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The Village People

Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century
By Christine Stansell
Metropolitan Books

"Bohemia is, after all, inherently apolitical," opined a designated expert in the section you're reading just a few months ago. This revelation must have surprised Christine Stansell, whose vision of Greenwich Village in the 1910s assumes the opposite. Three of the four figures she follows most closely are remembered for political discourse: anarchist celebrity Emma Goldman, Red journalist John Reed, and progressive-utopian essayist Randolph Bourne. Only Margaret Anderson, her Little Review a literary counterpart to The Masses, owed her first allegiance to the arts that are supposedly bohemia's raison d'etre. Stansell's choices aren't willful, either. Earlier chroniclers--Albert Parry, Allen Churchill, Emily Hahn--also count Reed and Goldman coequals of such scenemaking aesthetes as Anderson, Mabel Dodge, and Floyd Dell. Stansell's ringer is Bourne, barely mentioned by Parry and ignored by the others. But though he first settled in the East 30s and worked at the Chelsea-based New Republic, money problems soon forced Bourne downtown, where he rubbed elbows, wooed actresses, wore a cape, and died of influenza at 32. If Stansell wants to call him a bohemian, she's got a right. Bohemia is, after all, protean and elastic.

It's so much so, in fact, that you can define it any way you please. So give Stansell credit for making her definitions stick. Where most books in bohemia's woefully tiny corner of social history are picturesque and episodic, hers is as full of ideas as Parry's seminal Garrets and Pretenders and Jerrold Seigel's fundamental Bohemian Paris, and without stinting on research or narrative. Not that it's up to the very high standard of either, or of Malcolm Cowley's classic Exile's Return. Stansell's focus is narrow, and though her tales are swift and specific, she's not a notably deft or juicy storyteller. But she sure makes everything cohere and signify.

One of the commonest barbs tossed at bohemia is that it talks better art than it produces, and this is certainly true of the early Village--beyond the young Eugene O'Neill, the transitory Georgia O'Keeffe, and the early Ashcan School, none of its principals is remembered for his or her creative output. Stansell's brilliance is to look beyond this embarrassment. She knows Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry stands as "a fully modernist narrative of war as unimaginable horror" where Reed's Insurgent Mexico merely "reworks late-Victorian conventions into what was to become the reigning left-wing idiom of revolution." But the life achievements of Reed and his cohort seem to Stansell at least as far-reaching--and even, in their ever-dispersing way, enduring--as anything a minor master like Babel ever wrote.

Needless to say, this judgment propels us into the vague realm of sociology. None of the historical phenomena Stansell cites can be strictly or exclusively attributed to bohemia. But as history actually took place, all of them did pass through the early Village, and all were empowered by the contact. Free speech. Birth control. Sexual freedom in all its bravado and hypocrisy (though not for gays, not yet). Human interest journalism. The cross-class nexus of empathy and publicity that established the now assumed bond between artists and the wretched of the earth (though not blacks, not yet). The emergence of the ethnic hero, especially the Jew. The rise of New York as cultural capital and nationwide magnet.

Two concerns predominate, however, one already noted. Tracing her bohemia back to the Lower East Side of the 1890s and unlikely outposts like Davenport, Iowa (hometown of three major Villagers, and later, though Stansell doesn't mention it, Bix Beiderbecke), Stansell insists on what ought to be obvious--that people who defy political convention and people who defy social and artistic convention gravitate toward each other whatever their deep ultimate differences. She also demonstates persuasively that the shape progressivism/socialism took in America had its template in bohemia, not least because journalism is a bohemian occupation whether arty know-nothings like it or not. The only factor that looms larger in Stansell's bohemia than politics is one that wasn't yet politicized enough: the influence of women.

You'd expect Stansell, author of a history of women in New York and coeditor of the ground-breaking feminist sex anthology Powers of Desire, to home in on Margaret Sanger, Susan Glaspell, Neith Boyce, and Ida Rauh as well as lecture star Goldman, salon keeper Dodge, and Hollywood-ready Louise Bryant, all of whom provide welcome relief from the nostalgic bonhomie of so many bohemian tales. What's impressive is how powerfully Stansell's analysis foregrounds them. Her basic point is that, rather than art, the most important heritage of the early Village is "distinct forms of sociability" that soon spread everywhere, and that these were produced or inspired primarily by women. The associative style of conversation that avoided "glorious fighting and keen arguing" reflected close social and professional relationships between men and women, often the "New Women" who were venturing onto the streets in those years. When such relationships were sexualized, they inevitably took the form of romantic marriages that "assumed unprecedented significance as conduits of mutual understanding"--although Stansell is properly forceful in pointing out that, in a world without servants, housework and child-rearing were harder on women than ever and that, for all but a few self-reliant wives, what free love advocates called "Varietism" wasn't all that different from what disgruntled spouses call fucking around.

Stansell's bohemia didn't survive World War I, which repressed The Masses and The Little Review, led to the early deaths of Bourne and Reed, and sent Anderson and Goldman into exile, voluntary and involuntary respectively. In a regrettable boho tradition, she sounds a little waspish describing what came after her great moment, which may have commercialized sex, if that's a bad thing, but also had far more room for African Americans and popular culture as well as producing better writing. Hart Crane, Edna St. Vincent Millay, E.E. Cummings, and the maturing Eugene O'Neill may not have been much for demos or hanging out, but they left their own enduring heritage--including an ever more protean and elastic bohemia, every era of which deserves a history or three as thoughtful as this one.

Village Voice, June 13, 2000