The novel, on the other hand, 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, W.E.B. DuBois, and Alain Locke 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.