Published: Aug. 1, 1998 By

[1]  Avant-garde chronicler, arbiter, and participant Carl Van Vechten produced myriad texts during a career deeply imbricated in those issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality that continue to complicate critical understanding of the early twentieth-century avant-garde. Replete with nested voyeurisms and repetitions from novel to scrapbook to photograph, Van Vechten's texts are themselves about watching and being watched; further, in their intertextuality, these texts watch each other, so to speak. The tangle of looks produced by these intra- and intertextual relations tends to problematize close reading as a means to an end and indeed makes writing about Van Vechten's texts quite difficult. For rather than yielding a series of discrete art objects to be culled for some synthesized organic knowledge (i.e., the ostensible truth of an autotelic text), Van Vechten's oeuvre leads the reader toward another sort of fetish, this time a metatextual one–one that seemingly offers the process of reading, rather than the product, as the site of knowledge. For to "read Van Vechten" is to be led inexorably through the intricate maze of interlocked surveillances that are his texts and brought up short against an irreducible conceptual scene: that of Van Vechten himself both as subject looking and object being looked at. At once promising knowledge but yielding none, this scene of the looking Van Vechten functions as an ineffable object of critical desire and signals the end–both the goal and the annihilation–of reading in the advent of the visual.

[2]  That the act of reading arrives at the irreducible scene of his looking self is, I will argue, exactly what Van Vechten desired, particularly as his career became oriented increasingly toward and enmeshed within the visual. As demonstrated within and between The Tattooed Countess (1924) and Nigger Heaven (1926), as well as through the observations of some Van Vechten scholars and contemporaries, this self-orchestrated scene functions simultaneously as both critique and exploitation of the economies of surveillance and visuality governing identity aesthetics and politics. Attending to this scene is imperative, for it offers first a way to read Van Vechten's career as an extended inquiry into what he realized as the sexualized intersection of "race," surveillance, and subjectivity.1 Further, attending to the scene offers the chance for us as cultural critics imbricated within those very intersections to examine self-reflexively our own investments and complicities in its re-enactment. In other words, contemplating the Van Vechtenian scene has the potential to, as Kaja Silverman has urged, "help us to see differently."2

"Any left in the touch is a scene, a scene."3

[3]  To write about Van Vechten, however, I must first write through Gertrude Stein's portrait of him, the one from which the epigraph above derives. Van Vechten and Stein first met each other face to face in 1913, when, introduced via Mabel Dodge's letter, he came to rue de Fleurus for dinner.4 The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklasreveals, however, that Stein had already seen Van Vechten once before but did not know at the time who he was. According to theAutobiography, this first sighting occurred during what turned out to be Van Vechten's second visit to see the controversial Le Sacre du Printemps:

Just before the performance began the fourth chair in our box was occupied. We looked around and there was a tall well-built young man, he might have been a dutchman, a scandinavian or an american and he wore a soft evening shirt with the tiniest pleats all over the front of it. It was impressive, we had never even heard that they were wearing evening shirts like that. That evening when we got home Gertrude Stein did a portrait of the unknown called a Portrait of One.5

Though Stein here misnames the portrait (its title as it appears inGeography and Plays is "ONE"), both it and the encounter engendering it seem to have affected her in some significant way. But what exactly was it about the "tall well-built young man" that apparently moved her both to write the portrait that same night and remember it years later in the Autobiography's litany of accomplishments? Was it the shirt, which, incidentally, Van Vechten wore again when he later came to dinner at rue de Fleurus?6 Was it the young man's ineffable ethnicity? Was it his apparent membership as "one" of the mysterious "they" who had not yet been heard to wear such shirts?

[4]  Unsurprisingly, perhaps, "Alice's" brief account of the visual encounter specifies no answers to such questions, and neither does the portrait itself, for like much of Stein's writing, it is coyly hostile to the desires of close reading. The portrait appears to be structured, for instance, around the doubling integers ("one," "two," "four") that punctuate its seemingly random pattern of prepositional phrases; meanwhile, its more syntactically normative interludes seem to focus, somewhat reassuringly, on that shirt ("In the best most silk and water much, in the best most silk").7 Yet "ONE" ultimately resists both formalist demands for organic narrative coherence and identity-based political demands for fixed and articulable manifestations of "sexuality," "gender," and "race," those terms of difference for which both Stein and Van Vechten, circulators of the American and expatriate avant-garde, are often called to account.8 Falling apart typographically and spatially, the hoped-for integer pattern provides scant information as to how the portrait should or could be read. And the ostensibly literal references to "silk" and "elastic," which Bruce Kellner reads as "vividly" describing Van Vechten's evening shirt, make "sense" only if read with the Autobiography's gloss.9 The portrait itself simply ceases, its end without closure yielding little or no referential knowledge about Van Vechten or what Stein believed she saw in him that night at the ballet.

[5]  If my interest were primarily in Gertrude Stein, the teasing play of desire, knowledge, and desire-for-knowledge that circulates between "portrait" and "autobiography" could be read primarily as further evidence that Stein's writing often repels the very questions with which critics approach her work. But my interest in the dynamic circulating between "ONE" and the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas resides not in what it tells (or does not) about Stein and her writing. Instead, I am intrigued by how the process of reading "ONE" through the Autobiography deflects readerly attention away from the portrait as an art object itself and towards a seemingly endless process of thinking about that which lies behind its writing: the scene, to borrow "ONE's" own term, of Stein looking at and wondering about Van Vechten, who had himself come (again) to look at something else. In this scene, a chain of questing looks links reader to Stein to Van Vechten and seeks to reveal the meaning of both "ONE" and its backstory by identifying Van Vechten on a matrix of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, again the terms through which both Stein (lesbian, female, Jew, white) and, particularly, Van Vechten (bisexual, male, gay, Nordic, white) are often filtered. The implicit question posed by the chain of looks might be phrased as "What is it about Van Vechten that so drew Stein's attention?" or, perhaps more basically: "What is Van Vechten?" No matter what the phrasing, the question is never answered, and the scene ends in a sort of closed system: the reader's irreducible contemplation of Stein looking at Van Vechten, caught himself in the act of looking at something else. Stein's writing posits Van Vechten as the visual residence of a wanted yet unknowable knowledge and thus as the object of interpretive desire, an object that, somehow bound up in questions of race and sexuality, neither returns the questing look with which it is approached nor yields knowledge or certainty about difference (a "they" apart from a "we"), its location, or its meaning.

[6]  In the years after this first sighting, Stein and Van Vechten forged a lasting relationship that, with Toklas, circulated around the curious dynamic of the Woojums family.10 As "Papa" to Toklas' "Mama" and Stein's "Baby," Van Vechten found a major publisher for Stein's Tender Buttons and provided support and companionship to Alice after her partner's death. Yet of all the well-documented history between Stein and Van Vechten, it is the scene of that first meeting that is most valuable to me because of its potential lesson: how to read Carl Van Vechten. Over ten years before The Tattooed Countess, and perhaps even before he knew he would be, could be, or wanted to be sought as the end of reading, Stein's meditations upon her new friend function presciently as an apt metonym for the racialized, sexualized dynamic of surveillance that, circulating around Van Vechten's own works, would come to rest upon his own looking self.11

"We read the old critics to find out about the critics, not about the subjects on which they are writing."12

[7]  Carl Van Vechten "was" many things. A novelist. A gay man married to an actress. A "dilettante extraordinaire," bon vivant, and avant-garde raconteur.13 But perhaps first and foremost, he was a collector and a cataloguer; in a letter to Hugh Walpole, he coyly alluded to the products of these "identities" as "part of my interesting temperament": "As so many people object to them I know that they must be an essential part of me."14 He bequeathed prodigious stores of texts–verbal, musical, visual–by and about many folks and phenomena he deemed crucial to American cultural history from the early twentieth century through the 1960s. Virtually inventing the cultural archive industry, Van Vechten urged Stein to archive her materials at Yale and himself established such varied collections as the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters at Yale University Library, the George Gershwin Memorial Collection of Music at Fiske University–even the Anna Marble Pollock Memorial Library of Books about Cats.15 These collections have yielded much documentary "knowledge" for scholars' use; the Johnson collection, for example, provided much of the source material forWhen Harlem was in Vogue, David Levering Lewis's influential history of the construct known as the Harlem Renaissance.

[8]  Yet even as they are used by scholars used in pursuit of knowledge, these collections have yielded something further: an aspect of voyeurism and repetition that inexorably doubles back onto the conceptual figure of the collector himself. For at least part of Van Vechten's collecting seems to have been connected with a pleasure derived from thinking about the knowledge-seeking bodies ("serious students")16 circulating about his collections–particularly those collections that Van Vechten perceived to be explicitly organized around the binary constructions governing mappings of "racial" and "sexual" identity.17 Writing on Van Vechten's homoerotic scrapbooks archived at Yale, Jonathan Weinberg reads these scrapbooks as having an "encyclopedic and historical quality" that yields knowledge about "how gay people expressed their forbidden desires and created spaces of freedom in the period before so-called gay liberation."18 The archiving of the scrapbooks, like Van Vechten's series of photographs, Weinberg establishes, is a gesture to make knowledge that Carl collected over the years "permanent," and a way to make sure that the compilations "f[ind] their intended audience"–in this case, other gay men.19 Weinberg's investigation of these scrapbooks (and, by extension, Van Vechten's love for collecting and cataloging as a whole) reveals them largely as providing those who come to peruse them with closure: knowledge gained, desire sated, proper audiences found, collections made permanent. What intrigues me, however, is how this sense of closure morphs into a more fluid, itinerant idea of desire even as Weinberg re-presents information provided in Kellner's Van Vechten biography. Weinberg writes:

[Van Vechten] purposely gave the [Johnson Collection] to Yale because it was a white, Ivy League institution, while he gave his collection of music, made up mostly of material by and about white composers, to Fiske University, a black college. The idea was for whites to study black culture, and blacks to study white culture. He wasparticularly delighted by the idea that white scholars would have to travel south to a black institution to study the music collection.20

As Weinberg re-tells the story, the integrationist aesthetic governing the way Van Vechten apportioned these particular collections manifests a distinctly sexual subtext, one bound up in Van Vechten's somewhat voyeuristic imaginings of scholars making transgressive pilgrimages across racial and regional boundaries to both look at the collected material, and, one supposes, consider the collector himself. Operating according to what he simply refers to as "vague intention," Van Vechten emerges in between the lines of Weinberg's account as a subject who, having set in motion a chain of looks, desire, and knowledge that keeps scholars running (to paraphrase Ralph Ellison) towards him, has already moved on to look at something else.21

[9]  If, ensconced in institutional collections over thirty years after his death, the Van Vechten gaze seems somewhat removed and theoretical today, it was startlingly and materially acute during the 1920s, when his activities on both sides of the color line (DuBois's term for the effectively real boundary erected upon the artifice of "race") caused popular and academic commentators to evince a keen yet cautious awareness of his penchant for self-reflexive surveillance. In When Harlem was in Vogue, Lewis notes that by the middle of the decade, "Van Vechten's weird six-foot presence seemed to be everywhere" in New York in general and Harlem in particular.22 But contemporary accounts and representations, emphasizing his active, acquisitive, and unilateral gaze, suggest that Van Vechten was something more than a "presence." Andy Razaf's popular song "Go Harlem!" referred, for example, to going "inspectin' like Van Vechten."23 And well-known caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias produced the ironically titled "A Prediction": a visually arresting profile of Carl Van Vechten's distinctive face (again, looking away from the viewer) transformed into a "black" male stereotype, the end result, ostensibly, of what Time magazine had snipingly called the "sullen-mouthed, silky-haired" author's "playing with Negroes."24

The squalor of Negro life, the vice of Negro life, offer a wealth of novel, exotic picturesque material to the artist. . . . The question is: Are Negro writers going to write about this exotic material while it is still fresh or will they continue to make a free gift of it to white authors who will exploit it until not a drop of vitality remains?25

Here, Van Vechten seemed to be voicing exactly the sort of sentiments that had two years earlier sparked Jessie Redmon Fauset to write the signature Renaissance novel (There is Confusion [1924]) as a corrective to T.S. Stribling's Birthright: stereotypical assumptions of urban African-American atavism and a territorializing white preoccupation with making money from the commodity that such atavism represented.26 And when these same sentiments appeared to be reified just a short time later in the already problematically titled and best-selling Nigger Heaven, a critical tumult resulted, a widely varied mix of protest, ambivalence, defensiveness and apologia that seemed only to augment the novel's public appeal.27By 1928, the book had seen at least 14 printings, and by 1932, as Kellner documents, it had been translated "in almost every country where American literature circulated," from Czechoslovakia to Italy.28

[10]  Particularly when contrasted with the rest of his literary career (deemed mediocre and "minor" according to American literary histories29), it becomes easy to view Nigger Heaven as an isolated text, a troubling–if wildly successful–aberration. Certainly, Van Vechten's dilettantish reputation contributes to this perception. As Van Vechten's sole literary foray into Harlem and thus into "blackness," it is perhaps understandable that Nigger Heavenwould merely look like another thing in which Van Vechten dabbled and then abandoned after his interest waned. And with the novel out of print (a status shared by most Van Vechten novels), it is difficult for many interested parties to read Nigger Heaven for any reason, let alone attempt to contextualize it and its transgressions within the idea of a larger Van Vechten project.30But whenNigger Heaven is read in the wider context of Van Vechten's career–particularly in conjunction with his third novel,The Tattooed Countess–the Harlem novel can begin to look quite different, appearing less as an isolated site of contestation and more as a phase in a continuum comprising attempts to repeat the same theoretical scene: that is, the chain of intra-, inter-, and metatextual looks that come ultimately to rest on the idea of the looking Van Vechten.

[11]  At first glance, Countess and Heaven would seem to possess little in common. One novel, for instance, is set in small-town [white] Iowa, the other in urban [black] Harlem. In Countess, the protagonist is a young white male who, by novel's end, transcends his rather claustrophobic circumstances and liberates himself to Europe; on the other hand, Heaven's protagonist, a young black male, ends up about to be apprehended by the police and holds, literally, a smoking gun in his hand. The topographical differences (white male liberation/black male imminent incarceration) between these two narratives sadly mirror the all-too-common binary trajectories seeming to inform much Jazz Age cultural production, trajectories that W.E.B. DuBois dryly noted in "Criteria of Negro Art":

In New York we have two plays: "White Cargo" and "Congo." In "White Cargo" there is a fallen woman. She is black. In "Congo" the fallen woman is white. In "White Cargo" the black woman goes down further and further and in Congo the white woman begins with degradation but in the end is one of the angels of the Lord.31

Yet the raced and gendered binary that otherwise so glibly sums up the two novels' narratives nevertheless obscures substantial similarities between them. Both novels share a virtually identical "bookend" narrative structure, and both are highly focused upon apparatuses of cultural surveillance. And, most important, bothCountess and Heaven explore variously what their author sees as the liberatory potential of linking their young male protagonists with female "exotics," whose shared yet shifting representations between the two books reflect Van Vechten's repeated attempt to draw the reader or, perhaps more appropriately, the spectator into contemplating the multilayered Van Vechtenian scene. As that scene was apparently most successfully and satisfyingly orchestrated via the visual's seemingly felicitous relationship with the construction known as "blackness," Van Vechten's status as subject looking and object being looked at can be read as one of the primary aporia in attempting to re-negotiate, as Manthia Diawara suggests, the relationship between black cultural production and the white avant-garde.32

"Que sais-je?"

[12]  The Tattooed Countess is strongly autobiographical, a factor that foregrounds almost immediately the presence of the overdetermined authorial scene within the book itself. Set in 1897–the year that Oscar Wilde went free and the year that Van Vechten himself was 17–the novel explores the somewhat panoptic nature of small-town life in Maple Valley, Iowa, a fictional town that is, as biographer Bruce Kellner has established, quite similar to Van Vechten's own hometown of Cedar Rapids.33 Most specifically,The Tattooed Countess investigates Maple Valley's impact upon the growing subjectivity of a protagonist very similar to Van Vechten: Gareth Johns, a white, middle-class male who, just out of high school, wants both to escape his small town and become a writer. As temporary respite from the bourgeois white culture that corrals him at the same time it accords him privilege, Gareth collects and catalogues everything from birds' eggs to tobacco-pictures in order to satisfy a largely formal and somewhat decadent "aesthetic sense."34And in thwarted attempts to "release his imagination," Gareth conducts both a clandestine sexual relationship with a local girl and an intellectually clandestine one with Lennie Colman, an older and safely conventional school teacher who desires the boy nonetheless (TC 105). Though these social interactions appear heterosexual, Gareth is nevertheless identified within the town as a "sissy" (TC 24), a seeming contradiction that not only suggests the contingencies of sexual "identities," but closely resembles Van Vechten's own double life as both a husband in a 50-year marriage to actress Fania Marinoff and, as George Chauncey has established, as a central figure in New York's early twentieth century gay scene.35 So closely did the young man resemble the Countess' author, that Van Vechten's sister Emma "wrote that she had taken the boy to be Carl. 'Of course not wholly so as there are some things about him that are different, tho [sic] generally speaking it is as you were.'"36

[13]  Beneath this autobiographical umbrella, The Tattooed Countess depends on an economy of surveillance to provide its structure and its plot. For Maple Valley, the visible world is bound up in helping the town compete upon an internationalist stage of bourgeois cultural competition. When Mrs. Sinclair, for example, speculates that "we do about as well in Maple Valley, everything considered, as they do everywhere in the world," Mrs. Darrell responds:

I get all the fashion-books the world over . . . andcompare them, and then I select the best details, but my dresses are all original. No two alike. No lady that I dress can ever say that she has seen any one else wearing the same model. She might look from . . . Paris to Chicago and never would she see the same model. (TC 66)

Mrs. Darrell's declaration here represents synecdochically Maple Valley's stance as a whole: that acts of seeing and repetition are only meaningful in that they are [re]productive and that they confer knowledge of the town's "originality" and "progress." Such a stance constitutes a crucial tension within the novel, for it is completely at odds with those such as Gareth and the spinster schoolteacher who appear not to participate in the town's teleological and reproductive narcissism.

[14]  Significantly, Van Vechten does not cast Maple Valley's "others" from its boundaries but instead keeps them closely within its watchful, recording gaze. The chief agents of this marshaling surveillance in theCountess are the Parcæ, two stereotypically gossipy, middle-aged white women who, seated in rocking chairs on their adjoining front porches, "preside over human destinies in every town in the middle west" (TC 18). Appearing in the second and the last chapters, the Parcæ form the novel's structural boundaries and also function as Maple Valley's ideological limits, disseminating the descriptive and prescriptive metanarratives that govern the town's white, bourgeois, and reproductively heterosexual norms. Each day, the Parcæ sit upon their front porches to watch and record–in dialect–drunkards, adulterers, addicts, and, apparently, homosexuals, for it is they who identify Gareth as "sissy" after watching his dandified self go by one morning. The Parcæ's surveillance of these "others," the marginal of Maple Valley, serves not only to vary the otherwise monotonous tale of the town's material manifest destiny but also helps the town to construct its own normative presence against their bodies. For all their heartland representational benignancy, the Parcæ embody the often inescapable panoptic trap that flower-bedecked, small-town America was and still can become for those the prevailing culture deems "different."

[15]  Early in the novel, Gareth Johns walks by their house "without hailing the Parcæ. He did not know them, nor was he aware that they were Parcæ" (TC 24). The privilege the young man enjoys in being white, male, and middle-class allows him, for a while, to fantasize an apparent exemption from the Fates' marshaling looks. Nevertheless, when his mother's illness and his father's hostility to college sever the educational string that was to free Gareth from the stasis in which the Parcæ symbolically hold him, he nevertheless finds himself about to be recycled as fodder for "progress": he is to take over his father's business and thus assume the heir's material and symbolic trappings. Even if he were to go to college, the Parcæ predict, he would just "come home an' do the housework" (TC 24), a trajectory that pinches Gareth in the same cleft stick of privilege and marginalization.

[16]  There is, however, a way out of the "ugliness" of Maple Valley (TC 104) for Gareth, one that seems to come from outside the Parcæ's jurisdiction. For it is in Chapter One, before the Parcæ's first appearance, that Ella Nattatorini, Maple Valley native and Italian count's widow, returns scandalously to her hometown after repeating yet another doomed love affair with a younger man. By Maple Valley standards, all about the Countess appears visibly to be "other." Hovering "at that dangerous and fascinating age just before decay sets in," the "well preserved" Countess is "aided by artifice" (TC 1): ornate, fin de siècle clothing, hair that "quite evidently owed its hue to the art of the hairdresser" (TC 1), and an eponymous tattoo that graces her forearm. Symbolically and physically "darkened" by her Italian marriage and the tattoo, respectively, Ella, Gareth realizes, represents at least an imaginative way out of Maple Valley, for she can narrate to him strange tales of places and people he has never seen. But to Gareth's surprise, the Countess Nattatorini becomes of much more profound use to him.

[17]  Despairing after his mother's death, Gareth runs to Ella for sympathy, but the Countess, having become obsessed with what she perceives to be the boy's soft, youthful naiveté, recognizes potential for a last fling before she becomes too old and faded. In an "unnatural mood," she receives Gareth and, kissing him "passionately," confesses that she loves him "that way" (TC 257, 259). Seizing the opportunity by confessing, "truthfully enough" that Ella is "'all there is' in [his]  life," Gareth cleaves to her, and in exchange, Ella secures his passage to Europe, willing, it seems, to enjoy a brief happiness before the boy inevitably (as his interior thoughts reveal) leaves her, as he will have already done by the time Ella and Gareth each reappear in Van Vechten's fourth novel,Firecrackers (TC 260).37

[18]  A possible historical and visual model for Van Vechten's unhappy Countess would seem to lie in the Countess de Castiglione, Virginia Verasis, who, according to Abigail Solomon-Godeau, was a celebrated Second Empire beauty in the mid-nineteenth century.38 This real-life Countess is known to posterity chiefly via the hundreds of photographs of herself that she composed and commissioned, photographs that ranged from herself in full court dress to pictures of her naked legs. A set of photographs taken somewhere between 1895 and 1898–a brief period encompassing the time when Van Vechten's fictional Countess returns to her hometown–reveals an aging, heavier Countess wearing an old ball gown that she had worn at various occasions before. Some of the photos are altered clumsily; the Countess had apparently pinned strips of paper about her image "as though to whittle down her girth."39 For Solomon-Godeau, this late stage in the photographic series is "a bleak parable of femininity attempting its own representation [wherein]  the fetishized woman attempts to locate herself, to affirm her subjectivity within the rectangular space of another fetish . . . ." 40

[19]  It is thus not only the seeming temporal coincidence between the photos of the aging Verasis and the waning Nattatorini on the "edge of decay" that binds the two female figures in a sort of intertextual continuum and lends a way to delve more deeply into the novel's seemingly depth-less catalogues and repetitions. It is also, to borrow Solomon-Godeau's words, their subjectivities' shared apparent conscription within "a scopic regime that inevitably undercuts her pretended authority as orchestrator of the look," a conscription to which the detail of Ella's tattoo testifies.41 It is "a skull, pricked in black, on which a blue butterfly perched, while a fluttering phylactery beneath bore the motto: Que sais-je?" (TC 2). Though brazenly displayed on Ella's forearm in a way that scandalizes her sister, the tattoo speaks little of bravado and confidence. Its visual imagery of decay and its text ("What do I know?") openly establish the uncertainty and fragility of Ella's subjectivity, which, the novel establishes, has been contingent almost solely on her ability to fetishistically repeat the act of love with younger men. As Ella has grown older, that subjectivity has become more and more in doubt. She may view her body as a medium that she can manipulate to a certain extent via the "artifice" of dye for the hair and skin, yet that same body, as a female body (and a white one at that), is also forced to function as the medium of image itself, measured always both in its proximity to and distance from an impossible-to-achieve (but nevertheless desired) ideality, an ideality, which, as the aging Ella loses her commodity value, becomes accessible only through the accumulation of "marks": that of a tattoo and that, seemingly, of a [young] penis, the acquisition of which Ella conflates with possessing the phallus, much as she conflates the approximation of ideality with a substantive subjectivity. Van Vechten puns on this conflation when commenting to Arthur Davison Ficke upon the book's title: "One of the reasons for [the title] is that the Countess was certainly full of pricks."42

[20]  Ironically, it is this pricked inquiry–"Que sais-je?"–that constitutes the novel's foundational critical question, one that boomerangs back upon the woman who wields its putative transgressiveness, but one that also turns itself, in the end, against Van Vechten. In the book's boisterous yet highly critical set pieces, the very sight of Ella, marked as artificial and foreign, is assimilated by Maple Valley's citizens to confirm their own knowledge of their present and future place in the world. At the "gala entertainment" planned ostensibly in her honor but really for the town's, her bodily presence becomes to the spectators "proof"–a fetish–that "a man who does his work in an honest way right here in Maple Valley is just as good as any king that ever lived (wild cheers). Better (wilder cheers)" (TC 150). And while at that same "gala entertainment," Gareth is as caught up as everyone else in the Countess's spectacle ("Look at her! "Look at her!" he cries), his look is somewhat differently invested (TC 140). While Maple Valley utilizes the Countess as the mirror of itself and the mark, so to speak of its own "progress," Gareth sees largely through her to the world beyond the Parcæ. Ella's very instability, her very lack of subjectivity is that which promises his ultimate freedom; as Van Vechten writes forcefully to Hugh Walpole, the Countess is "merely a worldly, sex-beset moron, seduced, for purposes of his own, by a ruthless youth whose imaginative sophistication transcends all of the Countess's experience."43

[21]  What I am interested in here are the violences both committed and managed by this circulation of looks that come to rest largely upon Ella. Maple Valley's ostensibly self-confirming scrutiny of Ella merely serves to lock "others" such as Gareth and Lennie Colman in the "bondage" of "family" and "town," where "[e]ven religion is mean . . . " (TC 130) while Gareth's own escape via Ella from this scrutinizing system is portrayed as equally–if not more–violent, a violence characterized as distinctly Oedipal: "his revenge upon his father, his tribute to his mother" (TC 268). The critique beneath The Tattooed Countess's droll surface, then, would seem to be directed not only towards the relative fecklessness of his Countess, but also towards the economy of visibility (Robyn Wiegman's term) sustaining both the communal narrative of white, bourgeois material "progress" and the individual narrative of white, male, transcendence, recognized here as sites for violence for which there is no moral or ethical accountability.44In the novel's final chapter, the Parcæ resume their rocking and watching, seamlessly weaving the wreckage left behind by such violence (the desperate Lennie Colman, Gareth's dead mother, the drunken Mr. Colman–even the sad mother bird bereft of her eggs by the collecting Gareth) into the larger tale of Maple Valley's regional, national, and international global destiny: "Let 'em take in the prize fights at Carson City! Let 'em jubilee their Queen! Iowa's a pure one hundred per cent American state, an' it's lookin' up!" (TC 286).

[22]  In recounting such a tale, of course, Van Vechten takes advantage of the very surveillance that he has functionally critiqued, utilizing "pages of notes, fragments of conversation, remembered incidents and descriptions, bits of information from his youth, all that could lend authority and authenticity to the framework of the novel" to draw his contemporary readers' attention first to their own specularized position within what is, in many ways, a roman à clef, and then to consideration of what it might mean to be specularized by their own prodigal native son.45As brother Ralph Van Vechten wrote in a letter to Carl, such intricate machinations could certainly be disruptive, if not violent: "If you don't get murdered when you go to Cedar Rapids I miss my guess."46 Yet much as Maple Valley assimilated and managed the scandal and violence erupting from a visual economy of knowledge focused upon the rather feckless Countess, Cedar Rapids largely neutralized the potential disruption of Van Vechten's reflection. As Kellner reports, "[o]n a visit to Cedar Rapids [Van Vechten] discovered several claimants for every character in The Tattooed Countess, most of whom he did not even remember."47 Seeming to absorb and assimilate the author's ostensibly disruptive look, Cedar Rapids deflects the tattoo's question–"What do I know?"–away from itself and towards Van Vechten, who later theorized to "several acquaintances" that "[i]f he had left Cedar Rapids as Gareth, he certainly returned as the Countess."48 He had written a scandalous story based on his own home town, but there were no book burnings, no town meetings of denunciation–only an assertion that Carl was "dull and piffling" because he had gotten some information about corn wrong.49 In its reception of The Tattooed Countess, apparently, Cedar Rapids was focused on itself, and not necessarily upon the figure of the looking Van Vechten. The oscillation, the traveling of gazes back and forth across apparent lines that "particularly delighted" Van Vechten about the interracial collections over which he theoretically presided, was missing. And at the least, Van Vechten was ambivalent about this apparent lack.

[23]  Contemplating the imbrication of narrative with (hetero)sexual imperatives, Judith Roof writes that "[t]ogether the perverse and the 'normal' produce a narrative of joinder and production ending in marriage, a child, victory, death, or even–and especially–another narrative. 'The narrative,' Tzvetan Todorov reminds us, 'will always be the story of another narrative.'"50 Roof's account here helps to articulate how, in the case ofThe Tattooed Countess, the elements necessary to play the Van Vechtenian scene did not quite come together. Via the novel, Carl Van Vechten (who reveled certainly in seeing himself as part of "the perverse") and Cedar Rapids (constructed as that most contingent site of "the normal") do indeed conjoin reproductively–but perhaps not in the way that Van Vechten, positioning himself always as the object of critical desire, might originally have wanted. Instead, the narrative heterology of (ostensibly) perversely authored text and (ostensibly) normativizing reader response produces, two years later, another novel and another attempt to sustain the complex spectacle of the looking Van Vechten being looked at.

"It is not the novelties that make happiness, but it is their repetition."51

[24]  Perhaps even more so than The Tattooed Countess, Nigger Heaven is both built upon and is itself about the sexuality of surveillance, a surveillance complicated this time by another heterology, the visual heterology of racial difference that "suddenly" emerges in and around Heaven because of its engagement with what the dominant white culture has constructed as the "other." Attempting to prophylactically neutralize the title's controversy by appealing to notions of racial authenticity (i.e., a suggestion that the title's o.k. if black folks use the phrase anyway), Knopf publishers claimed that "Nigger Heaven" referred to a black slang term that theorized the theater balcony as symbolizing "the geographical position of Harlem": specifically, that position "from which the white world below can be seen, but which it cannot see."52 Knopf's explanation carries within it the trace–however mediated and contained–of a complex and painful racial erotics, one alluded to uncomfortably by Heaven protagonist Byron Kasson, who exclaims bitterly that the metaphorical drama of the theater balcony is one of a desiring look that is never returned.

Nigger Heaven! That's what Harlem is! We sit in our places in the gallery of this New York theatre and watch the white world sitting down below in the good seats in the orchestra. Occasionally they turn their faces up towards us, their hard, cruel faces, to laugh or sneer, but they never beckon.53

In a Knopf promotional illustration for the book, Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas realizes visually the dynamic to which Byron refers. In Douglas's distinctive style, black theatergoers sit in a balcony emblazoned with the words "NIGGER HEAVEN BY CARL VAN VECHTEN." Within the balcony, the theatergoers face each other; black monumental figures uphold the balcony, which itself seems to preside over a stage upon which nothing can be seen but an undifferentiated and blinding whiteness emanating from the footlights. Charles Scruggs, who calls Douglas the book's "best critic" because of such illustrations, interprets the spectators as looking at each other in anger "not at the white world but with each other" and reads this seeming anger as Douglas's critique of "crab antics": that which anthropologist Peter J. Wilson perceived as intraracial competition within a colonized system.54

[25]  It would seem to me, however, that Douglas's promotional illustration could just as easily and accurately be narrativized as a gallery of black spectators talking to each other knowingly of their own complicated theoretical position as black-authored "black" representations participating in an illustration designed to sell what had already become Nigger Heaven's metatextual drama. In this reading, Douglas editorializes complexly upon the positioning of black Harlem both within and without the scene of "inspectin'" thatNigger Heaven's author desired. "Within" that scene, Harlem functions as Van Vechten's commodified objet du jour ("Now that I have thoroughly explored Harlem," he wrote to Louis Bromfield, "I think I shall take up the Chinese"55); "without" it, Harlem functions as the agencied critical subject whose resistance is equally–if differently–integral to the successful staging of the scene. One such resisting response, Douglas's drawing suggests, might be read as a critique of the content that Van Vechten causes to emanate from his black characters' mouths–including (but not limited to) Byron's assumption that black folks, spectators to the pornography that is white supremacist culture, wish to be "beckoned" to in the first place.

[26]  If my reading here of Douglas has merit, it is supported by other Harlem events around the publication of Nigger Heaven, events that, supplementing the critical encomia and condemnations of brahmins both black and white, centered around some form of resistance to being implicated in the unfunny circus of looks comprising the book. For example, where Cedar Rapids rather matter-of-factly absorbed and contained the myopic white fantasy of stable identity and linear progress that Van Vechten mocked and yet tried to exploit via The Tattooed Countess, Harlemites reacted both angrily and astutely to being [re]constructed (an insult doubled in America) within Nigger Heaven's gaze.56 As Langston Hughes recalls in The Big Sea, city residents played a cat-and-mouse game of denial, desire, and surveillance: many read the novel but hid it behind a paper wrapper.57 Later, some residents hung Van Vechten in effigy at the corner of 135th Street and Seventh Avenue; the hanging actively acknowledged and protested Harlemites' position within Van Vechten's gaze, turned the spectacle of lynching on its head and, perhaps most importantly, placed Van Vechten at the unanswerable center of a return gaze to his own.58 Indeed, perhaps as the saying goes, "negative" attention is better than no attention at all. And amid the tumult were implicit questions that the heterology-cum-homology between Van Vechten and his hometown had apparently failed to produce, but that the "racial" heterology between Van Vechten and Harlem apparently produced plentifully: What was Van Vechten? What was he doing in Harlem? And what did it mean to be looked at by him? These cross-racial reactions, combined with the interracial critical tumult surroundingNigger Heaven, can be read as producing a visible (because "racial") oscillation foreshadowing that which later would emerge around Van Vechten's collections to conceptually "delight" him.

[27]  Commenting on the vitriol of Harlem's response, Hughes declared that Van Vechten "[c]ertainly . . . had treated the Negroes of Harlem much better, for instance, than he had treated his own home folks in The Tattooed Countess."59 Like many of Hughes's declarations about himself, the world, and people among whom he moved, this seeming defense must be mediated through his complex autobiographical persona. Yet no matter what Hughes meant, his assertion performs an important function, suggesting perceptively an implicit link between Van Vechten's third and fifth novels. For in addition to the metatextual and paratextual furor over knowledge, seeing, and visibility into which Nigger Heavenitself tapped, the Harlem novel also takes up such issues inter- and intratextually, looking back at the narrative of The Tattooed Countess in order, apparently, to "do it again": that is, to repeat, in an apparently symmetrical register of "difference," the attempts of a nascent male subject to escape circumscription within an imprisoning local culture informed by the dominance of white, middle-class metanarratives. For Van Vechten, this attempt to "do it again" via Heaven is a chance to exploit the artifice of "racial" difference in order to better orchestrate, watch, and become the focus of a traveling and, at times, frustrated (and frustrating) desire for knowledge that circulates about the terms of difference produced among and by power relationships deriving from what Van Vechten himself would perhaps call "Nordic" patriarchy. Not only would Heaven and the requisite tumult surrounding the novel produce the scene that Van Vechten desired, but the interplay betweenHeaven and Countess would, as well.

[28]  Heaven concerns itself centrally with Byron Kasson, a young black man whose circumstances are strongly analogous to those of the Countess's Gareth Johns. Both men are attractive, privileged, and middle-class. Both men are in conflict with their fathers, and both dream of being writers. Like Gareth, Byron circulates within social and textual limits embodied and marshaled by what Van Vechten seems to view as mythical, archetypal figures. Where in the Countess such limits are represented and patrolled by the narratives of the gossipy white Parcæ, Nigger Heaven is begun and ended with the rovings of black dandy Anatole Longfellow (a.k.a. the Scarlet Creeper), whom Addison Gayle reads in 1975 as a primitivistic white fantasy of a cabaret crawler who seems to stand for that which Van Vechten perceived as circulating within the "skull" of "each black man": dominant white images of black male hypersexuality.60 Van Vechten's intertextual analogy suggests that if the Parcæ's gaze is that which threatens the ostensibly linear path towards the attainment of a certain kind of white male subjectivity, then the Creeper's roaming in search of women is that which threatens to derail the attainment of black middle-class male subjectivity. Homology slides across the "lines" of racial and regional difference to construct an apparent equivalence and symmetry between the oppressed conditions of the two novels' protagonists. Variables of difference are assumed to be balanced on both sides of the equation, in such a way that "small-town" is proffered as equivalent and exchangeable for "urban," "white" equivalent and exchangeable for "black."

[29]  As if to further emphasize this putative intertextual equivalence, Van Vechten orchestrates a veritable torch-passing so that not only is one book's male subject ostensibly exchanged for another but a replica of the looking Van Vechten is ensconced with the Harlem novel. At a fashionable Harlem dinner party, Gareth Johns makes a significant cameo appearance and meets Byron Kasson. Now a successful and middle-aged author, Gareth takes the liberty of lecturing the young Harlemite on literary markets and aesthetics. Significantly, Gareth echoes Van Vechten's own earlier symposium pronouncements about black-culture-as-object-and-commodity: Gareth informs Byron that an aspiring black writer should write about Harlem's "exotic" "low life" (NH 107): "It has a splendid, fantastic quality. And the humour! How vital it is, how rich in idiom! Picturesque and fresh! I don't think the Negro has been touched in literature as yet" (NH 107). Understandably, Byron resents the author's implicit equation and responds in a "cold" tone: "I'm afraid I don't know very much about the low life of my people," yet Gareth fails to understand the other man's upset: "I seem to have offended your friend," he says to someone else, "I wonder how" (NH 107). The chapter ends as Gareth "shrug[s] his shoulders" and recovers from his momentary sense of culpability enough to ask that one of the black partygoers sing "Stand still, Jordan" (NH 107). Though this intertextual and "integrated" encounter is obviously ironic, it is a somewhat disingenuous and also rather ambivalent and complex deployment of the trope. If it is assumed that the representation of "Gareth Johns" remains constant fromThe Tattooed Countess to Nigger Heaven (i.e., it remains a thinly veiled representation of Van Vechten himself), then it would seem that the act of inserting a blundering, insensitive, and inertial Gareth into the Harlem novel might indeed signify a self-reflective, self-interrogative, and self-critical comment on Van Vechten's own involvement in Nigger Heaven. Actively importing a representation of his own gaze into the novel, Van Vechten not only seems to implicitly critique that gaze, but also has it yield to a subjectivity that Nordic culture deems "other." In this way, the apparent "darkness" of Nigger Heaven in general and Byron as the surrogate subject in particular comes to take the place and function of the earlier novel's tattoo: "Que sais-je?" in a different, but equally visible and ostensibly scandalous position. Appearing to pass his mantle of subjectivity to Byron, Gareth seems to yield to an idea of "genuine" racial subjectivity, but such an apparent abdication is, of course, complexitized and compromised by Van Vechten's role in authoring it. Van Vechten may sacrifice his own replica and may cosmetically balance the equation between the two novels with an equivalent and more "authentic" subject, but in the end these acts serve to funnel attention to the scene of the looking Van Vechten. After all, a tattoo's function is–at least in part–to draw the attention, the look of others, to the wearer.

[30]  The further irony is that regardless of the self-serving purposes inherent in the attempted translation of Gareth to Byron, the intertextual equation does not balance; the torchpassing ceremony seems not to work. By Heaven's end, Byron's trajectory looks little like Gareth's, for on the last page, the young black man faces a murder rap–not European liberation. He has been thwarted by employment restrictions carefully reserving almost all jobs for whites. His writing has been rejected by a Menckenesque editor who tells him bourgeois blackness is no literary subject at all. In the novel's last chapter, a thwarted and frustrated Byron heads to a cabaret in vengeful search of the Bolito King, the Harlem numbers runner who, despite his class difference, has become Byron's rival. Though armed and desperate, Byron does not act when he gets to the cabaret, and while he merely contemplates revenge, the Scarlet Creeper returns to the novel and accomplishes what Byron could not. The Creeper slays the Bolito King and goes free to roam Harlem; immediately afterward, Byron shoots into the King's corpse. Heaven closes as Byron, appearing guilty of a crime he did not commit, gazes upward at a police officer's badge. Contrasted with The Tattooed Countess' "Happy Ending"61 where Gareth exploitatively transcends social bounds, Nigger Heaven's ending seems indeed as problematic as its slur of a title. Van Vechten appears to capitalize on sadly familiar cultural narratives attempting to limit black male options to inaction and/or violence, and his attempt to analogize white male transcendence with black male subjectivity implodes into the dull predictability of a dualistic racial determinism.

[31]  Yet mourning solely the fact that the book offers implosion rather than transcendence suggests at least a masculinist reading bias assuming that Byron, as the male protagonist and thus the traditional Western narrative nucleus, is the figure whom readers are supposed to be watching by the end. Perhaps looking simultaneously at surrounding narrative figures can yield insight into the novel's seemingly thwarted repetition. In what appears at first to be yet another replay of The Tattooed Countess, Van Vechten employs a female exotic as a cure for the young male subject's entrapment and thus invokes the convenient return of the notorious woman whose rumor scandalizes and titillates. The two novels' female exotics, however, are not exactly the same, for where fading Ella Nattatorini is exploited by Gareth, vibrant Lasca Sartoris vanquishes Byron. Exploring this dyssymmetrical intertextuality suggests how Nigger Heaven constitutes a compelling shift in both the medium and the method of staging the narcissistic spectacle of the Van Vechten scene.

[32]  Van Vechten modeled Lasca after singer, actress, and "glamour girl" Nora Holt, whom he dubbed the "Sheka of Harlem." "[H]er trail is strewn with bones," he quipped lasciviously to H.L. Mencken, "many of them no longer hard."62 To Van Vechten's mind, Holt embodied qualities that made "her" essential to his Harlem project: a commodified and proliferated visibility as a star (publicity photos, public performances), spectacularized itinerance (he sees her as having blazed a "trail"), and putatively "exotic" sexual prowess (the flaccid "bones"). Within Nigger Heaven, these "qualities" coalesce into Lasca, the femme fatale who ritually "bounces the papas off their rails" each time she returns to Harlem (NH 85). Loyal to neither Jim Crow nor Carry Nation, she disdains the innocent–they never "do" anything–and aligns herself with the guilty; "I'm for them!" she cries (NH 238). Indeed, according to Mary's friend Adora Boniface, " . . . Lasca knows what she wants and goes after it, more than most of us do. That girl's got a positive genius for going after things" (NH 85). Certainly, the representational and functional differences between the tragically waning Ella and the transgressively waxing Lasca are vast, and such differences exist in tension with the equivalence of "otherness" through which Van Vechten apparently links the two novels' women. In at least some part, the contrast that emerges between the characters can be read as deriving from Van Vechten's perhaps tacit realization that, as Robyn Wiegman observes, "To mark the body is not the same as being a bodily mark."63 As Van Vechten imagines her, Ella is a creature of "artifice" who marks her aging white body with a tattoo in an attempt to achieve a transgressive subjectivity and thus perhaps prolong her viability as a female commodity. As I suggest above, Van Vechten seems to ridicule and undercut this attempt via the tattoo's imagery of decay and its message of subjective uncertainty. As it emerges in Heaven, however, Lasca's transgressiveness is "real"; it is an exoticized primitivism that Van Vechten figures as inhering visibly within her body, a lean amalgam of "light brown" complexion and "Spanish or . . . Portuguese" features (NH 79). In other words, where Ella was merely a fecklessly marked body, Lasca is a "bodily mark."

[33]  As manifested in Heaven, Lasca is strongly connected both to the visual and to visual technologies, which convey but do not contain the multiple intersections of movement, desire, and "race" that Van Vechten sees her as embodying. In the book's first half, Lasca herself does not appear; instead, she is merely a rumor whose threatened return rumbles behind the book's tangle of middle-class theorizing. Yet when Mary Love, Byron's conventionally bourgeois girlfriend, picks up a photograph of Lasca, she becomes curiously drawn to it, for even the "dead, flat" representation expresses the "abundant sex-appeal in this lithe creature's body, an appeal which had filtered through the lens, been caught on the negative, and finally been stamped perdurably on this sheet of paper" (NH 80).

[34]  As Mary questions her friend Adora about the photograph, the "story" of Lasca emerges, a story replete with the "signs and portents" of the constant oscillation between ostensibly stable endpoints that so seemed to attract Van Vechten's eye and attention in the first place. She looks neither white nor "Negroid" (NH 79). The daughter of a "hell and brimstone" Southern preacher, Lasca migrated North but–at least at first–"never quite went to the devil" (NH 84). She married a rich African who, dying before he knew that she had left him for a "trap-drummer," left her the "bulk of his huge fortune" (NH 80-81).

[35]  At this point within the novel, Lasca's kinetic story serves as the backdrop for staid Mary's realization of her own bourgeois repression, her "lack" of the emotion-driven passion that Van Vechten strongly figures as her "racial" birthright. As the narrative progresses, however, Van Vechten transforms Lasca's effect upon Mary in particular and the novel's denizens in general from ambient to acute. At a charity ball, jealous Mary declares Lasca "the most striking woman" she has ever seen.

A robe of turquoise-blue satin brought out in relief every curve. The dress was cut so low in front that the little depression between her firm, round breasts was plainly visible. Her golden-brown back was entirely nude to the waist. The dress was circled with wide bands of green and black sequins, designed to resemble the fur of the leopard. (NH 163)

Where Ella Nattatorini's clothing sought to mask her body with artifice much in the same way that the Countess Verasis sought to mask the photographic representation of her own figure with bits of pinned paper, Van Vechten's portrait of Lasca is one of physical essence, "supervitality"(NH 80) merely made visible: a body revealed both in itself and in its figuratively verisimilitudinous relationship to "nature" ("the fur of the leopard") rather than "culture" (the drone of blue-vein dinner parties).

[36]  After the ball, Lasca vanishes temporarily, but her aura lurks behind the events that drive Mary and Byron apart and send Byron himself to despair. Finally "[r]ealiz[ing] his impotence" and "[f]linging himself upon a Park bench" (NH 231), Byron surrenders to a Harlem of "[b]lood and cruelty;" it is here at his most static moment that he is "summon[ed] by Lasca, visually fetishized as "flashing" eyes and gloved hand beckoning from a limousine (NH 230-31). However, where Gareth appraised coolly the opportunity costs of an affair with Ella, Byron can only moan, "I must have been waiting for you!" (NH 231). Thus lured by "this lovely animal" (NH 231), Byron abandons his middle-class attachments and descends with Lasca into a sanctuarial "hell" (NH 252) laced liberally with cocaine, absinthe, sex, and "cruel and painful pastimes" (NH 261).

[37]  Devoid of constraint, Lasca's hell, according to Van Vechten, is an exotic, "artificial environment" (NH 237), a free space where race and gender do not matter, as long as one does what one wants, regardless of written or "unwritten" law (NH 235). Interestingly, however, Van Vechten makes it clear that his serious protagonist cannot live in such an artificial world. Though Byron claims he'll "never say Amen!" to the debauch, he nevertheless desires conventional relationship closure and attempts to extract promises of "for ever" from Lasca, who simply warns him that she has "worn out better men . . . " (NH 239, 250). And indeed, after a last set of "rages, succeeded by tumultuous passions" and "hours devoted to satisfying capricious desires," Lasca turns Byron away at gunpoint, declares him a bore, and hooks up immediately with the Bolito King (NH 261). Thus does the déclassé numbers runner become the bourgeois man's rival, and thus does Byron slip into the default narrative of adversarial and predatory black manhood that seems to constitute Nigger Heaven's focus.

[38]  Refusing, however, to be distracted by this masculinist combat, Hazel Carby uniquely reads Nigger Heaven as a response to cultural anxieties roused by the Great Migration, the demographic shift of African Americans from agrarian South to urban North that "generated," Carby argues, "a series of moral panics" about migrant and ostensibly rampant, "degenerate . . . and socially dangerous" black female sexuality.64 In a book marketed largely at whites, libertine Sartoris reads as the plantation drama temptress moved north and to the city and thus becomes Van Vechten's fearful warning about "a problem that had to be rectified in order to restore a moral social order": Byron's "failure . . . to recognize the worth of Mary to the social security of his own future" and his concomitant "choice of . . . Lasca" directly causes "his social disintegration."65 Ultimately, Carby reads Nigger Heaven as Van Vechten's embrace of a middle-class order: Byron could and should have restored order by cleaving not to Lasca, but to Mary, whose "disdain of sexual promiscuity is firmly embedded, by Van Vechten, in a middle-class ideology of endlessly deferred gratification."66

[39]  Reading Van Vechten's novel alongside of Claude McKay'sHome to Harlem, Carby's analysis is exceedingly valuable. Yet, I think there is something in Nigger Heaven that happens notinstead of but in addition to (and I emphasize the readings' covalence rather than their exclusivity) the textual anxiety about black female sexuality that Carby identifies. Where The Tattooed Countess kept its focus on Gareth as he exploitatively cleaved to Ella, Nigger Heaven shifts its lens to Lasca. In fact, when Byron exclaims that he "must have been waiting for" Lasca (NH 231), it seems that it is actually Van Vechten himself who has waited most of all, for when she is present, the author's narrative style shifts, moving from the careful, allusive attention he paid to Harlem's middle class to the over-the-top imagery and innuendo that, marking his other novels, earned him labels of "perverse" and "nasty." 67 She whom Carby interprets as Nigger Heaven's anxious response to a perceived sociopathic threat also becomes Van Vechten's essentialized–if admired–fantasy of spectacularization: an alchemical mix of subject (an itinerant and sexual agency) and object (a hypervisibly racist object of desire):

As Byron's lips brushed Lasca's cheek, an exotic fragrance assailed his nostrils, a fragrance with which he was becoming more and more familiar, a fragrance it would be impossible henceforth for him to forget.

Coty? he whispered interrogatively.

No, body, she lisped. (NH 245-46)

Lasca tears her dress and declares that she'll "go naked to the Black Mass!," rakes Byron's hand to ribbons, declares she'd like to "cut his heart out," "bruise him," "gash [him] with a knife," "beat [him] with a whip" (NH 252-53). This shift into narrative floridity suggests that what Carby sees as Van Vechten's paternalistic fear of Lasca can also be read as his desire for the liberatory space he interprets her as occupying, a space that only Gareth Johns as an [apparently closeted] gay white male had before been able to achieve–but then only invisibly, outside the text in a European venue the readers never get to see. Nigger Heaven becomes a text unable to reconcile Van Vechten's fearful white fantasy of unbridled black female sexuality with his simultaneous attraction to the freedom to be both subject and object that his own narratorial melding with that fantasy seems to constitute. Interestingly, this tension subtly revises the heterosexual paradigm informing the plantation drama's script, for Van Vechten's desire is not a heterosexual one for Lasca herself. Instead, rather than wantingher, Van Vechten wants to be her. Sadly and importantly, however, Van Vechten's "wanting to be her" is predicated upon an objectification of "black woman" that is much the same and as violent, in its own way, as "wanting her" would be, for both desires depend upon the putative constant of Van Vechten's nominative privilege of white male subjectivity. Having revised the drama's heterosexual paradigm so that he becomes, via narrative, both subject pursuing and object pursued, Van Vechten does not, cannot, or will not question the very script that enables the construction of the scene through Nigger Heaven in the first place.

"The freest things on Earth"

[40]  An acknowledgment of this sad recalcitrance of desire appears to inform Miguel Covarrubias's drawing "Nude," a visual text that can be read as explicitly invoking the scene of the looking Van Vechten. Appearing "Courtesy of Carl Van Vechten" in Negro Drawings (1927), "Nude" seems to perform a process akin to that which we now call "morphing" and mingles a portrait of an unclothed African-American woman with Van Vechten's unmistakable facial features.68 In superimposing the white male interloper's visage over a black female body, the wry Covarrubias seems to realize visually the liberatory desire that Van Vechten realized verbally in Nigger Heaven: to be both of what Zora Neale Hurston ironically called the "freest thing[s] on earth": a white man and a black woman.69 Contemplating the scene of the looking Van Vechten by reading "Nude" alongside of Nigger Heaven seems to promise tantalizingly to bestow a sort of knowledge, not only about the author's apparent fascination and identification with Lasca Sartoris, but also about what Nigger Heaven, that eminently troubling text, means.

[41]  But in revising this essay from an earlier form that concluded, effectively, with "Nude" as a metonym expressing what I then figured as Nigger Heaven's meaning (i.e., the novel suggests Van Vechten's desire to "be" a black woman), I discovered that revision itself meant returning, again and again, to the Van Vechtenian scene. For example, I found myself contemplating another Covarrubias caricature, "A Prediction," which I have mentioned briefly above. Like "Nude," "A Prediction" meditates strikingly on the scene of the "inspectin'" Carl Van Vechten. Glossed by its title, "A Prediction" presumably speculates a future closure to what, in the 1920s, was a present story: that Van Vechten's involvement with black culture would result in a visual blending of his "self" with a collectivized "blackness." In other words, Van Vechten would turn black, a process that Vanity Fair, for one, perceived as already well under way.70 At first, "A Prediction" seemingly confirms the story's "meaning" by merging Van Vechten's distinctive facial features with [spurious] corporeal sureties of blackness (darkened "skin," linearly "nappy" hair).71 Accordingly, Kellner reads "A Prediction" as "Van Vechten in blackface" while Lewis describes it as a "coal-black Van Vechten," and Worth calls it a "black Van Vechten."72

[42]  Following this synthetic logic, "Nude," which appears in Covarrubias's 1927 Negro Drawings, could then be read as a variation on "A Prediction": Van Vechten in black[woman]face. Given the fact that the drawing appeared closely after Nigger Heaven, such a conclusion worked initially for me to confirm my reading of the novel as expressing Van Vechten's ostensible desire to "be" a black woman, whatever that might mean. However, I became increasingly troubled about my own reading of "Nude" as I reflected further upon the interpretations of "A Prediction." Kellner, Lewis, and Worth all figure the meaning of the drawing as the sum total of two–and only two–constitutive identities putatively knowable through sight: the "individual" named Carl Van Vechten plus "race" (i.e., blackness) equals black Van Vechten. Other elements that might be drawn upon explicitly in the construction or speculation of meaning (e.g., gaze, context, etc.) do not factor into the equation. Certainly, I thought, Kellner's, Lewis's, and Worth's readings are all problematic, relying upon and preserving as they do the visible traces of the dual Western apportionment of "abstract [individual] citizenship" to white males and an undifferentiated "racial and gendered embodiment" to "others."73 When I then looked back at "Nude," however, my own complicity with that which I had just critiqued became strikingly clear. For my own reading of "Nude" had itself preserved "Van Vechten" as a coherent subject, one that remains whole even when augmented with "race" (blackness) and "gender" (femaleness), and such a reading called into question exactly what and how I see. Under questioning, then, the various manifestations of the Van Vechten scene shifted for me from being "readable" texts that allegedly produce knowledge (i.e., providing answers to what Van Vechten was doing, what Nigger Heaven meant) to ones that are essentially "unreadable," ones that perhaps produce only the knowledge or awareness that the reader is looking at Van Vechten looking. In this way, "Nude" and "A Prediction" (as well as Stein's "ONE" and Autobiography) function much the same way that, inevitably, The Tattooed Countess and Nigger Heaven do, bouncing the questing reader circularly back to the scene of unreadableness–the looking Van Vechten himself–and producing not "meanings" but instead processes of readerly self-reflection and interrogation that circulate unceasingly around Van Vechten as the object of our desire, the critic whom we long to know. For to contemplate the looking Van Vechten means also to contemplate ourselves in the act of looking–a realization that is both critically nourishing, as it invites as a response, a dialogic engagement (e.g., more narrative) and vexing, as it requires effort towards contributing, as Kobena Mercer has outlined in his own self-reflective responses to Robert Mapplethorpe's black male photographs, "to the mapping of the political unconscious we all inhabit as embodied subjects of identity, desire, and history."74

[43]  In the end it is worth mentioning, I think, that much as the visual image of "Nude" contributed both to my "solution" to Nigger Heaven and my subsequent problematization of that "solution." Lasca's felicitous relationship to the visual itself seemed to promise both a more productive and a more problematic medium for Carl Van Vechten's apparent quest to stage the scene of his looking self. For soon after the Harlem novel, the "inspectin'" Van Vechten relocated himself to the West Coast: Hollywood and the motion picture industry. A 1927 Vanity Fair cartoon features scores of L.A. notables "Tuesday Night at the Cocoanut Grove;" amid this tableau is sketched a tuxedoed Carl Van Vechten who neither looks directly at the magazine's viewer nor meets another reveler's eyes.75 Instead, his gaze is directed somewhere else, a detail that again constructs him as a detached and elusive object of visual desire. And two years after the Harlem novel, Van Vechten wrote his sixth and penultimate novel Spider Boy (1928), which follows the fortunes of Ambrose Deacon, a playwright pursued (quite against his will) by Hollywood folk wishing him to write the definitive script for them; in other words, the promulgator of the gaze–a potential script-writer–becomes the object pursued and desired by all. Despite the book's status as the "gayest" of all Van Vechten's novels, however,Spider Boy did not sell well; one of Van Vechten's correspondents observed that the novel "caused no stir in Hollywood 'because nobody out there read any books.'"76The celluloid–the visual image–had become all. After 1930'sParties, Van Vechten left novel writing altogether and threw himself into the visual, embarking on the decades-long career in intra- and interracial portrait photography that, providing us with some of the best-known images of such artists as Billie Holliday, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Nella Larsen, has also constituted a key site of critical compilations and investigations of his work.77 Ultimately, acknowledging Van Vechten's apparent shift from the verbal to the visual enables critical re-vision (to borrow Adrienne Rich's terminology) of his novels and encourages us, as his critics, to interrogate our own complex investments in his visual work–often at the expense of the verbal–as well.



I would like to thank William Harrison, Melissa Mowry, and Judith Roof for their insightful and helpful readings while this essay was in progress. Additionally, I am grateful to the anonymous readers at Gendersfor their keen and excellent advice.


  1. I place the term "race" here in quotes to indicate at the outset the concept's status as fantastic artifice naturalized into a force with very real effects. Reading Van Vechten's career as an extended inquiry into such concepts as race is, in part, in answer to Chidi Ikonnè's long-ago and careful call to reconsider Van Vechten and his novels (36). See Ikonnè, From DuBois to Van Vechten: The Early New Negro Literature, 1903-1926(Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981), 36.back
  2. Kaja Silverman, The Threshold of the Visible World(New York: Routledge, 1996), 227.back
  3. Gertrude Stein, "ONE," Geography and Plays(Boston: Four Seas, 1922), 200.back
  4. Diana Souhami, Gertrude and Alice (San Francisco: Pandora, 1991), 118.back
  5. Gertrude Stein, "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,"Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, Carl Van Vechten, ed. (New York: Vintage, 1990), 128.back
  6. Ibid., 128.back
  7. Stein, "ONE," 199.back
  8. Much of the more recent work on Gertrude Stein has circulated around questions of how (or if) her "identities" as woman and as lesbian play into her work. Works that grapple with such issues include Elizabeth Fifer, Rescued Readings: A Reconstruction of Gertrude Stein's Difficult Texts (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992); Harriet Scott Chessman, The Public is Invited to Dance: Representation, the Body, and Dialogue in Gertrude Stein(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989); Shari Benstock, "Expatriate Modernism: Writing on the Cultural Rim," Women's Writing in Exile, Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram, eds. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989); Elizabeth Meese,(Sem)erotics: Theorizing Lesbian : Writing (New York: New York University Press, 1992). It is with "Melanctha," most often, that "race" becomes a critical issue; see Corinne E. Blackmer, "African Masks and the Arts of Passing in Gertrude Stein's "Melanctha" and Nella Larsen's Passing ," Journal of the History of Sexuality 4.2 (1993).back
  9. Bruce Kellner, Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968), 75.back
  10. Edward Burns notes that the term "woojums" first appears in Van Vechten's Parties (1930) as a synonym for an absinthe cocktail. Souhami observes that Van Vechten seems to have first called Stein "a woojums" as a term of endearment in 1932; it was not until two years later, however, that the "Woojums" family dynamic coalesced, when Stein and Toklas visited America. As Souhami writes, Carl Van Vechten was Papa Woojums, and the one who made things happen. Alice was Mama Woojums, the lesser parent who did all the tedious work and had on her hands Baby Woojums, variously described as he or it, who got into tempers, was provocative but delightful, needed constant attention and liked to get up late. See The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Carl Van Vechten , Edward Burns, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 255, note 2; Souhami, 210.back
  11. Intriguingly, Stein's own work can be read as manifesting a dynamic whose contours, at least, are similar to the one that she perceived to be circulating around Van Vechten. As Jane Palatini Bowers has observed, Stein's 1933 play Byron contains the line "They watch me as they watch this," a line that Bowers selects as the emblematic title to her book on Stein's "metadrama." See Bowers, " They Watch Me as They Watch This": Gertrude Stein's Metadrama (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), 83.back
  12. Carl Van Vechten, Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works (New York: Knopf, 1922), 187.back
  13. David Levering Lewis, When Harlem was in Vogue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 114.back
  14. Carl Van Vechten, "Letter to Hugh Walpole," Letters of Carl Van Vechten, Bruce Kellner, ed. and sel. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 72.back
  15. Kellner, 280-82.back
  16. Carl Van Vechten, "Letter to Arna Bontemps," Letters of Carl Van Vechten, 232.back
  17. Walter Benjamin expresses the pleasure circulating around the project of collecting in a somewhat similar, though perhaps more hermetic, vein: the "existence [of a collector] is tied to . . . a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value–that is, their usefulness–but studies and lives them as the scene, the stage, of their fate." See "Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting," Illuminations, Hannah Arendt, ed. and intro. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1955), 60.back
  18. Jonathan Weinberg, "'Boy Crazy': Carl Van Vechten's Queer Collection," Yale Journal of Criticism 7.2 (Fall 1994), 47, 48.back
  19. Ibid., 27, 47.back
  20. Ibid., 47.back
  21. Quoted in Kellner, 280.back
  22. Lewis, 182.back
  23. Quoted in Lewis, 182.back
  24. Quoted in Kellner, 195. Gleaned largely from information found in Kellner's Van Vechten biography, this litany of scene-setting anecdotes has been proliferated widely, from Nathan Huggins'sHarlem Renaissance(New York: Oxford University Press, 1971) to Lewis's When Harlem Was in Vogue to Robert F. Worth's recent article in African American Review, " Nigger Heaven and the Harlem Renaissance" (Fall 1995). Time 's jab here is worth attending to more directly, for its tone and content constitute an apt synecdoche for a larger, disturbing critical tradition of responding to and/or managing the complexities of the Van Vechten scene. This tradition explicitly or implicitly "explains" Van Vechten's oscillation around and across the color line as a matter of opportunistic homosexual predation and is manifested most visibly (though not uniquely) around the Black Arts movement, echoing perhaps the defensively homophobic pronouncements of LeRoi Jones and Eldridge Cleaver. The most striking emblem of this tradition is perhaps found in Ishmael Reed's tour de force Mumbo Jumbo (1972), where the character Hinckle Von Vampton represents at least in part an obvious play upon Carl Van Vechten. Shifting "Van Vechten" to "Von Vampton" of course invokes "vampire" and "vamp," terms that connote not only the vampirization of black culture of which Van Vechten was accused, but also the decadent, threatening sexuality inherent in the concept of the vampire. In Mumbo Jumbo, Reed manipulates allegations of racial exploitation with an idea of homosexuality as perversion and further embellishes that intersection with intimations of pedophilia and necrophilia. Though certainly less florid than Reed, Nathan Huggins and David Levering Lewis both cast Van Vechten similarly, as a "tittering" gay white icon whose interests in black culture were inauthentic. It should be noted here that one of my goals in this essay is to intervene in this tradition, not to defend Van Vechten against allegations of exploitative racism but to expand the scope and complexitize the stakes in understanding the nuances of race and sexuality as such terms are figured by and around Van Vechten and his work. See Ishmael Reed,Mumbo Jumbo (New York: Atheneum, 1972).back
  25. Carl Van Vechten, Response to "The Negro in Art: How Shall He Be Portrayed[?] A Symposium," The Crisis 31.5 (March 1926): 219.back
  26. Lewis, 123.back
  27. For a deftly thorough account of what Eleanor Perènyi recalled vaguely as the "furore" surroundingNigger Heaven, see Worth, who synthesizes both the widely known responses (Rudolph Fisher's and James Weldon Johnson's support of the book, for example, and W.E.B. DuBois's declaration of it as a "blow in the face") and those that are perhaps lesser known (such as Hubert Harrison's "Homo Africanus Harlemi" in the 1926 African American newspaper Pittsburgh Courier. Harrison "mockingly" praised Van Vechten's implicitly feminized eye for description). Perènyi, "Carl Van Vechten," The Yale Review 77.4 (Summer 1988): 531; Worth, 464, 468.back
  28. Kellner, 220.back
  29. The Literary History of the United States buries Van Vechten in a list of "representative writers during the twenties" who "achieved varying degrees of popular success" while Robert Stepto in the more contemporary Columbia Literary History of the United Statesdismisses him as a producer of "minor novels." See Robert E. Spiller, et al, eds., Bibliography, Volume 2 of Literary History of the United States (New York: MacMillan, 1974), 150; Stepto, "Afro-American Literature," Columbia Literary History of the United States, Emory Elliott, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 788.back
  30. Marcy Jane Knopf and Elizabeth J. Swanson Goldberg recount their difficulties in attempting to find a publisher for a new edition ofNigger Heaven in "On Judging Books by Covers: Re-Reading Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven, "a paper presented at the 24th annual Twentieth Century Literature Conference, University of Louisville (February 22, 1996).back
  31. W.E.B. DuBois, "Criteria of Negro Art," The Seventh Son: The Thought and Writings of W.E.B. DuBois, Volume II, Julius Lester, ed., and intro. (New York: Random House, 1971), 319 (the essay appeared originally in The Crisis 32 (October 1926).back
  32. Manthia Diawara, "The Absent One: The Avant-Garde and the Black Imaginary in Looking for Langston,"Wide Angle 13.3-4 (July-October 1991): 99.back
  33. Kellner, 153.back
  34. Carl Van Vechten, The Tattooed Countess (New York: Knopf, 1924), 102. Further references to this work will be included parenthetically in the text and will be abbreviated as TC. back
  35. George Chauncey, Gay New York (New York: Basic Books, 1994).back
  36. Kellner, 153.back
  37. In Firecrackers (New York: Knopf, 1925), the Countess meets her tragic end. Tended on her deathbed by Campaspe Lorillard (another recurring Van Vechten character), Ella summons a priest to administer the last rites to her. Before the priest's arrival, Ella spurs herself into euphoric fantasies about how young and therefore handsome the priest will be, yet even in the end, Ella's desires are thwarted: an elderly priest enters to give her the last rites.back
  38. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, "The Legs of the Countess,"Fetishism as Cultural Discourse , Emily Apter and William Pietz, eds. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 271.back
  39. Ibid., 282.back
  40. Ibid., 284.back
  41. Ibid., 306.back
  42. Carl Van Vechten, "Letter to Arthur Davison Ficke," Letters of Carl Van Vechten , 68.back
  43. Carl Van Vechten, "Letter to Hugh Walpole," Letters of Carl Van Vechten, 72.back
  44. Robyn Wiegman, American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 3.back
  45. Kellner, 157.back
  46. Quoted in Kellner, 157.back
  47. Kellner, 157.back
  48. Ibid., 157.back
  49. Quoted in Kellner, 157.back
  50. Judith Roof, "Introduction: 'Concentrate on sex. Leave out the poetry'," Modern Fiction Studies 41.3-4 (Sexuality and Narrative Double Issue) (Fall-Winter 1995), 430.back
  51. This quotation by Raymond Radiguet appears in French ("Ce n'est pas dans la nouveaute, c'est dans l'habitudé que nous trouvons les plus grands plaisirs") as the epigraph to Van Vechten's Parties, his final novel.back
  52. Quoted in Charles Scruggs, "Crab Antics and Jacob's Ladder: Aaron Douglas's Two Views of Nigger Heaven," The Harlem Renaissance Re-examined , Victor A. Kramer, ed. (New York: AMS Press, 1987), 150. As with any text, opposing readings of the balcony metaphor exist in tension with the one proffered by Van Vechten and echoed not only by Knopf but also by pro-Van Vechten critics. DuBois, as Worth points out, generated one of those opposing readings; what Van Vechten saw as a "haven," DuBois characterized as a "nasty, sordid corner into which black folk are herded, and yet a place which they in crass ignorance are fools enough to enjoy" (see Worth, 464). One location where this advertisement for Nigger Heaven may be found is Publishers' Weekly 109 (June 26, 1926): 2008.back
  53. Carl Van Vechten, Nigger Heaven (New York: Knopf, 1926), 149. Further references to this work will be included parenthetically in the text and will be abbreviated NH.back
  54. Scruggs, 149-51.back
  55. Carl Van Vechten, "Letter to Louis Bromfield," Letters of Carl Van Vechten , 88.back
  56. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam might characterize Harlem's response as one rebelling not only against being positioned as objects within the novel, but also against being positioned as "spectators . . . who become slaves, as Fanon puts it [in Black Skin, White Masks], of their own appearance: 'Look, a Negro! . . . I am being dissected under white eyes. I am fixed '." On a very basic level, the difference between the reactions of Cedar Rapids and Harlem to being reconstructed with a Van Vechten novel has to do with the non-equivalence and asymmetricality of the two communities' positioning within a political and representational "continuum" where all negative stereotypes are hurtful . . . [but] do not all exercise the same power in the world. The facile catch-all invention of 'stereotypes' elides a crucial distinction: stereotypes of some communities merely make the target group uncomfortable, but the community has the social power to combat and resist them; stereotypes of other communities participate in a continuum of prejudicial social policy and actual violence against disempowered people, placing the very body of the accused in jeopardy. This distinction is crucial to Nigger Heaven's particular historical moment; as Worth notes, though lynching had been relatively quiescent in the early 1920s, the crime took a sudden leap in 1925-1926. To Harlemites, the difference to be traveled between what could be taken as whites' verbal violence and whites' physical violence was as miniscule and as quickly traversable as ever. See Shohat and Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London: Routledge, 1994), 348, 183; see also Worth, 466.back
  57. Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), 270.back
  58. Lewis, 194.back
  59. Hughes, 270.back
  60. Addison Gayle, The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press, 1975), 87.back
  61. The novel is subtitled "A Romantic Novel with a Happy Ending."back
  62. Carl Van Vechten, "Letter to H.L. Mencken," Letters of Carl Van Vechten, 87.back
  63. Wiegman, 25. Wiegman's observation is made within the context of her exploring the incommensurabilities between America's putatively heritable slavery and ancient modes that did not see "enslavement" as a feature emerging biologically from an immanent, immutable difference.back
  64. Hazel V. Carby, "Policing the Black Woman's Body in an Urban Context," Critical Inquiry 18 (Summer 1992): 739.back
  65. Ibid., 740, 747-49.back
  66. Ibid., 748.back
  67. As Kellner confirms, Van Vechten's careful (if patronizing) championing and critiquing of the black bourgeoisie caused him to "purposely . . . avoid his usual, light-fingered, sleight-of-hand manipulations of syntax." See Kellner, 215. The adjectives for Van Vechten's prose are quoted in Kellner, 141.back
  68. Miguel Covarrubias, "Nude," Illustration 23, Negro Drawings(New York: Knopf, 1927).back
  69. For Hurston, the irony underlying this adage is clear: the two types of freedom are not commensurable, one being the residence of dominant cultural power, and the other the site of, as Aida Hurtado observes, dominant culture's rejection. See Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 280; Aida Hurtado, The Color of Privilege: Three Blasphemies on Race and Feminism(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).back
  70. Quoted in Kellner, 198.back
  71. The following passage from Passing , written by Van Vechten's friend Nella Larsen, is worth quoting here: "White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot." See Nella Larsen, Quicksand and Passing, Deborah E. McDowell, ed. and intro. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986), 150.back
  72. Kellner, 198; Lewis 182; Worth,462.back
  73. See Lauren Berlant, "National Brands/National Body: Imitation of Life," Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text (Essays from the English Institute), Hortense J. Spillers, ed., (New York: Routledge, 1991), 113.back
  74. Kobena Mercer, "Reading Racial Fetishism: The Photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe," Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, Emily Apter and William Pietz, eds. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 329. As a similar example of complex self-interrogation, I would also like to call attention to an essay that appeared in these pages just as this article was being reviewed: James Smalls, "Public Face, Private Thoughts: Fetish, Interracialism, and the Homoerotic in Some Photographs by Carl Van Vechten," Genders25 (1997).back
  75. Ralph Barton, "A Tuesday Night at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles as Imagined by a Noted American Artist, Ralph Barton,"Vanity Fair 28.4 (June 1927): 62-63.back
  76. Quoted in Kellner, 233, 235.back
  77. See Rudolph Byrd, Generations in Black and White: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten from the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993); Paul Padgette, sel., The Dance Photography of Carl Van Vechten (New York: Schirmer, 1981); Keith F. Davis, The Passionate Observer: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten (Kansas City: Hallmark Cards, 1993).back