The Tastemaker: Carl van Vechten
and the Birth of Modern America
by Edward White
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 384 pages, $30.
THE LAST TWO DECADES have seen a strong revival of interest in Carl van Vechten (1880-1964), the Midwestern author, patron of and enthusiast for Harlem Renaissance writers, for “Jazz Age” Negro subculture and, more broadly, for 1920s Americanized dandyism and decadence. Yet, understandably, no single sense of why we should return to, or even reclaim, van Vechten, has emerged.
NYRB Classics evidently thinks The Tiger in the House: A Cultural History of the Cat (1920, reprinted 2007) is his masterpiece—though one senses here the pull of the marketplace. Bruce Kellner has more adventurously overseen the first publication of van Vechten’s journals as The Splendid Drunken Twenties: Selections from the Daybooks, 1922–30 (2007). In 2012, Yale published Emily Bernard’s somewhat pedestrian “partial biography,” Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance, concentrating on the subject’s
Richard Canning’s most recent publication is an edition of Ronald Firbank’s Vainglory for Penguin Classics (2012).