Bohemia in America, 1858-1920

By Joanna Levin | Go to book overview

5
Regional Bohemias

DURING THE HEYDAY of the fin-de-siècle Bohemian vogue, the desire to “live in Bohemia” extended throughout the nation. For many, this quest led to New York, San Francisco, or Paris. “I wish to go to Bohemia!” insists the titular heroine of L. H. Bickford and Richard Stillman Powell's Phyllis in Bohemia (1897), and, along with many U.S. writers and their fictional avatars, Phyllis leaves behind her “pastoral” life in an unspecified rural “Arcadia,” searching for “a plot to live around” in the “American Bohemia” of New York City.1 In this recurrent plot, Bohemia beckons the rural American, concentrating the romantic allure of urban culture and attracting promising youth away from their small-town communities and into national cultural centers. Commentators often figured this spatial and temporal shift as the displacement of an earlier pastoral “Arcadia” by its poetic successor, the mobile and metropolitan “Bohemia.” A nation within the nation, the floating territory of Bohemia thus paralleled, and often abetted, the ongoing “incorporation of America.”2 According to one observer, “It is part of the fairyland of it that it refuses to be limited by the mere boundary lines of townships and municipalities.”3

Throughout this same period, however, Bohemia also acted to forestall such cultural incorporation and to preserve regional autonomy. Many self-professed Bohemians located this mythical terrain within their own regional cultures; periodicals and clubs named the Bohemian appeared all over the country, and all extolled local versions of Bohemia. By claiming “Bohemia” for themselves, many of these clubs and magazines had an explicit agenda: to resist the centripetal pull of a national culture based in the Northeast, increasingly in Manhattan. Whether in the form of a periodical

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