THE TASTEMAKER: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America
By Edward White
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 377 pp., illustrated, $30
Music critic, novelist, photographer, and most crucially, premier party-thrower in New York between the wars, Carl Van Vechten is today nearly obscure — certainly less renowned than friends Gertrude Stein and Langston Hughes, or fellow café society bold-faced names such as Tallulah Bankhead or Dorothy Parker. Yet he was an indispensable figure in New York’s vibrant artistic, literary, and social life in the early 20th century.
Much recent writing on Van Vechten has focused on his role as a white man within the Harlem Renaissance, a blend of enthusiasm, paternalism, and provocation. In this new biography, Edward White shifts the frame to examine Van Vechten through his criticism, his sexuality, and especially his identity as an urbanite. His cocktail parties drew luminaries such as Bessie Smith and Alfred Knopf, the diversity of the guest lists testimony to his “facility for flitting between different cultural and social groups.”
Born in 1880 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Van Vechten was the adored youngest child of a self-consciously respectable family, a fact to which White traces both his lifelong “bubble of self-absorption” and his fascination with anything shocking, lurid, or fantastic (his first book for Knopf, a collection of critical essays, was titled, “Music and Bad Manners”). Music, dance, and theater drew him to Chicago, then New York, where he reveled in the city’s outrageous nightlife, its syncopated rhythms, and its burgeoning community of men who sought sex with other men (Van Vechten’s 50-year marriage to dancer Fania Marinoff notwithstanding). White writes deftly about his complex subject, his stance at once critical enough to rebuke Van Vechten’s naïve cruelties (about race and other things), yet generous enough to praise his powerful, and prescient, position as “a one-man publicity machine for American modernism.”
THE EMPIRE OF NECESSITY: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World
By Greg Grandin
Metropolitan, 360 pp., illustrated, $30
Published just as the country was veering toward the Civil War, Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” is considered his second masterpiece, a taut fable to set alongside the sprawling “Moby-Dick.” Less widely known is the true story on which Melville based his novella. In 1805, when Duxbury-born sealer Amasa Delano boarded a ship captained by Spaniard Benito Cerreño, the West Africans who had recently rebelled and taken it over tried to avoid capture by pretending they were still in bondage, forcing Cerreño to play along in what author Greg Grandin describes as “a one-act, nine-hour, full-cast pantomime of the master-slave relationship.”
Grandin tells this story — which is, of course, many stories — brilliantly, starting with Delano’s childhood in the newly hatched American Republic. Weaving together the threads that made the early 19th century such a paradox — a time known as “the Age of Liberty” that was also the height of the slave trade — Grandin deftly explains everything from seal-hunting to the financing of slave ships to the role of Islam in African resistance to slavery. For years, Grandin writes, critics saw Melville’s “Benito Cereno” as “a parable of the cosmic struggle between absolute virtue and absolute evil,” unable to see the simple truth before them: that slavery wasn’t metaphor but history.
THE LOST ART OF FEEDING KIDS: What Italy Taught Me About Why Children Need Real Food
By Jeannie Marshall
Beacon, 240 pp., $25.95
“People come to Italy for the food,” writes Jeannie Marshall, and her delightful descriptions of olives and bread, cheese and wine, make it easy to see why she and her husband moved to Rome and stayed there to raise their son. Yet Marshall sees troubling signs of a venerable food culture under siege — kids offered soda instead of water and chicken nuggets instead of pasta e lenticchie — and wonders what else is being lost along the way.
This is not one of those hectoring books about how American parents need to improve, although the title may make it sound that way. Marshall, a Canadian, writes passionately about the dangers posed by processed foods — not just to our children’s health but to our way of life, our human attachment to the “ordinary happiness” of meals cooked at home from real foods. After all, she writes, “[t]hough cooking can be drudgery, eating is a pleasure.”
MORE THAN CONQUERORS: A Memoir of Lost Arguments
By Megan Hustad
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 240 pp., $25
When she moved to New York as a young woman, Megan Hustad was often told she had an interesting accent, that she didn’t seem Midwestern. Her colleagues and friends — people who “hadn’t known many Christians but had seen the ones on TV” — didn’t know the source of her vague differentness. Growing up in an overseas missionary family, Hustad was raised on God and hand-me-downs.
Hustad writes with an often-painful precision about what happens [w]hen family myths break, by which I mean stop working.” Even when the story turns bitter, Hustad’s unwavering love is evident both for the sister returned from college whose “conversation now held references to things like scallops and Camille Paglia” and for the parents whose marriage seemed to have enclosed an “unspoken bargain, like my mother agreeing not to be disappointed or my father having license to keep dreaming.”