Thursday 17 June 2021

Carl van Vechten

 Born on this day in 1880 was Carl van Vechten, novelist, photographer, figurehead of the Harlem Renaissance and literary executor of Gertrude Stein. The name might ring a bell with students of Ronald Firbank, as it was Van Vechten who got Firbank's name known in America. In March 1922 he wrote to Firbank out of the blue, warning him archly that 'there is some danger of you becoming the rage in America'. Firbank was delighted, and the two men corresponded in a mildly flirtatious manner for some while. It was Van Vechten who persuaded Firbank to change the name of his latest novel – a whimsical account of a black Caribbean family's attempt to 'enter society' – from the blameless Sorrow in Sunlight to what must now, I suppose, be written as Prancing N-Word. This, Van Vechten assured Firbank, would get his novel noticed in America. And so it did: the American edition, with its provocative title and an introduction by Van Vechten, was Firbank's biggest success in America, and overall his most commercially successful book. A couple of years later Van Vechten tried the same trick himself, publishing a panoramic novel depicting African-American life in Harlem as, er, N-Word Heaven. It proved controversial and divisive, and made Van Vechten famous. A few years later he gave up writing altogether and devoted himself to photography. This is his delightful photograph of Ella Fitzgerald –


  1. I wonder what Firbank's sales in the US amounted to. The word was common coin then, and continued for a long time to be literarily admissible.

    The only biographical notice I ever saw of Van Vechten was in Ivan Doig's In This House of Sky, a memoir of growing up in Montana as the son of a sheep man. In one of the small cities or towns there, Doig made the acquaintance of a family of color, one of whose members had lived for a while in Harlem and made Van Vechten's acquaintance.

  2. I don't suppose Firbank's sales were very impressive, but at least he didn't have to publish that one himself.
    I'm old enough to remember when the now notorious N-word was common currency and used as a neutral descriptor – as in N Brown shoe polish. How quickly – and completely – things change...