New Scholarship: The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America

January 27, 2014

By Nancy Kuhl

The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America by Edward White. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-0-374-20157-9
Reviewed in Publishers Weekly: In his immensely entertaining and vivid first book, White tackles the life and times of Carl Van Vechten, one of the most influential figures in American culture in the early 20th century. Born in 1880 as the youngest child of a wealthy Iowa family, Van Vechten arrived in New York City at the turn of the century—an aesthete dropped into a vibrant metropolis on the cusp of transformation. Over the next decades, working first as a reporter and then as an essayist and novelist, Van Vechten promoted modernist art along with the African-American music and literature of the burgeoning Harlem Renaissance. A bon vivant, Van Vechten pursued affairs with women (he married twice) and men at a time when homosexuality was illegal. He was also a shameless attention-seeker who courted notoriety, and, after publishing a series of controversial bestselling novels, his home became a hub of cultural life in the 1920s. A champion of such writers as Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Gertrude Stein, Van Vechten gained prominence as a photographer later in life and remained at the forefront of cultural trends until his death in 1964. White’s biography offers absorbing anecdotes and insights into New York society and culture as seen through the life of an “archetypal American modernist.” 38 b&w illus. Agent: Chris Parris-Lamb, the Gernert Company. (Feb.)