Fixity and Fantasy:
Langston Hughes, Carl Van Vechten,
and The Weary Blues
essay begins by making a bold statement: we, even as 21st-century
scholars, remain haunted by the "meaning" of the Harlem Renaissance.
Please allow me to point to and quote at length an endnote buried
in small print at the back of Houston Baker's Modernism and
the Harlem Renaissance. In endnote 17, Baker writes that
phrase 'when Harlem was in vogue' is drawn [for David Levering
Lewis' book by the same title] from the section of Langston
Hughes's autobiography The Big Sea devoted to the Harlem
Renaissance. Hughes writes of the renaissance as a mere 'vogue'
set in motion and largely financed by white downtowners while
Negroes played minstrel and trickster roles in it all. A time
of low seriousness and charming highjinks is what Hughes (one
hopes ironically) portrays. [...] He reads treacherous patronage
over the entire Harlem Renaissance. Further, to say, as Hughes
does, that you were 'only funny' is to dampen the pain that
results if you were really serious and your patron [speaking
mainly of Mrs. R. Osgood Mason] was 'funny' all along. (110)
foreground Baker's footnote because it addresses several of
the concerns that still haunt (albeit in the "Notes" section)
both Baker's text and the questions that I pose in this essay:
What was the relationship between white patronage and black
cultural production during the Harlem Renaissance? Did relationships
between white benefactors and black artists compromise and/or
distort "black" art? Or, more to the point here, how did the
interaction between white patron Carl Van Vechten and poet Langston
Hughes affect Hughes's work, specifically his first collection
of poetry, The Weary Blues? With these questions in mind,
I will argue that Van Vechten's brief introduction to Hughes's
book of poetry, along with the front cover he commissioned from
Mexican caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias, attempts to collapse
the poetry, the front cover, and the author into a fixed image
that shuts down productive readings of The Weary Blues.
Utilizing Homi Bhabha's notion of the fixity and fantasy of
the stereotype, I hope to pull these aspects "apart," to "(dis)integrate"
Van Vechten's preface from Hughes's poetic text, in order to
accentuate the multiple voices, perspectives, and identities
which recur throughout Hughes's 1926 collection.
the past decade, scholars James Smalls and Jonathan Weinberg
have considered Carl Van Vechten's role in the Harlem Renaissance
by analyzing his (homo)sexually explicit photographs and notebook
collages; indeed, while their critical interventions maintain
the complex nature, meanings, and implications of the photographs,
they situate Van Vechten's photography at the center of his
relationship to African-American culture. Drawing upon their
work, I would like to use the metaphor of a picture frame in
order to think about Van Vechten's interaction with the revision,
publication, introduction, and binding of Hughes's book, all
processes in which Van Vechten was involved intimately. To be
sure, Van Vechten's introduction to Hughes's work is located
in a tradition of black-authored texts with white-authored prefaces
that attempt to validate the author's literacy or identity,
a method used in texts by such varied authors as Phyllis Wheatley,
Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs. In addition, I would
argue that Van Vechten's foreword, especially when considered
as a border that tries to limit its text in the same way that
a frame circumscribes its photograph, approximates what Homi
Bhabha describes in his essay "The Other Question" as the stereotype.
writes that "the stereotype, which is [colonial discourse's]
major discursive strategy, is a form of knowledge and identification
that vacillates between what is always 'in place,' already known,
and something that must be anxiously repeated" (66). Certainly,
Van Vechten's relationship with Langston Hughes is not one of
the colonizer with the colonized in a strict sense, but the
power differentials afforded a white and black man in 1920s
New York, especially in terms of the (white) publishing world,
allow aspects of Bhabha's formulation to be quite useful in
this analysis. Clearly, Bhabha interests himself not in disproving
racial stereotypes but rather in analyzing how and why they
function; indeed, he tells us that his "reading of colonial
discourse suggests that the point of intervention should shift
from the ready recognition of images as positive or negative,
to an understanding of the processes of subjectification made
possible (and plausible) through stereotypical discourse" (67).
Bhabha's use of the verb "shift," even, proves instructive,
as this paper hopes to locate places where the poetry itself
shifts under the glass Van Vechten places over it, exceeds the
boundaries he attempts to set around it.
one picks up an original copy of Hughes's 1926 text, one finds
on the front cover [Figure 1] a caricature of a black male blues
singer seated at a piano with his head thrown back, mouth open,
apparently giving rise to the words, "The Weary Blues,"
which are printed across the top of the drawing. His hands are
raised above the keyboard, as if taking a break in the middle
of the song for his voice to command an audience's attention
before returning to the keyboard. Across the bottom of the cover,
one finds the words "by Langston Hughes." Then, upon turning
the first few pages, one reads Van Vechten's proclamation, "INTRODUCING
LANGSTON HUGHES TO THE READER" (9). Already we see the work
performed by the cover and Van Vechten's initial words the preface
conflates the poet, the singing figure presented on the cover,
and the poetry into one fixed image. It is as if Van Vechten
announces the singer on the cover, the poet himself, and the
verses, all with this first statement. Throughout his introduction,
Van Vechten describes Hughes's career as a "picturesque romance,"
a "primitive outline" of which Van Vechten hopes to be able
to "sketch" (11). The reader gets the sense that the poetry
will illuminate Hughes's "career," or, to put it more bluntly,
will serve as an autobiography, or, in Van Vechten's words,
a "primitive outline" of one.
Vechten's attention to the verse itself constitutes perhaps
the most interesting aspect of the preface. The paragraph is
illuminating and worth quoting at length.
verses, however, are by no means limited to an exclusive mood;
he writes caressingly of little black prostitutes in Harlem;
his cabaret songs throb with the true jazz rhythm; his sea-pieces
ache with a calm, melancholy lyricism; he cries bitterly from
the heart of his race in Cross and The Jester; he sighs, in
one of the most successful of his fragile poems, over the
loss of a loved friend. Always, however, his stanzas are subjective,
personal. They are the (I had almost said informal, for they
have a highly deceptive air of spontaneous improvisation)
expression of an essentially sensitive and subtly illusive
nature, seeking always to break through the veil that obscures
for him, at least in some degree, the ultimate needs of that
Van Vechten first notices that Hughes's "verses" are not restricted
to "one mood," but it becomes clear by the end of the paragraph
that Van Vechten means that the poems, always "personal," reflect
the different "moods" of the author himself, showing how he
reads Hughes's poems as pieces of personal autobiography. Secondly,
all the writing metaphors are subtly sexualized metaphors: the
poet "writes caressingly," his songs "throb," his pieces "ache,"
and he "cries" and then "sighs." The writing of these "personal
poems" is depicted as a sex act, beginning with caresses and
ending with a post-climax "sigh." Van Vechten frames the collection
of poems as a single poet's sexual relationship with himself
or, one might claim, between the two men who collaborated to
bring The Weary Blues into existence: Van Vechten and
makes Van Vechten's writings also approximate Bhabha's "stereotype"
is how Van Vechten implies that he "knows" what the poet himself
cannot see. Van Vechten claims that he perceives how these personal
poems express Hughes's "essential" nature, one whose "needs"
are hidden from Hughes himself behind a veil. Indeed, this isn't
the Duboisian notion of a "veil" which, existing between the
black and white person, is translucent for the black individual
looking through it and gives rise to a second sight, a sense
of double consciousness. Here, Van Vechten's veil shields part
of the poet's nature from himself, but, importantly, not from
the powerful spectatorial position of Van Vechten. Van Vechten's
prose not only points out his self-aggrandizing presumption
(i.e., "I can know Langston better than he can know himself
because I'm a better reader of his poetry than he is") but also
highlights this homology to Bhabha's formulations. As he explains,
"[D]espite the 'play' in the colonial system which is crucial
to its exercise of power, colonial discourse produces the colonized
as a social reality which is at once an 'other' and yet entirely
knowable and visible. It resembles a form of narrative whereby
the productivity and circulation of subjects and signs are bound
in a reformed and recognizable totality" (70, emphasis added).
Regarded in this way, Van Vechten's introduction can be seen
as a piece of stereotypical discourse that attempts to "know"
and "see" the "other" while still keeping that "other" locked
into a fixed and repeatable image palatable for the reader.
In other words, Van Vechten's "frame" allows him to see Hughes
while still circumscribing Hughes within that frame.
perhaps Van Vechten undertook such an endeavor. After meeting
Hughes at the Opportunity magazine's literary awards banquet
in 1925, Van Vechten invited him to his home and encouraged
him to bring the poetry manuscripts that would eventually become
The Weary Blues. Hughes left the manuscripts with Van
Vechten, and the next day he approached the poet about publishing
them (Rampersad 108-110). Very soon afterward, Van Vechten began
pushing Hughes to write an autobiography and asked Hughes for
his permission to write the introduction to the collection before
he met with publisher Alfred A. Knopf. In a letter to Van Vechten
dated May 15, 1925, Hughes wrote back, "I would be very, very
pleased if you would do an introduction to my poems. I am glad
you liked the poems in the new arrangement and I do hope Knopf
will like them, too. It would be great to have such a fine publisher!"
(Remember Me 8-9). Hughes's very few sentences illustrate how
inextricably linked were the issues of Van Vechten's proposed
introduction, his advocacy on behalf of Hughes to Knopf, and
the poetry's eventual publication.
Vechten then collaborated with Hughes on his revisions and reordering
of the poems, got Knopf to publish the verse, secured Covarrubias
to do the cover, and picked out the binding paper for the text
itself (Rampersad 108-112). Importantly, these myriad "framing
devices," one might call them, were created around the text
after the verse had been written. Indeed, although Hughes appeared
outwardly pleased with the publication of his book and lauded
Van Vechten's introduction, literary historian Arnold Rampersad
claims Hughes expressed some trepidation about The Weary
Blues in published form. He writes that
mid-November when Hughes received the complete proof of The
Weary Blues, his nervousness about the volume began to
build again. Covarrubias's strength was in caricature, and
blacks hated to be caricatured. And what of Van Vechten's
introduction, which he himself had sanctioned? Would blacks
find it patronizing? Obviously, Hughes himself wondered how
much of his integrity, if any, he had surrendered in his closeness
with Van Vechten. His conscience, in fact, was clear on this
score; publicly and privately, he stuck by Van Vechten for
the rest of his life. But in a letter to Gwendolyn Bennett...
he worried about these matters. (116)
as elucidating as Hughes's personal correspondence and anxiety
about Van Vechten's involvement in his work might prove to be,
in order to consider how Van Vechten's introduction takes part
in stereotyping discourse that is always already flawed, we
must turn to some of the poems themselves.
Van Vechten's introduction fails to account for the multi-vocality
of the text itself. It does not present one poet's singular
and cohesive voice, despite what the picture of the cover and
Van Vechten's preface might lead one to believe. Instead, we
find Hughes employing many differing voices; one cannot locate
and fix the poet's "autobiographical" voice. In the opening
poem "Proem," for example, the poetic voice claims to be a Negro
from Africa, a slave of both Caesar and George Washington, a
worker on the pyramids and the Woolworth Building, a singer
of slave sorrow songs and ragtime, and a victim of Belgian colonialism
and Texas lynching practices. Clearly this "I" who "is" all
these different things cannot be reduced to the "I" of Langston
Hughes who holds the pen. Instead, much like the voice of "The
Negro Speaks of Rivers," this is a mythic black "I," an "I"
that embodies a type of collective consciousness for a group
of people. Van Vechten futilely tries to reduce Hughes's work
to the "personal," when clearly Hughes's verse attempts to expand
to include experiences far outside his own.
title poem "The Weary Blues" does similar work, but here
Hughes uses direct quotes to mark the narrator's voice from
that of the blues singer he encounters in a club on Lenox Avenue.
As scores of literary scholars have pointed out, "The Weary
Blues" presents the more formal English used by the narrator
voice who tells us that "In a deep song voice with a melancholy
tone / I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan" (23).
The language used by the narrator throws the quoted verse of
the blues singer into stark relief as he sings
got nobody in all this world,
got nobody but ma self.
I's gwine to quit ma frownin'
And put ma troubles on the shelf. (23)
points to the disjunction between the two voices as a way to
claim Hughes's "awkward position" in relation to the blues culture
itself (65). His point is well-taken, and I would push it even
further to unsettle the suggestion made by the cover illustration
and Van Vechten's introduction. Hughes cannot be easily conflated
with the blues singer; indeed, the narrative voice in this poem
describes his experience of listening to the blues and quotes
the singer himself. Hughes is not just the singer of The Weary
Blues; he is one of the audience members as well. As Paul Allen
Anderson points out, Hughes argued within the context of the
Harlem Renaissance that the blues was a more representative
music for the black folk than the spirituals, as Du Bois had
claimed (170-1). Hughes's use of the blues wasn't merely "personal"
as Van Vechten saw it; rather, it represented both an aesthetic
and political statement on the part of the poet.
Hughes's poetry "shifts" under Van Vechten's glass and exceeds
the frame he placed around it.
poetry further upsets the fixity of Van Vechten's introduction
by refusing to rely on binaristic systems of racial or sexual
identity and instead presenting identities that do not "fit"
into clearly demarcated categories. In his poem, "Cross," the
narrative voice wonders where, as the child of a white man and
a black woman, he will meet the end of his life, asking, "I
wonder where I'm gonna die, / Being neither white nor black?"
(52). Although Van Vechten explicitly claims that Hughes "cries
bitterly from the heart of his race" (13), in this specific
poem Hughes clearly points out the socially constructed and
fluid nature of "race" by illustrating that the narrative voice
can't find his "place" in one "race" or the other, neither in
life nor in death. The narrator's mere existence proves what
Jennifer Brody calls the "impossible purity" of either racial
category. Additionally, I would argue that Hughes's collection
does similar work around the issue of sexuality. Poems such
as "A Black Pierrot" depict an unfulfilled love relationship
between the narrative voice and a woman, but other poems like
"Songs to the Dark Virgin" and "Poem: To the Black Beloved"
do not specify a gender for the loved person. Furthermore, "Poem:
To F.S." conveys the grief of the poet over the loss of his
male friend. I do not cite this poem as others have done before
to argue that Langston Hughes was "really" a homosexual but
to illustrate how his collection refuses to offer up any one
fixed type of sexuality. To the contrary, The Weary Blues
presents what queer theorist Eve Sedgwick has termed a "universalizing"
view of sexuality, one that isn't underpinned by a binary and
minoritizing view but rather considers sexuality "as an issue
of continuing, determinative importance in the lives of people
across the spectrum of sexualities" (1). Hughes's poetry exceeds
all sorts of boundaries, both those of Van Vechten's "frame"
and those of the society around him.
further unsettling boundaries that differentiate black from
white, The Weary Blues employs the characters of a black
jester and Pierrot, a black clown, in order to trouble both
boundaries and notions of the black minstrel and trickster figures.
In "The Jester," the narrative voice of the black jester inverts
tragedy and comedy, claiming that "Tears are my laughter. /
Laughter is my pain" (53). He claims that they are "Masks for
the soul," implying that a spectator can't rely on outward appearances
in order to "see through" the performance to what Van Vechten
calls the "essential nature" of the performer. Hughes expands
upon this theme of performance and masking in his poem "A Black
Pierrot." In this poem, we find a "black Pierrot," or a clown
wearing not white, but black, face paint, confronting the fact
that his love for a mysterious "she" is unrequited. Here, Hughes
conjures the idea of black face paint not to depict his character
as a minstrel but rather to point out the social construction
of race based upon skin color and to emphasize the always unstable
relationship between changing exterior surfaces and one's interiority.
A few poems later, in "Pierrot," the Pierrot character is more
closely associated with a trickster figure when juxtaposed with
the more honest, wise, and rules-obeying Simple John. Simple
John works in order to purchase his home and stays faithful
to his wife, satisfying both the "Lord" and John's bourgeois
dream. Pierrot, on the other hand, "left Pierrette," "saw a
world of girls," and "ran down the long white road" in order
to fulfill his own desires and fantasies, no matter how outside
of a "respectable" lifestyle those choices may be. The poem
passes no moral judgment on either character but does leave
the reader with the sense that despite, or perhaps because of,
his trickery and appetite-satisfying lifestyle, Pierrot will
lead the happier life of the two. It is as if the black clown
figure succeeds because he does not ascribe to but rather inverts
and exceeds the strictures placed around him.
in a sense, brings us back around to Van Vechten's "frame,"
and the ways in which Hughes's poetry always shifts and exceeds
the very frame Van Vechten tries to use to contain it. As Bhabha
points out, this inclination to stereotype is always an already
failed project. Bhabha finds the stereotype problematic not
because it is a "false representation of a given reality," but
rather that its fixity doesn't allow for the "play of difference,"
a type of play, I contend, that runs throughout The Weary
Blues. Indeed, with its multiple voices, its "universalizing"
senses of both racial and sexual identities, and its uses of
the black clown/trickster figure, I argue that the collection
of poems is anything but "fixed" as merely the "personal" as
Van Vechten imagines. As Bhabha writes, "the stereotype in that
sense [of being fixed and a fantasy] is an 'impossible' object.
For that very reason, the exertions of the 'official knowledges'
of colonialism pseudo-scientific, typological, legal-administrative,
eugenicist are imbricated at the point of their production
of meaning and power with the fantasy that dramatizes the impossible
desire for a pure, undifferentiated origin" (81). In terms of
the relationship between Van Vechten and Hughes, the "official
knowledge" that Van Vechten claims he has over Hughes's knowledge
of how own poetry plays into his fantasy of the "possible" stereotype.
The purpose of this essay is not to argue that the stereotype
is "wrong," a point easily proved and perhaps irrelevant. Rather,
it is to identify how Van Vechten's introduction works as stereotypical
discourse, what Bhabha calls a "much more ambivalent text of
projection and introjection, metaphoric and metonymic strategies,
displacement, overdetermination, guilt, aggressivity..." (81-2).
This understanding allows the reader to disregard Van Vechten's
introduction as a frame that would collapse poet, poetry, and
cover illustration into a fixed image and to appreciate more
fully Hughes's diverse, nuanced, and changing perspectives and
identities offered throughout the collection of poems. Indeed,
to return to Baker's endnote that worries over the interaction
between white patrons and black artists in the Harlem Renaissance,
this approach allows one to remove Van Vechten's "frame," to
place the introduction in conversation with, not in announcement
of, Hughes's poetry, and to offer a sophisticated reading of
The Weary Blues that is anything but fixed, fantastical,
Paul Allen. Deep River: Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance
Thought. Durham: Duke UP, 2001.
Houston. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago:
U of Chicago P, 1987.
Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Jennifer DeVere. Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity,
and Victorian Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 1998.
Langston. "Langston Hughes to Carl Van Vechten." 15 May 1925.
Letter in Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes
and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964.
Ed. Emily Bernard. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. 8-10.
The Weary Blues. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926.
Arnold. The Life of Lanston Hughes. Vol. I: 1901-1941,
"I, Too, Sing America." New York: Oxford UP, 1986.
Eve. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: U of California
James. "Public Face, Private Thoughts: Fetish, Interracialism,
and the Homoerotic in Some Photographs by Carl Van Vechten."
Genders 25 (1997): 144-93.
Vechten, Carl. Introduction. The Weary Blues. By Langston
Hughes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926. 9-13.
Jonathan. "'Boy Crazy': Carl Van Vechten's Queer Collection."
Yale Journal of Criticism 7.2 (1994): 25-49.
Image obtained from Anthology of Modern American Poetry Online
Journal and Multimedia Companion.
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