A Locus of Art, Rebellion; Profiling Heyday of Greenwich Village.(BOOKS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 23, 2002 | Go to article overview
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A Locus of Art, Rebellion; Profiling Heyday of Greenwich Village.(BOOKS)


Byline: Rex Roberts, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

As Ross Wetzsteon points out at the beginning of "Republic of Dreams," Greenwich Village isn't what it used to be - nor has been since 1916, when locals already complained of tourists, poseurs and other undesirables invading their neighborhood. Yet Wetzsteon admits that the Village has been a victim of its own success in exporting its brand of counterculture into the heartland of America. "It could even be argued that the degree to which the Village is no longer the locus of bohemia is the degree to which the Village has contributed to winning that battle," he writes, "from the early days of insistence on the right to premarital sex and access to birth control information to the more recent days of feminism and gay liberation."

Subtitled "Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960," Wetzsteon's history of these four squares miles in lower Manhattan - bounded by 14th St. to the north, the Hudson River to the west, Houston St. to the south and Third Avenue to the east - is a celebration of self-actualization, "the liberated self," as the ascendant philosophy of our time. Whether they were artists, anarchists or amorists, Villagers embraced the principles of Jean Jacques Rousseau and rejected what they considered narrow-minded, bourgeois morality and materialism.

"They were self-assured rebels, harbingers of a new social order," writes Wetzsteon, longtime drama critic and editor at the Village Voice who died in 1998 (the book is published posthumously). "The Villagers made a cult of carefree irresponsibility, but in the service of transcendental ideas."

In some ways, the book is Wetzsteon's lives of the poets, since he tells his story as a series of mini-biographies profiling the people who passed through the Village during the first half of the 20th century. The list is impressive: William Carlos Williams, Thomas Wolfe, Djuna Barnes, E.E. Cummings, Dawn Powell, to mention a few writers awarded their own chapters, as well as lesser known local characters such as Harry Kemp, the Hobo Poet, and Guido Bruno, the Barnum of Bohemia. In fact, just about everybody who did anything notable before the sixties, from DeWitt and Lila Wallace, who founded the Reader's Digest beneath a speakeasy at 113 McDougal St. in 1922, to Lauren Bacall, named Miss Greenwich Village of 1942, seems to have spent time there.

Wetzsteon, however, concentrates on five years between 1912 and 1917, the Golden Age of the Village, when the free-spirited radicalism associated with the place developed its exuberant and exasperating temperament. In particular, he focuses on five people - Mabel Dodge, John Reed, Max Eastman, Eugene O'Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay - who came to embody the passion, irreverence and iconoclasm of the moment.

Dodge, a thirtysomething socialite bored with her husband and blessed with a talent for entertaining, was famous for her salon at 23 Fifth Avenue, which attracted a curious assortment of journalists, poets and socialists. Wobbly spokesman Big Bill Haywood was a regular, as were Carl Van Vechten and Lincoln Steffens, Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, as well as an assortment of colorful hangers-on with names like Hippolyte Havel, "a long-haired, walrus-mustached, glitter-eyed anarchist." Dodge's gatherings had themes - the Dangerous Characters Evenings alternated with the Sex Antagonism Evenings and Evenings of Art and Unrest - and she threw what was probably the first peyote party in the Village.

"One Evening might founder in factionalism, another might degenerate into disputation, another might conclude in incoherence - but the Lyrical Left defined itself more by its energy than by its ideas," writes Wetzsteon. Dodge's critics dismissed her as a dilettante (she invented radical chic long before Leonard Bernstein) but her soirees proved vital to New York intellectual and social life.

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