Bohemia in America, 1858-1920

By Joanna Levin | Go to book overview

3
“A Plot to Live Around”: La Vie Bohème
in Fiction, City Sketches, and Memoir

THE BOHEMIAN LIFE THAT Bret Harte and the Pfaffians had sought to import to the United States in the 1850s and 1860s gained considerable traction throughout the last decades of the century. In 1885, John Boyle O'Reilly declared, “I'd rather live in Bohemia than in any other land, / For only there are the values true.”1 Others pledged allegiance: the poem became a favorite recitation piece in club and drawing rooms across the nation, and the refrain “I'd rather live in Bohemia” appeared on the mastheads of numerous self-titled “Bohemian” periodicals from Buffalo to Cincinnati, New York City to Fort Worth.

Appleton's Journal provides an index to changing attitudes toward Bohemianism. At the beginning of the 1870s, Appleton's still patronizingly described the “many persons who, while having a sort of recognition in the editorial rooms of the New York press, are commonly described as adventurers—a class, known as Bohemians, who live loosely, and precariously, spend their uncertain and irregular earnings lavishly, and who usually are more fond of the convivial glass and the merry song than of labor.”2 The “Bohemian” remained the obverse of the disciplined, well-regulated bourgeois. Appleton's further elaborates upon this definition in 1877, praising “the French, with their witty habit of seizing delicate shades of character,” for having successfully “embalmed in a name the resemblance between the ethnographical gypsy [whom the French then believed had originated in the country of Bohemia] and a social class.” Crediting the felicity of the name and the popularity of Murger's “Vie de Bohème,” Appleton's declares, “the term [Bohemian] has come to have a pretty definite meaning”:

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