Bohemia in America, 1858-1920

By Joanna Levin | Go to book overview

>6
Cosmopolitan Bohemias

I'd rather live in Bohemia than in any other land,

For only there are the values true …

Here, pilgrims stream with a faith sublime

From every class and clime and time.

John Boyle O'Reilly, “In Bohemia,” 1885

WHITMAN ENVISIONED “OUR LAND, America, her literature, esthetics, etc., as, substantially, the getting in form … of deepest basic elements and loftiest final meanings.”1 Emerson located “America” at a transcendental intersection between literature and geography: “America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination and it will not wait long for metres.”2 By the turn of the century, however, the “dazzling world” that captured the imaginations of many U.S. writers, artists, urbanites, and clubmen and clubwomen belonged not to “America” but to the fabulous land of “Bohemia.”3 “I'd rather live in Bohemia than in any other land, / For only there are the values true,” declared John Boyle O'Reilly in a poem so popular that contemporaries described it as “the national anthem of the boundless realm of Bohemia.”4 In Philadelphia, a former mayor went so far as to proclaim, “Dynasties and nations may rise and fall, empires decay and pass away, but Bohemia is always. It is the only true democracy in the world—the safest, merriest, jolliest state in all Chistendom.”5

Literary history teaches us that American writers have lacked “a sense of a world elsewhere, this indeed being the world elsewhere.”6 Displacing the gap between the real and the ideal, the present and the future, the symbol of “America” has encouraged U.S. authors to commit themselves, with

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