Thursday, May 1, 2008


Around 1948, a young man from New Orleans named Anatole Broyard began to gain prominence in the bohemian environment of Greenwich Village, then went on to become a revered critic for the New York Times. Now he is considered one of the "lights" (or perhaps "darks"), of post-war American letters. Aware that an African-American writer, no matter his talent, would always be "a black writer," and never simply "a writer," Broyard hid the fact that he was black for his entire adult life. His relatively light skin allowed him to pass, and he eagerly settled into the kind of white bourgeois milieu that blacks were denied. I think his stint in the Village was essential to constructing the narrative of whiteness that eventually delivered him into the upper echelons of American intellectuals.

In mid-19th century France artists and writers began moving into the gypsy neighborhoods of major cities as a way to avoid high rent and high-nosed morality. These transplants earned the name "bohemian" out of a mistaken idea that all gypsies came from the Czech region of Bohemia. Bohemians idealized what they perceived as the gypsy's pre-modern enlightenment, as well as their ability to live outside of modern culture's strictures. Of course, the bourgeois artists drove the group they feigned to admire out of their former neighborhoods.

This kind of emulation, which at the same time parodies what it seeks to emulate, parallels the relationship between artistic whites and the black community in America. The gypsies, after all, were not just different because of their social practices, but because of the color of their skin; their relation to the rest of modern Europe was the result of that racialized difference. It's no mistake that Jimi Hendrix, probably the most influential black performer of the 1960s (that most "bohemian" of decades), called himself a "gypsy".

For the past year, I've lived on a certain street in Brooklyn that lays claim to being an incubator of contemporary bohemianism. But the attention of a wikipedia article, coverage in Gawker and
yesterday's New York Times, and rivaling MySpace pages lead me to believe that its heyday had passed before I arrived. Nevertheless, my stay here has reinforced some of my ideas about the hipster aesthetic--that contemporary, commercialized bastard of bygone bohemianism(s). To better understand the hipster attitude, I've developed a matrix of four essential attributes on which any hipster can be placed. The matrix has four axes, each corresponding to one of the essential attributes, which are: 1. hippy 2. hip-hop 3. punk/hard rock 4. preppy. Notice that three of these categories associated themselves with (and fetishized) a specific group of racialized others: Hippies had their blues musicians, Black Panthers, and--via their predecessors, the Beats--black jazz musicians. Hip-hop need not be explained. Punks drew original inspiration from the West Indian subculture of urban England. The fourth attribute, preppy, represents the bourgeois aspect that cannot be eradicated from the bohemian and may itself become fetishized, perhaps as a compensatory effort.

A coworker of mine recently suggested that the song "Go Your Own Way" by Fleetwood Mac (whose first album came out in 1968) might be a satanic anthem. I'm not sure if I agree, but it made consider their song "Gypsy"--the lyrics of which link the return to a child-like state of creativity with the gypsy--as a concise (if vague) expression of postwar American bohemianism. Not surprisingly, I'd say Fleetwood Mac would rank high in the "Nostalgia" category on a list of favored hipster bands (nostalgia being a key operating sentiment in the bohemian world-view).

As much as it disappoints me (and somewhat deflates the impact of this post), I can't find anything to biographically link Anatole Broyard and Stevie Nicks. While Nicks eagerly embraced a "gypsy" mystique, Broyard's relationship to bohemianism was more complicated. He did a sort of double-reversal, adopting the attitude of white, bourgeois "bohemians" in post-war Greenwich Village as the first layer of erudite WASPy-ness that masked his racialized background. It makes this quotation from him at once more apt, and more ironic:

It is one of the paradoxes of American literature that our writers are forever looking back with love and nostalgia at lives they couldn't wait to leave.


At the Tideline said...

An interesting post, and fluently composed. Have you read 'Passing,' the novel by Nella Larson? Kind of a sleeper, but it concerns two women's passing for white in bourgeois, I believe it was Manhattan, in the 1950s. Your post seems to point to a situation wherein the marginalized individual has a legitimate claim to the appropriated hegemonic culture, to assume and subvert at will an inherited notion of what constitutes the powerful in a given society---and that, ironically, the most direct products of this hegemonic system lack the same freedom. Even the so-called bo-ho set, actively refusing or problematizing their participation in the bourgeois culture that fostered them, are nevertheless restricted from assuming other, less-empowered identities. This is not to say the freedom of participation by marginalized groups is necessarily empowering. More often that not, their choice is one of deferrent participation…or invisibility, with all the attendant abuse, violence, and poverty that cultural invisibility precludes. But it does show that power polices its boundaries not only outside the superstructure, but also within. Hence, a bourgeoisie participation in hip-hop culture today is appropriation. The charge of inauthenticity effectively cancels out accomplishment. And the demarcations are maintained. But is this true? Often, I think, but not always. And it is this unaccountable space, this interstice of legitimate production, subversion, or the concrete expansion of possibility, that, I guess, keeps the spirit of bohemianism alive.

At the Tideline said...

p.s. A very belated congrats on being published. No small accomplishment, my friend. I need to get my hands on a copy. Now if only you knew more skateboarding terms, your own mag might do one of your stories, too.