Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance

Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White (2012)

Carl Van Vechten was a white man with a passion for blackness who played a crucial role in helping the Harlem Renaissance, a black movement, come to understand itself. Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance is grounded in the dramas occasioned by the Harlem Renaissance, as it is called today, or New Negro Renaissance, as it was called in the 1920s, when it first came into being. Emily Bernard focuses on writing—the black and white of things—the articles, fiction, essays, and letters that Carl Van Vechten wrote to black people and about black culture, and the writing of the black people who wrote to and about him. Above all, she is interested in the interpersonal exchanges that inspired the writing, which are ultimately far more significant than the public records would suggest.

This book is a partial biography of a once controversial figure. It is not a comprehensive history of an entire life, but rather a chronicle of one of his lives, his black life, which began in his boyhood and thrived until his death. The narrative at the core of Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance is not an attempt to answer the question of whether Van Vechten was good or bad for black people, or whether or not he hurt or helped black creative expression during the Harlem Renaissance. As Bernard writes, the book instead “enlarges that question into something much richer and more nuanced: a tale about the messy realities of race, and the complicated tangle of black and white.”


Booklist Review

“Bernard recognizes that the subject of her rigorously researched biography ‘has come to symbolize an anxiety about the insidious and undermining nature of white influence on black cultural integrity,’ and eschewing a traditional cradle-to-grave narrative, she interprets Van Vechten’s life in terms of just how ‘messy’ was the ‘tangle’ of white-black relations within the structure of the Harlem Renaissance.”Brad Hooper

Los Angeles Times Review

“Bernard’s examination, told in three acts, isn’t simply an exploration of Van Vechten’s life, letters and various boundary crossings; it’s also a meditation on a personal passion turned obsession — Van Vechten’s role as literary impresario had haunted Bernard since her junior year at Yale — more than 20 years ago. ‘It would be years before I learned to love the seeming paradox: a black woman inspired by the black addiction of a white man,’ she writes in an author’s note at the end of the book.” — Lynell George

New York Times Review

“Emily Bernard’s ‘Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White’ (Yale University Press, $30) convincingly captures the era and the colorful personalities who punctuated it, including Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston and Countee Cullen, all of whom Van Vechten befriended and promoted.” — Sam Roberts

Kirkus Review

“Bernard (English and Ethnic Studies/Univ. of Vermont; Some of My Best Friends: Writings on Interracial Friendships, 2005, etc.), who has devoted years to the study of the Harlem Renaissance, delivers a semester’s worth of knowledge in a smooth, edifying narrative … The development of literature by and about African-Americans owes its birth to Van Vechten, and Bernard ably brings him to life.”

Harlem World Pick

“Above all, she is interested in the interpersonal exchanges that inspired the writing, which are ultimately far more significant than the public records would suggest.” Harlem World

The Nation Review

 “The power of his story to divide opinion and, as Emily Bernard explains in her incisive, careful and illuminating book Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White (Yale; $30), to cut to the core of critical debates about the role of race in American modernism, has hardly cooled since.” —Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Wall Street Journal Review

“Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance,” as much the biography of a book as of the man who wrote it, is an admirably sober excursion into a field in which intoxicated opinion is rife.” –James Campbell

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