Carl Van Vechten
Very Real" --
Hughes and Richmond, Virginia
Special Collections and Archives
James Branch Cabell Library
Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), journalist turned novelist turned photographer,
is best known for his immense interest in African American culture and
large circle of artistic and literary friends. A number of literary minded
early 20th century Richmonders were among his group of friends.
his friendship with Richmond author James
Branch Cabell, he met and corresponded with a number of Richmonders
over the years including Cabell,
Hunter Stagg, Ellen Glasgow, Emily Clark and
Emma Gray Trigg, whose papers are housed in Special Collections and Archives. Van Vechten
took a particular interest in Stagg because they
shared a keen interest in the thriving African American arts community.
There is a decade worth of correspondence between Van Vechten and Stagg
papers of Hunter Stagg dating from 1923 to 1938. Stagg's papers are housed in our Special Collections
This shared interest resulted in Van Vechten helping Stagg set up a meeting
with the up and coming poet, Langston Hughes, in November 1926, through a
flurry of letters proceeding the visit. In one letter, dated 10 November
1926, Van Vechten encourages Stagg's idea of hosting a party for Hughes
and suggests that he write Hughes himself:
"I wrote Langston this morning, but I think you'd
better write to him too immediately His address is merely Lincoln
University, Pennsylvania. He is reading in Richmond on the 19th, but I
think he will be there the 20th too. On the 21st he reads in Columbus, Ohio.
Keep the party small, but don't worry about anybody coming out of curiosity.
They will remain to be charmed."
In a letter dated 30 November 1926, Van Vechten responds to Stagg's letter asking if Hughes
had enjoyed the party:
"I am delighted that everyone is pleased with the party, but I am not surprised.
Rather than quote Langston, I am sending you his letter (please return it
to me), I might add he was here yesterday and gave vent to more enthusiasm.
As he is quite accustomed to brilliant parties -- in one week-end up here
he met and talked with Rebecca West, Maugham, Walpole, and Clarence Darrow
-- I can only take it for granted that he had an unusually good time and
he likes you enormously."
The letter by Hughes that Van Vechten refers to was published in Remember
Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964,
edited by Emily Bernard, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.
"Hunter Stagg's party was delightful! He said you wouldn't really call
it a party in Richmond but whatever it was, we had a good time,
just as at "150" the
cocktail shaker was never empty. There were eight of us there, --
a girl and her brother, four young men, and Hunter and
myself. Hunter made a new kind of cocktail of which no one knew the
name, so it was christened then and there as the "Hard Daddy" after
one of my Blues."
Hughes went on to write that "Hunter is a beautiful and
entertaining person who ought to draw a salary for just being alive.
But I don't believe he asked a single Southerner to his party, -- not
a soul refused to shake hands with me and we all had too good a time!
And nobody choked in the traditional Southern manner when the anchovies
and crackers went round because they were eating with a Negro. And after
three "Hard Daddys" all the glasses got mixed up."
Stagg would go on to write favorably of Hughes' second volume of poetry,
Fine Clothes to the Jew, in his literary column, "Galley Sheets
in the Wind" March 21, 1927 that ran shortly after he began work
as the literary editor of the Richmond News Leader. The comments
read in part, "Reading this new volume, we conclude that if it is to
be called a little less fiery than its predecessor, it is at the same
a good deal more considered, more thoughtful - in short, it is better
art." He also wrote that Hughes' work should be recognized "as the authentic
artistic expression of something in human nature, we are not quite prepared
to say what, only that we are sure it is something very real."
Carl Van Vechten's connection to Richmond was not limited to his correspondence
with local literary notables. He had also had become attached to the literary
magazine, The Reviewer, shortly after it began publication in Richmond. Stagg served as one of the magazine's
"... by the end of that six months the magazine had attracted favorable
attention outside of the state," wrote Elizabeth Scott in the Virginia
Cavalcade, Winter, 1978. "Joseph Hergesheimer and Carl Van Vechten
had joined its boosters. Both writers were enormously popular at the
time, and their names were like magnets, drawing others to the publication."
[from "In Fame, not specie": The Reviewer, Richmond's Oasis in "The
Sahara of the Bozart" by Elizabeth S. Scott, Virginia Cavalcade,
vol. 27, no. 3, Winter, 1978.]
Van Vechten visited Richmond a number of times including at least two trips
with writer Gertrude Stein. In the early 1960s, Margaret Freeman Cabell,
James Branch Cabell's second wife, persuaded Van Vechten to write the
introduction to a collection of Cabell's Letters. Van Vechten wrote:
"I recall an old definition of a literary clique: ten or a dozen authors
who live in the same town and who hate each other cordially. This was
not true of our group in the Twenties. Many of us did not live in New
York, but we at least attempted to love one another. We frequently dined
together, wrote each other sporadically or often, according to the interest
involved, and sometimes reviewed each other's books. Occasionally we
visited together in our respective towns. Actually, it was the nearest
approximation to a group that had existed since Hawthorne's day, and
certainly there is nothing like it today when occasionally you see a
single author struggling with his peers at a cocktail party." [from
Between Friends: Letters of James Branch Cabell and Others,
edited by Padraic Colum and Margaret Freeman Cabell, published by
Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.]