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. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 02/01/2001 Release date: 02/01/2001 Genre: Nonfiction
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