Rebels in Bohemia: The Radicals of the Masses, 1911-1917

By Leslie Fishbein | Go to book overview
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Chapter 4
Greenwich Village -- Home as Bohemia

The Sense of Bohemian Community

The pre- World War I revolt of artists and intellectuals found its home in Greenwich Village, New York's haven for wayward spirits since the days of Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman. Although bohemia has come to symbolize rebellion, it has a rich and colorful tradition that sustains those who seek refuge within its bounds. Balzac introduced the term to the literary world in his Un Prince de Bohème, and the general public took note of the phenomenon with the publication of Henry Murger's immensely popular Scènes de la vie de Bohème in the 1850s. Thackeray through his novel Vanity Fair helped to bring bohemia to the attention of the English-speaking public, and in the 1890s du Maurier's semiautobiographical novel Trilby precipitated a second bohemian craze.1 The notion of bohemia when imported to America was redolent of European exoticism. It bore with it a charm that had general appeal; it smacked more of the quaint and the curious than of outright revolt against social mores.

The writers who described America's bohemia emphasized its homage to social proprieties and its sense of civic responsibility. For example, William Dean Howells in The Coast of Bohemia ( 1899) presents us with a bohemian artist-heroine named Charmian who lives with her mother and does nothing more risqué than puff at a cigar. The members of New York's art colony whom Howells depicts are either married or court under chaperonage; all the niceties are observed.2 Howells thus refuses to examine seriously the roots of social rebellion and reduces the bohemian desire for freedom to a silly wish to smoke. For his characters an interlude in bohemia is merely a way station on the journey to respectability.

The historians of Greenwich Village also emphasized the high moral tone of the area. Anna Alice Chapin dismissed the sexual notions of the Villagers as mere talk and stressed instead their unquestionable idealism: "But in the Village there is very little scandal, and practically no slander. They are very


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