to ask?

I'll let you know about your book as soon as possible. In the meantime,

please don't forget

Carl Van Vechten

Wednesday

1.Van Vechten's first novel, published in 1922.

2.Van Vechten was a friend of Vanity Fair's editor Frank Crowninshield, which accounts for the magazine's early interest in African American music. Van Vechten said that Vanity Fair "was the first of the better magazines to publish Negro material repeatedly."

3.Fisher's story "Ringtail" was published in the May 1925 Atlantic Monthly.

4.Fisher's first short story, published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1925. It won the 1925 Crisis short story contest.

5.Van Vechten arranged to have a selection of poems by Cullen published in the June 1925 Vanity Fair. His note of introduction claimed: "All his poetry is characterized by a suave, unpretentious, brittle intellectual elegance." He praised Cullen for being "able to write stanzas which have no bearing on the problems of his own race." Van Vechten mentioned Hughes in a list of young black writers, musicians, actors, and dancers "sufficiently earnest of what the 'gift of the black folk' (to employ Dr. Du Bois's poetic phrase) will be in the immediate future."

carl van vechten to langston hughes, may 14, 1925

No letter came from you this morning, dear Langston, just as I was getting used to finding one daily under the door! My news is this: that I handed The Weary Blues to Knopf yesterday with the proper incantations. I do not feel particularly dubious about the outcome: your poems are too beautiful to escape appreciation. I find they have a subtle haunting quality which lingers in the memory and an extraordinary sensitivity to all that is kind and lovely. "Sweet trumpets, Jesus!" The request for your biography was no idle one.1 I hope you will take it seriously. When the book is done I shall need it . . . and please make it as long as possible. Did you tell me, by the way, that you had been photographed by Nik Muray?2 I can get one from him with no trouble, and from any one else with very little. Yesterday I sent you Peter Whiffle and The Tattooed Countess3 . . . So now you have all my novels. One Clara Barnes appears in both these books.

Laurel and Bayleaves to you!4

Carlo

Thursday

1.Van Vechten refers here to his request in the previous letter for a biography of Hughes.

2.Nickolas Muray was a celebrity photographer and a frequent guest at Van Vechten's

parties.

3.Van Vechten's The Tattooed Countess was published by Knopf in 1924. It is a sardonic look at its author's adolescence in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

4.This is the first time Van Vechten shares with Hughes his penchant for customizing salutations. The Van Vechten biographer Bruce Kellner wrote: "He loved to sign his letters fancifully, occasionally at the expense of good taste but never at the expense of good humor." Most of the sign-offs in these letters Van Vechten invented expressly for Hughes.

langston hughes to carl van vechten, may 15, 1925

1749 S Street, N.W.

Washington, D.C.

May 15, 1925

Dear Friend,

I would be very, very much pleased if you would do an introduction to my poems. How good of you to offer. I am glad you liked the poems in the new arrangement and I do hope Knopf will like them, too. It would be great to have such a fine publisher!

About your paper on the Blues,-Sunday I am going to type some old verses for you that I used to hear when I was a kid, and that you may or may not have heard. You probably have. On the new records I think the Freight Train Blues (one of the many railroad Blues) is rather good, and Reckless Blues, and Follow the Deal on Down. Did you ever hear this verse of the Blues?

I went to the gypsy's

To get my fortune told.

Went to the gypsy's

To get my fortune told.

Gypsy done told me

Goddam your un-hard-lucky soul!

I first heard it from George, a Kentucky colored boy who shipped out to Africa with me,-a real vagabond if there ever was one.1 He came on board five minutes before sailing with no clothes, nothing except the shirt and pants he had on and a pair of silk sox carefully wrapped up in his shirt pocket. He didn't even know where the ship was going. And when somebody on board gave him a suit he traded it in the first port to sleep with a woman. He used to make up his own Blues,-verses as absurd as Krazy Kat and as funny.2 But sometimes when he had to do more work than he thought necessary for a happy living, or, when broke, he couldn't make the damsels of the West Coast believe love worth more than money, he used to sing about the gypsy who couldn't find words strong enough to tell about the troubles in his hard-luck soul.

I did like the Blind Bow-Boy. I hope you will send Peter Whiffle. Do you know any Negro Pauls in Harlem-those decorative boys who never do any work and who have some surprisingly well-known names on their lists?3 In a really perfect world, though, people who are beautiful or amusing would be kept alive anyway solely because they are beautiful or amusing, don't you think?

About the story of my life,-I don't know what you want it for, and for me to sit down seriously and think about it and write it would take a long, long time. I mean,-to show cause and effect, soul-pregrinations, and all that sort of thing.* But I will send you an outline sketch of external movements; an essay I did for the Crisis contest on the Fascination of Cities;4 and a semi-autobiographical poem I did for the Crisis, but which I don't think they're publishing. Out of all that junk you'll perhaps get something. And then if you would know more, just ask me, and I'll be glad to answer.

I'm having some pictures taken here, but they may not be as good as the Muray ones, so perhaps you'd better get him to give you one of his if you wish one.

I am anxiously awaiting the June Vanity Fair. I like the magazine, and Countee does such lovely things. What's become of John Peale Bishop?5 I liked his work and I don't believe I've read anything of his lately. And Nancy Boyd's clever essays?6

Remember me to Harlem.

Sincerely,

Langston

*How serious it sounds!
Emily Bernard|Langston Hughes|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Emily Bernard

Emily Bernard - Remember Me to Harlem

Photo © Samuel Winch

Emily Bernard was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1967. She received her Ph.D. in American studies from Yale University. She has been the recipient of a Ford Foundation Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, and a W. E. B. Du Bois Resident Fellowship at Harvard University. She is an assistant professor of African American studies at Smith College. This is her first book.

About Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes - Remember Me to Harlem
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902. After graduation from high school, he spent a year in Mexico with his father, then a year studying at Columbia University. His first poem in a nationally known magazine was "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," which appeared in Crisis in 1921. In 1925, he was awarded the First Prize for Poetry of the magazine Opportunity, the winning poem being "The Weary Blues," which gave its title to his first book of poems, published in 1926. As a result of his poetry, Mr. Hughes received a scholarship at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he won his B.A. in 1929. In 1943, he was awarded an honorary Litt.D. by his alma mater; he has also been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (1935), a Rosenwald Fellowship (1940), and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Grant (1947). From 1926 until his death in 1967, Langston Hughes devoted his time to writing and lecturing. He wrote poetry, short stories, autobiography, song lyrics, essays, humor, and plays. A cross section of his work was published in 1958 as The Langston Hughes Reader.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with
Emily Bernard
editor of
Remember Me to Harlem
The Letters of Langston Hughes and
Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964

Q: How did you come to put this book together? What was it about these two literary figures that you were drawn to?

A: Carl Van Vechten was the hook that drew me into this project. I remember sitting in a classroom during my junior year in college and feeling outraged--and curious--when I heard the professor tell us that a white Harlem Renaissance figure had written a book called Nigger Heaven. I had to know more about him. What I learned was enticing, unsettling, and even liberating, and really challenged for me the simple thinking about race and racial alliances that was dominant on campus. Black writers of the period--Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen--saw Carl Van Vechten as a kindred spirit, and even encouraged him to test the racial barriers that stood between them through writing and other kinds of cultural expression. What they shared was a commitment to artistic freedom; this commitment transcended biological limitations. It wasn't long before I preferred living there--in the world of the Harlem Renaissance--to the very conventional, line-in-the-sand, black or white world to which students were clinging so desperately at Yale in the mid-1980s. Seventy years earlier, black intellectuals were talking about identity as a much more fluid, more imaginary way of classifying yourself. The idea thrilled me.

Q: While Langston Hughes is still well-known today, Carl Van Vechten's reputation has fallen off quite a bit from his heyday in the first half of the 20th century. Why do you think that is and does it have much to do with his controversial novel from the '20s, Nigger Heaven?

A: It's difficult to assess the actual damage that Nigger Heaven did to Van Vechten's career. In some ways, it helped: he was a very popular novelist before, but after the publication of Nigger Heaven, his name became familiar in even the most remote corners of the world. He certainly shook people up, and if you belong to the "all publicity is good publicity" school, then the book was a great success.
I believe Van Vechten was profoundly wounded when black readers, generally speaking, failed to take to Nigger Heaven. He always talked about it as his most serious novel; he felt he had captured something essential, in his book, about the black cultural world around him--several black friends felt he had, as well.
I don't think it's fair to say that Van Vechten's career fell into "decline," after Nigger Heaven, but it is significant that he took up other avenues for his creative and intellectual expression, and only wrote one more novel, Parties (1932), that even his wife thought was something of a disaster. After putting his novel-writing career to bed, Van Vechten became an ardent photographer and archivist, and continued to oversee the careers of friends like Gertrude Stein and Chester Himes. Van Vechten was greater and more important as a visionary than he was a novelist; everything he did--save his novels--was of prophetic importance. Unfortunately, the kind of "background" work at which he was so skilled ensured the lasting fame of those he discovered and promoted, but not his own.

Q: The Harlem Renaissance itself--and certainly as it comes across in these letters--was an amazingly energetic and exciting time, suffused as it was with the music and rhythms of the Jazz Age. What do you see as the reason for this flowering of art and literature at that particular time and that particular place in the 20th-century?

A: Like most cultural movements, the Harlem Renaissance came into being largely because of historical and social conditions that enabled it to flourish. The early years of the 20th century were also the years of the Great Migration, when scoresof blacks fled the racism and violence of the South in search of justice and the promise of jobs in the North. Between World War I and World War II, two million African-Americans had left the South. The concentration of blacks in cities like Detroit, Washington, D.C, Philadelphia, and Chicago--in addition to post-World War I economic prosperity--made the cultural blossomings that occurred in all of these cities possible.
Harlem had a unique claim on the black imagination because of the simultaneous and interconnected social revolutions that were happening all over New York, what with the Jazz Age, the agitation for women's voting rights, and various other political struggles that were finding sympathetic audiences in New York.
For literary hopefuls, New York was crucial because it had recently become the center of American publishing. And publishers like the Knopfs and other Jewish publishers were in a position, because of rampant anti-Semitism in the industry, to consider types of writing that fell outside of the mainstream, like new black writing. It was because of all of these things that a black Harlem Renaissance writer like Langston Hughes found himself publishing with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Personally, I am partial to the glamour, the drama, and the sense of hopefulness that were all essential parts of the Jazz Age, as well as the Harlem Renaissance specifically. But there were equally important and glorious movements that preceded it. Consider the nearly unbelieveable achievements of black writers who managed to compose narratives in the age of American slavery. Post-emancipation writing by Frances Harper and Pauline Hopkins (among others) bears witness to the atrocities of Reconstruction, the forgotten promises, the enduring hope, and the unquenchable belief in justice, right over wrong, and the spirit of black people.
And it's not until the Harlem Renaissance is more or less over and done that we hear the voices of Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. When the Civil Rights era begins, black writers make the remarkable decision to actually forge an entirely new aesthetic. In part they make this choice as a way of rejecting the philosophies of the Harlem Renaissance. But the similarities in both of these movements is actually a fascinating story in itself.
This is not to deny the singular splendor of the Harlem Renaissance. But to call this movement the "most" important movement, more significant than any other, would be to say a table is better off without its legs. Which is to say, in the end, it's all of a piece, all part of a continuum.

Q: How much a part of it/agent of it were Hughes and Van Vechten?

A: Hughes and Van Vechten lived fully and deeply in their times. Which is to say, they were both exceptional and entirely typical of the kind of energy, enthusiasm, risk-taking, ground-breaking, forward-looking spirit of the Harlem Renaissance. They were unusual in that they seemed to know "everyone"--they saw promise in the most unasumming domestic servants (Gaston LaChaise's one time maid was Mary Bell who Van Vechten promoted as a painter) and the most unpopular trends (Hughes was a huge supporter of African writing before it had any currency in the States). What connected them, is a shared belief that they could make things happen. They understood that they were living at a very special period in American history, and they believed they were alive to make their marks--and to help others make theirs. But many people felt that way, and that burning sense of purpose that so many carried is what makes this movement so powerful.
Certainly what distinguishes this relationship from many other fascinating patron-beneficiary relationships in world history is race. Carl Van Vechten fell in love with black culture at a time when African-Americans were in every way disenfranchised from American culture. Van Vechten was compelled to go against the grain and support black art, and his passion helped get black writers published, black art seen, and black music heard.
He did all this without the kind of dispassionate intellectualism we associate with liberal "tolerance," but with the fervor of the convert. This is what makes his career as a supporter of black art so exciting to me, that he lived and breathed it without shame, detachment, or self-conciousness.
The correspondence between Hughes and Van Vechten is even more significant when you think about the times. Remember, this was pre-desegregation. It was nearly illegal for blacks and whites to have anything save the most impersonal kinds of relationships. Of course, whites employed blacks in various intimate capacities (cooks, maids, etc.) and these relationships generated their own kinds of bonds. But blacks and whites were legally barred from congregating socially in public. There may have been a few places in Harlem that accepted black and white patrons, but as soon as whites began to populate these spots heavily, blacks were barred from their premises, or assigned to segregated seating.
During the 1920s and well into the 1950s in New York, black and white people could form equal relationships in only the most intimate of spaces: the private home, and the page. Van Vechten covered both. He carried on numerous correspondences with black writers and artists and he had legendary--and unique parties--that claimed as many black bodies as white ones.
So, letters provided one of the very few places for Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten to come together. Their correspondence has a special importance because it was one of the few sanctioned spaces for them to form a bond.

Q: Through their correspondence, we get many glimpses of an amazing array of artists and friends: from Zora Neale Hurston, H.L. Mencken, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marian Anderson and Bessie Smith to Nella Larson, Countee Cullen, Miguel Covarrubias, Dorothy West, James Weldon Johnson, and even their shared publishers, Alfred and Blanche Knopf. What did you learn about these people and their times through the letters and your research that you didn't know before?

Once I started reading their letters, I came to know all the people you mention as human. Previously, I had seen them as larger than life, less people than historical phenomenons. I suppose that's the risk you take with spending too much time in graduate school. Spending time with the personal effects of Hughes and Van Vechten was like a revelation. I came to admire them even more for how much they laid open for future eyes--like mine--to see. They revealed a lot in their letters, and then made sure those letters--with their embarassing passions, speculations, and gossip--would be archived. I think it's very brave to offer your life for the instructions of others. It takes bravery and also a special faith in humanity.

Q: How long have you been working on this project and how difficult was it to cull and then select from nearly 40 years of correspondence as well as to annotate them?

A: Over five years ago, I was sitting in a temporary apartment in Brooklyn (I had gone AWOL from Yale graduate school, AGAIN) talking with a close friend on the phone, and the conversation drifted to the letters and what a good book they would make, how a real scholar, a real writer could make a wonderful story out of the correspondence. This particular friend had heard me say the same thing at various times over the five preceding years and she had HAD it. "Why don't YOU do the book? Don't you realize that the person you are waiting for is you?" I wrote the proposal that night, but it would take almost two years to work out the details of the contract. I couldn't bear to begin working on it until everything was final.
I worked on this project, off and on, for about four years. In between, I finished my dissertation and got my Ph.D.; I got my first teaching job and moved; I had a few disastrous relationships; and then I fell in love with my fiance. As many times as I changed my mind about numerous things over that four year period, my fascination with these men and their friendship never diminished. It was the one constant in my life and I am not a little sorry to see it go.
To me, every letter was fascinating, whether because of the salutations, the choice of stationary, the way it was folded, all of it. It was a tiny bit heartbreaking to leave out each one of the several hundred that didn't make the final cut. But as I learned to do this--edit--I learned the difference between having an idea and making a book that people will actually read.
Annotating these letters was a challenge. Hughes and Van Vechten loved to name drop, a penchant that's as delightful for the reader as it is tedious for the editor. I learned my way around various libraries with the help of various and very skilled assistants.
One of the great pleasures of compiling this book was the education I acquired in the process. Hughes and Van Vechten were intricately embedded in the world of black theatre, music, film, and literature. I discovered whole careers--whole lives--of people I had never heard of but who were glamorous, promising, respected, fascinating. It became my small mission to revive them again in Remember Me to Harlem, but finally, the book wasn't about them, so I was forced to consign them to footnotes. And that was the most fascinating, important lesson I learned over the course of doing this book. This was about the fleeting, ephemeral nature of celebrity. Van Vechten's isn't the only story of fame-to-obscurity in the book; there are many more between the lines, and in the footnotes.

Q: For many years, these two friends would invariably sign off their letters with affectionate though slighly zany phrases, such as "Snowballs to you" or "67 Harlem hoofers in red pants doing the Lindy Hop with razors between their teeth to you!" What was that about?

A: Their salutations form their own story, I think, and often include references to the historical changes which they were witnessing. For instance, in a November 2, 1939 letter, Hughes ends with: "Gas masks and gardenias to you." And on December 3, 1957, Hughes says goodbye to Van Vechten with: "Simple blessing to you in this sputnik world." Van Vechten's salutations seemed to depend solely upon his imagination. A sign-off like "116 Harlem Blackbirds with fallen arches & ivory teeth to you," has to be appreciated for its poetry, its whimsicality, as opposed to any social or political significance. Van Vechten was a master of these turns of phrase; he sprinkled them in all of his correspondence. Hughes, on the other hand, tended toward the simple "sincerely," particularly when he was busy, and Van Vechten detested that. He wrote Hughes on November 19, 1957: "I wish to GOD you would stop signing yourself 'sincerely.' One is sincere with the butcher. It is taken for granted one is sincere with one's friends. Certainly I get letters from no one else in the world with such a conventional signing off." Hughes more than made up for his slip in his next letter, dated November 30, 1957: "Yours with pomegranates, sequins, gold dust, and melon seed from here on unto the end, Langston."
The title of the book comes not from a salutation, actually, but from the last line of a May 15, 1925 letter from Hughes to Van Vechten. Generally, as I said before, Hughes wasn't big on fancy sign-offs, but this was easily one of the most haunting, evocative lines of the book. Because the interesting thing about the Harlem Renaissance is how few of the significant figures of the period actually lived in Harlem during its heyday. Hughes, for instance, was abroad for much of the time that Harlem was kicking. The title refers in part to Hughes' literal absence, and also how much Harlem resided in the memories and the fantasies of those who would never make it there, or were called elsewhere. The title, too, refers to Van Vechten's having been cast off, denied by so many. Yes he remained as faithful to the place as well as to the "idea" of the place, as anyone. It refers, I think, also to his rage in the later years about having been forgotten, a rage that only testified to how much he wanted to be remembered.

Q: Aside from music, they talk to each other about literature and publishing a fair amount. Was theirs a mentor/pupil relationship at all when it came to writing?

A: Van Vechten was entirely responsible for the publication of Hughes' first book of poetry, The Weary Blues. Not only did he talk Alfred Knopf into taking the book, he offered Hughes some advice about how to arrange his material. This became a pattern in their friendship for quite some time. For years, Hughes would first share his manuscripts with Van Vechten before anyone else. In later years, Arna Bontemps displaced Van Vechten as a first set of eyes.
It's interesting that Hughes enlisted Van Vechten as a critic so readily, because they had dramatic differences of opinion about the nature and purpose of Hughes' writing. Their disagreements began in the late 1920s when Hughes began writing poetry of a more explicitly political nature. Van Vechten was opposed to this kind of thinking in general; he believed there was a natural separation between art and politics. There are some biting albeit hilarious letters throughout the collection when the two of them really butt heads over this issue. In the end, I think these kinds of disagreements are what made their friendship so vibrant. Hughes could always count on Van Vechten to tell him the truth about his writing, even when he wrote letters that contained lines like: "I think you are pretty nearly through with poetry."

Q: Although Van Vechten was married, and Hughes occasionally dated women, their sexual preferences seem to have run counter to that, with Van Vechten's affairs with men well-known. Was that something they openly shared with each other?

A: Van Vechten writes to Hughes on June 4, 1925: "There are so many things that one can't talk about in a letter." I've often reflected on what he meant here. There are several moments like that in the collection, when you get a feeling that much is being said between the lines. For instance, what did Hughes mean when he signed off to Van Vechten in August 28, 1960: "Call Boys and Call Boards to you"? Both of them were a bit too old for call boys (although, one should never put anything past Van Vechten), but perhaps they had had some conversation in which they reminisced about the old days. We'll never know. There is an intimacy beyond the intimacy that's available to us on the page, but anything I could say about it would be pure speculation.
I can't speak authoratatively about Hughes, but I will see that every record indicates that Carl Van Vehcten was a man of enoromous appetities. Besides a very passionate, very intimate 50-year marriage to Fania Marinoff, Van Vechten was devoted at least three times in his life to long term relationships with men--Donald Angus, Mark Lutz, and Saul Mauriber. All of them come up in the letters and in even more detail in his diaries. All three relationships eventually gave way to life long friendships. These were not ordinary, 'Hi, how are you doing' friendships: Carl Van Vechten and Mark Lutz wrote letters to each other every day for 33 years. EVERY SINGLE DAY. Lutz wanted Van Vechten's letters to him destroyed when he died, and they were. His letters to Van Vechten are still housed in the Beinecke Library at Yale. They are full of tiny details about Lutz's days. Imbedded in them is a wish to involve Van Vechten in every aspect of his life.
There are scrapbooks at Yale that add another chapter to Van Vechten's complex sexual identity. In addition, they form another archive, this one about pre-stonewall gay American history. In this one, Van Vehten collected articles about gay bashings, drag balls, and scandals about well-known individuals caught with their pants down. They also contain photographs and cartoons both highly pornographic and highly camp. Very little has been said about these scrapbooks. They will make a wonderful resource for a curious scholar.

Q: The photographs are fabulous. Where did you find them?

A: The photographs, like the letters, are housed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. There are also some wonderful photographs relating to Van Vechten at the New York Public Library.

Q: Do you have plans for another project after this one?

A: This project has got me thinking a great deal about interracial friendships and the people who have them, maintain them often in the face of considerable odds. These unions cause rifts in families, the workplace, in public arenas, and in our other relationships. They exist despite ignorance, racism, convention, and apathy. If they were nearly impossible to nurture in the 1920s, they are still as rare today. Look in any restaurant, bar, look around you at the next party or social event you attend. How many of these gatherings are truly integrated, with people of different races actually interacting in an intimate way? The reality can be disheartening.
At the same time, on the street every day, I see groupings of young people that truly astound me. They have adopted mannerisms, speech patterns, and aesthetic sensibilities from groups entirely different from their "own." In fact, they have claimed the "other" as their own. They refuse to obey conventions, the dictates of parents and peers, the "natural" social order. Will this exploration last forever? Probably not. But in the meantime, what are they finding out about themselves, about the nature of friendship?
I think interracial friendships exist in a category by themselves. They are confronted with challenges different from those that confront interracial romantic relationships, which, after all, provide the pleasures and comforts of sex and domestic intimacy. Friendships, true, lasting friendships, in general, are harder to cultivate or even maintain as we get older. You graduate, move, change jobs, start seeing someone, and your friendships fall by the wayside. I'm amazed and inspired when I see and hear about people who have maintained close friendships in spite of all these pulls, and racial difference, too. It's also quite interesting to encounter people who've decided that the challenges of interracial friendships are too difficult for them to face.
My next project will be an anthology of personal essays on interracial friendships as people really live and experience them. So many people of various races, ages, who've grown up in radically different regions, have different class backgrounds and sexualities, are forging interracial friendship that are as inspiring, discouraging, amusing, frustrating, and instructive as the one between Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten. I want to hear their story.

Author Q&A

Emily Bernard spent the past several years in the Beinecke Library of Yale University turning page after page of correspondence between Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten. On her Author's Desktop, she presents nine of those original letters as they appear not in the book but on the original paper they were written or typed onto.

To listen to Emily's audio commentary on the letters, you will need to have the free Real Player Basic.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“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



  • Remember Me to Harlem by edited by Emily Bernard
  • February 05, 2002
  • Biography & Autobiography - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $16.00
  • 9780375727078

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