Adam Mansbach 2008

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When Washington Was in Vogue
by Edward Christopher Williams
Amistad/HarperCollins/287 pages

Originally published as a serial between January 1925 and June 1926 in the African-American magazine The Messenger, the epistolary novel When Washington Was in Vogue has been doubly rescued from anonymity. Not only does it finally appear in book form, billed as a "forgotten novel of the Harlem Renaissance," but the previously unnamed author has been credited at last.

Edward Christopher Williams was America's first professionally-trained African-American librarian, and his love story, set in the insular African-American aristocracy of the nation's capital, is an important counterpoint to other novels of its era in both tone and content.

Not to mention geography. 'Harlem Renaissance' is often employed to describe a period of creative fertility that extended well beyond the borders of Uptown Manhattan, but few works of fiction exist to challenge the term's New York-centricity. When Washington Was In Vogue presents an alternate narrative of African-American life, in which white racism is an entirely off-screen force but "the color line within the color line" (17) is doggedly enforced -- largely for, and by, the female population.

Into this world of jolly dinner parties, formal dances and subtle betrayals steps Captain Davy Carr, a World War I veteran in town to research a book on the slave trade. He rents a room in the home of the well-to-do Rhodes family and quickly finds his way into a large social circle of which the family's daughter, the irrepressible, stunning, and dark-skinned Caroline, is a leading light. The two develop a fast friendship, marked by Carr's avuncular indulgence and the young flapper's coquettish attempts to woo him. To these, Carr - otherwise a gentleman of great perception -- proves utterly blind.

Carr stands apart from other Harlem Renaissance protagonists. A product of an earlier time, he casts a disdainful eye at the frivolity of flappers. A visit to a cabaret elicits this analysis: "the songs were of a type whose cheapness, vulgarity, banality and utter lack of wit, humor, harmony or distinction of any kind simply defy description" (283)-- a far cry from the rapture with which the music of the Jazz Age is usually received.

Caroline, too, is the antidote to a prevailing type: the tragic, dark-skinned women of other Harlem Renaissance texts. She is unbothered by either her color or the attempts of rivals to wield it against her. And while she leads a flapper's lifestyle, Caroline's hedonism is balanced with such a high intelligence that even Carr cannot lump her in with the rest of her generation. Caroline's banter is as smart as it is risqué, the pleasure she takes in male company as knowing as it is unapologetic -- even her calculated pouting has its charms. She is a winning repudiator of conventional femininity, and Williams quickly establishes her as a character worthy of the intrigue that will surround her.

The novel unfolds as a comedy of errors; despite Davy's surpassing gallantry on Caroline's behalf, he fails to grasp his own feelings for the girl. Their courtship is stymied not only by misperception, generational distance and ideological predilection, but by myriad suitors -- every doctor on the Eastern seaboard, it seems, is vying for Caroline's hand.

Davy's own hyperactive social life doesn't help to speed the match, either. Beneath his outward stoicism, the Captain is a sensualist whose evenings are full of dancing and spirited conversations with lovely women. His letters to his old comrade Bob Fletcher, in addition to chronicling the events of Washingtonian life and the every movement of Caroline Rhodes, are full of lavish praise for the many damsels he encounters. Regardless of their skin tones, they are a beautiful, witty and independent lot, and Davy revels in their company.

The ratio of overt social commentary to romance in When Washington Was in Vogue is weighted heavily in favor of the latter, and more of the former would be welcome. When Davy does commit a political view to paper, though, it is with enough eloquence and insight to go a long way. "We imitate the white American in everything," he observes, "except that at which he really excels." Socially, we are beginning to imitate the rather 'sporty' class of Americans-- under the erroneous impression that these people are typical Americans, whereas in fact they are only the parasites who live on the body of the American social organism."(48)

Despite the paucity of such remarks, and a rushed, somewhat unsatisfying ending, When Washington Was in Vogue is an engaging, eminently readable work, and Williams is no less elegant a storyteller for having been forgotten. The book's rediscovery, too, is inspiring; one can only hope for further belated additions to the rich literature of the Harlem Renaissance.

Adam Mansbach's second novel, Angry Black White Boy, is forthcoming from the Crown Publishing Group in January 2005.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing