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The fiction of bohemian NYC


At Public Books, Sara Marcus reviews three novels set in New York City in three different celebrated bohemian periods: Cecil Dreeme by Theodore Winthrop, originally published in 1861 and republished recently by NYU Press, is set in the mid-nineteenth century; The Cosmopolitans by Sarah Schulman is set in 1958; and Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss is set in, well, 1980. Marcus writes that taken together, these novels show that the idea of New York as a bohemian hotbed has always been more of a fantasy than a reality. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Moby, Patti Smith, and a whole book’s worth of essayists have argued lately that New York has indeed become a place where risk-taking artists (not to mention middle-class civil servants) can no longer afford to live, and only the already successful or rich can thrive. In vowing to fight this situation, Mayor Bill de Blasio casts himself as something between a windmill tilter and a belated barn door closer. But even if we grant that New York is irrevocably at the end of an era, this only raises more questions. When did that era, of New York as “this magical place,” begin? Where did all the utopian municipal fantasies come from, when did they begin to crumble, and who do we become when we set ourselves against that crumbling?

A spate of recently published novels, which together deal with creative Greenwich Village dwellers across a 120-year span, offer us some perspective on these questions. Cecil Dreeme, written by Theodore Winthrop and originally published in 1861, takes place in the mid-19th century; The Cosmopolitans, by Sarah Schulman, is set in 1958; and Tuesday Nights in 1980, by Molly Prentiss, spans its titular year. The books point toward long histories for familiar phenomena such as the trust-fund painter, the frustrated artist with a crushing day job, and the rural newcomer. Cecil Dreeme and The Cosmopolitans, in particular, easily read as allegories for today’s city, with wealthy artists pursuing their dreams while everyone else struggles for survival. In fact, taken together, these three novels suggest that the 1970s–1980s downtown art scene celebrated in Prentiss’s novel (and in so many others) was only a brief aberration in the long life of the city, rather than the eternal birthright of urban dreamers everywhere. The idea of New York City as a haven for young artists, an open-air creative wonderland, may be nothing more than a tagline, encapsulating a cruel optimism that lures in young aspirants and imprisons them in art-handling warehouses to make custom boxes for collectors till daybreak. A longer view on the matter will help give New Yorkers—past, present, and aspiring—a clearer sense of where we really live.

Image via Public Books.