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Book Review: Remember Me To Harlem
The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925 - 1964


By Antoine du Rocher

NEW YORK, 18 November 2002Remember Me To Harlem is a brilliant, personal and highly entertaining correspondence between the American writer and poet Langston Hughes and his ardent supporter and friend, Carl Van Vechten. Largely forgotten, Van Vechten was a leading cultural critic in New York and wrote for the New York Times as well as Vanity Fair. He helped to promote the work of many African-American composers, musicians, playwrights and performers. Van Vechten's novel, Nigger Heaven, created a scandal upon publication in 1926. Spanning some forty years, the letters provide an extraordinary entrée into the world of the Harlem Renaissance and the major and minor artistic and intellectual figures that inhabited it.

Selected from a much greater correspondence archive, and published in their entirety, the letters are a treasure trove of gossip, literary banter and astute commentary on the arts, racism in America, civil rights, money, and the world at large. While Hughes emerges as Van Vechten's superior as an artist and activist, both men are manifestly equals in their intellectual rigor, commitment to African-American popular culture, cosmopolitan sophistication and affection for one another.

The tone might seem precious today, but no more so than other modern literary correspondances such as Claudel / Gide. In an age, when trite sound bites, perfunctory e-mail, bad syntax and above all, la mauvaise education have all but destroyed the art of correspondence, Remember Me To Harlem is a refreshing and consistantly witty reminder of how it was once done. Full marks to Emily Bernard, a professor at Smith College, whose impeccable, albeit sometimes dour, footnotes clarify the identities and relationships mentioned in the letters.


Remember Me To Harlem

Remember Me To Harlem
The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925 - 1964
Edited by Emily Bernard
Hardcover: 356 pages; 62 illustrations
Alfred A. Knopf, New York (13 February 2001)
ISBN: 0679451137
$30

Antoine du Rocher is a French cultural journalist and writer based in New York. He is also a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com

 

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