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Rereading Henry Van Dyke (3 October 1928–22 December 2011): The Pleasure of the Text

[By Jerry Ward]

Often
you can derive pleasure from rereading a novel by an author whose contribution
to African American literary tradition is not a hot critical topic.  For example,   Henry Van Dyke’s Ladies of the Rachmaninoff
Eyes
(Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1965) provokes laughter, the robust folk
laughter of recognizing how rich and educational African American idioms can
be.  On the surface, Van Dyke’s novel is
a relatively slight Bildungsroman, the narrative of a young man’s learning that
“when a peacock’s days are over, they’re over.” But the matter under the
surface demands a reckoning.

Van
Dkye is a fine storyteller.  Through the
voice of Oliver Eugene, a naïve but reliable narrator, you hear about the
melodramatic antics of Mrs. Harriet Giles, the Negro housekeeper, who is the
narrator’s Aunt Harry and Mrs. Etta Klein, a wealthy Jewish widow who is overly
fond of rum and who is as self-deceptive as the mother in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer.  Forty-seven years ago when the novel was
published, you might not have noticed the gendered imbalance of the name “Aunt
Harry.”  In 2012, you notice the name is
metonymic, a shorthand for all the structural imbalances in the tragicomedy of
Van Dyke’s first novel.  Etta Klein and
Aunt Harry are one of the more remarkable odd couples in twentieth-century
American literature, and the moral lessons implicit in their dealings and
dalliance with the con-artist Maurice LeFleur are precious.  Precious is a sufficient description of the
novel’s sexual identity.   Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes promotes
a humor unto life rather than a sickness unto death.
As
a novelist writing in the homophobic spaces provided by the integrationist
discourses of the early 1960s, Van Dyke digested the practicality of Langston
Hughes’ remark that if a Negro writer stepped outside of himself, he would see
“how human, yet how beautiful and black [he is].  How very black –even when you’re integrated.”
The
narrator deconstructs the hyper-pretense of American English by stepping
outside just enough to expose the prohibitions and dispensations in the
psychology of Black American English. 
Van Dyke was a master chef in using racial flavors.  He was signifying twelve years before Geneva
Smitherman dealt seriously with the linguistic dimensions of black modes of speech
and twenty-three years before Gates discovered the signifying monkey was a
literary critic. Only Zora Neale Hurston could beat Van Dyke to the punch.  His technical mastery of storytelling and
language is matched only by the mastery of Al Young, Eudora Welty and Toni Cade
Bambara.
Bright
laughter is dominant during and after rereading Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes, and Van Dyke’s artistry of complex
simplicity is a reason to praise the power of blackness.  He took revenge on the post-racial prior to
the nativity of the post-racial.  That
achievement is cause for deep and satisfying laughter.