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Bohemia In the City

by Richard Brookhiser

The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues: A History of Greenwich Village, by John Strausbaugh (Ecco, 640 pp., $29.99)

This lively and entertaining book appears to be a duffel bag stuffed with vignettes, anecdotes, and one-liners, but they are excellent vignettes, anecdotes, and one-liners, and they are in fact arranged and recounted with considerable skill. John Strausbaugh accompanies his material with observations, original and quoted, that are both smart and provocative, and infrequent enough not to become a drone.

The Village is a must-read for two audiences. One is Gotham-philes, who can never get enough about the city. The other is all those who are interested in the phenomenon of Bohemia — the self-defined rebels of the art world who reject the common culture, live off it, debase it, change it, and aspire to lead it. For over a century Bohemia colonized Greenwich Village, and though it is no longer to be found there, it marches on elsewhere. We should all be interested in it, for it is interested in us.

Greenwich Village lies in southwestern Manhattan below 14th Street, west of Broadway (or Fifth Avenue, or Sixth Avenue, depending on who is measuring), and north of Houston Street (though the formerly Italian parts of Soho were once called the South Village). The Village was attractive to Bohemia because it was both close to an urban hub and distinct from it. Greenwich Village started as a true village north of New York City. In the early 19th century the city grew toward and beyond it, but the street grids of New York and the western parts of the Village did not mesh, giving the latter the appearance of a hidden nook, what Strausbaugh calls “a small eruption of eccentricity and disorder.”

And what is Bohemia? The term was coined in Paris in the 1830s; the idea was later novelized and dramatized by Henry Murger, and still later set to music by Puccini. Bohemia the country was by tradition the homeland of gypsies; Bohemia the spiritual country was the homeland of artists leading a gypsy-like existence. Strausbaugh quotes the critic Malcolm Cowley, who wrote in Exile’s Return that, while poor artists had long clustered together (think of London’s Grub Street, where Dr. Johnson got his start), “Bohemia is Grub Street romanticized, doctrinalized and rendered self-conscious; it is Grub Street on parade.”

A list of the people and things that have paraded through the Greenwich Village Bohemia would include The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the New York Dolls, the Provincetown Players, the Whitney Museum, W. H. Auden, Grove Press, Margaret Sanger, Edgar Allan Poe, Folkways Records, Charlie Parker, Kahlil Gibran, The Little Review, Jackson Pollock, the Village Voice, and the Village People. The first Bohemian hangout was Pfaff’s, a pre–Civil War tavern on Broadway; one of the regulars was Brooklyn visitor Walt Whitman. What Strausbaugh calls the Golden Age came before and during World War I; its genius was Eugene O’Neill, its glory was Edna St. Vincent Millay — who was, as one of her admirers put it, part chorus girl, part nun, part Botticelli Venus. Prohibition begat speakeasies and the allure of commercialized transgression. After World War II came abstract expressionists, Beats, folk singers, rockers, and drag queens.

Some of the meanest comments about this cavalcade come from the participants themselves. Here is Emma Goldman (anarchist) on Louise Bryant (Communist): “I do wish sometimes I were as shallow as a Louise Bryant; everything would be so simple.” Novelist Dawn Powell shrank Thomas Wolfe’s meganovel Of Time and the River to eight lines: “Oh Boston girls how about it / Oh Jewish girls, what say / Oh America I love you / Oh geography, hooray / Ah youth, ah me, ah beauty / Ah sensitive, arty boy / Ah busts and thighs and bellies / Ah nooky there — ahoy!” Folk singer Dave Van Ronk said the more commercial and more popular Kingston Trio “threw me into an absolute ecstasy of rage.”

Some Bohemians turned right as they aged — Strausbaugh notes the evolution of John Dos Passos, e. e. cummings, and NR contributor Max Eastman. But the Village was overwhelmingly left, because that was the handiest way to disdain the bourgeoisie in America. (France had a Bohemia of the right, as well as of the left, because the bourgeoisie could be attacked from a romantic/royalist/Catholic direction. Since that Bohemia ended in Vichy, it’s just as well we never had one.)

Bohemia depended on cheap rents. Villagers lived cheaply because so many of them lived in tenements; after World War II, prices were frozen by rent control. Dirty money also helped keep the pot bubbling. The Mafia invested in jazz clubs, gay clubs, and heroin, all components of the mid-century scene.

“Canon formation,” a term of contemporary literary theory, starts with clique formation. The poet Kenneth Koch called the Village “fizzy with collaboration,” and all those artistes in proximity did stimulate one another. But they also used one another to pat backs, blow horns, and give legs up the greasy pole. Strausbaugh’s account of the relationship between Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg recalls two European powers in the board game Diplomacy, negotiating the entente that will benefit them both; Dylan and Andy Warhol, another fame whore, could not come to an understanding.

Every Bohemian wanted to be famous. But fame, when it came, worked in mysterious ways. After the triumphant publication of On the Road, the author Jack Kerouac and David Amram, a jazz-musician friend, dropped into the Figaro, a Bleecker Street café whose walls were papered with pages of the French newspaper for which it was named. They found the back room filled with kids, all dressed in black, the girls wearing sweaters and fishnet stockings, the guys sporting goatees and clasping brand-new bongos. “It’s like Catholic school,” Kerouac marveled. “Everyone is in uniform.” Everyone except the two actual Beats themselves, whom the youngsters tagged as creepy old guys from Jersey trying to score. The manager asked Kerouac and Amram to give an impromptu poetry/jazz performance, but the kids sniffed. Strausbaugh writes: “They refused to believe that Kerouac was Kerouac.” No wonder he drank.

The iron law of talent — a few have it, some have some, and most have none whatsoever — held for the Village. It is noteworthy how few of the many characters in this thick book were first-rate. Edmund Wilson lived in the Village; Scott Fitzgerald did not. Yet another function of cliques was to simulate ability with numbers. A room full of half-wits could look like a room half-full of wits. Besides the talents-manqués there were hordes of frauds, gawkers, and plain lost souls. Addictions were rife. Naïve or disturbed young women were chewed up by predatory men. Gay men burst out of the closet in the Seventies to a dance of death. Strausbaugh quotes the moviemaker John Waters — whose movies make Django Unchained look like The Sound of Music — reminiscing about the meatpacking district in the West Village, once infested with transvestite hookers and gay sex clubs, now high-end. “I think, ‘If you knew what went on here.’ The Toilet [an aptly named sex club] is a fancy restaurant. I’ve seen people eating there.”

Bohemia renews itself by offering easy indulgence, a subway ride to Cythera. Visiting or living there is also a badge of artiness, and a rejection of normality — I am not as that plutocrat. And sometimes, the taste buds just crave a change, and a termite colony of experimenters can supply it. Jazz was great American music, but there came a point when it simply wore out; to go on was turning over and over in bed. Bring on the Childe ballads and the three-chord guitar players.

And — rarely — something real gets made. Beauty can happen anywhere: in small towns; in show biz; in journalism (Poe and Whitman were newspapermen). It can also happen in Bohemia.

The turn-of-the-millennium cleanup of Manhattan, courtesy of Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, had the effect of pricing Bohemia out of the Village. Strausbaugh ends with a local’s rant against the Magnolia Bakery, a pricey cupcake shop featured in Sex and the City. Weep not. The kids went to Brooklyn, and their elders are adjunct faculty.

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