Arnet
On-line resources from the
American Studies Resources Centre at LJMU

Liverpool John Moores University

 

Book reviews

American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century by Christine Stansell, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010

420 pages. ISBN 978-0-691-14283-8

Reviewed by Richard Martin, Birkbeck, University of London

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

Join Friends of the ASRC on Facebook

Facebook

Histories of urban modernity at the dawn of the twentieth century habitually turn to Paris, London, Berlin or Vienna as the exemplary sources of bohemian life. In this updated edition of a study first published in 2000, Christine Stansell demonstrates that between 1900 and 1920 New York’s Greenwich Village was the stage for some of the most intriguing developments in politics and culture anywhere in the world. In emphasising how this exciting new community arose within an ill-defined period in American history, Stansell proves that American bohemianism was not a pale imitation of its more famous counterparts in Europe, but in actual fact was often a much more progressive force, particularly with regard to gender relations. In so doing, she provides a hugely enjoyable account of how Greenwich Village became such an iconic site and how New York emerged as America’s pre-eminent city.

In the book’s most compelling passages, she paints vibrant portraits of the era’s leading radical figures, including the anarchist Emma Goldman, the journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant, and the critic Randolph Bourne. Stansell writes with evident sympathy, but no lack of critical rigour, about their intoxicating determination to live modern and progressive lives. She pays attention to important political schisms within New York (for example, the debates between anarchists and socialists) and to its latent inequalities (such as the exclusion of black Americans from bohemian circles). As such, she offers a more sophisticated and nuanced treatment of this cultural scene than the overtly romantic portrayal seen in Warren Beatty’s film Reds (1981), which focuses its attention on Reed and Bryant’s turbulent relationship.

It is feminism that constitutes the period’s greatest achievement for Stansell. She claims that “nowhere in Europe – or indeed the world, for that matter – did modern culture orient itself to the New Woman as its defining figure as it did in America.” The new space that was carved out for gender relations was not without its complications and contradictions, as Stansell acknowledges. Nevertheless, this was an environment where friendship, conversation and sexual relations, as well as reading and writing, were all considered important political activities in which women led the way. Indeed, Stansell suggests that the origins of the sexual revolution that took place in America later in the century lie in the behaviour of these Greenwich Village bohemians.

American Moderns ends on a sad note, with America’s participation in World War I creating a climate of oppression and censorship that smothered progressive politics. By 1920, both Reed and Bourne were dead, Goldman had been deported to Russia, while Greenwich Village lay at the mercy of tourists and property speculators. This is not to detract from the inspirational legacy this cultural milieu left behind. Stansell’s book will certainly appeal to all those wishing to know more about radical politics in America, and its relationship with art and domestic life. Illustrated with numerous photographs and cartoons, this book serves as a fascinating reminder of New York’s vital leftist tradition in the early twentieth century and its immense contribution to the nation as a whole.

Follow us on Twitter

JMU Logo American Studies Today Online is published by
American Studies Resources Centre, Aldham Robarts Library, Liverpool John Moores University, Maryland Street, Liverpool L1 9DE, United Kingdom.
Tel 0151-231 3241
International(+44)151-231 3241
E-mail info@americansc.org.uk
The views expressed are those of the contributors, and not necessarily those of the Centre, the College or the University.
Liverpool John Moores University and the Contributors, 2011
Articles and reviews in this journal may be freely reproduced for use in subscribing institutions only, provided that the source is acknowledged.