BOHEMIA: SCENES OF NINETEENTH-CENTURY LIFE by Daniel Cottom
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Between 1840 and 1842 the French artist, Honore Daumier, contributed a series of twenty-eight lithographs entitled "The Bohemians of Paris" to Le Charivari, a well-known publication of the time. What is especially interesting about them is the types that Daumier, obviously referring to the then-current idea of bohemians, chose to include. They portrayed a second-hand clothes dealer, a beggar, an actor, and a political refugee, just to mention a small selection. Later, around 1860, another artist, Gavarni, pictured "A Bohemian Menage," the central character of which appears to be some sort of strolling entertainer. And the historian Remi Gossez, when writing about the June 1848 insurrection, claimed that the rebel forces included "that confused, drifting mass known as la Bohème." I won't list all the misfits that Marx said came into that category, but he named vagabonds, tinkers, and porters, among others.
I've pointed out the above definitions of bohemians to show that, prior to what Daniel Cottom describes as "the modern sense of the word," bohemian could cover a much wider area of activity than that occupied by writers and artists. Cottom rightly says that the 1830s and 1840s saw the "invention" of the new version of the term, even if the older versions still sometimes influenced how some people viewed bohemians. The general in charge of the troops suppressing the Commune in 1871 scathingly suggested that its leaders were bohemians, and he didn't mean that they were writers and artists. They were, in his view, people without a stake in the established order of things.
But let's follow Cottom and accept that by the 1830s the bohemian tag was increasingly applied to writers, artists, students, and their friends and acquaintances. He proposes that, if later few people had any sense of its former meaning, earlier they were aware that the "new" bohemian was "an imitator defined through the appropriation of an exotic image." Was a bohemian therefore a poseur? Cottom investigates this notion and leads into the question of how and why bohemia always seems to have been better earlier. Were there ever any authentic bohemians, or were they always just a pale shadow of those who'd gone before? As Cottom says, "We learn that the fondly remembered bohemians of yesteryear may be used as sticks with which to beat the youth of today over the head." And he neatly quotes Arthur Bartlett Maurice who said, "Whatever else Bohemia may be it is almost always yesterday." When Henry Murger wrote the sketches that were turned into a play and then his style-setting book, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, he more or less indicated that it was largely a male-dominated world he was describing. Women were present, but mostly to provide comfort, of varying kinds, for the men. In Paris grisettes, young working-class girls often from the provinces, attached themselves to the bohemians. Society generally looked down on grisettes, seeing them as loose women who could lead young men astray. After all, many of the male bohemians came from respectable families, or at least those which aspired to that status, and they would, in due course, return to the fold and settle down after their time in bohemia: "In art as in life, the grisette was subject to exploitation, liable to be treated as nothing more than a prop in a masculine drama." This is what comes across in Murger's book, and his own opinion was made clear: "One has creditors when young, just as one has mistresses, because it's necessary to live, and it's necessary to love, but the creditors do not prevent one from becoming a respectable man, just as the mistresses do not prevent one from being an excellent husband." Murger's friend Nadar reacted strongly when, in the stage version of, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème Rodolphe's response to the death of Mimi is, "Oh, my youth! It is you that we bury." The self-centred nature of Rodolphe's statement is obvious, but Murger, when challenged about it, merely said, "It's true to life." Cottom is of the opinion that a grisette, hearing the exchange between Nadar and Murger, would have agreed with the latter, being under no illusion about the substance of relationships between bohemians and working-class girls.
Cottom thinks that by the 1850s or so grisettes were disappearing, or more likely changing. And, as with the idea of bohemia always having been better earlier, writers began to lament that grisettes weren't what they used to be. They no longer wanted to cohabit with students and impoverished writers and artists. There were debates about when this happened, with varying dates offered as examples of last sightings of genuine grisettes. This didn't mean that shopgirls, seamstresses, and the like, had all left Paris, and the suggestion seemed to be that they'd become a little more ambitious and now aimed for something more than a precarious relationship with a struggling and perhaps unreliable bohemian. We have to rely on written sources, provided by men, for evidence of how and why grisettes changed, if they did, and I'm often inclined to recall Arsene Houssaye's comment: "I don't believe in the good faith of the literary bohemian. His disordered life is only a journey in search of sensations, of the documents and observations he needs to produce his work."
Were bohemians "young men disabled by education," as Privat d'Anglemont claimed? Cottom points to the theory, advanced by more than one commentator, about "a disproportion between the numbers of degreed young men and the positions available under Louis Philippe, the Second Republic, and Napoleon III." Were there similar "disproportions" in other countries? Britain, for example, where there was never a real equivalent to the Latin Quarter or the broad experience of bohemianism, despite there being small pockets of writers and artists who might be described as bohemians. It could be that the earlier and faster expansion of industrialisation in Britain helped to soak up some of the young men who might otherwise have been at a loose end because the employment opportunities weren't sufficient to match their educations. And did the prospects offered by the Empire (Australia, Canada, India, South Africa, etc.) contribute towards occupying the energies and talents of the young? There are other theories about the question of why bohemia failed to develop in Britain. Joanna Richardson, in her The Bohemians: La vie de Bohème in Paris, 1830-1914, was of the opinion that, "The Frenchman is naturally more inclined than the Englishman to accept the Bohemian way of life, to countenance its idleness, frivolity, and passionate intensity.... The Frenchman by his nature, is more inclined to indulge in cafe life, to prolong intellectual conversation. He lacks the matter-of-factness of the Englishman."
A common complaint about bohemians was that they were work-shy. Cottom says that, although "work had always been a hard fact of life," in the nineteenth century "work became spirit" and "the driving force of culture." And "Like nineteenth century socialism and communism, bohemia was born as a repercussion of this event." Was it, he asks, pure coincidence that Murger's "childhood friend, Pettier, would go on to write the Internationale (1871), the famous communist anthem," and that "socialist-anarchist philosopher, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, was Murger's downstairs neighbour when Scènes de la Vie de Bohème was written? Murger himself was something of a conservative when it came to politics, but he must have been aware of what was going on around him. His treatment of radicals, and especially of those like Fourier with advanced Utopian theories, was often satirical, but he didn't just ignore them.
I'm perhaps digressing somewhat, but it is worth drawing attention to parallel developments in the 19th Century. And maybe the bourgeoisie were right (from their point of view) to look askance at both radicals and bohemians if they suspected that elements in both groups derided the idea of finding "virtue in work." Paul Lafargue's manifesto, The Right to Idleness, attacked "proletarians for their submission to the gospel of work, mocking deluded notions about the nobility of labour, flailing away at anyone tempted to buy into mere piece-meal reforms (such as the pitiful 'right to work')." Lafargue thought that no-one should need to work more than three hours a day and that advancing technology would make such a situation not just desirable but possible. Cottom's assertion is that bohemians were, in their way, attempting to "get out from underneath" a culture which made a gospel out of work and condemned those who didn't agree. Bohemia was steeped in a longing for an earlier time, prior to industrialisation: "Murger's bohemia expressed a nostalgic desire for a progressive alternative to modern culture." That the bohemians managed to arouse the indignation of both Marx and the Goncourts may be to their credit. Marx saw bohemians as reactionaries and the Goncourts saw them as conspirators in a plot against their supposed betters. They didn't belong to either the revolutionary or the respectable camps.
In July, 1859, a funeral procession made its way towards a cemetery in Montmartre. Among the mourners, many of them members of the Paris bohemian community, was Henry Murger, himself ill and destined to die in a couple of years. The funeral was that of Alexandre Privat d'Anglemont, a man who might be said to have been the archetypal bohemian. But who was he? The details of his early years were vague, partly because, as other people noted, he tended to change his stories as he told them. He had been born in Guadeloupe in 1815 and his family owned a sugar plantation. He was sent to Paris to be educated and decided to stay there rather than returning to enter the family business. Despite what many people thought, and the impression given by the way he lived, he was never completely destitute. He had a regular allowance from an older brother but tended to spend it quickly, often buying meals and drinks for his bohemian friends and others less fortunate than himself. I should add that some accounts dispute the facts of Privat's income. Cottom says that he "preferred to live by his wits, by his talk, by cadging meals - by whatever means or mercies came his way." This could still tie in with having an allowance, of course, if he did spend it on other people.
Privat did produce a fair amount of written work, though perhaps not in a systematic way. Cottom refers to articles in various publications, some theatre reviews, a booklet about a dance hall, an essay about the Encyclopedists of the Enlightenment, a few poems, and a scattering of other pieces. He was probably best known for a series of articles about what Cottom calls "the hidden lives, neighbourhoods, and corners of Paris." And he once did claim to be working on a book called The Shady Life: The Story of Seven Bohemians who have no Castles," but a contemporary dismissed this by saying, "This difficult enterprise remained worthy of bohemia, in the sense that the author has yet to write the first line of it." However, as Cottom has it, "the fact of Privat's legend is probably more important than any details that can be recovered about the facts of his life." Privat seems to have been liked by almost everyone, and most had a story to tell about him. The chapter on his years among the bohemians is, for me, one of the best things about Cottom's book. It isn't that Privat is unknown to those interested in bohemia (Jerrold Seigel wrote about him in his classic study, Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930) but Cottom comes up with some perceptive comments concerning how and why Privat made such an impression in his day and be now seems to/representative of a certain period of bohemian life.
So far virtually everything has been about Paris, so it comes as a surprise when Cottom raises the possibility that "bohemia had its origin in the United States." He quotes a French writer, Barbey d'Aurevilly as naming Edgar Allan Poe "the King of the Bohemians," because "the greatest of all modern bohemians should have been born in the heart of America, the land in which the outcasts of all nations found refuge." He wasn't generally complimentary about America, though, and thought of Poe "as the first and the best, in his way, of that lawless and solitary literature, without tradition and without ancestors .....prolem sine matre creatum, which has stamped itself with the name of bohemia that will remain with it as its punishment."
Americans, in particular Walt Whitman, naturally responded to this accusation by stressing their apartness from polite European society: "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos." Which isn't to suggest that Whitman thought of himself as a bohemian, even if others did. Murger's book had reached America within a couple of years of its 1851 publication in France. And at Pfaff's, a tavern in New York, Henry Clapp Jnr., who owned the New York Saturday Press, gathered around him various newspapermen and others and began to push Whitman's poetry. Clapp himself had spent three years in Paris, so had direct experience of its bohemia, and had translated some of the writings of the Utopian philosopher Fourier, whose ideas had influenced members of the Brook Farm colony. Nathaniel Hawthorne satirised their efforts to establish a Utopian community in his novel, The Blithedale Romance. Cottom doesn't mention it, but it has always seemed to me that there are similarities to be noticed in certain of the oddballs and eccentrics drawn to Utopian settlements and those attracted to bohemian groups.
Cottom neatly analyses Whitman's verse to find lines that could be said to indicate a leaning towards bohemianism: "I lean and loaf at my ease," and "He going with me goes often with spare diet, poverty, angry enemies, contentions." And he says that "bohemianism suffuses his poetry," and points to the image that Whitman liked to project, at least in his early days when he had himself photographed "in his shirtsleeves, collar open, hat slouched across his forehead, with his left hand stuck in his pocket and his right hand cocked on his hip." Perhaps he was trying to look like a working-man, but the picture couldn't help but suggest a bohemian stance that more respectable writers would have eschewed.
Whitman later toned down his desire for notoriety, and Cottom indicates that bohemianism generally in America tended to aspire to being well-behaved. One American commentator said that New York's bohemia "differs from that of London or Paris by being more in earnest.” Others, looking back on the days when Pfaff’s was a meeting-place for boisterous bohemians, described them as "an outlawry," and stated that literary New York was "more decorous" for not being like Pfaff's. The best quotes come from Charles Astor Bristed, who remarked that Murger's work had a "limited and inadequate conception of Bohemianism," and furthermore, "There are bohemians with houses and lands and rent-rolls and government stocks. Nay, there are bohemians who keep their accounts and their appointments with rarely deviating regularity."
The proposal that bohemianism arises from an over-production of educated young men crops up again when Cotton turns his attention to Italy, Germany, and elsewhere. He quotes a sociologist, Gerolamo Boccardo, who referred to "the structural misfit between the continuing production of university-educated young men and the weak demand in society for their services." And he added, "Woe to the society that knowingly and systematically produces an intellectual proletariat." Cottom's coverage of Italian bohemia is valuable, partly because so many other English-language accounts have tended to focus on France, America, and Britain. He's obviously read widely in minor 19th Century Italian literature, and makes the point that, specifically Italian features apart, the young bohemians of the 1860s and 1870s "reiterated themes of the French bohemia of the 1830s and 1840s." They "idealised youth and youthfulness, romantically understood as being at odds with the established social order. They placed a high value on friendship, conceived of as promoting social virtues outside of the domestic bounds of the family and free of the corrupting bonds of the nation's economic and political structures." There are, inevitably, stories of bohemian characters and escapades. The libretticist Fulvio Fulgono ran up such a large account at a cafe he frequented that he was refused service when he ordered a coffee. Fulgano thereupon nonchalantly asked the proprietor for twenty centesmi so he could buy one elsewhere. It's not an outrageous anecdote, but it's easy to imagine how, in circles in which Fulgono was viewed as a bohemian character, it would be recounted with relish.
I've got to admit that, approaching the end of Cottom's book, I was a little bemused by the idea of Dracula and Sherlock Holmes as bohemians. I suppose that Holmes had some bohemian habits (his drug use, his lassitude when not involved with an investigation, perhaps his violin playing), and Cottom mentions "A Scandal in Bohemia" (the real geographical place, not the mythical one), where Holmes is described as someone "who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul," and is "buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition."
Dracula I had to think about much more. Not having read Bram Stoker's book since I was on guard duty at an army camp in Germany in 1956, I tried hard to work out how and why Dracula fitted into a bohemian scheme of things. Cottom sums up his thesis in the following manner: "Karl Marx's radically divergent critique of bohemians as a counter-revolutionary lumpenproletariat - 'the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term, la bohème' — is also encompassed in the design of Dracula, which raises the spectre of an entirely new species taking over the earth, a species not only declassé, like bohemians, but unclassifiable in the conventional terms of humanity." It's an interesting idea, but not one I can accept as convincing. Were bohemians, of any kind, ever likely to take over the earth? They may have been seen as constituting a threat to property values or some other aspect of society that the middle-class hold dear, but I doubt that they ever aroused much more than a bout or two of indignation at their feckless ways. Still, I have to admit that I was reminded of Harry Kemp's plan for a "League of Bohemian Republics," which he touted around in the 1920s: "When the earth is salted with bohemianism and the army of bohemians is so strong that the world will recognise its power will come the real revolution which will overturn bolshevism and capitalism and shock the people into thinking and understanding." Or, moving to another bohemian character, Alexander Trocchi, and his 1960s plan for an "Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds," we find him saying that those minds should concentrate on "leisure," the Industrial Revolution having alienated man from himself with the result that he has forgotten how to play. A lot of 19th Century bohemians would have agreed with that. Sadly, not too many people took either Kemp or Trocchi seriously.
Cottom appears to propose that bohemia had exhausted itself by the end of the 19th Century, and he runs through a list of what the term had meant and come to mean. It's too long to repeat here, but its variety may be its virtue. If a definition is hazy and keeps shifting its flexibility can be a form of defence against those who want to dismiss it as worthless. Bohemia has had its poseurs but also its genuinely talented writers and artists. And, as Cottom himself admits, "the bohemian phenomenon did offer many people a way forward that was better than any they could otherwise have dreamed." In his grand survey of bohemia Cottom refers to a review of Strindberg's novel, The Red Room, published in 1879, and quotes the reviewer as saying that bohemia is an "oasis in a world of humbug." That strikes me as a nice way of putting it, and I place it alongside Hippolyte Havel's response when asked to define the limits of Greenwich Village -"It has no limits, it's a state of mind" - as among my favourite definitions of bohemia.
International Bohemia is a fascinating and thought-provoking study of 19th Century bohemia. I can't say that I find myself in sympathy with everything that Daniel Cottom says - I'm still puzzling over Dracula, and I had doubts about the attempts to link the kind of working-class girls in novels by George Eliot and Thomas Hardy with the Parisian grisettes described by Murger - but I was never less than stimulated by his arguments. The range of his reading is impressive, and his book is a mine of information both in the main text and in the copious notes. He modestly states that he has not written "a survey or general history," nor does he make "any claims to comprehensiveness," but I think it will be acknowledged that he has made a valuable addition to the library of books on the subject of bohemia.