Vincent O. Carter's The Bern Book: A Record of a Voyage of the Mind - An exchange

The exchange below on African American writer Vincent O. Carter (1924-1983) and his two books, The Bern Book; a Record of a Voyage of the Mind, and Such Sweet Thunder, contains – among other things – a highly readable account of Dr. Warren Crichlow’s search for Carter in Bern, Switzerland, where the expat author had lived for the last thirty year of his life.

On Wednesday 15 July 2020 Dr. Warren Earl Crichlow wrote:   

Dear Uffe Dan Sparre Fischer

I came across your African American Literature site while researching material on African American expat writer Vincent O. Carter.  

In the Introduction to your website you indicated future reading of Carter’s memoir, The Bern Book; a Record of a Voyage of the Mind once it is republished in a paperback edition.

I write to ask if you have pursued further research on Carter, and whether you would be willing to share with me your observations on Carter. 

I am a professor of education at York University, Faculty of Education, in Toronto, Canada, and I attach an abstract of the project on Carter I am pursuing (omitted here – UFI).

Thank you so much for your reply.

Dr. Warren Crichlow                                                                                                                         

Thursday 16 July 2020:    

Dear Dr. Crichlow

I must disappoint you!

In an early draft for the Introduction I quoted the first few lines from my 24 April 2019 article: Country Place: Ann Petry’s ‘white’ novel reissued; or, Flipping the script:

“I have been considering myself a serious reader – reader, not critic or scholar – of African American literature for the last fifty years, let us say since buying Abraham Chapman’s Black Voices: An Anthology of Afro-American Literature (Mentor Books) in 1968 for $1.50!”

Reader, not critic or scholar. So no research, as such.

I first heard of Vincent O. Carter when reading African American scholar Nathan A. Scott, Jr.’s article Black Literature in The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing (see page 337 and  338), edited by Daniel Hoffman (The Belknap Press, 1979), where – aside from The Bern Book – he also mentions two ‘as yet unissued’ novels: The Long Green Way, and Primary Colors.

After reading Scott’s essay, for years I would search for news on books by Carter. Nothing. Till 2003, when Steerforth Press, as you write, finally published the Primary Colors manuscript as Such Sweet Thunder, reviewed by Publishers Weekly in the 3 February 2003 article Tale of Two Books (by Steerforth Press). A book much praised elsewhere by Richard Wright’s widow, Ellen Wright.

(Nathan A. Scott, Jr., like William Stanley Braithwaite, another African American critic – of an earlier generation – not primarily known for writing about African American literature, proved themselves quite knowledgeable on the subject when they did – see Braithwaite’s The Negro in American Literature in Alain Locke’s seminal anthology The New Negro (1925)).

And now we wait for the paperback edition of The Bern Book; a Record of a Voyage of the Mind, originally published in hardcover in 1973 by John Day Company. It was announced for publication last year, 2019, but it keeps getting postponed.  (There is now a cover illustration for the book on Amazon of a Swiss town, Bern? – a good sign!).

Aside from Scott’s essay, I have only Darryl Pinckney’s Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature (Basic Civitas Books, 2002) that you also mention. What with a new preface, reviews, etc., it will be enough for my purposes.

When the paperback edition of The Bern Book is finally issued, read and written about on my website, I will be sure to let you know. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.

All the best

Uffe Dan Sparre Fischer                                                                                                                                       

Friday 17 July 2020:

Dear Uffe,

Thank you so much for your kind and informative reply to my query. No disappointment at all!

And thank you for directing me to Nathan Scott. I have seen his essay referenced but I have not read it myself. His mention of Vincent O. Carter will be significant for me as I am tracking all sources, however minute.

I purchased Such Sweet Thunder when it was issued in 2003 on the basis of a NY Times book review (Whitney Terrell: At the Crossroads, 20 April 2003). I was intrigued but knowing little of Carter, and finding the book difficult to digest, I let the name Vincent O. Carter settle to the back of my mind. Several years later, I attended a meeting in Bern at the University. While there Carter popped into my mind so I asked if any of the Bernese hosting me knew of Carter. No one did. One of the colleagues took me to the university library and inquired with the librarian. Lo and behold, the library had a book by Vincent O. Carter, The Bern Book – however, one copy was listed as “out,” while the other was listed as “stolen.”  

As serendipity would have it, on my last night in Bern, after a lovely meal in an Italian restaurant in the old district, I wandered around the dining room looking at the beautiful art and sculpture arrayed. As in a typical Italian restaurant, there was a display of family photographs which drew my attention. As I looked at them I noticed a black man in the middle of the assemblage. It was Vincent O. Carter – I knew the image immediately. I snapped several pictures which I still have.

That began my search for Vincent O. Carter. I have subsequently made several trips to Bern, met a few people who knew of Carter and collected some documents on him there. I have also met several scholars working on Carter, but none have published anything substantial yet. I have given a conference paper on Carter and a few presentations, so I aim now for a chapter in a book I am writing that will examine Carter, along with a number of other writers and artists I group under the title, Extracurriculars.

When I returned from Bern that first trip, I Googled to find a copy of the book. I discovered I could buy used copies for about .40 cents (Canadian) plus 7.00 shipping (Canadian). I purchased two hardbound copies, one with a good original jacket cover.

I know the Pinckney book but find his chapter on Carter unsympathetic. To my mind, Vincent O. Carter is much more complex and idiosyncratic than what Pinckney offers – and in my view much more interesting than he is given credit for (despite not publishing memorable books) as an African American expat writer in Europe in the early 1950s.

I know a new edition of The Bern Book is planned but when it will come out, if ever, is uncertain. I have had some correspondence with the young editor of the new edition, but even he is uncertain – and he would not reveal many details.

Recently I read that an edition of The Bern Book is due out soon in Swiss German by a publisher in Bern. Last I was in Bern about three years ago I was there for the launch of a compilation, Bern70 (Edition Atelier, 2017). It is in Swiss German, which I do not read. However, in that thick book addressing the bohemian atmosphere of Bern in the 1970s there is a chapter on Vincent O. Carter. Someday, I will have some funding to get it translated.  

Anyway, there are a small group of fellow travelers I have come to know who each have various interests in Carter – one presently writing an MA thesis on Carter as a part of a degree in German (the fellow lived in Bern for a while in the 1960s as a boarding school student in high school, and speaks a bit of Swiss German). We hope our collective research and discussions will lead to more nuanced considerations of Carter. But there is still a lot more digging to do.

Thank you for your helpful correspondence, and I hope you will stay in touch as you pick up more information or if you have further thoughts on Vincent O. Carter.   




Postscript, November 2020

Above, in my mail to Warren Crichlow about Vincent O. Carter I wrote (on Such Sweet Thunder): “A book much praised elsewhere by Richard Wright’s widow, Ellen Wright.”

Elsewhere. Because I could not remember where I had this piece of information from. I was sure that I had not just made it up.

I looked again at my copy of Such Sweet Thunder, and there it was, tucked in (by me) at the back of the book, a press release: New from Steerforth Press. On the front page there is a picture of the book cover and of the author (on the backside there are excerpts from the novel). And at the bottom of the page, under the headline “A Lost Treasure, and a Rare Cultural Event,” eight lines of praise, including the following statement:

“When Richard Wright’s widow, Ellen, first read the manuscript for Such Sweet Thunder in the 1960s she could hardly find words for her enthusiasm, and finally said that such a tableau of childhood by a black man had never been done before.”  

I don’t have the hardcover, but Crichlow writes that on the inside flaps of the dust jacket of his hardcover (2003), there is the same statement with only some slight difference in the wording.

But what were Steerforth’s sources for that statement by Ellen Wright? 

So I wrote the publisher, and on 3 September 2020 Devin Wilkie from Steerforth wrote back:

“Thanks for your query. That quote from Ellen Wright was sent to the publisher by Herb Lottman, who wrote the foreword to the hardcover edition and was friends with Ellen in Paris.”

Best, Devin

The new paperback edition of Vincent O. Carter’s The Bern Book from Dalkey Archive has just been released (November 2020).

We will be taking a closer look at Carter’s memoir – his ‘record of a voyage of the mind’ – on this website sometime in the future (read 2021). For now, let us note what Harvard scholar Jesse McCarthy has to say in his preface about Such Sweet Thunder:

“When it was ready in late 1963, Lottman took it to Ellen Wright, Richard Wright’s widow, who was still living in Paris. She was thrilled. With her support the manuscript made its way into the offices of American publishers, but none took it up.”

It would be another forty years before the manuscript was finally published, in 2003, as Such Sweet Thunder by Chip Fleischer at Steerforth Press.