Title: When Washington Was in Vogue
Author: Edward Christopher Williams
No. of Pages: 277
First Published: January 1925 – June 1926
Synopsis (Courtesy of B&N): “Nearly lost after its anonymous publication in 1926 and only recently rediscovered, When Washington Was in Vogue is an acclaimed love story written and set during the Harlem Renaissance. When bobbed-hair flappers were in vogue and Harlem was hopping, Washington, D.C., did its share of roaring, too.
Davy Carr, a veteran of the Great War and a new arrival in the nation’s capital, is welcomed into the drawing rooms of the city’s Black elite. Through letters, Davy regales an old friend in Harlem with his impressions of race, politics, and the state of Black America as well as his own experiences as an old-fashioned bachelor adrift in a world of alluring modern women — including sassy, dark-skinned Caroline.
With an introduction by Adam McKible and commentary by Emily Bernard, this novel, a timeless love story wonderfully enriched with the drama and style of one of the most hopeful moments in African American history, is as ‘delightful as it is significant’.”
Comments and Critique: Having no idea what to expect, I found When Washington was in Vogue to be a fascinating, first-hand picture into an era that was pivotal for both ethnic and gender diversity. At first, the subject matter is decidedly uncomfortable. I am not the target audience. In fact, having grown up in the 80s and 90s, I was taught to ignore the issue of race because race does not impact how I interact with others. However, with this novel, I not only could not ignore this issue, I was forced to deal with very frank discussions about this very topic.
“What would you say should be the attitude of those fair enough to ‘pass’? Should they never go anywhere where their whiteness will procure them better treatment than would be accorded to them if they were known to be colored?” (pg. 49)
Once I moved past my own feelings of discomfort, I found an amazing book that poses profound questions about race and beauty while portraying a picture of Black Washingtonian society in the 1920s. There is a love story thrown into the plot, but for me, it took a back seat to the historical and philosophical questions presented. The epistolary form of the novel was both engaging and enjoyable. I even came to realize what a lost art writing for the sake of writing truly has become.
“What is beauty, and wherein does it reside? That is a hard question to answer, when we think that the mere shadow of a line makes a difference between beauty and the lack of it. But that greater question: What is personality? How many good men have addled their brains puzzling over it!” (pg. 93)
Quite frankly, I have never read a novel that explores such thought-provoking questions with such candor. To me, as a history buff, this is the true attraction to the novel. Questions regarding who exactly defines ideal beauty and how other cultures can impact that definition, segregation, passing as white, living beyond your means, the necessity of learning about other cultures, thoughts on suffragettes and flappers, opinions regarding the Harlem Renaissance, and even political opinions regarding anti-lynching bills that may or may not pass in Congress were all mentioned more than once throughout the novel.
“Wallace brought up the subject of the recent revival of interest in the Negro as a subject for writers of fiction. I say ‘revival,’ for he was a legitimate subject for such treatment in the generation preceding the Civil War” (pg. 176)
I took more notes and earmarked more pages throughout this novel than I have ever done before or since. There was so much fodder for reflection, it really did change the way I looked at history and at the race issue.
“I, for one, feel very sure that Stribling, Shands, and Clement Wood are merely the vanguard of a small army of writers who will soon lay hands on the unusually dramatic material which has been lying so long unused within the borders of our Southern civilization. Somehow, I feel, too, that Southern white men may handle it better than the writers of our own group. We are too near to it, and feel it too keenly, to achieve the detachment necessary for work of the highest artistry.” (pg. 177)
There was a quaintness about each sentence and the picture it painted that I found charming and refreshing. Mr. Williams has a way of making me wish we did not have TVs or computers so that we too would be forced to write letters to each other, write in journals and diaries, and just appreciate the written page much more than it is now. For having been lost, I am very glad that When Washington Was in Vogue was found and republished. It is definitely a treasure worth visiting, both for its picture of the 1920s and the forthrightness it uses to address some very serious topics.
This book fits the bill for the 2010 100+ Reading Challenge, the Read ‘n Review Challenge, the Buy 1 Book and Read It Challenge and the What’s In a Name Challenge. For the FTC, I purchased this with my own money.
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I was looking for something different, and this was definitely the right book. I LOVED it! It was such an eye-opening experience, so well written, and just so matter of fact. I read one website that listed it among the top five must-reads from the Harlem Renaissance. I would tend to agree with that statement.
Christina – This is a fantastic book. It really opened my eyes to that generation. The writing style is fantastic. It really brought the entire book alive.
The quotes you picked are lovely. I like the writing style. Hopefully I'll get to this someday.