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.