Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America
By Edward White
Farrar Straus Giroux, Hardcover, 9780374201579, 377pp.
Publication Date: February 18, 2014
A revealing biography of the influential and controversial cultural titan who embodied an era
"The Tastemaker" explores the many lives of Carl Van Vechten, the most influential cultural impresario of the early twentieth century: a patron and dealmaker of the Harlem Renaissance, a photographer who captured the era's icons, and a novelist who created some of the Jazz Age's most salacious stories. A close confidant of Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, George Gershwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the Knopfs, Van Vechten frolicked in the 1920s Manhattan demimonde, finding himself in Harlem's jazz clubs, Hell's Kitchen's speakeasies, and Greenwich Village's underground gay scene. New York City was a hotbed of vice as well as creativity, and Van Vechten was at the center of it all.
Edward White's biography the first comprehensive biography of Carl Van Vechten in nearly half a century, and the first to fully explore Van Vechten's tangled relationship to race and sexuality depicts a controversial figure who defined an age. Embodying many of the contradictions of modern America, Van Vechten was a devoted husband with a coterie of boys by his side, a supporter of difficult art who also loved lowbrow entertainment, and a promoter of the Harlem Renaissance whose bestselling novel and especially its title infuriated many of the same African-American artists he championed. Van Vechten's defense of what many Americans considered bad taste modernist literature, African-American culture, and sexual self-expression created a popular appetite for these quintessential elements of American art. "The Tastemaker" encompasses its subject's private fears and longings, as well as Manhattan's raucous, taboo-busting social scene of which he was such a central part. It is a remarkable portrait of a man whose brave journeys across boundaries of race, sexuality, and taste helped make America fully modern.
"As Edward White writes in The Tastemaker, his ambitious and engaging portrait of a ‘polymath’ and the world he helped shape, Van Vechten ‘collapsed the 19th-century distinctions between edifying art and facile entertainment, constantly probing the boundaries of what was considered good and bad taste.’ . . . White shows a commanding grasp of the larger cultural ethos and Van Vechten’s place in it." —Blake Bailey, The New York Times Book Review
"In The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America, White celebrates all the things that might once have seemed shocking about Van Vechten: his conviction that Negro culture was the essence of America; his simultaneous fascination with the avant-garde and the broadly popular; and his string of sexual relationships with men, which were an open secret during his life . . . White calls him, plausibly enough, ‘prophet of a new cultural sensibility that promoted the primacy of the individual, sexual freedom, and racial tolerance and dared put the blues on a par with Beethoven.’ . . . The most startling thing about White’s book is its breadth . . . [Van Vechten] was in the end, the opposite of a dilettante." —Kelefa Sanneh, The New Yorker
"In the first half of the 20th century, Van Vechten connected more cultural dots than any of his contemporaries, as Edward White points out in his fascinating and thoroughly researched new biography, The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America . . . White delves deeper, producing a more nuanced portrait of Van Vechten’s life and times." —J.C. Gabel, Los Angeles Times
"Much recent writing on Van Vechten has focused on his role as a white man within the Harlem Renaissance, a blend of enthusiasm, paternalism, and provocation. In this new biography, Edward White shifts the frame to examine Van Vechten through his criticism, his sexuality, and especially his identity as an urbanite . . . White writes deftly about his complex subject, his stance at once critical enough to rebuke Van Vechten’s naïve cruelties (about race and other things), yet generous enough to praise his powerful, and prescient, position as ‘a one-man publicity machine for American modernism.’" —Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe
"[An] excellent biography of Carl Van Vechten . . . White portrays the young critic as deeply self-centered and ambitious, but also immensely charming and sexually complicated." —Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
"Carl Van Vechten is the most important figure in American culture you’ve never heard of. Edward White’s superb biography, The Tastemaker completes the work of reclamation begun in Emily Bernard’s thoughtful but partial 2012 portrait, Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance. Yes, Van Vechten was a pioneering advocate of African-American artists who fostered the careers of Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson, among many others. But his fascination with black culture, born in Chicago in the 1910s, became the core of a larger mission that White explores with acute intelligence and a zest that is never dampened by Van Vechten’s narcissism and mythomania—indeed, he appreciates those qualities as essential armor for someone engaged in a lifelong quest to shatter taboos and foster a radically new vision of American life and art." —Wendy Smith, The Daily Beast
"Edward White’s The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America (FSG), [is] a fascinating look at the music and dance critic for the Times, a white Iowan, who became an unlikely champion of the Harlem Renaissance, photographing friends and luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong." —Megan O’Grady, Vogue
"‘Far more lasting than his output of essays, books, and photographs,’ says White, ‘was the example of the life he lived; no other man or woman before him embodied the vision of modern American culture as emphatically as Carl Van Vechten.’ The value of White’s biography is in its portrayal of an entire American culture about to morph into a monster unrecognizable from any incarnation that had come before, and of a vital but largely unknown personality who labored to forge that culture . . . Carl Van Vechten was and is alluring for how he lived, not for what he wrote, for the violent vicissitudes of the epochs he witnessed, the epochs to which he helped give purpose and form." —William Giraldi, Los Angeles Review of Books
*Starred Review* "White’s engaging biography adeptly depicts America as a burgeoning cultural powerhouse, one that Van Vechten helped build. A marvelously written, masterful portrait of an exceptionally complex person." —Booklist
*Starred Review* "A significant reappraisal of a cultural icon and crucial booster of modern artists, especially African-American artists . . . White tackles this complicated, multifaceted, tremendously fascinating and contradictory subject: a married gay man, an alcoholic and always a ‘catalyst for outrage and argument.’ A vigorous, fully fleshed biography of an important contributor to American culture." —Kirkus
*One of Library Journal's Four Essential Nonfiction Picks for February* "Appreciating modernism in the early 20th century American requires appreciating Carl Van Vechten, a photographer, a novelist, and, above all, a cultural champion who introduced Gertrude Stein to Americans, supported the Harlem Renaissance, and befriended luminaries like Langston Hughes and F. Scott Fitzgerald. White . . . should offer a fresh take on this key figure . . . capturing both his accomplishments and his dark-edged experiences in Jazz Age New York." —Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
"Journalist, novelist, critic, photographer, iconoclast, visionary. Dandy and groupie, hedonist and dissembler, provocateur and self-promoter. Champion of Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes, drinking buddy of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, "honorary Negro" to some, racist exploiter to others. Denizen of the black and gay demimondes, flouter of racial and sexual divides and taboos. Carl Van Vechten was all of these things, and much more besides, in his brilliant and gaudy life. It would burst an ordinary biography at the seams, but Edward White manages to do to Van Vechten in death what no one ever accomplished in life: tame him. With wit, style, and skepticism, The Tastemaker both cuts Van Vechten down to size and restores to him the lofty stature he deserves." —David Margolick, author of Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns and Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song
"Carl Van Vechten was a celebrated writer, photographer and publicist during the first half of the twentieth century. His extraordinary career reads like a violent roller-coaster ride. He invested time and energy in contemporary geniuses ranging from Gertrude Stein to Paul Robeson. What he sought was not money so much as recognition for influencing and recording modern American culture—especially African-American culture. He lived in the future, responding to everything that was exciting and new—unaware apparently that the future becomes the past and fame fades away. He presents a considerable challenge to a biographer, being both entertaining yet unsympathetic, dangerous but disarming, cold-blooded as well as generous. Edward White brings him vividly to life on the page, balancing his contradictory qualities with skill and honesty. His research has been enthusiastic and his writing is engaging. This is an outstanding first book." —Michael Holroyd, author of A Book of Secrets and Lytton Strachey