Republic of Dreams, Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1915-1950

Republic of Dreams, Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1915-1950

by Ross Wetzsteon

If the twentieth century was the American century, it can be argued that it was more specifically the New York century, and Greenwich Village was the incubator of every important writer, artist, and political movement of the period. From the century's first decade through the era of beatniks and modern art in the 1950s and '60s, Greenwich Village was the…  See more details below


If the twentieth century was the American century, it can be argued that it was more specifically the New York century, and Greenwich Village was the incubator of every important writer, artist, and political movement of the period. From the century's first decade through the era of beatniks and modern art in the 1950s and '60s, Greenwich Village was the destination for rebellious men and women who flocked there from all over the country to fulfill their artistic, political, and personal dreams. It has been called the most significant square mile in American cultural history, for it holds the story of the rise and fall of American socialism, women's suffrage, and the commercialization of the avant-garde. One Villager went so far as to say that "everything started in the Village except Prohibition," and in the 1940s, the young actress Lucille Ball said, "The Village is the greatest place in the world."

What other community could claim a spectrum ranging from Henry James to Marlon Brando, from Marcel Duchamp to Bob Dylan, from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney to Abbie Hoffman? The story of the Village is, in large part, the stories old Villagers have told new Villagers about former Villagers, and to tell its story is in large part to tell its legends. Republic of Dreams presents the remarkable, outrageous, often interrelated biographies of the giants of American journalism, poetry, drama, radical politics, and art who flocked to the Village for nearly half a century, among them Eugene O'Neill, whose plays were first produced by the Provincetown Players on Macdougal Street, for whom Edna St. Vincent Millay also wrote; Jackson Pollock, who moved to the Village from Wyoming in 1930and was soon part of the group of 8th Street painters who would revolutionize Western painting; E. E. Cummings, who lived for years on Patchin Place, as did Djuna Barnes; Max Eastman, who edited the groundbreaking literary and political journal The Masses, which introduced Freud to the American public and also published Sherwood Anderson, Amy Lowell, Upton Sinclair, Maksim Gorky, and John Reed's reporting on the Russian Revolution.

Republic of Dreams is beautifully researched, outspoken, wise, hip, exuberant, a monumental, definitive history that will endure for decades to come.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
In the years before the First World War, a small group of artists and radicals, centered on Mabel Dodge's salon, Eugene O'Neill's Provincetown Players, and the socialist journal The Masses, turned Greenwich Village into the first American bohemia. In the process, they permanently altered the geography of American art, transforming the Village -- at least, in the minds of poets and painters -- into "the place where everything happens first." Weaving together biographies of eminent Villagers, including Djuna Barnes, Max Eastman, Joe Gould, E. E. Cummings, and Jackson Pollock, Wetzsteon shows just how self-conscious the mythologizing of the Village was, and incisively dissects the contradictions and conflicts -- between radical politics and radical art, "poetic poverty" and bourgeois taste, sexual liberation and sexism -- inherent in Village life. But he also evokes its energy and its sense of immense possibility, and appears to have recorded every good anecdote ever told about the neighborhood. The result is a book keenly aware of the limits of the bohemian ideal but nonetheless thoroughly, and winningly, in thrall to it.
Publishers Weekly
This engaging history by Village Voice drama critic Wetzsteon, who died in 1998, will appeal most to readers unfamiliar with the many previous books and memoirs by the rebels, dreamers and plain old nut cases who have found refuge from conformism in New York City's most famous neighborhood for more than a century. Organized as a series of portraits in roughly chronological order, the text focuses largely on the Village's first golden era, the years just before WWI, when "justice and poetry seemed complementary goals." Movers and shakers from this period include legendary hostess Mabel Dodge, The Masses editor Max Eastman and such boundary-shattering "New Women" as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Margaret Sanger. By the time we've moved through profiles of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Hart Crane, Thomas Wolfe and Djuna Barnes, we're still reading about the 1930s. Coverage of the '50s is mostly limited to the sad later years of Delmore Schwartz and Dawn Powell; the book closes with a chapter on Jackson Pollock and the abstract expressionists that barely reaches 1960. "Greenwich Village isn't what it used to be," a comment made as early as 1916, is a principal theme of Wetzsteon, who stresses that "from its very birth, bohemia seemed to exist in the past," a mythical moment before the tourists and poseurs moved in. They were always there, as his sympathetic sketches of cranks like Joe Gould and Elsa von Freytag suggest: "the essence of the Village was to create a miniature society where personal idiosyncrasies could flourish through communal solidarity." Though the progression of stories seems to lack a driving narrative line, perhaps this collection of affectionate set pieces truly approximates the freewheeling Village spirit. 16 pages of b&w photos. (June) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This posthumous effort from the Village Voice's longtime drama critic is really a collective biography of several intersecting generations of (sometimes) brilliant artists who transformed an area of mere blocks into an interactive cultural destination. From Mabel Dodge's self-created role as salon hostess to Jackson Pollack's extended, painfully public meltdown, Wetzsteon affectingly marks the rake's progress of what seems like every notable maker or opinion maker of the paradoxically popular American avant-garde. Wetzsteon approaches his subjects with critical but generous adoration. He reveals the recklessness with which so many Villagers disregarded real life e.g., showing how Eugene O'Neill flirted with, and Hart Crane fully indulged in, a purely voluntary dissipation while also overcoming any voyeuristic tsktsking in describing how these creative personalities transformed alcoholic excesses and sexual infidelities into a master narrative. Wetzsteon's narrative of a bohemian half-century holds up well compared with the scholarly thoroughness of New York expert Christine Stansell's American Moderns, which is a recommendation indeed for wide acquisition by public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/01.] Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Longtime Village Voice theater editor Wetzsteon (1932-1998) celebrates with wit, insight, and love the political radicals, poets, painters, and just plain eccentrics who lived and worked in Greenwich Village during the first half of the 20th century. The roster of rebels who moved through the Village's approximately four square miles in those years, alternately partying and charging the cultural and political barricades, includes names that are carved firmly in America's artistic heritage and others that reverberate only among political activists. Socialists, Marxists, anarchists, and others fomenting political change held sway in the years preceding WWI, among them John Reed, Louise Bryant, Max Eastman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Emma Goldman. They met to eat and drink and talk-always talk-in socialite Mabel Dodge's salon on Fifth Avenue near Washington Square. Wetzsteon presents his history in lively chapters devoted to these and other idiosyncratic personalities, including Eugene O'Neill, Edna Millay, William Carlos Williams, Thomas Wolfe, Djuna Barnes, e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, Dawn Powell, Jackson Pollock, and lesser-knowns but perhaps no less important to the Village myth. One of the most evocative chapters concerns Joe Gould, a Harvard graduate (made semi-famous by Joseph Mitchell's New Yorker profile) who spent his life on the streets of the Village, always in need of a bath and a meal, allegedly compiling An Oral History of Our Time. Villagers' lives overlapped in unexpected ways, defining a "community obsessed with individualism, independence, self-expression, and self-fulfillment." Sexual relationships were a core issue, Wetzsteon believes, because what drew people to theVillage was the opportunity for sexual freedom. When the 1960s opened the doors to sexual liberation coast to coast, the Village, for the most part, lost its usefulness. An invigorating plunge into the sexual, intellectual, and artistic ferment of the enclave that nurtured 20th-century artists and writers whose work and lives still resonate in the 21st.

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Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
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6.20(w) x 9.46(h) x 1.76(d)

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Republic of Dreams

Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960
By Ross Wetzsteon

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2002 The Estate of Ross Wetzsteon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-684-86996-9

Chapter One

Mabel Dodge's Salon

"Oh, How We Were All Intertwined!"

"To dynamite New York!" - that's why she'd gathered in her Greenwich Village apartment the writers, artists, journalists, socialists, anarchists, feminists, labor leaders, clergymen, psychiatrists, and poets, all the "movers and shakers," who would "upset America with fatal, irrevocable disaster to the old order!"

Among the more than one hundred guests tonight in Mabel Dodge's legendary salon at 23 Fifth Avenue might be Max Eastman and Walter Lippmann in animated conversation with Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn - or Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman holding forth for Carl Van Vechten, Alfred Stieglitz, and Marsden Hartley - or Lincoln Steffens, Jo Davidson, and Edwin Arlington Robinson clustered around Margaret Sanger - while a long-haired, walrus-mustached, glitter-eyed anarchist named Hippolyte Havel wandered among them, muttering "goddamn bourgeois pigs." They debated radical politics and free love, psychoanalysis and the single tax, birth control and the Wobblies, cubism and women's suffrage, all the enlightened ideas of the dawning century that they felt certain would cast off thedarkness of the past.

Only a few months earlier, in the fall of 1912, Mabel had sat alone in the middle of her huge living room, staring despondently at the walls. Having returned to America after eight years in Europe, shuddering "ugly, ugly, ugly" as her ship sailed into New York harbor, she had taken over the second floor of an elegant brownstone on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 9th Street. On the first floor lived a cranky ninety-two-year-old major general who'd lost a leg at Gettysburg (and who'd been found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity of murdering his wife's lover, the son of Francis Scott Key, on the sidewalk across from the White House). On the top floor brooded an ex-governor of New York who'd been impeached for his dedicated services on behalf of Tammany Hall. But Mabel fought her inclination to sink into their morose seclusion. Determined to experience "the fire of life," and convinced that she had "always known how to make rooms that had power in them," she shook off her malaise and promptly redecorated.

As if to counteract the tenacity of the drab and dismal past, as well as her listless moods, Mabel surrounded herself with white - white wallpaper, white woodwork, white velvet chairs, white silk curtains, a white marble mantelpiece, a white porcelain chandelier, a white bearskin rug. But now that she'd created her tabula rasa, what was she to write upon it? Elation, dejection - the constant counterpoint of her life. "Nothing to do again!" she wailed. But recalling her passion "to know the Heads of things, Heads of Movements, Heads of Newspapers, Heads of all kinds of groups of people," she opened her doors and "let the town pour in!"

A wealthy socialite of thirty-three, with a voracious curiosity and an insatiable need for stimulation - "I wanted to know everybody!" - Mabel quickly befriended the prominent journalists Hutchins Hapgood, Carl Van Vechten, and Lincoln Steffens, and dispatched her lackluster husband, who was "unaware of the possibilities lingering in the soul," and whose "commonness and mediocrity" contrasted so strongly with her own "broadmindedness," to the Hotel Brevoort across the street. Hapgood, a writer for the New York Globe who virtually invented the solemnly effusive style that still plagues American newspaper columnists, knew virtually everyone in New York and obediently brought several of his most interesting friends to Mabel's home, and Van Vechten, the urbane music critic for the New York Times, invited a pair of Harlem entertainers. While Mabel was distressed by the way they "leered and rolled their suggestive eyes" as they played the banjo and sang off-color songs, she comforted herself with the thought that "one must let Life express itself in whatever form it will."

Steffens, America's "messiah at large," told her one day as they took tea, "You have ... a centralizing, magnetic social faculty. You attract, stimulate, and soothe people ... If you had lived in Greece long ago, you would have been called a hetaira. Now why don't you see what you can do with this gift of yours. Why not organize all this ... coming and going of visitors?" "But I thought we don't believe in'organization,'" protested Mabel, already a devotee of the Village cult of spontaneity. "Oh, I don't mean you should'organize'the evenings," Steffens replied wryly. "I mean ... let [people] feel absolutely free to be themselves and see what happens." Gather interesting people around her, then listen to them exhort and denounce and declaim - at last Mabel could satisfy her craving for stimulation. Evenings!

It is Mabel's Dangerous Characters Evening, and her posh salon is under police surveillance. Big Bill Haywood is talking about the IWW tonight, Emma Goldman about anarchism, English Walling about socialism. With half the nearly two hundred guests in evening dress sipping Graves Suprieur, the other half in working clothes and sandals, waiting to put together a free dinner from the lavish buffet of Virginia ham, cold turkey, and Gorgonzola, she quietly signaled her butler to open the door to the dining room at midnight. The future, classless organization of American society was to be debated, perhaps even decided. Insurrectionary ideas were socially respectable to the degree that they were intellectually provocative - and since the stirrings of radicalism were beginning to awaken the middle-class conscience, the restructuring of industrial capitalism and bourgeois politics seemed less a matter of class conflict than of rationally selecting the most persuasive agenda.

Big Bill was feared by upright citizens as a fiery advocate of labor violence - a reputation enhanced by his hulking body and black eyepatch - but naturally that made him a folk hero to the Villagers, the Cyclops of the revolution. But unfortunately the Wobbly spokesman, like so many leaders who become impassioned orators when addressing thousands of angry followers in a driving rain, was inarticulate, almost reticent, when asked to explain rather than exhort. Sprawled on a chaise longue, "this great battered hulk of a man, with one eye gone and an eminent look to him," Big Bill seemed, said Mabel, "like a large, soft, overripe Buddha," with two or three Village maidens - schoolteachers by day, bohemians by night - seated enraptured at his feet. And when the brilliant young Harvard graduate Walter Lippmann, in his somber, precise manner, tried to question him about Wobbly strategy, Big Bill's "lid drooped over his blind eye and his heavy cheeks sagged even lower."

Emma Goldman, editor of the anarchist magazine Mother Earth and advocate of Direct Action - she and her constant companion, Alexander "Sasha" Berkman, had served time in prison for attempting to assassinate the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick - scolded Mabel's guests for their dilettantism and "endless quibbles and hair-splitting of issues." But though Emma warned the working men and women not to listen to the "college professors and lawyers who with the philanthropically-minded ladies" - whom could she mean? - "only succeed in sentimentalizing the cause and making compromises which in turn become real evils again," she showed little inclination to satisfy the guests' curiosity about the differences between the competing philosophies.

The socialist English Walling, one of the founders of the NAACP, was the most articulate speaker, everyone agreed, but also the most bland - though with Eugene Debs receiving six percent of the vote for president in the 1912 election, socialism had never before, or since, been such a prominent voice in the American political dialogue.

Some of Mabel's guests expressed shock at the inflammatory ideologies of the speakers, others felt their minds quickened by startling new ideas, while a few felt that the debate merely exposed the innocence of the Villagers, their commitment to conversational radicalism. "They all talk like goddamn bourgeois pigs!" Hippolyte Havel cried out shrilly, and as the Evening came to an end, he embraced Mabel with tears in his eyes. "My little sister! My little goddamn bourgeois capitalist sister!"

Tonight's topic, Mabel announced a few weeks later, is Sex Antagonism. Doctrines of free love periodically surface in American life - the practice, of course, is considerably more consistent - but in the Village in the teens the concept flourished by allying itself with feminism, socialism, Freudianism, anarchism, birth control, and the assault on marriage as a bourgeois institution. And while it's tempting to say that never has so much ideology been called upon in support of instinct - for nothing seems quite as quaint as the erotic rationalizations of previous generations - this was in fact the first generation of Americans to realize the role of sexual repression in social control. As the critic James Hunecker complained, in America "the whole man ends at the collarbone." The sexual revolution of the years preceding World War I alternated between the frivolous and the fearless - and as those who lived through the sixties can confirm, in the midst of a revolution it's sometimes difficult to discern the difference.

In 1914, to take a not untypical example, a buxom Villager named Babs, sympathizing with the plight of those young men unfortunately forced to resort to prostitutes for the happiness that was their birthright as Americans, persuaded a number of her friends to freely give their bodies to anyone who asked, a movement that proved as short-lived as it was enthusiastically encouraged. Somewhat less self-deluded, prominent Village intellectuals constantly experimented with ways to reconcile erotic independence and emotional commitment. Lincoln Steffens pretended he was married when he wasn't - and later pretended he wasn't when he was - while Max Eastman and his wife, Ida Rauh, who at one point denied they were married in order not to disturb the free-love ideologues, later shocked the pulpit from coast to coast by putting their names separately on their Village mailbox. Still others, like the flamboyant Hippolyte Havel and his mistress, Polly Holladay, proprietor of the Village's most popular restaurant, fell into the familiar pattern of adopting free love for themselves and bitterly denouncing their partners for exercising the same privilege. And then there were men like Hutch Hapgood, Mabel's closest confidant, who, having once been told by William James himself that he was "in thrall to the absolute," felt that he was obligated by this distinction not only to have extramarital affairs but to report their subtle effects on his soul to his resigned wife - and even to write a book about his wanderings for circulation among his Village friends.

It was Hutch who Mabel felt would be most qualified to address her guests on the subject of the relationship between the sexes - though it was Mabel, recently converted by Margaret Sanger to "the joys of the flesh," who came up with the unambivalent title Sex Antagonism. Still, even to discuss the topic openly, and in mixed company, was daring for the time. A little drunk, Hutch stood before Mabel's assembled guests, announced that "my wife is always telling me that love is a misunderstanding between a man and a woman," and concluded by observing that "men are the victims" - apparently because they do not have "the vitality that the working class has, that the women have," and are thus forced to resort to clandestine affairs. "The problem is how to get the heat without the lie," he went on.

Steffens, the chairman for the Evening, remarked wryly, "Quite Steinesque" - referring to Mabel's friend Gertrude. When Hutch elucidated his thesis by remarking that "the sex distinctions are only a thing like time and space, something by which we go through our experiences," and attempted to throw an ecumenical bouquet to the unimpressed anarchist faction by gushing that "Emma Goldman represents an infinitely greater amount of law than the government does," it was apparent that Villagers committed to the principle of free love but hoping for some guidance as to its practice were still on their own.

Undaunted, Mabel turned from sexual to aesthetic liberation. Despite the shift in cultural power from Boston to New York and the fierce assaults on moral and literary respectability in the novels of Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser (who lived in the Village but kept a sullen distance from Mabel's salon), the complacent conventions of the Genteel Tradition, so named by George Santayana only a year earlier, still ruled the American literary imagination. Within months of her return to the United States, Mabel embarked on "my own little Revolution" in literary and artistic taste by introducing Gertrude Stein to the American reading public and by serving as one of the sponsors of the explosive Armory Show of 1913.

Believing that political, sexual, and artistic rebels were equal partners in the struggle against capitalism, Mabel invited "that sturdy old eagle" Big Bill Haywood back to address her modernist friends, including Marsden Hartley, Andrew Dasburg, Max Weber, and John Marin, at an Evening on Proletarian Art.

Artists think themselves too special, too separate, Big Bill argued with a rather condescending smile. Someday the state will recognize that everyone is an artist. Torn between sympathy with the working-class cause and dedication to their own revolution, the artists were momentarily silent - until sculptress Janet Scudder rose from her seat, and asked, with the same scorn with which she'd address a Terre Haute matron, "Do you realize that it takes twenty years to make an artist?"

On another Arts and Politics Evening, Mabel invited both the artists who drew for The Masses, the newly founded leftist magazine (to which she contributed several articles), and the editors of the uptown Metropolitan Magazine (the most popular 10-cent periodical of the day, featuring plutocratic politics and pretty-girl covers), who had refused the artists' work because of their radical politics. But the "gatling gun talkers" of the Village, as the Metropolitan editor characterized them, left the uptowners launching even more pointed epithets - such as "your prostitute of a magazine."

To the Poets Evening, over which Edwin Arlington Robinson presided as an owlish, grimly mute eminence, Mabel invited not only published poets, but those whose masterpieces were too "advanced" to reach print - or in some cases paper. George Sylvester Viereck's "quite startling verses" were the most memorable, though not as memorable as Amy Lowell's shocked departure in mid-reading, leaving, as Mabel described her, "like a well-freighted frigate."

* * *

The Dangerous Characters Evening, the Sex Antagonism Evening, the Evenings of Art and Unrest - all ended in ideological disarray.

But Mabel's curiosity combined with her diffidence, her need for self-expression with her impulse to self-effacement, to make her the perfect salon hostess. For three years, beginning in January 1913, her salon became the center of the country's radical intelligentsia. Experts on "good government" and women's suffrage appeared, on prison reform and eugenics, on unemployment and "the Mexican question," on "primitive life" and "the corrupting influence of money" - the debaters, even in the last case, smoking imported cigarettes and sipping imported liqueurs provided by Mabel's imported servants.

She was constantly exhorted to open her rooms to discussion of such Village cults as vegetarianism and Esperanto, but in politics she focused on the labor movement, in sex she stressed women's rights, and in art she emphasized modernist painting and prose.

She managed the Evenings so skillfully, as Steffens noted, that "no one felt they were managed ... Practiced hostesses in society could not keep even a small table of guests together; Mabel Dodge did this better with a crowd of one hundred or more people of all classes. Her secret, I think, was to start the talk going with a living theme."

Feeling that she was merely "an instrument of the times," that "I'm not doing anything ... I let them come, that's all. Life decides, not me," Mabel never participated in the "living themes" herself but acted as their conduit. "I had a little formula for getting myself safely through the hours without any injury to my shy and suspicious sensibilities ... I never uttered a word during my Evenings beyond the remote 'How do you do?' or the low 'Good-by.' ... I never talked myself except to one or two people at a time, and preferably to one."


Excerpted from Republic of Dreams by Ross Wetzsteon Copyright © 2002 by The Estate of Ross Wetzsteon. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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