American Moderns Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

A professor of history at Princeton University, Christine Stansell displays in American Moderns the same interdisciplinary expertise evident in her earlier study of New York City entitled City of Women: Sex and Class in New York City, 1789-1860 (1986). Her commitment to feminist scholarship connects these volumes with Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality (1983), edited with Ann Snitow and Sharon Thompson. Stansell currently writes for The New Republicand The London Review of Books.

In this compelling study of the Greenwich Village bohemia that rose and fell in the decade surrounding World War I, Stansell evokes the complex avant-garde milieu of a distinctly American modernity directed against the philistine complacencies bequeathed by Victorianism. Stansell’s central project lies in documenting how this generation forged an interplay of art, politics, and sexuality that would remain the hallmark of the modern even after its leading lights passed into obsolescence. Acknowledging her subjects’ many limitations as avatars of the new—self-dramatizing excesses, naïvete about the human nature they sought to liberate, conflation of talk with action, and racist indifference to African American modernity—Stansell also emphasizes the lasting impact of the bohemians’ wide-ranging commitment to artistic innovation, gender equality, sexual liberation, and democratic inclusiveness. Elegantly and eloquently written, Stansell has produced a masterful cultural history whose scholarship comes alive through characterizations of some of the Village’s most provocative citizens—charismatic Emma Goldman and John Reed alongside the tragic Neith Boyce and Randolph Bourne. American Moderns well deserves its selection by The New York Times as one of the “Notable Books of 2000.”

Stansell positions the first American modernists at the crossroads of a number of influences. “Bohemia” as a term of countercultural disaffection first appeared in 1830’s Paris as a label for Left Bank dissidents whose hedonist aesthetic stood in defiance of bourgeois materialism. In the 1890’s United States, however, purposeful alienation from the middle class drew its blueprint for action more from the tradition of Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. An essentially male circle of New York iconoclasts cultivated an urban realism meant to smash through the pieties and political obfuscations of genteel social discourse and replace them with an honest evocation of the tumultuous heterogeneity of American life.

As these iconoclasts sought to challenge entrenched barriers of class, ethnicity, and gender through a democratizing fusion of art and politics, their clear-eyed scrutiny of the impacts of industrial capitalism on the promise of the American Experiment underwent intensive transformation between 1890 and 1910. On one front, the contact of Harvard elites and settlement house progressives with thousands of Eastern European Jews in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, many of whom were versed in continental political theory and literature, produced a newly “proletarianized” American intelligentsia. On another front, growing numbers of educated women demanded new systems of social organization built on gender-neutral philosophies of human nature to encourage full exercise of their talents and aspirations. These lines of revolt coalesced into a particularly American brand of modernism with the arrival of an aesthetic radicalism originating in 1870’s Paris that fostered, in the words of Hutchins Hapgood, “an instinct to loosen up the old forms and traditions, to dynamite the baked and hardened earth so that fresh flowers can grow.” Stansell locates 1910 as the point when “bohemia” reached critical mass and suddenly became a distinct cultural force to be reckoned with, whereupon the eyes of aesthetes across the country came to rest on the redoubt of Greenwich Village.

The moderns’ blatantly metropolitan affinities expressed their adoption of the city as symbol of the transformation they hoped to usher in with the dawning century. That New York would become the nation’s quintessential urban symbol was decreed by no less a cultural tourist than Leon Trotsky, who touted it as “the fullest expression of our modern age . . . a city of prose and fantasy, of capitalist automatism, its streets a triumph of cubism, its moral philosophy that of the dollar.” Although Stansell calls the popular conception of Greenwich Village a “commercial fiction,” she makes clear that in its interpersonal dynamics, if not exactly in its geography, the fabled Village ethos did cohere as a vital entity, creating a “fictive community” animated by its own myths and inhabited by “dissidents who prided themselves on living a life apart.” What held the idiosyncratic circle of Village intellectuals, artists, political organizers, and writers together—besides a tireless self-promotion that bespoke their own complicity in the city’s...

(The entire section is 2043 words.)