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

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9780679451136: Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964

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.

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Review:

When their correspondence began in 1925, Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) was the nation's leading Caucasian enthusiast for African American culture, and Langston Hughes (1902-67) was a struggling poet who lived with his mother in Washington, D.C., and plaintively closed one letter, "Remember me to Harlem." Over the four-decade-long friendship that's captured engagingly in these warm, funny letters, Hughes would become more famous, and Van Vechten less so, but their mutual affection and respect only would deepen. Editor Emily Bernard, a professor at Smith College, sensibly decided to include only a fraction of the letters that the pair exchanged, but to print those in their entirety, so that readers might get a vivid sense of each man's personality. Van Vechten is lighthearted, flirtatious, gossipy, effusive in his appreciation for Hughes' writing, and frank when he finds it not to his taste. Despite his unflinching commitment to civil rights, he's considerably less political than Hughes, whose equally witty correspondence has an underlying seriousness that's commensurate with a personal history that's far more turbulent and painful than that of his affluent friend. They share a dislike for "uplift-the-race" sanctimoniousness and a zest for African American folk culture; their letters are rife with references to the music of Bessie Smith and other great blues singers, as well as to the many Harlem Renaissance artists who were their personal acquaintances. The correspondence also provides a sustained chronicle of the working writer's life: they swap news of assignments and story ideas; Van Vechten generously makes his book-publishing and magazine contacts available to Hughes; and the poet loyally defends his friend's controversial novel, Nigger Heaven, against its numerous detractors. Helpfully, everyone is identified in Bernard's copious footnotes, which make this a handy reference work, as well as a delightful record of an extraordinary relationship between two uniquely gifted figures in American letters. --Wendy Smith

From the Back Cover:

"When the two first met in November 1924, Carl Van Vechten was a socially adept, married, homosexual, 44-year-old white man. Langston Hughes was a poor, single, sexually ambiguous, talented but barely published 22-year-old black man. Their shifting relationship over the next four decades is embodied in this correspondence. The adroit selection of photographs-many by Van Vechten-and Emily Bernard's lucid, scrupulous annotation bring this rich period to life."
-Steven Watson, author of The Harlem Renaissance and Prepare for Saints
"The friendship between Hughes and Van Vechten is surely one of the more inspiring in recent American history. Meeting in the 1920s as an aspiring young black poet and a celebrated white man of letters, they crossed almost every hurdle that an often disapproving society set before them. Sharp differences about art and politics, about money and the complexities of culture-these were never allowed to come decisively between them. They had in common an irrepressible love of life and art, an enduring sense of the value of friendship, and a delight in African American culture from top to bottom. These letters, superbly chosen, attest to the depth of their relationship, its sparkling optimism, its priceless sense of honor, and its determination to survive despite the expectations of a needlessly divided nation."
-Arnold Rampersad, author of The Life of Langston Hughes and co-editor of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
"Remember Me to Harlem is not only a major contribution to our understanding of the Harlem Renaissance, it is a delightful collection of gossipy correspondence between two of its leading-and most intriguing-characters."
-Henry Louis Gates, Jr., author of Wonders of the African World

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