Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life

By Desley Deacon | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
New Woman

ELSIE Clews Parsons and her new anthropological colleagues were not alone in seeking to free themselves from the "closed circuit" of late-nineteenth-century certainties. Her return to New York at the end of 1911 plunged her into a vibrant intellectual world. She found to her delight that the conversation between diverse groups that she tried to stimulate in 1906 had become a reality--at least in the part of New York that was becoming known as Greenwich Village. In this tiny area surrounding Washington Square had assembled a close-knit community of intellectuals who melded American traditions of dissent with the newer pragmatism and the imported creeds of socialism and anarchism. Young women and men of Quaker, Unitarian, and freethinking backgrounds, wealthy young men uneasy about their privileges, equally wealthy young women full of rebellion, and sons and daughters of Jewish middle-class immigrants embraced a range of revolutionary ideas from the conversation of Tarde to the dynamite of Bukharin. They often called it "socialism" or "anarchism," but they all shared one basic aim--to jettison conventional ideas and practices and to rebuild the world on a more tolerant, egalitarian, and flexible basis.

This intellectual community grew out of the work of the settlement houses and the "ethical bohemia" that developed around them. The concentration of settlements in Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side, and a fascination with the area's ethnic diversity, brought an array of social workers, socially concerned clergy, journalists, writers, educators, actors, political activists, and social investigators to live in the settlements or in houses, apartments, and rooms nearby. Drawn by the charismatic personality of Lillian Wald at Henry Street or the gentler, more intellectual Mary Simkhovitch at Greenwich House, and by the promise of purpose in their lives, wealthy uptown women flocked to the boards, classrooms, and projects of the settlements--and some came to stay. The College Settle

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