Carl Van Vechten Biography (First Draft)

Draft 1

Carl Van Vechten was a writer, critic, and photographer who collaborated with and documented the most influential figures of the avant-garde movement. He served as editor, publisher, and literary executor for figures such as Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, and Mina Loy in both official and unofficial capacities (MacLeod 361). A collector and admirer of African-American art, he was also one of the first patrons of the Harlem Renaissance.

Van Vechten was born on June 17, 1880 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He showed an interest in the arts throughout his youth and studied music and visual art during his time at the University of Chicago. He began an extensive career as a journalist when he began writing for the University of Chicago Weekly (“Van Vechten Collection”).

After graduating, Van Vechten wrote for the Chicago American. He moved to New York City in 1906, where he worked as a music critic for the New York Times. Deciding to explore his renewed interest in opera, he took a leave of absence in 1907 to travel Europe. While abroad, he married Anna Snyder, a longtime friend from his hometown (“Van Vechten Collection”).

He first crossed paths with Mina Loy while they were both living in Florence. At that time, Van Vechten was a guest at Mabel Dodge’s villa. He and Loy would remain friends, collaborators, and regular correspondents long after their first meeting. Van Vechten submitted the poems Loy sent him for publication in New York magazines (Hascombe and Smyers 112-128). During this period in Florence, he and Mabel Dodge encouraged to Loy live in New York in the future (Kouidis 170).

Upon returning to the Times in 1909, he took an interest in modern dance due to Isadora Duncan’s prominence at the time, becoming the first American critic to cover modern dance (MacLeod 365).

Two years after he and Snyder divorced, Van Vechten married actress Fania Marinoff in 1914. He left his job and began an independent writing career, publishing several collections of essays. His first novel, Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works, was published in 1922 (“Van Vechten Collection”).

An attentive spectator of the underground zeitgeist, Van Vechten took interest in promoting the work of black artists in New York City. He began what would become an extensive collection of African-American art. A frequent visitor of Harlem, he drew from his experiences to write his 1926 novel, Nigger Heaven, a novel about Harlem society and responses to racism and segregation. The novel immediately became a bestseller and an epicenter of controversy, both defended and denounced by black and white readers. W.E.B. DuBois called it “an affront to the hospitality of black folk and to the intelligence of the white,” while Alain Locke praised the work as a “corrective sketch for the white reader who takes Negro life underseriously and for the black reader who takes it over seriously” (Helbling 38-39).

He soon turned to photography as his primary mode of artistic expression. He photographed many creators and influencers of the avant-garde and Harlem Renaissance.

While volunteering at the Stage Door Canteen at the during the Second World War, Van Vechten met Saul Mauriber, who was working as a busboy at the time. Mauriber became his assistant and lifelong friend, and helped him organize his photographs (“Van Vechten Collection”).

At 84 years of age, Van Vechten died on December 21, 1964 in New York City. Mauriber became the photographic executor for his estate, eventually entrusting the Library of Congress with his collection of over 1,400 photographs in 1966 (“Van Vechten Collection”).

Van Vechten is remembered as a generous donor, having given much of his collection to organizations such as Tale University, New York Public Library, and the Museum of Modern Art (Gallup 54, MacLeod 362). He remains an important peripheral figure of the Harlem Renaissance and a central agent of the New York avant-garde.

Biographical Information:

  • Name: Carl Van Vechten
  • Date of Birth: June 17, 1880
  • Place of Birth: Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S.
  • Date of Death: December 21, 1964 (aged 84)
  • Place of Death: New York City, New York, U.S.
  • Country of origin, citizenship: United States
  • Gender: Male
  • Race: White
  • Kind of Artist/Cultural worker: Author (abandoned novel writing in 1930 and took up photography), Publisher, Patron, Photographer, Art critic at the New York Times, Literary executor of Gertrude Stein, “Unofficial” literary agent of Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, and others (MacLeod 361).
  • Dates & Places of Overlap with Loy: Florence (1906~1916), New York City (after 1916)
  • Avant-garde movements the figure was associated with: Harlem renaissance, Modern dance, New York Avant-Garde
  • Biographical/Historical significance: First American critic of modern dance, Helped “popularize” the Harlem Renaissance to white audiences (McLeod 360-361). Donated his enormous collection to various organizations, including the New York Public Library, Museum of Modern Art, Yale, Howard University, Princeton University, and Lincoln Center (McLeod 362).
  • Brief summary of the figure’s Relationship to Loy: Loy and Van Vechten met in Florence, presumably at Mabel Dodge’s villa where they both stayed. Van Vechten became Loy’s unofficial literary agent and helped her publish her poems in New York avant-garde magazines. They corresponded regularly.
  • What was the nature of their overlap or connection? They shared a social, professional, and personal connection, as Van Vechten patronized and published her work.

Work Cited:

Gallup, Donald. “Carl Van Vechten.” The Yale University Library Gazette, vol. 55, no. 2, 1980, pp. 53–94, www.jstor.org/stable/40858746.

Hanscombe, Gillan E. and Virginia L. Smyers. Writing for their Lives: The Modernist Women 1910-1940. Northeastern University Press, 1988. http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/loy/bio.htm

Helbling, Mark. “Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance.” Negro American Literature Forum, vol. 10, no. 2, 1976, pp. 39–47. www.jstor.org/stable/3041204.

Kouidis, Virginia M. “Rediscovering Our Sources: The Poetry of Mina Loy.” Boundary 2, vol. 8, no. 3, 1980, pp. 167–188, www.jstor.org/stable/302972.

MacLeod, Kirsten. “The ‘Librarian’s Dream-Prince’: Carl Van Vechten and America’s Modernist Cultural Archives Industry.” Libraries & the Cultural Record, vol. 46, no. 4, 2011, pp. 360–387, www.jstor.org/stable/23053604.

“Van Vechten Collection – Carl Van Vechten Biography and Chronology.” Carl Van Vechten Biography and Chronology, Library of Congress, 1 Jan. 1970, www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/van/biography.html.

Pledged – CGP

7 Comments on “Carl Van Vechten Biography (First Draft)”

  1. Just looking over the draft after publishing it, I already see room for expansion and clarification. In my future drafts, I think I should address Van Vechten’s sexuality and speak more specifically about some of his close friendships with figures in the avant-garde besides Loy.

  2. You did a great job of encompassing all the diverse artistic and social roles Van Vechten played throughout his life! I’m especially interested in his involvement in music–Bean’s figure, Gabrielle Buffet–was also involved in music before her involvement in Modernism and I’m curious (for both figures) about if/how music influenced their involvement in Modernism. Also, is he linked to Jazz at all? (I have been learning a lot about the history of jazz recently and based off your bio, it seems like he could have been…possibly) You also write that Van Vechten met Loy at the house of Mabel Dodge–this was also were Loy and Stein met. Did Van Vechten know Stein?

    • Thanks for your response, Maura. Van Vechten was doubtlessly an appreciator of jazz, as a frequent visitor of Harlem nightclubs. His later novels were influenced by jazz and New York African-American culture, although I am not sure of the extent to which he patronized or influenced the Harlem jazz scene himself. To your second question, Van Vechten was indeed a friend of Stein and helped publish some of her writing.

  3. Excellent, clear overview of the life, well-researched and easily intelligible. Many of your paragraphs are very short, so you might think about combining some of the single sentence paragraphs. Also, you might want to acknowledge his homosexuality and be more explicit about the controversial nature of his fascination, as a gay white man, with the Harlem Renaissance. Many white people flocked to Harlem out of a desire for sexual freedoms and illicit pleasures–they were attracted in part because they held primitivist stereotypes about African Americans. The “zeitgeist” you refer to had troubling dimensions that may be worth mentioning.

    • Thanks for your response, Dr. Churchill. I intend to focus more on Van Vechten’s homosexuality in my future drafts. Aside from passages mentioning his two marriages, Van Vechten’s sexuality was curiously absent from the initial sources I found. You raise an important point about the primitivist, voyeuristic dimensions of white participation in the Harlem Renaissance. I will continue to research what drew Van Vechten to African-American art. While I would like to imagine he saw himself as an equal participant in the movement, there are certainly some suspicions underlying the concept of white patronage of African-American culture worth investigating.

  4. Great breakdown of who he was, so informative and clear. It appears as though he was really impacted by his time abroad in Europe (the first time you mention it)- do you think that it changed him as a writer? Your second last paragraph left me with SO many questions-who was this busboy? How did he change his life (because he obviously seems important)? I’m really also intrigued by his interest in the Harlem Renaissance. Did he see himself as a spectator gazing in on this movement, or someone who was more involved? Overall Carl seems like such a 3-dimensional character… there were so many interests and pieces of the avant-garde movement that he dipped his toe in and I think you show that well!

    • Thank you for your comment, Leigha. As far as I know, Van Vechten’s time in Europe was the first time he interacted with avant-garde writings and artists, so it doubtlessly had a huge impact on his own approaches.

      You raise some important questions about Van Vechten’s relationship with Saul Mauriber, the busboy he met during World War II. Only one of the sources I found mentioned him, and it mostly focused on Mauriber’s collaboration with Van Vechten’s photography career and his execution of Van Vechten’s estate following his mentor’s death. I try to find more sources that elaborate upon their relationship in my future research.

      I’m as curious as you are about what exactly drew Van Vechten to the Harlem Renaissance! As Dr. Churchill and I have been discussing, there are some racial power dynamics worth unpacking here. To my understanding, Van Vechten patronized many African-American artists, particularly writers such as Langston Hughes. I find it likely that he would have called himself a collaborator in the movement, particularly in the realm of poetry.

Leave a Reply