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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2043

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.

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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 unenlightened, equally dynamic culture of hype—was a profound belief in their election to a “noble enterprise” nurtured through “intense collective intimacy” and serving the “grand mandate” of “metropolitan modernity.” Seeking “to influence, to shape, and, in their wildest moments, to create the new century,” the American moderns deliberately set about to transpose life into art, and art into visionary politics.

Ironically, this pervasive theatricality poses one of Stansell’s biggest hurdles in cultivating a sympathetic portrait of her subjects. Stansell relies on telling more often than showing to present eccentric improvisational behaviors that dramatized the bohemian view of daily life as a canvas for transformative and transgressive self-realization. As Stansell herself concedes, extended scrutiny of this group risks showcasing their frequent bouts of self-important silliness, but she just as quickly reminds readers that the adoption of innumerable bohemian attitudes over the past century has obscured the genuine daring of their actions in their own time. Stansell’s impatience with her subjects’ narcissism does creep in occasionally, as with Louise Bryant’s self-interested choice of lovers well-positioned to further her career, or John Reed’s inability to recognize and report the real story of World War I trench warfare because it lacked the romantic aura of the Mexican Revolution. By extended analysis of their genuine intoxication with language, however, Stansell rescues these moderns from the self-parody with which they so often flirt. Language provided them a medium flexible enough to accommodate the expressions of their idiosyncratic agendas ranging from written texts published in The Little ReviewThe MassesSeven Arts, andThe New Republic; political oratory and cultural commentary commanded by master rhetoricians such as Emma Goldman; and intimate colloquies where talk itself became a vehicle for participation in the collective revolutionary experiment.

To give a process so ephemeral as talk the critical weight it commanded among the moderns, Stansell applies the term “conversational community” to the society generated by regular exchanges organized according to the principle of modernist collage. Individuals from widely different spheres dropped in to scheduled Village gatherings where they entered a flow of talk unimpeded by logic or decorum, continually shifting focus so as to reflect the abrupt juxtapositions of contemporary life itself. Using such activity to spawn “the first full-blooded alternative to an established cultural elite,” Village denizens courted those who had heretofore been outsiders to the production of high culture—women, immigrants, workers—welcoming them to “an open modern space” where “vital contact” across traditional social divisions would promote both a more humane social order and a more inclusive aesthetic understanding. Max Eastman called these conversational events “free-thought talk,” aligning them with the free speech movement espoused by the left. Stansell pays tribute to Randolph Bourne, Margaret Anderson, and John Reed as exemplary “writer friends” who put their talents in openly partisan service to labor, socialist, and anarchist causes. She also acknowledges the special contribution made toward that end by The Masses, resurrected by Eastman in 1912 as one of the “third spaces” where “the play of eclectic metropolitan minds” around the principles of “Knowledge and Revolution” not only exposed “the messy truths of American life” but fostered in its readership a community-building empathy for those suffering from social injustice. Tellingly, the journal flourished until the government censorship campaign associated with U.S. entry into World War I put it out of business.

Nor was the moderns’ attentiveness to the public uses of language the whole story: A growing fascination with the psychological depths of character, ongoing literary experiments in expressing such subjectivity, and the quasi-mystical belief of anarchists in the primacy of a “self whose creative powers [are] unleashed by revolutionary ferment,” all made vers libre poetry as popular an avenue of radical redemption as journalism. Not coincidentally, the new poetry proved especially congenial to women as a means of exploring their newly legitimated inner lives. While poetry served as one pole of the moderns’ linguistic mapping of the psyche, at the other stood what Stansell calls “sex talk,” a striking bohemian synthesis of free speech, free love, and feminism. At the heart of Stansell’s analysis stands the figure of the New Woman, who defined the age by generating its greatest creative dissonance in relation to what had been, what might be, and what had to date been imagined.

Stansell’s feminist sympathies are engaged with the gender politics of this period, when the term “feminism” first entered the vernacular to designate women for whom suffrage was only one facet of a wholesale reconceptualization of female possibility that included “economic independence, sexual freedom, and psychological exemption from the repressive obligations of wifehood, motherhood, and daughterhood . . . for a heightened female individualism.” Such women posed tantalizing questions for bohemian men, who on one hand thrilled to the revolutionary implications of according women full autonomy as persons in their own right, and on the other hand clung to a boastful sexual adventurism to defend themselves against the imputation of effeminacy charged against male artistic aspiration in the United States. Stansell conveys the many consequences of bohemian attempts to reinvent heterosexual relations, among them a shared commitment by both men and women to such feminist causes as suffrage, birth control, and sexual equality; heterosexual partnerships in which “shared work was a metaphor for erotic intimacy” while sex itself was “recast . . . both inside and outside marriage as an expression of the developing self and a means toward a better life”; and the unanticipated psychological fallout from experiments in free love and open marriage, ranging from unacknowledged misogynistic resentments among men to bitterly accepted domestic dependencies among women.

Because “the moderns dramatized sex and love as another act in the metropolitan spectacle,” and since talk was the medium through which all such drama moved, candid conversation about sexual desire, fantasy, and infidelity was often touted as promising resolution of such conflicts through a shared journey toward the discovery of a truer “human sex” generally obscured by conventional gender inequalities—a discovery even more liberating, at least theoretically, for women than for men. However, Stansell is convinced that the result was seldom very satisfying for bohemian women, her assessments of that failure constituting some of the strongest as well as some of the weakest parts of the book. She deals best with the material facts of the situation: Having made no real provisions for a domestic division of labor once their households were constituted, feminist women found themselves unwitting victims of the “second shift” at the very moment when the availability of domestic help dramatically decreased. In contrast, Stansell’s discussions of women’s efficacy as sexual correspondents leaves a decidedly bad taste in one’s mouth—castigating Emma Goldman’s limited talents as a writer of private erotica provides very little beyond pallid academic voyeurism. Such overreaching is unfortunate in a chapter that is elsewhere so wise, as in its conclusion that “the free-loving woman became a seductive model of action, will, and sexual agency” primarily in the fantasies of her male partners while offering real women “little room to address their actual [psychological] needs and difficulties.”

There are other quibbles one might make of American Moderns, yet they are not major obstacles to the enjoyment of a lively and thought-provoking work. The best evidence of its success, perhaps, lies in the degree to which Stansell convinces the reader that the more celebrated decade coming in the wake of the Great War—the glorious, glittering 1920’s—actually represents a tragic falling off of the visionary possibilities of the earlier era through needless entanglement in the newest round of European savagery and a crushing of American political pluralism that ultimately divorced art from social responsibility.

Sources for Further Study

American Scholar 69 (Spring, 2000): 142.

Library Journal 125 (March 15, 2000): 106.

The Nation 270 (June 12, 2000): 56.

The New Republic 223 (August 8, 2000): 36.

The New York Times, October 22, 2000, p. 11.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (June 18, 2000): 23.

Publishers Weekly 247 (April 10, 2000): 85.

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