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Remember Me to Harlem
Cover of Remember Me to Harlem
Remember Me to Harlem
The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten
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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.
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.
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  • Chapter 1 Chapter 1

    1925-1926

    When the correspondence between Carl Van Vechten and Langston Hughes began, Van Vechten was in New York, tirelessly cultivating an expertise on Harlem life. Hughes was in Washington, D.C., living with his mother and working as a personal assistant for the "father of Negro history," Carter G. Woodson, who founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. Hughes performed secretarial chores and worked on Woodson's massive study, Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830.

    After hours, Hughes would head for Seventh Street, where he found "sweet relief." There, "ordinary Negroes . . . played the blues, ate watermelon, barbecue, and fish sandwiches, shot pool, told tall tales, looked at the dome of the Capitol and laughed out loud," he recalled in his 1940 autobiography, The Big Sea. The life there inspired his poetry. "I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street-gay songs, because you had to be gay or die; sad songs, because you couldn't help being sad sometimes. But gay or sad, you kept on living and you kept on going. Their songs-those of Seventh Street-had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going."

    During his time in Washington, Hughes wrote and published more poetry than he had since he started writing at the age of thirteen.

    carl van vechten to langston hughes, may 6, 1925

    Dear Langston,

    I haven't heard from you since your return;1 I hope you haven't forgotten that you promised to send your book2 back as soon as it is rearranged. I shall do my best to get it published, and that should be easy because it is a beautiful book. Also, please don't forget the Frankie song3 (if it was a Frankie song), and you spoke of a better book about Hayti4 than the one I have: can you dig out the name of it for me? I trust that it will not be very long before you visit New York again: you must know that I like you very much.

    sincerely

    Wednesday

    1.After his visit to Van Vechten's home on Sunday, May 3, Hughes returned to Washington. This is Van Vechten's first letter to Hughes.

    2.Hughes's manuscript would become his first published collection of verse, The Weary Blues (1926).

    3.Van Vechten refers to the legendary ballad, "Frankie and Johnny," about a St. Louis prostitute who shoots her unfaithful lover.

    4.Once common spelling of Haiti, now obsolete.

    langston hughes to carl van vechten, may 7, 1925

    1749 S Street, N.W.

    Washington, D.C.

    May 7, 1925

    Dear Carl,

    What a delightful surprise, your letter! I didn't think you would write me first as I've had you in mind all week for a note. I typed "Frankie Baker" for you on Monday but have been waiting for a chance to write a few explanations about it. I've been busy.

    Perhaps you have heard "Frankie" before. It's a very old song, and is supposed to have originated in Omaha after Frankie Baker, a colored sporting-woman famous in the West, had shot her lover, Albert. The whole song runs to a blues tune, the chorus very blue, but the tune of each verse varies slightly, better to express the sentiment; the last two verses are sung like a blues dirge. And Bruce, the giant one-eyed cook in Paris, used to give elaborate characterizations of the bar-tender, Frankie, and the judge, while I kept the hot cakes turning.1 He was as much an entertainer as a cook, and had been everywhere bumming and sailing. He knew all kinds of "rounders" tunes and "low-down" Negro songs.2 There was a particularly good one celebrating the sexual charms of a certain worthless...

About the Author-
  • Emily Bernard lives in Burlington, Vermont.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    February 1, 2001
    As the Harlem Renaissance unfolded in the 1920s, few were closer to its hub than the black poet and playwright Langston Hughes and his white friend and mentor, the writer, photographer and patron of the arts Carl Van Vechten. They met in 1924, as Hughes was first exploding into literary celebrity, and quickly became friends and correspondents; between them, they knew everyone of note among Harlem's cultural figures. Marked by a shared irreverence and taste for the good life, their correspondence offers snapshots of vastly different worlds. Hughes comes across as a true adventurer, finding poetry in the world's byways and forgotten corners; Van Vechten is the quintessential bon vivant, whose refinements emanated from the comfort of his own home. The letters offer heartrending insights into the two men's contributions to a variety of political firestorms over four decades--the trial of the Scottsboro boys, Van Vechten's publication of his controversial Nigger Heaven, Hughes's branding as a Communist. Bernard's painstakingly assembled edition provides comprehensive background notes and a complete guide to the procession of famous and obscure personages appearing in the letters, as well as a graceful introduction briefly sketching the correspondents' lives and the arc of the Harlem Renaissance. Readers' interest may flag in the later letters, which occasionally devolve into lists of names and accounts of professional obligations; Bernard also says nothing about Hughes's final years after Van Vechten's death in 1964. However, these are minor shortcomings in an otherwise engaging volume, which effectively captures the rare world of two men whose friendship was emblematic of the complex racial entente offered by that extraordinary moment in history. This will be required reading for anyone interested in the Harlem Renaissance, and in black literature and the world of American letters generally; a reading tour by the editor will help bring it to wide attention.

  • Henry Louis Gates, Jr. "Remember Me to Harlem is not only a major contribution to our understanding of the Harlem Renaissance, it is also a delightful collection of gossipy correspondence between two of its leading–and most intriguing–characters."
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The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten
Emily Bernard
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