The spirit of the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties, and the lost generation is nowhere better depicted than in the saucy and irreverent novels of Carl Van Vechten. Van Vechten moved deftly through three careers: he began as a music, dance, and drama critic, producing several volumes of wide-ranging, urbane essays; then, he devoted himself to fiction, writing seven well-received novels in a decade that saw the first publications of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos; finally, he became a noted photographer, specializing in portraits of writers and artists.
In all his diverse endeavors, Van Vechten was witty, cosmopolitan, and above all, unconventional. He publicized the work of such writers as William Faulkner, Ronald Firbank, and especially Gertrude Stein, who remained his close friend until her death, and who assigned him as her literary executor. He was among the first critics to recognize the exciting cultural renaissance flourishing in Harlem and devoted much effort to helping establish the careers of Countée Cullen, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and other black artists. He saw himself as a popularizer and supporter of avant-garde artists, and with a clear eye and self-assurance, he brought to the attention of the American public figures ranging from Wasaw Nijinsky to Erik Satie, from Mary Garden to Igor Stravinsky.
Van Vechten, more than many of his contemporaries, lived the literary life with seemingly boundless enthusiasm. His verve animates all of his writing, including the essays he frequently contributed to such journals as Trend, The Smart Set, and Vanity Fair. This effervescent spirit informs his novels as well. His wide interests, diverse friendships, and tireless pursuit of the new, the brilliant, and the innovative make Van Vechten a fascinating guide to America’s cultural life in the first decades of the twentieth century.