See Hear: Steve Paul on Rambling Around the Arts | How an obscure Kansas City author is coming back to life at 100

Vincent O. Carter (courtesy Liselotte Haas)

Vincent O. Carter’s 100th birthday (June 23) has come and gone. To call Carter a Kansas City writer is to overlook the fact that in his 20s, Carter left his hometown — for the Army, for college, for Europe — and, except for two family deaths decades later, never returned. In the early 1950s, by the time he turned 30, he’d settled in Bern, Switzerland, a place where he became something of a civic novelty — the lone Black resident of a lily-white town. Passersby would stop him on the sidewalk and make a thing about wanting to touch his nappy hair. He supplemented a meager writing income by teaching Bernese how to speak American English.

Carter did return to Kansas City, however, in his creative consciousness, as we learn from two books he wrote. One is the only book he published in his lifetime, an imaginative memoir called “The Bern Book” (1973). But even more of his Kansas City life can be found in a predominantly autobiographical novel, which appeared 20 years after his death under the title “Such Sweet Thunder” (2003).

The latter book, as I’ve written and spoken of before, provides an extraordinary and rare fictional portrait of the daily life of Black Kansas Citians in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. School days at Garrison elementary, then Lincoln High; the commercial buzz along Independence Avenue; the sounds coming from his parents’ record player in their apartment in a North End (now Columbus Park) alley later obliterated by the interstate highway.

By doing so Carter’s book provides the racial and economic flip side to Evan S. Connell’s two interlinked Kansas City novels, “Mrs. Bridge” (1959) and “Mr. Bridge” (1969). Connell’s novels were steeped in upper-crust WASP Kansas City and spanned the same time period. So reading Carter’s “Such Sweet Thunder” and Connell’s Bridge novels, all of which include situational intersections between African American and white Kansas Citians, can provide a rich range of the area’s historical and racial landscape. Add Whitney Terrell’s “The King of King’s County” (2005) and you’re halfway to devising a syllabus on the topic.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to turn a spotlight on both Carter and Connell by arranging a panel discussion at the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, the organization of academic creative writing programs, which was held in Kansas City. The temptation was too great to resist, given that Connell was also born in Kansas City in 1924 (his 100th birthday arrives on Aug. 17). It so happens that I’d written a biography of Connell and more than 20 years ago I published a piece in the Kansas City Star about Carter’s novel and his life, so far as I could research it at the time, in the run-up to the publication of “Such Sweet Thunder.”

Steerforth Press

The backstory of Carter’s novel also involves a native Kansas Citian, Chip Fleischer, who ran a publishing house in New Hampshire; his discovery of Carter’s literary roots and the launching of “Such Sweet Thunder” is a foundational piece of the Carter revival. Fleischer’s Steerforth Press was acquired this year and, he tells me, its new owner, Pushkin Press, plans to put out another edition of “Such Sweet Thunder” in February 2025. The re-publication will coincide with a planned conference on Carter to be held at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

One fellow panelist at the AWP conference was Jesse McCarthy, a Harvard literary scholar with a strong interest in Carter. He includes a long essay on Carter in a new book that examines Black writers of the Cold War era, including James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks. In “The Blue Period” (University of Chicago Press), McCarthy delves into the literary projects of these writers during the years between the end of World War II and the expansion of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

Carter was notably and quite intentionally uninterested in the racial politics of the era or becoming a spokesman for civil rights or other Black concerns. That, of course, puts him a hundred and eighty degrees away from Baldwin, who was the other — and far more successful — American Black writer who had settled for a while in Switzerland.

Neither of Carter’s books made what we’d call a popular splash in the literary landscape. McCarthy, using the tools and language of academic theory and criticism, counters some of the lukewarm regard that greeted both books and elevates them to essential status. He writes that “The Bern Book” is “arguably more ‘heroic’ in its dedication to art and literature than, say, Ernest Hemingway’s 1964 ‘A Moveable Feast’” at least in part because Hemingway “was never called a [N-word] in his favorite bar.”

University of Chicago Press

Of “Such Sweet Thunder,” McCarthy writes, “It is a great irony that Carter, arguably the most isolated and alienated writer of the Blue Period, produced one of the most intensely lyrical, Proustian, and vibrant novels ever written about an African American community.” That’s quite an endorsement for a novel that is not only Proustian but also Joycean in the way its narrative fabric weaves in and around Kansas City.

It’s heartening to see new attention for Carter. There’s more. “The Bern Book” received a new life just two years ago, re-published by the avant-garde Dalkey Archive Press with an introduction by Jesse McCarthy. (He’s also contributing a foreword to the planned reissue of “Such Sweet Thunder.”) A German translation of “Such Sweet Thunder” has just been released in Europe under the title “Amerigo Jones,” which is the name Carter gives to his autobiographical protagonist. And over the last few years I’ve heard from two writers who are working, separately, on books about Carter.

Mark Morrison-Reed, a retired pastor who spent a boyhood year with his family in Bern in the 1960s, is now polishing a book that began as his master’s thesis at the University of Toronto. As he once told me, “The Vincent that emerged in Bern can really only be understood with the KC and the African American back story.”

Last summer I met with June Graham, a Scottish woman who spent two weeks in Kansas City on Carter’s trail, hoping to understand the life of Black Kansas Citians in his time here. Graham’s interest in Carter began while she lived in Bern working as a research physicist. She read “The Bern Book” and soon befriended a local woman, Liselotte Haas, who was Carter’s longtime companion in Bern. After his death, Haas became unofficial archivist of his papers and art works, much of which he produced while recognizing his literary career was going nowhere.

Anyone who has worked on Carter has encountered Haas. After Fleischer was introduced to “The Bern Book,” he tracked her down and she sent him the 800-page unpublished manuscript that became “Such Sweet Thunder.” And I remain grateful for a delightful visit with Haas in Bern in 2002.

Graham tells me she was intrigued by Carter’s burgeoning interest in Eastern religion, including trips to India he took in the early 1970s with some of his English language students in order to learn meditation in an ashram. “His personality was so charismatic,” she said by email, “that when he mentioned the planned trip to India, quite a few of them wanted to join him, including one rotund Swiss lady who took her Bernese traditional costume with her and wore it in the heat of Delhi.”

The publishing world and readers in general have taken an increasing interest in the recovered lives of lesser-known Black subjects. See, for example, “Master Slave Husband Wife,” by Ilyon Woo, which shared the Pulitzer Prize in biography this year with Jonathan Eig’s landmark “King” (on Martin Luther King Jr.).

This bodes well for the revived literary legacy and the multi-layered Kansas City story of Vincent O. Carter.

Three Things

KC Fringe Festival: In its two decades of summertime high jinks, the festival has expanded in all directions, providing a kind of neon-lighted cross-section of what we used to call the counter-cultural zeitgeist. This season it’s touting its offerings by the numbers: 53 stage productions of theater and dance, 36 visual artists, eight films and lots more. Expect bold, brash, argumentative, unabashed, and wholly unexpected rules of engagement and entertainment. Much of the activity takes place in the Crossroads Arts District over two weeks, July 12-28; for all the details, shift your eyes here: kcfringe.org.

True Lions, at Stockyards Brewing Sunday Service (photo by Steve Paul)

Sunday Service: The long-established, weekly folk-show known as the Rural Grit Happy Hour at the Brick is a well-known, open-mic gathering of string players and singer-songwriters. Another local outlet for folk, bluegrass and roots fans are the weekly, Sunday afternoon concerts by local and regional bands at the Stockyards Brewery in the West Bottoms. With the cowboy and cattle décor, there’s a feeling of authentic Kansas City in the air, along with the house’s long lineup of craft brews, as the likes of True Lions or the Country Duo (Kasey Rausch and Marco Pascolini) ramble through three sets. The concerts run 3 to 6 p.m. Sundays in the main lounge, and sometimes outdoors, 1600 Genessee St.

I have two words for summer: Chilled soup. Restaurants that recognize seasonal change and deploy seasonal ingredients as a regular practice know the score and deliver scrumptious varieties. Recent favorites have included a sweet-corn vichyssoise with crabmeat at Earl’s Premier. And you never know what clever, chilled concoctions that chefs such as Ryan Brazeal at Novel or Nick Goellner at the Antler Room will compose. How many ways do you like your gazpacho? Everybody does it differently — blended versions, chunky versions, Spanish style with softened croutons, white gazpacho with almonds and grapes. Bring ‘em on. From Aixois to Extra Virgin, and restaurants all over town, gazpacho is a proper way to chill.

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

Leave a Reply