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literature

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Van Vechten, Carl (1880-1964)  

Carl Van Vechten is best known for his interest in African-American culture. Carlo, as he was known by friends, was in the 1920s, Harlem's "most enthusiastic and ubiquitous Nordic." His articles on music and literature in Vanity Fair and The New York Times are often credited for discovering the New Negro Movement for whites.

Not only did he write about the music, drama, and literature of the New Negro Movement, he also befriended many of its important artists and organizers, and was himself an influential patron. Van Vechten donated money for literary prizes and supported many of the younger generation of black writers, including Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.

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Van Vechten's efforts to promote African-American culture also echoed in his photography. His provocative photographs taken from 1932 until his death document important African-American figures in the arts.

Van Vechten's philanthropic pursuits in African-American culture were inspired by his father who cofounded a school for African-American children in rural Mississippi. Like his father, Van Vechten had an interest in African-American culture. Unlike his father, however, he could not stay in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he was born on June 17, 1880; Van Vechten fled to Chicago.

While attending the University of Chicago from 1899 to 1903, he developed his interest in black music. His passion for the ragtime he heard in Chicago inspired the eight books of music and other arts criticism he wrote after he moved to New York City in 1906.

After his books of criticism, Van Vechten wrote seven novels. His most controversial is Nigger Heaven (1926), whose title and depiction of Harlem life sent shock waves throughout the African-American community. His novels are more than provocative, however; they weave romantic relationships between men and reflect his own life and the people he admired.

His first novel, Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works (1922), is as much a memoir as it is fiction. It is a tongue-in-cheek roman à clef that starts with a preface in which Van Vechten explains the purpose of the novel and introduces himself as our guide.

Whiffle, a flamboyant author who never completed a book and a close friend of Van Vechten's, writes a letter just before his death requesting Van Vechten to write a book about his life so that he may live on past his death. The novel furnishes guideposts to Whiffle's and Van Vechten's intimate relationship and mythologizes Whiffle.

Peter Whiffle is a nod and a wink to those readers who recognize the title character as a particular type, "the gay, faun-like Peter of Paris"; to those who do not, he is a mystery.

Van Vechten's second novel, The Blind Bow-Boy (1923), celebrates 1920s bohemian culture in New York City. The novel tells the story of young Harold Prewett, fresh from college, who is sent to New York by his father to reject the temptations of an uninhibited New York society revolving around its queen, Campaspe Lorillard. Prewett soon learns of his father's plans and rebels by leaving his wife of two weeks; he sails to Europe with the Duke of Middlebottom, whose stationery reads "A thing of beauty is a boy forever."

Van Vechten's five subsequent novels, including The Tattooed Countess (1924), Firecrackers (1925), Spider Boy (1928), and Parties (1930), return to the characters and places of his first two, connecting them to each other as well as to other new characters.

With his novels, Van Vechten creates a gay, bohemian society not unlike the one he lived in and the one he depicts in The Blind Bow-Boy, but with himself as its queen.

Seth Clark Silberman

     

 
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A self portrait of Carl Van Vechten created September 5, 1933.
  
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    Bibliography
   

Byrd, Rudolph P. Generations In Black & White: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993.

Kellner, Bruce. Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.

_____, ed. Letters of Carl Van Vechten. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was In Vogue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Lueders, Edward. Carl Van Vechten and the Twenties. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1955.

Weinberg, Jonathan. "'Boy Crazy': Carl Van Vechten's Queer Collection." Yale Journal of Criticism 7.2 (1994): 25-49.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Silberman, Seth Clark  
    Entry Title: Van Vechten, Carl  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated June 25, 2005  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/vanvechten_c.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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