Nigger Heaven

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Nigger Heaven
First edition of the text, with original dustwrapper, published in 1926.
Author Carl Van Vechten
Country United States
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date
Media type Hardback
Pages 286
OCLC 647060292

Nigger Heaven is a 1926 novel written by Carl Van Vechten, set during the Harlem Renaissance in the United States in the 1920s. The book and its title have been controversial since its publication.

The novel is a portrayal of life in the "great black walled city" of Harlem. It describes the interactions of intellectuals, political activists, bacchanalian workers, and other Harlem characters. The plot of the novel concerns two people, a quiet librarian and an aspiring writer, who try to keep their love alive as racism denies them every opportunity.

This roman à clef became an instant bestseller and served as an informal pocket guide to Harlem. It also split the black literary community, as some, e.g. Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, and Wallace Thurman, appreciated it, while others like Countee Cullen and W. E. B. Du Bois, regarded it as an "affront to the hospitality of black folks". The book fueled a period of "Harlemania", during which the area of Harlem became en vogue among white people, who then frequented its cabarets, bars, and so on.



"Nigger heaven" was a term used in the 19th century to refer to church balconies, which were reserved for African Americans, as the white members of the congregation sat below.[1][2][3]


The book, due in part to the inclusion of the pejorative "nigger" in its title, was met with mixed reception. It was initially banned in Boston.[4] Van Vechten's own father was said to have written his son two letters imploring that he change the title to something less offensive.[5]

Many early reviews of the novel focused on the seemingly negative portrayal of African-American culture, with its vivid depictions of sex, gambling, alcohol, and other immoral acts.[6] W. E. B. Du Bois attacked the novel in an article published in The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, upon its publication.[7] He later addressed the text in depth in the essay "On Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven", where he called the novel "an affront to the hospitality of black folk and to the intelligence of white."[8]

Conversely, other prominent African-American reviews, such as that of James Weldon Johnson, which appeared in Opportunity, the official journal of the National Urban League, lauded the text. Van Vechten's friend and poet, Langston Hughes would go on to write poems to replace the songs used in the original manuscript and in the first printings of the text.[9]

Opinions of the novel also diverged along racial lines. Many white critics of the time had little to compare Nigger Heaven to, and viewed the novel as an enlightening, forward-minded text.[10]


  1. ^ Perry, John (2011). George Washington Carver. Thomas Nelson. p. 90. ISBN 9781595554048. 
  2. ^ Kelley, Walt (1993). What They Never Told You About Boston: Or What They Did That Were Lies. Down East Books. p. 79. ISBN 9781608932733. 
  3. ^ Caldwell, Erskine (1995). Deep South: Memory and Observation. University of Georgia Press. p. 192. ISBN 9780820317168. 
  4. ^ Van Vechten 2000, p. xiii
  5. ^ Van Vechten 2000, p. xiv-v
  6. ^ Worth 1995, p. 464
  7. ^ Helbling, Mark (1976). "Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance". Negro American Literature Forum 10 (2): 39–47. doi:10.2307/3041204. 
  8. ^ Lewis 1995, p. 106
  9. ^ Hart, Robert C. (1973). "Literary Relations in the Harlem Renaissance". American Literature 44 (4): 612–28. doi:10.2307/2924308. 
  10. ^ Worth 1995, p. 492


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