When the correspondence between Carl Van Vechten and Langston Hughes began, Van Vechten was in New York, tirelessly cultivating an expertise on Harlem life. Hughes was in Washington, D.C., living with his mother and working as a personal assistant for the "father of Negro history," Carter G. Woodson, who founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. Hughes performed secretarial chores and worked on Woodson's massive study, Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830.
After hours, Hughes would head for Seventh Street, where he found "sweet relief." There, "ordinary Negroes . . . played the blues, ate watermelon, barbecue, and fish sandwiches, shot pool, told tall tales, looked at the dome of the Capitol and laughed out loud," he recalled in his 1940 autobiography, The Big Sea. The life there inspired his poetry. "I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street-gay songs, because you had to be gay or die; sad songs, because you couldn't help being sad sometimes. But gay or sad, you kept on living and you kept on going. Their songs-those of Seventh Street-had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going."
During his time in Washington, Hughes wrote and published more poetry than he had since he started writing at the age of thirteen.
carl van vechten to langston hughes, may 6, 1925
I haven't heard from you since your return;1 I hope you haven't forgotten that you promised to send your book2 back as soon as it is rearranged. I shall do my best to get it published, and that should be easy because it is a beautiful book. Also, please don't forget the Frankie song3 (if it was a Frankie song), and you spoke of a better book about Hayti4 than the one I have: can you dig out the name of it for me? I trust that it will not be very long before you visit New York again: you must know that I like you very much.
1.After his visit to Van Vechten's home on Sunday, May 3, Hughes returned to Washington. This is Van Vechten's first letter to Hughes.
2.Hughes's manuscript would become his first published collection of verse, The Weary Blues (1926).
3.Van Vechten refers to the legendary ballad, "Frankie and Johnny," about a St. Louis prostitute who shoots her unfaithful lover.
4.Once common spelling of Haiti, now obsolete.
langston hughes to carl van vechten, may 7, 1925
1749 S Street, N.W.
May 7, 1925
What a delightful surprise, your letter! I didn't think you would write me first as I've had you in mind all week for a note. I typed "Frankie Baker" for you on Monday but have been waiting for a chance to write a few explanations about it. I've been busy.
Perhaps you have heard "Frankie" before. It's a very old song, and is supposed to have originated in Omaha after Frankie Baker, a colored sporting-woman famous in the West, had shot her lover, Albert. The whole song runs to a blues tune, the chorus very blue, but the tune of each verse varies slightly, better to express the sentiment; the last two verses are sung like a blues dirge. And Bruce, the giant one-eyed cook in Paris, used to give elaborate characterizations of the bar-tender, Frankie, and the judge, while I kept the hot cakes turning.1 He was as much an entertainer as a cook, and had been everywhere bumming and sailing. He knew all kinds of "rounders" tunes and "low-down" Negro songs.2 There was a particularly good one celebrating the sexual charms of a certain worthless rounder who was
A total loss
But a sweet from Henrico.
And another lament called "Sugar-babe,-you don't love me now." You ought to be able to find some old-timer around Harlem to sing "Frankie" for you. It has a number of versions,-some more interesting (and dirtier) than the one I remember. Obscenity doesn't stick in my head, though.
No, I didn't say anything concerning a book about Hayti. I just said I would like to go there this summer. (And I may go yet if the index to "Free Negro Heads of Families" continues to bore me as it did today).
I am going to rearrange the book Sunday. I can work on poetry only when it amuses me, and this week it didn't amuse me: I was too sleepy.
I do want to come up to New York again soon. And remember your promise: a whole day to look at your beautiful things. And talk with you.
1.In late February of 1924, Hughes deserted his ten-week old job as a messboy on a ship called the McKeesport as soon as it reached Holland. He caught the night train for Paris, "a dream come true," he recalled in The Big Sea. Bruce was famous as the cook at Le Grand Duc, a Parisian nightclub where Hughes worked as dishwasher and learned to become a jazz poet. He stayed in Europe until the end of November.
2.A "rounder" is a narrative song in which each verse is rounded off with a repeated line. A rounder can also be a ne'er-do-well, a wastrel.
langston hughes to carl van vechten, may 10, 1925
1749 S Street, N.W.
May 10, 1925
I am mailing my book to you in the morning. It has been rearranged and thirty poems have been taken out. It can stand even more cutting but I can't decide myself which others to take out; however, if you'd like to remove some more for the betterment of the book, go to it. I hope you'll like the new arrangement. Tell me about it when you write.
Did you get the Frankie song? And have you been to Harlem this week? I met Rudolph Fisherâ€¡ again at a little party over here and he shows no traces of conceit. He is a most interesting young fellow, talks and sings well, and can entertain a whole room full of company. Clarissa Scott1 was there, too,-that charming young lady I told you about. And she asked all sorts of questions about you.
I got one poem at least out of my New York trip,-the To a Black Dancer in the "Little Savoy." (It's in the book.) There was a perfectly divine black girl there one night drunk on joy (and gin, too, perhaps.) If you've never been to the Little Savoy, don't go, though.2 It's a rummy place frequented by Jew-boys and clerks who don't have a good time. I just happened to run into adventure that once. A lady pianist from another cabaret known as "Piano-playin' Miss Viola" dropped in and sat down beside me. I bought her a drink, and immediately she declared that she loved me and insisted on paying for all the following drinks,-bottle after bottle of gin! Two or three other colored fellows and a high-yellow girl came to our table and at five in the morning we were having such a gay time that everybody else gathered around to look on. And then someone started a fight. And if you've never seen a fight in one of those little cabarets, you've missed some excitement! I missed the piano-playin' lady so the party broke up.
The Blind Bow Boy has a most interesting beginning,3 but I am anxious to see what happens to Harold under his sophisticated new tutor. That ought to be entertaining. I haven't had a chance to read anything this week.
I like your letters. Write to me again.
1.A poet, educator, and essayist.
2.A popular Harlem speakeasy.
3.The Bind Bow-Boy was Carl Van Vechten's second novel, published in 1923.
carl van vechten to langston hughes, may 13, 1925
Your letters are so very charming, dear Langston, that I look forward every morning to finding one under the door. I have been lucky during the past week! The poems came this morning and I looked them over again. Your work has such a subtle sensitiveness that it improves with every reading. The poems are very beautiful, and I think the book gains greatly by the new arrangement and the title. Knopfâ€¡ is lunching with me today and I shall ask him to publish them and if he doesn't some one else will. Would you permit me to do an introduction? I want to.
Frankie came, and thank you. I know the song, but with different words. There are, I suppose, two thousand versions. This is a good one. It's too bad that you didn't take down every syllable that fell from the lips of that holy cook.
I'm glad you liked The Blind Bow-Boy. I think you'd better read Peter Whiffle next,1 if you really want to read any more; I'll send it to you.
Of course, I got the Gulf Coast Blues at once. I'm doing a paper about the Blues for Vanity Fair and anything you know about them, or if you even know the names of any other good ones, will help.2
I've never even heard of the Little Savoy; I wish I had been with you that night. I have never, in my experience of twenty-five years, seen a fight in a Negro cabaret; on the other hand I've never been in a white place when there wasn't one. The difference, I suppose, is that white people almost invariably become quarrelsome when they are drunk, while Negroes usually become gay and are not inclined to fight unless they want to kill some one. I'm going on a Harlem party tonight; if you were here we'd take you with us.
I hope to meet Rudolph Fisher some time. I read Ringtail and found it full of picturesque detail,3 but not as good, on the whole, as The City of Refuge.4
You will find your name, by the way, in the note I have written about Countee Cullenâ€¡ in the June Vanity Fair, not yet out.5
Will you do something for me? I want you, if you will, to write me out the story of your life-detailing as many of your pregrinations and jobs as you can remember. Is this too much to ask?
I'll let you know about your book as soon as possible. In the meantime,
please don't forget
Carl Van Vechten
1.Van Vechten's first novel, published in 1922.
2.Van Vechten was a friend of Vanity Fair's editor Frank Crowninshield, which accounts for the magazine's early interest in African American music. Van Vechten said that Vanity Fair "was the first of the better magazines to publish Negro material repeatedly."
3.Fisher's story "Ringtail" was published in the May 1925 Atlantic Monthly.
4.Fisher's first short story, published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1925. It won the 1925 Crisis short story contest.
5.Van Vechten arranged to have a selection of poems by Cullen published in the June 1925 Vanity Fair. His note of introduction claimed: "All his poetry is characterized by a suave, unpretentious, brittle intellectual elegance." He praised Cullen for being "able to write stanzas which have no bearing on the problems of his own race." Van Vechten mentioned Hughes in a list of young black writers, musicians, actors, and dancers "sufficiently earnest of what the 'gift of the black folk' (to employ Dr. Du Bois's poetic phrase) will be in the immediate future."
carl van vechten to langston hughes, may 14, 1925
No letter came from you this morning, dear Langston, just as I was getting used to finding one daily under the door! My news is this: that I handed The Weary Blues to Knopf yesterday with the proper incantations. I do not feel particularly dubious about the outcome: your poems are too beautiful to escape appreciation. I find they have a subtle haunting quality which lingers in the memory and an extraordinary sensitivity to all that is kind and lovely. "Sweet trumpets, Jesus!" The request for your biography was no idle one.1 I hope you will take it seriously. When the book is done I shall need it . . . and please make it as long as possible. Did you tell me, by the way, that you had been photographed by Nik Muray?2 I can get one from him with no trouble, and from any one else with very little. Yesterday I sent you Peter Whiffle and The Tattooed Countess3 . . . So now you have all my novels. One Clara Barnes appears in both these books.
Laurel and Bayleaves to you!4
1.Van Vechten refers here to his request in the previous letter for a biography of Hughes.
2.Nickolas Muray was a celebrity photographer and a frequent guest at Van Vechten's
3.Van Vechten's The Tattooed Countess was published by Knopf in 1924. It is a sardonic look at its author's adolescence in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
4.This is the first time Van Vechten shares with Hughes his penchant for customizing salutations. The Van Vechten biographer Bruce Kellner wrote: "He loved to sign his letters fancifully, occasionally at the expense of good taste but never at the expense of good humor." Most of the sign-offs in these letters Van Vechten invented expressly for Hughes.
langston hughes to carl van vechten, may 15, 1925
1749 S Street, N.W.
May 15, 1925
I would be very, very much pleased if you would do an introduction to my poems. How good of you to offer. I am glad you liked the poems in the new arrangement and I do hope Knopf will like them, too. It would be great to have such a fine publisher!
About your paper on the Blues,-Sunday I am going to type some old verses for you that I used to hear when I was a kid, and that you may or may not have heard. You probably have. On the new records I think the Freight Train Blues (one of the many railroad Blues) is rather good, and Reckless Blues, and Follow the Deal on Down. Did you ever hear this verse of the Blues?
I went to the gypsy's
To get my fortune told.
Went to the gypsy's
To get my fortune told.
Gypsy done told me
Goddam your un-hard-lucky soul!
I first heard it from George, a Kentucky colored boy who shipped out to Africa with me,-a real vagabond if there ever was one.1 He came on board five minutes before sailing with no clothes, nothing except the shirt and pants he had on and a pair of silk sox carefully wrapped up in his shirt pocket. He didn't even know where the ship was going. And when somebody on board gave him a suit he traded it in the first port to sleep with a woman. He used to make up his own Blues,-verses as absurd as Krazy Kat and as funny.2 But sometimes when he had to do more work than he thought necessary for a happy living, or, when broke, he couldn't make the damsels of the West Coast believe love worth more than money, he used to sing about the gypsy who couldn't find words strong enough to tell about the troubles in his hard-luck soul.
I did like the Blind Bow-Boy. I hope you will send Peter Whiffle. Do you know any Negro Pauls in Harlem-those decorative boys who never do any work and who have some surprisingly well-known names on their lists?3 In a really perfect world, though, people who are beautiful or amusing would be kept alive anyway solely because they are beautiful or amusing, don't you think?
About the story of my life,-I don't know what you want it for, and for me to sit down seriously and think about it and write it would take a long, long time. I mean,-to show cause and effect, soul-pregrinations, and all that sort of thing.* But I will send you an outline sketch of external movements; an essay I did for the Crisis contest on the Fascination of Cities;4 and a semi-autobiographical poem I did for the Crisis, but which I don't think they're publishing. Out of all that junk you'll perhaps get something. And then if you would know more, just ask me, and I'll be glad to answer.
I'm having some pictures taken here, but they may not be as good as the Muray ones, so perhaps you'd better get him to give you one of his if you wish one.
I am anxiously awaiting the June Vanity Fair. I like the magazine, and Countee does such lovely things. What's become of John Peale Bishop?5 I liked his work and I don't believe I've read anything of his lately. And Nancy Boyd's clever essays?6
Remember me to Harlem.
*How serious it sounds!
Copyright © 2002 by edited by Emily Bernard. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.