September 3, 2014
April 29, 2014
Last night I went to a panel discussion timed to the launch of “Bohemians: a Graphic History”, a comic book co-edited by Paul Buhle and David Berger. Paul gave the opening remarks and David concluded. Sandwiched between them were a number of artists who took part in the project. Based on my readings of previous projects Buhle was involved with along these lines, I expect this latest book to be a winner. In the past Buhle worked closely with Harvey Pekar on works such as “SDS”, “The Beats” and “Yiddishkeit”, in many ways a natural tie-in to “The Bohemians”. Given the centuries long tendency for American capitalism to crush all forms of human expression under its heel, it is only natural for a homegrown bohemia to have emerged. In his concluding remarks, Berger said that bohemia is dead but followed that observation immediately with one that it has always been dead. In Paris, back in 1850, you can be sure that someone would have been saying “La Boheme c’est mort.” Obviously as long as there is moloch—as Allen Ginbsberg once put it—there will be bohemia.
Among the bohemians previewed/profiled by the artists was Walt Whitman, who was in many ways the precursor to Allen Ginsberg. Being based in Brooklyn, Whitman would be the natural forefather to young bohemians trying to scrape out an existence today in that borough, largely priced out of Manhattan and Greenwich Village in particular—now the priciest neighborhood in the city. Honestly, I don’t know if bohemia is alive or dead right now in places like New York and San Francisco—historical hotbeds of the counter-culture—but the ever-increasing cost of living in such places almost makes it mandatory to look elsewhere. Places that have been devastated by industrial decline like Pittsburgh and Detroit are now homes to many young artists and writers.
Along with Whitman, two other gay writers are profiled in “Bohemians”: Oscar Wilde and Carl Van Vechten. I was surprised to learn that Wilde spent a year touring in the USA, including visits to places outside the customary “metropolitan” venues deemed safe for gay writers. This delicious item from a New Mexico newspaper should give you an idea of his interaction with the real America celebrated by both Whitman and Kerouac:
The opening scene of Brian’s Gilbert’s 1997 film Wilde shows the Irish poet and playwright arriving in Leadville, Colorado, on the back of a horse to cheers of “Yeeha!” and celebratory gunfire (in real life, Wilde arrived by train). The year is 1882. Wilde, played by Stephen Fry, is then lowered down a narrow shaft to visit with miners breaking silver from a seam named after its famous visitor. The miners are rapt with attention as Wilde, lit by torchlight, goes on about the importance of beauty. When one young shirtless and perspiring miner refills Wilde’s cup with drink, presumably whiskey, Wilde appears rapt in return.
Now I don’t know if this incident actually occurred or not but I’d like to think it did.
Carl Van Vechten was a major figure in Manhattan’s bohemian underworld in the 1920s. I strongly suspect that “Bohemians” would stress his positive contribution to culture but I would be remiss if I did not mention that despite his support for the Harlem Renaissance (he organized Paul Robeson’s first concert), he wrote a novel titled “Nigger Heaven” that clearly reflected the outlook of many wealthy whites who used to go “slumming” in Harlem. White bohemia unfortunately saw Black performers as “primitive” and sexually potent, no doubt leading to artists such as Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker emphasizing “jungle” themes.
This tradition lingered on into the 40s through the 60s. If you read Kerouac, there was always the yearning to be like a “Negro”. From “On the Road”:
At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.
When I arrived at Bard in 1961, a bohemian outpost if there ever was one, nobody would dare say anything racist but we routinely referred to Blacks as “spades”. We also went slumming in Harlem, just like an earlier generation. On one trip, a well-meaning art student got drunk in Harlem and began pawing women on the street. We had to haul him into our car to escape a growing mob.
There were clear signs that Buhle and Berger’s book steers clear of this kind of patronizing attitude since there was a presentation on the importance of jazz as a permanent resident in bohemia since its inception. Attention was paid to Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, whose cerebral approach to music and to the arts in general marked them as elevated beyond the status of “entertainer”.
Another presentation dealt with Henry J. Clapp, the mid-19th century “King of Bohemia” who used to rule the roost at Pfaff’s beer hall, the equivalent in some ways of the 20th century Cedar Tavern on University Place that was favored by abstract expressionist artists and bebop musicians. The artist referred the audience to the The Vault at Pfaff’s, an archive of art and literature by New York’s 19th century bohemians (http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/pfaffs/).
This was not the first time I had heard about Henry J. Clapp. About six months ago, I read Mark Lause’s “The Antebellum Crisis and America’s First Bohemians”, a delightful book that would be a good companion volume to Buhle and Berger’s. I will let Mark Lause have the last word on Clapp:
As with the critics of capital in the form of slavery, the bohemians argued about not only an exploitation of the workers but what such obsession with material wealth does to the individual owner. For Clapp: “The golden Rule is the golden test; / The Golden Mean means gold alone; / And the goldenest thing is e’er the best”. John Burroughs thought it “a strange idea some people have of use; as if a man must go jingling his money in his pocket to establish his claim to wealth; or reciting passages from books to gain the honor of’ wisdom. Good painting and good sculpture need no explanation; and a really wise man need not hang out a sign-board or employ a trumpeter. Wisdom, like the sun, is its own herald.”
The preoccupation with wealth created a din that overwhelmed the community. Clapp heard “no twaddle so insufferable as that which has begun to be so rife in large cities like New York, where money is the chief end of man, and where, therefore, only so-called business (or those peculiar and distinct Wall Street operations by which money is, more or less honestly, made) is considered the legitimate sphere of occupation: The new city seemed peopled by “scamps … who always stand ready to profit by other people’s labors.” He declined to offer “a classification of these scamps, for fear that the various species of the genus ‘who profit by other people’s labors’ might include some reader’s most respectable friends: Despite this claimed desire for forbearance, Clapp referred to Wall Street as “Caterwaul Street”.
Sounds like Clapp would have fit right in at Zuccotti Park. As I said, as long as there is capitalism, there will be a bohemia.