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American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century 1st Edition

7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0805067354
ISBN-10: 0805067353
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Editorial Reviews Review

"On or about December 1910," Virginia Woolf once wrote, "human character changed." In the great capitals of Europe and America, the gray veil of Victorian values lifted; modernism, once the province of a few artistic experimenters, took the fore; subjects hitherto not considered to be fit for polite society, from women's rights to free love, became the subjects of parlor discussion.

New York's Greenwich Village, writes Princeton University historian Christine Stansell in this engaging study, became the epicenter of this great social earthquake. Fueled by wealthy patrons and fed by refugees from Europe and the Midwest, New York's once isolated bohemian community generated social trends that would be widely copied, and in the process "made Greenwich Village into a beacon of American possibility in the new age." Among their number were the anarchist politician Emma Goldman, the radical journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant, and the writers Eugene O'Neill and Kenneth Burke, all of whom insisted on making an art form of one's life--and on rattling a few cages while doing so. The individual actors in this social revolution, Stansell observes, may be little remembered today, but elements of their belief--openness in social relationships, equality among men and women, and "a skepticism at once relentlessly questioning of America and entirely embroiled in its future"--are our common coin today. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

They were novelists, artists' models, secretaries and chess whizzes; their ranks included Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Margaret Sanger and John Reed. A few were wealthy, many were poor, and they gathered in shabby saloons to argue about free love and Nietzsche as they plowed through mounds of spaghetti, brisket and bratwurst. In her latest book, Princeton historian Stansell (City of Women) examines the politics and cultural impact of the turn-of-the-20th-century American "bohemia." Combining newly imported European political awareness (Stansell says refugees from the 1905-1907 Russian Revolution arrived with "their saber wounds still festering") with institutionally guaranteed free speech, these New York radicals were much more open to the inclusion of Jews and women than their Old World counterparts. And even though they generally ignored black aspirations, Stansell argues that the bohemians created "the first full-bodied alternative to an established cultural elite," which undermined "the smug faith that culture was the domain of the well-born and tasteful" and dug "channels between high and low culture, outsiders and insiders." By so doing--despite their racial blinders--they made possible the cultural course of much of the 20th century: pioneering feminist ideas, helping to make New York the cultural capital of the nation and laying the groundwork for the African-American crossover that took place during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. If Stansell's grasshopperish prose occasionally jumps from one topic to another, it's only because her thorough and engaging study abounds with the superabundant energy it describes. B&w photos. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; 1st edition (May 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805067353
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805067354
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.3 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,490,029 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Steven S. Berizzi on March 26, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Princeton University historian Christine Stansell's City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 was splendid, and this book, which examines the creation of a "bohemian" sub-culture in New York City in the 1890s, also is superb. (The image of "bohemia" as the antithesis to middle-class values owes much to Puccini's opera "La Bohème," which was first produced in 1896.) According to Stansell, bohemian New York "was one manifestation of gathering revulsion against a society that seemed locked in a stranglehold of bourgeois resolve." That is an intriguing thesis, and Stansell provides wonderfully-evocative profiles of many of the New York pioneers of American modernism. Anyone interested in the origins and development of 20th-century American culture should read this extraordinary book.
Stansell succinctly defines bohemia as the "revolt against bourgeois convention," and she writes that New York's bohemia was widely believed to be peopled with "youthful libertines who despised bourgeois respectability and material success." One respect in which bohemia rejected middle-class certainties was to permit innovation in gender relations, and the appearance of the "New Women" in New York beginning in the 1890 is among the most important events Stansell describes.
What Stansell characterizes as the "dissent from bourgeois life" took many forms, and it is difficult to generalize without oversimplifying, but her chapter on political radical Emma Goldman begins with the important point that modernism tended to merge "disparate phenomena." According to Stansell, Goldman "championed modern dance and modern drama, free love, homosexuality, and martyrs of the labor movement," and she was a forceful advocate of "militant anticapitalism.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By David A. Bede on January 26, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Although the 1910s are often thought of as the tail end of the Progressive Era, Stansell makes a strong case that that decade actually saw the genesis of a social progressivism that slammed the door on the Victorian era in America. She also argues - a bit less convincingly - that the 1910s marked the beginning of New York's Greenwich Village as we now know it. But whether you accept the latter thesis or not, there is no doubt that the legendary neighborhood played host to some of the most important social activism of the early twentieth century. Stansell provides an impressive overview of the events and the lives of the people behind them.
Given the sheer magnitude of her subject, Stansell is necessarily sketchy in places, and the book suffers on occasion from an overly wordy, academic style. But she does provide a succinct look at the era's most important activists: especially Emma Goldman and also Randolph Bourne, John Reed, Margaret Sanger, Mabel Dodge and many others. The book doesn't pretend to be a biography of any of them but does whet the reader's appetite for learning more about them all. The same is true of the events it describes, particularly the successes and failures of the labor movement and the evolution of the feminist movement beyond advocacy of women's suffrage. (A particularly fascinating part of Stansell's story is the tension between labor and feminism, a division that stymied the left back then much as it does now.) Stansell ends her narrative with a brief assessment of the Red Scare and the quick end it put to the radicalism she delineates earlier in the book.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Lloyd Williams on June 2, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Did you ever wonder how this one tiny area of The City evolved into a sanctuary for artists, writers, the excluded and those otherwise constrained by the conventional? Wonder no more. Thanks to Christine Stansell, professor of history at Princeton University, we have the informatively compelling American Moderns, the first comprehensive portrait of that transformational, turn-of-the-century avant garde dedicated to free thought, free speech, free love, even free sex in the face of a persistently Victorian ethic. This seminal work represents an exhaustive exploration of a cultural phenomenon which irreversibly altered not only a band of bohemians, but the psyche of modern America itself. Sure, this country has somehow moved from the 19th Century's wicked repression and exploitation of children, women, minorities and the waves of immigrants who made their way to these shores. But how? In an alternately erudite and entertaining style, Ms. Stansell makes her case, as she breathes life into archival materials which include the papers and memoirs of Emma Goldman, Mabel Dodge, Georgia O'Keefe, painter John Sloan, Margaret Sanger and many other pioneers of the era.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Christine Stansell amazingly captures the not fully yet dug up Bohemian life in New York. Especially the parts about Greenwich Village were great, but the entire book is fabulous. Every part grabs you into it, and makes you feel like you were in Bohemian New York. A real page turner. I reccomend this book highly to anyone who has the slightest interest in it, or has great interest in buying, because I'm sure they will love it too, unless you are upset that Edgar Allen Poe isn't in it.
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