Bohemia in America, 1858-1920

By Joanna Levin | Go to book overview

2
Bret Harte, Urban Spectatorship,
and the Bohemian West

SHORTLY AFTER THE PFAFFIANS announced their version of la vie bohème in the Saturday Press, the mythos of Bohemia traveled to San Francisco. If the essence of Bohemia involves a constant interplay between the real and the imagined, then the “instant” city of San Francisco would seem to be among the locales most suited to realizing countercultural fantasy. Early San Franciscans represented their metropolis as such a proto-countercultural site; they extolled their city in terms analogous to the opposition between the Bohemian and the Bourgeois, frequently recasting the polarity as an opposition between the Western and Eastern states. To this end, the 1855 Annals of San Francisco celebrated the city's vitality and distance from a Puritan inheritance, and inhabitants proclaimed that their metropolis was “freed from the multitude of prejudices and embarrassments and exactions that control the Eastern cities.”1 And lest it be thought that the city departed from Eastern mores through a lack of cultural sophistication, newspapers further announced that as early as 1853 San Francisco was fast “becoming a second Paris.”2 The sense of being at a far remove from Eastern concerns only increased during the years of the Civil War, and California “boosters” were ever ready to promote settlement by advertising social difference.3

These sentiments suggest that the designation of a Bohemia in San Francisco may have been somewhat redundant—too close to most western self-representations to retain any oppositional power. Yet the pioneer of Bohemian San Francisco largely refused to identify his literary ideal with his city. For Bret Harte, San Francisco's first self-declared Bohemian, the metropolis remained intractably bourgeois. In contrast to the 1855 An-

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