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Garrets and Pretenders
A History of Bohemianism in America
By Albert Parry
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1960 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE LONE ONE
American Bohemianism, so gay and mellow and, in its later stages, respectable, began with a tragedy. It began with Edgar Allan Poe.
In his own time Poe was seldom, if ever, referred to as a Bohemian. The sentimental term applied to a man of art and of unconventional or wandering disposition was brought to America from France at the time Poe was drinking himself to death. In 1849, the term was already widely used in France but comparatively unknown in America or England. An obituary notice of that time read as a stab: "A dissolute, fantastic writer died at Baltimore in consequence of fits of intoxication." Soft tears and mild sighs befitting the death of a François Villon or a Murger hero were absent. It was much later that Poe was identified with the freakish mood of a Latin Quarter, and even then it was because Baudelaire was remembered by Americans as a fascinating madman, Baudelaire who carried Poe's name to new horizons and was regarded as his spiritual twin.
Decades later, R. H. Stoddard placed Briggs and English as Poe's "Bohemian friends." It was one of the first references, however indirect, to Poe as a Bohemian by any of his contemporaries. In 1885, E. C. Stedman wrote of the period between Poe's first departure from Mr. Allan's mansion and his marriage to Virginia Clemm, referring to it as the profligate phase in the poet's life. "The time had come when Poe, with his sense of the fitness of things, could see that Bohemianism, the charm of youth, is a frame that poorly suits the portrait of a mature and able-handed man."
Poe beheld Greenwich Village after he married Virginia. Stedman lived and wrote before Greenwich Village had become the Montmartre of America. Some writers of the two last decades view Poe as a Bohemian because he starved near Washington Square. They pick him up as a literary gypsy just where Stedman ceases to worry about Poe's looseness. They magnify the accident of Poe's residence on Carmine Street and Waverly Place and Greenwich Avenue into a fact of great symbolic import. "The old Square has no stranger nor sadder shade to haunt it than that of the brilliant and melancholy genius who in life loved it so well," wrote a recorder of Greenwich Village. The restless Poe, moving in search of cheaper quarters all over the city, was bound to strike Greenwich Village time and again, but the recorder sees in this much more than a law of mathematical averages. "Poor Poe lived always somewhere near the Square. Once in a while he moved away for a time, but he invariably gravitated back to it and to his old friends there."
Yet, it was not Baudelaire's shade nor was it the Greenwich Village addresses that made Poe a Bohemian. Neither were certain periods of his life decorous and certain other periods indecorous. He was born and he died a Bohemian, his whole life the truest picture of that phenomenon at its rarest and best.
Poe was not a self-conscious protestant. His despair of the world was not a pose. It was natural in all of its manifestations. His whole make-up as man and poet led to it as inevitably as a mighty river leads to a tumultuous sea. Both heredity and environment moulded Poe into the torn, mad, unconventional being that he was. Joseph Wood Krutch remarks, "He was, it is always necessary to bear in mind if one is to understand his complicated bitterness, a Bohemian from necessity and by no means from choice."
He was born the son of an itinerant actress and a shiftless, adventurous father. For almost the three earliest years of his life, little Edgar was in the proximity of the stage and its people, who then still lived as semi-outcasts of the post-Puritan era. When theAllans adopted him, the memory of his outcast ancestry was not allowed to fade but was persistently brought back, ostensibly to remind him of his everlasting debt of gratitude to his adopters but really to drive home the fact that he was among ladies and gentlemen on sufferance only, that he did not belong among them and never could.
Up to December, 1811, the month of adoption, Edgar knew no other home but taverns and inns, in which his parents and their actor friends stopped and rested. Partly out of deliberate bravado to confirm the idea of the contemporary society that they were indeed unduly jolly and almost wicked, partly out of the true exigencies of their artistic temperaments, the traveling actors of America of the early nineteenth century made their lives irregular and their sojourns in inns and taverns quite noisy. While Poe's mother lay dying in Richmond, the rest of her troupe gathered next door at the jolly Indian Queen Tavern. If little Edgar did not remember the scene of his mother's death in the shadow of the tavern, if he did not remember her earlier part in those convivial gatherings when she was well, all this was brought back to him in the house of his adoption and in the school. He learned to defend with a fierce heat the memory and profession of his mother and to feel a morbid interest in taverns.
The desire to escape from the painful reality of an uncertain social position has been, in all lands and times, one of the chief distinguishing reasons for Bohemianism. Poe was the first American refugee of this sort. He began to dream of fame early in his life, because as a returning hero with laurels on his brow he could build a base for the doubtful respect shown him by Southern society, and so strengthen it beyond any taint of his real origin and any taunt of his enemy. Thus began his wanderings, real and imaginary; his soldiering in the American army and his court martial in West Point; his mythical adventures in Greece and Russia; his pretensions at scholarship; his effort to picture himself as an unusual man cut off from the rest of humanity by mystical and deep knowledge, by violent and uncommon passions, and by an evil fate. He believed in the portrait he painted of himself. He was sincere in hoaxing the reader and in plagiarizing and criticizing scientific works. He almost believed in the tales of his adventures in far-off lands which he never visited. He was a supreme and true Bohemian, refusing to come down to the dull and painful reality and adjust himself to it. There was no cheapness about his frauds, and no merry putting of the tongue to the cheek, but there was a magic carpet of self-delusion of a genius that, indeed, lifted him high above "every hill and hamlet ... every town and city on this earth." The Satanic note that was attempted by so many garret-dwellers in the years to follow never rang as true as in the case of Poe, its originator in America and its most earnest exponent in the world.
As wanderings and wild attacks at the elusive ghost of fame and money continued to fail him, Poe tried to find an escape and forgetfulness in drink and at times in drugs. He drank not as the French artistic sans-culottes of his time, in jovial camaraderie and overabundance of good mood, but as a man who tries to drown a pain, the origin of which he himself only vaguely or not at all knows. He drank savagely, sullenly, with little, if any, affection for his bottle-companions. A hereditary inclination to drink acted as the spark to a load of oil. Once starting on his path of morose drinking, Poe could not stop, and finally burned himself with a flame of drink to his death. This heritage was coupled with a certain proclivity to insanity; this was the pain which Poe tried to drown, the origin of which he did not know; his sister Rosalie lived and died a harmless imbecile. Indeed, there is but one step from insanity to genius and back.
There was no idle interest and no empty pretension in Poe's sporadic use of drugs. He did not start it out of bravado as Fitz Hugh Ludlow and many other imitators did years later. His was a genuine and urgent need for hushing the pain in his soul and obliterating the tragedy of his existence. The drug, even better than drink, sent him soaring to those heights of the bizarre and the sublime to which constantly he aspired. The drug, like the drink, helped him to feel a genius without appearing mad to himself.
There were no kindred souls to understand his pain and his desire to soar above it. His companions were temporary because they were common and petty, and there were no higher minds in sight. Like most of the geniuses, Poe was born out of the bounds of his proper time and country. He was either too late or too early in coming to earth; he was either born too far to the West or too far to the East. "He might have had," wrote Joseph Wood Krutch, "the good fortune to be born, like Baudelaire, in a world a little more tolerant of outcasts than that of literary America in the early nineteenth century; in an older and richer civilization he might have found habitable circles outside respectability where he would not have been compelled constantly to measure himself by the standards of a bourgeois society; he might, in a word, have finally adapted himself to a Bohemia had one existed; but under any imaginable circumstances he would have been outcast and miserable." There would have been less pain and solitude of spirit for Poe had a Bohemia of high and sympathetic souls existed in his time, a group not too large and not too widely advertised and exploited.
But though surrounded by no Montmartre to soothe his ruffled soul and to proclaim his greatness, Poe laid, with his life and work, the foundation for American Bohemianism.
Poe started in America the tradition of literary hoaxes, of vitriolic criticism with a frankly personal tinge and twist, of making taverns into rendezvous of arts, and of dying drunk and delirious in a gutter, an attic, and the backroom of a saloon. Before Poe, literature might have been the profession of the starved, but the starved never ceased to be genteel. Before Poe, American literati, artists, and actors drew the blinds when they sinned or when they thought they sinned. Poe made his dissolution a public affair, even though, surrounded by drinkers, he managed to remain tragically alone.
But if there was any genuine Bohemianism in the make-up and pastime of Poe and some of his friends or contemporaries, it was a vague phenomenon, undefined by any glamorous name. If there were carefree behavior, disregard for conventions, and dissolute living among them, they were half-ashamed of it, and they, the outcasts, compelled Poe to be an outcast even from their circle, for he dared to attach too much importance to this way of life. Bohemianism, before the term itself was brought from France, was nothing to be proud of. In Poe's time, it was not as organized and publicized as it became a few years after his death. There was no king and no queen of literary roamers in his time; there was no prime-minister dispensing drinks from behind his idealized and yet profitable counter. Nobody wrote long articles on American Murgeria, attacking it, defending it, magnifying and glorifying it. In Poe's time no one made any cult or money out of it.
Poe became the prophet of organized Bohemianism after his death. It is doubtful whether Poe would have enjoyed this rôle of prophet and founder that the carousing pretenders at Weltschmerz foisted upon him post factum. The first organized American Bohemia that followed the unearthy specter of Poe spoke of him in tones of robust enthusiasm or hushed awe. The imbibers at Pfaff's of the 'Fifties took up Poe's fight against the smugness and prosperity of Boston, making an exception, from among all the New England butts of Poe's hatred, of Emerson only.
Essentially gay and life-loving, this group tried to emulate Poe's distrust of mankind and his despair of the world. Fitz-James O'Brien tried to borrow the mystery and horrors of Poe's imagination for his own stories. Henry Clapp endeavored to be as sexless and as sublimely morose as Poe, but since Henry was essentially a cynic and a wit he failed, and turned out to be caustically sullen instead—yet quite sexless. Ada Clare and George Arnold attempted mild melancholy, and the whole group talked of suicide as an ideal exit from life. All of them hung on the words of those who had the privilege of meeting and talking with their departed idol. R. H. Stoddard, a sedate and staunch enemy of noisy freedom, used his recollection of an encounter with Poe as a sermon to his young friends on the evils of their mode of life.
Yet they persisted in drinking, in pretending at melancholy and restless travels, and in drawing charcoal sketches on the walls of their garrets, as they heard Poe did on his Rowdy Row walls. Long after they had disappeared, the artistic souls of Greenwich Village continued this tradition of free and desperate expression in print, talk, and on the walls of their rooms. Perhaps, thus was born the multi-colored and curiously shaped furniture of the Village studios, for when walls are decorated with men and events of many and brilliant shades, furniture along these walls cannot remain staid and prim in color and shape.
The first organized Bohemia of America, the Pfaffians, gladly and freely acknowledged their debt to Poe. Perhaps it would be too far-fetched to say that the best of the dreamers of Greenwich Village, or their most immediate predecessors such as Lafcadio Hearn or Ambrose Bierce, were indebted for their tragedy and their restless wanderings of body and spirit to Poe alone. It would nevertheless be safe to maintain that, having arrived at their fevers independently of any older influences, they were grateful to the memory of Poe, for in it they certainly found justification for their conduct and writings. At any rate, they were proud when likened to Poe, the writer, and Poe, the Bohemian. Of all the major roving figures in American letters, Ambrose Bierce alone resented this comparison and denied it fiercely—to no avail, for in his case, more so than in any other, is evident the indebtedness to Poe for the supernatural satanic note, and for his very form of writing.
Poe's influence was even more pronounced in the European Latin Quarters of the subsequent decades. It was so, because in part, consciously or unconsciously, Poe's eccentricity was borrowed from Europe, and then elevated to heights of seriousness and elaborated upon painstakingly.
American Bohemianism has always been, even in its earliest stages, the product as much of the European mode as of the American social, economic, and literary scene. Poe, in his young years, was under the influence of the wild dreams and adventures of Byron. In his Rowdy Row room, at the University of Virginia, Poe decorated the ceiling with a copy of an illustration to Byron's poems; later he fashioned his mythical adventures in Greece and Russia after the Englishman's tragic exploits.
The angry denials of Poe could not wholly dispel the idea, first advanced by his contemporary critics, that he had borrowed his horrors from the writings of Hoffmann and other Germans. Very likely, he had borrowed these heavy German terrors through their French interpreters and imitators. Indeed, the influence of the contemporary French upon Poe was never as thoroughly and deservedly traced as his own influence upon Baudelaire and succeeding generations.
Laying the plot of some of his best short stories in France, Poe came close to the understanding of these phenomena that made for the French eccentricity of his time. Romanticism and exoticism marked the poetry and the tales of Poe and the recklesswriters of Paris of the 'Thirties and 'Forties. Théophile Gautier and his friends of the "Bohême Galante" knelt before Woman and drank punch from human skulls in complete darkness. The Bohemians of the "Young France" group wrote short stories full of epileptic nightmares and revolting tortures, murders, and suicides, including, for instance, that of a man who killed himself by swallowing the artificial glass eye of his mistress.
But Poe lacked that frank strain of eroticism which streamed through the writings of his French contemporaries; his Ulalume or Ligeia were too anemic, fleshless, and pure in comparison with the odalisques of the Parisian writers. Poe also was far more serious about the exotic nightmares than the French who wrote them for fun rather than for a mad and earnest escape from reality. Poe and the French writers of his time traveled in vehicles of about the same type, but along roads that led far away from each other. The passionate, mad Baudelaire came across Poe's road and saw his fresh tracks when it was almost too late for him to hail the American poet as his living brother. So it remained for Baudelaire to pray to Poe as to a saint and to give to Europe, a hundredfold, that which Poe had once upon a time borrowed from Europe and her mood.
Excerpted from Garrets and Pretenders by Albert Parry. Copyright © 1960 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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