Bohemia in America, 1858-1920

Bohemia in America, 1858-1920

Bohemia in America, 1858-1920

Bohemia in America, 1858-1920


Bohemia in America, 1858–1920 explores the construction and emergence of "Bohemia" in American literature and culture. Simultaneously a literary trope, a cultural nexus, and a socio-economic landscape, la vie bohème traveled to the United States from the Parisian Latin Quarter in the 1850s. At first the province of small artistic coteries, Bohemia soon inspired a popular vogue, embodied in restaurants, clubs, neighborhoods, novels, poems, and dramatic performances across the country. Levin's study follows la vie bohème from its earliest expressions in the U. S. until its explosion in Greenwich Village in the 1910s.

Although Bohemia was everywhere in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American culture, it has received relatively little scholarly attention. Bohemia in America, 1858–1920 fills this critical void, discovering and exploring the many textual and geographic spaces in which Bohemia was conjured.

Joanna Levin not only provides access to a neglected cultural phenomenon but also to a new and compelling way of charting the development of American literature and culture.


“BOHEMIA ONLY EXISTS AND is only possible in Paris,” declared Henri Murger, the writer credited with popularizing and largely inventing the romance of Bohemia in mid-nineteenth-century France. Yet, a decade later, a group of U.S. writers, painters, and actors assumed the mantle of Bohemianism and sought to create a self-consciously American version of la vie bohème. The irony of this endeavor appealed to U.S. Bohemians and informed their own self-representations: from its beginnings, American Bohemianism has seized upon the foreignness of Bohemia as a means of launching cultural criticism, expanding aesthetic possibilities, and promoting cosmopolitan aspiration. “Transplanted from the mother asphalt of Paris,” Bohemia entered American culture, first becoming the province of small artistic coteries and ultimately inspiring a popular vogue replete with “Bohemian” restaurants, clubs, neighborhoods, hotels, novels, poems, paintings, and periodicals. By the 1890s, the recitation piece “I'd rather live in Bohemia than any other land” could be heard in even the most decorous bourgeois drawing rooms. Part literary trope, part cultural nexus, and part socioeconomic landscape, la vie bohème existed both within and without literary narrative, enabling and shaping dramas of artistic and countercultural experience.

Murger immortalized Bohemian Paris in a series of sketches written in 1845 and 1846, and in La Vie de Bohème, a popular musical melodrama staged in 1849. Defying convention and poverty, dedicating themselves to love and creativity, transforming necessity into art and carefree abandon, and outwitting les bourgeois (in the form of soulless landlords and creditors), Murger's Bohemians set the stage for an enduring romance that has . . .

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