Vol. 1 No. 2 2007


The Splendid Drunken Twenties: Selections From the Daybooks 1922-30

By Carl Van Vechten

Reviewed by Joe Johnson

book cover

On leave from his position as the New York Times' assistant music critic, found himself living in Paris during the early part of the 20th century. Van Vechten, was just coming into his own as a writer, and witnessed first hand the brash arrival of modern art, he returned to his job at the New York Times in 1909 a changed man and soon became the first American critic of modern dance. At that time, Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, and Loie Fuller were performing in New York.

fania marinoff

In 1914, Van Vechten married actress Fania Marinoff and left his full time newspaper job that spring. He published several collections of his essays relating to music, ballet and cats, and his first novel, Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works, was published in 1922, he started keeping a daily account of the many parties and people he encountered from 1922 to 1930, during the period he wrote six additional novels. Just as suddenly as he started this enterprise, he stopped without giving an explanation of why he started and why he stopped.

Bruce Kellner has done a tremendous job of editing and compiling these entries into The Splendid Drunken Twenties that traces Van Vechten's evolution from journalist to writer. The book is also extraordinary, because it is a vital source of American cultural and literary history. Within its pages, the major cultural figures of the 20th century: Stravinsky, Robeson, Duncan, Stevens, Hughes, and Mencken emerge and converge.

The Splendid Drunken Twenties does not qualify as a diary or journal because it does not attempt to record and analyze the routine and ritual of his life. The entries work with an impressionistic list of events and appointments, and what becomes apparent is the diverse network of people that were in his orbit of friends and acquaintances. The people ranged from Ethel Waters, George Gershwin to Van Vechton's elevator man. The passion, confusion, and energy of life during this special period in America’s cultural history radiates from the entries. The work is also private without being intimate.

Van Vechten’s cultural network extended from the bohemian salon of Mabel Dodge in Greenwich Village, to the cultural salons of the Harlem Renaissance., in addition to, his wife, Fania Marinoff's world of films and theatre. The is another important cultural alliance that is key to understanding his cultural presence -- the fledging publishin house of Alfred Knopf. As a friend and confidant, Van Vechten helped Knopf build a formidable list of modern poets, including Langston Hughes and Wallace Stevens. Van Vechten must be seen as a man far ahead of the curve, finding and acknowledging the major cultural influences of his era.

He by no means, established the Harlem Renaissance, but his critical interest and physical presence brought a great deal of attention to the serious nature of the writings and the writers. His articles and his highly controversial novel, Nigger Heaven, played an important role in the critical and popular success of the Harlem Renaissance. He knew the power and the importance of black art, and he appreciated the force and the energy that it gave to all people.

He was the nexus that connected two worlds that were vital to 20th century America'x cultural development. In a world that seperated black and white, Van Vechten constructs a bridge between the races. Before large numbers of whites started safaried into the "wildlife" of Harlem, it was Van Vechten's spirited essay on black srt that help gain Harlem national and international notice. His relationship with black cultural was deep and understanding. In a letter dated 1927, Van Vechten wrote Langston Hughes:

Dear Langston

Thanks for your paper (thanks a lot for what you say about me), which I think, is superb. The situation is easy to explain: you and I are the only colored people who love niggers...

Van Vechten threw many parties and he made sure they were all integrated. More than just writin articles about blackartists, he invied them to his parties and introduced them to the downtown intellectual world. Uptown and Downtown tor the first time because of him. There, in his large apratment, the cultural icons of a bygone era all seemed animated andengaged ina party where the liquor and the conversation flowed. The remarkable aspects of these encounters were the interracial social interaction: for its day it was out of the ordinary, to say lthe least.

This is the amazing thing about the book: it is capable of recreating a life beyond a biography and give the reader more than casual involvement with the subject and his world and work. The Splendid Drunken Twenties is composed of beautiful fragments. Van Vechten is alive, and so are his friends at a wild, beautiful party. The dropping of names and dates fires the imagination and offers an impressionistic view of a world that was once there and is now gone. All of the history books and cultural history I have read about this era suddenly took a deeply human form, and I read, almost with a touch of envy of a man who found time and place for a wide variety of friendships, and took much pleasure out of living, and still found time to write seven novels and magazine articles, mostly for Vanity Fair magazine. You could say that he made living his life into an art form.

The daybook is uniquely styled. None of the material is labored. The comments vary in their intensity. The entries refuse to analyze a state of mind or problems. There are references to his sexual sensibility, but never are they detailed. However, one still comes away with the feeling that Van Vechten was bi-sexual. This curious quality of never being quite sure creates an appeal to the book At all points in the flow of the work, Van Vechten is presence but all of his actions are implied, which encourages, and invites the imagination.

Despite his binges and hangovers, Van Vechten’s drunkenness did not stand in the way of his productivity. The daybooks reveal the vital connection that his drinking played, because it seemed to connect to the flow of his creative energies and his friendships. Friends, for Van Vechten, are key to his being. The friendships and loyalties are evident in the comments about Langston Hughes and Gertrude Stein, and, of course, James Weldon Johnson.

There is something compelling about the style that emerges from the daybooks; it has the immediacy of the man, it offers the confusing and energy of his being. It makes them an art form in and of itselt--The non-autobiographu, autobiography. This is not a self conscious effort. The daybooks avoids and style, or comment on the events other than listing. It is the power of the list of the events and people, casually dropped or listed, the power cultural figures of his day in art and literature.

The daybooks reveal a man of discerning taste and ravenous appetite for extraordinary culture. His understanding of the importance of Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Vigil Thompson, George Gershwin, Bessie Smith and James Weldon Hohnson says it all. As a critic, he constructed the vocabulary and basic terms for the public to understand important American talents. The range of his sensitivity and ability to see far, wide and deep into an American sensibility is reflected in his outline, his daybook, his flight plan. Bruce Kellner‘s editing of The Splendid Drunken Twenties was an act of love and respect. Bravo, Kellner for seeing and preparing a crucial interlinear to a man’s life that was rich in friends, plentiful in good booze, extraordinary in conversations and abundant in earned and stolen pleasure.

Joe Johnson is a Professor of Literature at Ramapo College in New Jersey.

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