Most of lecture today was devoted to the idea of Greenwich Village in the early twentieth century — and to the group of people the historian Christine Stansell has termed “American Moderns.”
I did mention during lecture some earlier stirrings of New York’s bohemian subculture, strong enough that they received commentary from outsiders. W.D. Howells pokes fun at middle-class slumming — young writers and artists who want to make a romantic escape from their parents’ stifling genteel culture — in The Coast of Bohemia (1893). In the 1870s the journalist James D. McCabe, in Lights and Shadows of New York Life, has this portrait of “Bleecker Street”:
In many respects Bleecker Street is more characteristic of Paris than of New York. It reminds one strongly of the Latin Quarter. … It is one of the headquarters of Bohemianism, and Mrs. Grundy [a code word for the epitome of genteel propriety] now shivers with holy horror when she thinks it was once her home. The street has not entirely lost its reputation. No one is prepared to say it is a vile neighborhood; no one would care to class it with Houston, Mercer, Greene, or Water Streets; but people shake their heads, look mysterious, and sigh ominously when you ask them about it. It is a suspicious neighborhood, to say the least, and he who frequents it must be prepared for the gossip and surmises of his friends. … Walk down it at almost any hour of the day or night, and you will see many things that are new to you. Strange characters meet you at every step; even the shops have a Bohemian aspect, for trade is nowhere so much the victim of chance as here.
Who are these strange characters? He goes on to say they’re quite a different crowd than you’ll find walking on Broadway, so close by:
That long-haired, queerly dressed young man, with a parcel under his arm, who passed you just then, is an artist, and his home is in the attic of that tall house from which you saw him pass out. … If you look up to the second floor, you may see a pretty, but not over fresh looking young woman [an actress], gazing down into the street. … She is used to looking at men, and to having them look at her, and she is not averse to their admiration. On the floor above her dwells Betty Mulligan, a pretty little butterfly well known to the lovers of the ballet as Mademoiselle Alexandrine. No one pretends to know her history. In the same house is a fine-looking woman, not young, but not old. Her ‘husband’ has taken lodgings here for her, but he comes to see her only at intervals. … Women come here to meet other men besides their husbands, and men bring women here who are not their wives. Bleecker Street asks no questions, but it has come to suspect the men and women who are seen in it. [Excerpted in Sawyers, ed., The Greenwich Village Reader]
The intersection of Broadway and Bleecker had, even earlier, been home to a bohemian literary scene that met at a cellar pub called Pfaff’s. The characters affiliated with the Pfaff’s scene fit some of McCabe’s character types: artists, actresses, dancers, writers, the most famous of whom was Walt Whitman. (He took a visiting Emerson to Pfaff’s for dinner.) A terrific website hosted by Lehigh University and created by Ed Whitley and Rob Weidman offers biographies of over 150 key figures who made their way through Pfaff’s, including Howells, Horatio Alger, the famous actress Adah Isaacs Menken, and the actor Joseph Jefferson. The site, The Vault at Pfaff’s, also contains searchable digital reproductions of The Saturday Press, the short-lived newspaper edited by Henry Clapp, Jr., a key publication for the Pfaff’s crowd. There’s enough there to lose yourself in for several hours, to be sure.
[Whitman at Pfaff’s, image taken from The Vault at Pfaff’s]