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.
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