Book review: “Bohemians”

Bohemians would appear to be the book Paul Buhle has been waiting to introduce his entire lengthy career as a writer and editor. While his other 30+ volumes on left history and the blacklist all came from a place deep within, this latest addition to the Buhle canon somehow stands out, a place where the author can step into the times and places of the amazing characters within.

When this book arrived in the mail I thought I would skim it over, reading closely in a few areas and then bang out the review. But it wasn’t possible as these largely chronologically placed tales of radical intellectuals (don’t you just hate that term??) beckoned me to investigate further each time I tried to put the book down. This history is graphically told via the work of underground comic book artists and writers including the late Spain Rodriguez (whom Bohemians is dedicated to), Sabrina Jones, Peter Kuper, Sharon Rudahl, and many others, though Buhle makes appearances as scripter in many spots, offers a rock-solid intro and weighs in on the intros to each chapter too. But he’d be the first to point to the actual bohemian input of some of his comic brethren as most salient; Buhle is fascinated by the lives of radical artists though he regularly states that he remains apart from the lot, an observer who chronicles the movements.

Bohemians opens, befittingly, with utopianism, militant uprisings and every pronounced fight back to reactionary thinking the artists of the day could come up with, from free love, spiritualism, feminism, multi-culturalism and more. What is most compelling, though, is the almost constant connection between the bohemian artists and the concept of modernism. Is this an indication of a new age of Enlightenment?

Gay and lesbian lifestyles were accepted and the openness of inter-racial relationships  are a matter of course. Theirs was a world in which one’s politics were as revolutionary as their creativity and all of this was ignited by the vision of a new day. The cultural expanse of communism, socialism and anarchism are widely and deeply felt in these pages. Stand out chapters include the entirety of ‘Village Days’, a wide-eyed view into Greenwich Village in the 1910s. See John Reed carousing with Mabel Dodge, Floyd Dell, Max Eastman, and Arturo Giovannitti, dip into the pages of “The Masses” and “Il Fuoco” and embark on a journey into the Lawrence Strike. And while this chapter informs the reader of the Patterson Pageant, the benefit musical extravaganza Reed wrote with Dodge and performed on stage with actual strikers from Patterson, it somehow doesn’t take us there (note to self: push Buhle to include a section on this when the book goes into a second printing!).

But Bohemians doesn’t stop with the death of Reed. In fact, it dips back into the modern art movement in Manhattan in the earliest 20th century, giving an incredible vision into the time and the intensity of the struggle to break through the art establishment. Here you will find yourself walking the precipice of modern art and dadaism, including specific galleries and journals, both homegrown and European in origin, plus Duchamp, Man Ray, photography, cubism, and of course nudes descending staircases. From there, its Claude McKay’s prideful, angry journey into life as a writer, in and apart from the Harlem Renaissance, as well as the turbulence of Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, Parisian salons and the tortured celebrity of Josephine Baker. But modern dance is offered thick, detailed segments with much focus also on theatre, folk music, and jazz. Pay special attention to the piece on Billie Holiday: it’s a walk through her pained life with an ongoing experiences of Abel Meeropol, the communist composer-lyricist of “Strange Fruit,” in comparative view. But along the path that Bohemians takes us on, we discover painters, poets, singers, actors, musicians, dancers and thinkers largely lost to the passage of time though they shaped the art of the here and now. Where would today’s youth of Williamsburg Brooklyn be without them?

Chronologically, the book brings us into the 1940s – the era of bebop, modern jazz – with a close look at both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I must admit, I could have used a lot more Thelonious Monk, in fact this brilliant composer and classic bohemian archetype deserved his own chapter. The closing piece is the development of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb and the writer who worked so closely with him for years, Harvey Pekar. In later life, the very working-class yet quite bohemian Pekar partnered with Buhle on several books including The Beats and SDS: A Graphic History. To allow for the full breadth of bohemianism, one might have to fully absorb those two volumes while reading through this current one, and spend some time listening to the expansive, free jazz of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Albert Ayler as well as early punk and no wave.

Such a radical creative vision cannot rest.

The road of bohemianism is jagged and cuts through every revolutionary social movement. What could ever stop it?


Edited by Paul Buhle and David Berger with Luisa Cetti

Introduction by Paul Buhle

John Pietaro is a musician, writer and cultural organizer from Brooklyn NY –

Photo: The Cultural Worker blogspot


John Pietaro
John Pietaro

Poet, Arts Journalist, Creative Writer, Spoken Word Artist. Works at Local 802 AFM. DJ, co-host Beneath the Underground at Sheena's Jungle Room on WFMU. Staff Writer, Columnist, Critic at The NYC Jazz Record.