African American Studies at Beinecke Library

New Research: Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance

Posted in Uncategorized by beineckepoetry on March 26, 2012

Carl Van Vechten was a white man with a passion for blackness who played a crucial role in helping the Harlem Renaissance, a black movement, come to understand itself. Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance is grounded in the dramas occasioned by the Harlem Renaissance, as it is called today, or New Negro Renaissance, as it was called in the 1920s, when it first came into being. Emily Bernard focuses on writing—the black and white of things—the articles, fiction, essays, and letters that Carl Van Vechten wrote to black people and about black culture, and the writing of the black people who wrote to and about him. Above all, she is interested in the interpersonal exchanges that inspired the writing, which are ultimately far more significant than the public records would suggest.

This book is a partial biography of a once controversial figure. It is not a comprehensive history of an entire life, but rather a chronicle of one of his lives, his black life, which began in his boyhood and thrived until his death. The narrative at the core of Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance is not an attempt to answer the question of whether Van Vechten was good or bad for black people, or whether or not he hurt or helped black creative expression during the Harlem Renaissance. As Bernard writes, the book instead “enlarges that question into something much richer and more nuanced: a tale about the messy realities of race, and the complicated tangle of black and white.”

Emily Bernard is associate professor, English Department and ALANA U.S. Ethnic Studies Program, University of Vermont. Her books include Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She lives in Burlington, VT. Bernard was the inaugural James Weldon Johnson Memorial Fellow at the Beiencke Library in 2008.

Radio interview with author Emily Bernard:

Thistlewood Archive

The Beinecke Library is happy to announce the recent acquisition of the archive of Thomas Thistlewood, eighteenth-century British planter in Jamaica. Spanning more than thirty-five years, from before Thistlewood’s arrival in Jamaica in 1750 through his death in 1786, the archive comprises some 92 volumes of diaries and notebooks.

Thistlewood kept meticulous daily records of his experiences as a planter and slave owner from 1748 – 1786. The 37 volumes of his diaries leave a detailed portrait of the racial, sexual, economic, and other realities of plantation life in eighteenth-century Jamaica. Over 20 volumes of reading notebooks document his participation in the British literary and scientific cultures of the Enlightenment. His series of 34 weather observation notebooks offer an archive of the climate in Jamaica over three decades, and of the enactment of those philosophies of observation, categorization, and measurement which characterize Thistlewood’s notes on plantation management.

The archive has already been the subject of several important recent works by scholars including James Walvin, Trevor Burnard, Douglas Hall, and Michael Chenoweth. The collection adds to the Beinecke’s already extensive manuscript and archival holdings for early modern British history and materials relating to slavery and abolition, and will prove an invaluable resource for scholarship in the Atlantic World, the Caribbean, African Diaspora Studies, cultures of empire, and British and European history.

Once catalogued and housed, the collection will be open for research in the fall. Please don’t hesitate to contact Kathryn James (, the Beinecke’s Curator for Early Modern Books and Manuscripts, with any questions.

Images: Documents form the Thistlewood Archive.