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September 19, 2000

Books by Kay Kimbrough

AMERICAN MODERNS: BOHEMIAN NEW YORK AND THE CREATION OF A NEW CENTURY
Christine Stansell
Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt, 2000.

Stansell's account of Bohemian New York begins with the 1890s, when Hutchins Hapgood and Mary Heaton Vorse and other refugees from Victorian America came to New York to find The New and to become New Men and New Women. Hapgood was a Midwesterner who had been sent to Harvard to become an Old Man, to continue in law or business, to fulfill his manufacturer father's wishes for his son's future. Instead, he went into journalism, explored the New York of tenements in lower Manhattan and found himself kindred souls among "immigrant Jews, street hustlers, and demimondaines." He was a reporter for the COMMERICAL ADVERTISER, considering himself one of the workers he championed. Vorse escaped the suffocating atmosphere of Amherst, Massachusetts, came to New York to work as an illustrator, became enchanted with the same Bohemian neighborhood, went into journalism, and recorded in her memoirs that she took delight in newfound "impossible and forbidden things."

Immigrants from Europe added their worldly attitudes and experiences in the Bohemias of European capitals to the American mixture of artists, writers, workers, anarchists and socialists who debated long and loud in the cafes. Sons of Victorian upper class families rushed into this intoxicating milieu: "It was an amazing place for young men whose intellects had been formed in the Ivy League of the 1890s, where a fashion for upper-class ennui tinted with European decadence reigned. On the Lower East Side, they received another education entirely. Intellectually, some of the talk was almost certainly over their heads, turning upon fine points of revolutionary dogma, European literature, or Continental Philosophy."

At approximately the same time that Virginia Woolf saw The New and proclaimed "On or about December 1910, human character changed, New York Bohemia found itself accidentally organized into a community, Greenwich Village. Max Eastman, Mabel Dodge, Walter Lippman, Floyd Dell, Susan Glaspel, Emma Goldman, John Reed and Edna St. Vincent Millay are familiar names that contributed to the excitement and glamor of this New Community of New Men and New Women. The intellectuals who railed against social injustice and preached political change to benefit the workers and the poor thought they had every right to decide the fate of those they championed, although they rarely got to know their worker neighbors, Italian immigrants or the black neighbors who lived nearby in the Tenderloin district.

Fueled by giant egos, perhaps a necessary ingredient for those who gain the necessary attention for implementing social and political changes, the public was forced to pay attention to such matters as women's rights, birth control, censorship, abuse of workers by the combined forces of industry and government, hypocrisy, economic injustice and The New in every aspect of the arts at the beginning of a new century. Freedom in all things human was the sum total of their hopes and plans for a future America. In spite of the return to business as usual that occurred after World War I, their efforts left lasting imprints on the American conscious.

The 1960s loom in the future of this era, with its revival of The New in every area of human life. A comparison of the two movements is interesting. The movement of the 1910s was more concerned with freedom in the arts and legal rights for women and workers. These concerns were expressed in words, spoken and written. In the 1960s the concerns were expressed in emotional displays, actions and words and folk and rock music. The Bohemians were not ready for the Civil Rights Movement, while the 1960s radicals made it one of their causes. Both movements ran into an America at war; the Bohemians were diffused by the conservative and patriotic response to World War I. The radicals of the 1960s accomplished the demise of Lyndon Johnson with their protests against Vietnam, but his demise brought in the Nixon era of conservative attitudes that diffused the movements of the 1960s. Like the Bohemians, the sixties left their mark, making changes in American life that are taken for granted today.

Stansell ends her book with the ultimate fates of four of the Bohemians who were most influential in their causes: John Reed, Emma Goldman, Randolph Bourne and Margaret Anderson. Reed and Bourne died young of disease, while Goldman and Anderson lived on, Goldman as an exile from both America and Russia and Anderson as an ex-patriot in Paris salons. Stansell presents "these smart, idealistic, self-involved people" in brief sketches that make the reader want to know more. The Bohemians are a fascinating group of individuals; Stansell's book is like an appetizer before a feast with many courses.

Stansell's work is objective and cautious, the work of a history professor. She does not take sides, pointing out the weaknesses and strengths of her New Men and New Women. She concludes, cautiously: "The Bohemians believed they stood at the beginning of an arc through American time. Searching for the place that arc touches down, we can spy a modernity still desirable and absorbing, if necessarily chastened." Modernity may be "chastened"; the bohemians never were.


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