The Fiction of Bohemian NYC

What does New York City have to do with America as a whole? This metropolis, which gave rise to the nation’s current leader and whose worst gilded …

What does New York City have to do with America as a whole? This metropolis, which gave rise to the nation’s current leader and whose worst gilded tendencies are embodied in him, now positions itself, familiarly, as both potential savior of the republic and a conscientious objector from the whole rotten mess.

The persistent fantasy in which New York somehow lands an exemption from the nation’s ills is inextricable from another fantasy, one of similarly long duration: that this city is a place where creative strivers of all stripes, outcasts from all provinces, can thrive and ply their radically democratic visions, cheered on and buoyed by the city itself. Without some version of fair access and meritocracy, of course, the beloved community would become nothing but a wealthy arrivistes’ bubble. Perhaps it already is.

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.

Of these three books, it’s Theodore Winthrop’s Cecil Dreeme, reissued in 2016 after more than a century out of print, whose vision of the city will be the most recognizable to anyone who has lived there lately. Cecil Dreeme’s New York is a cultural hub, where a high-born aesthete just back from Europe can swap apartments with an architect heading to Washington to consult on the “big abortion of a new Capitol” being built there, and where a hedonistic social scene competes with loftier pursuits for the attention of those who can afford to choose between them. Yet Cecil Dreeme is more than a great New York novel. It is also a key text for anybody interested in the history of gender and queerness in American thought—not just thought that has taken place on these shores, but the history of ideas precisely about this nation itself, its values, and its direction in history. In our present moment, when even the rhetorical viability of America as a set of ideals worth striving for is easily as endangered as it has ever been, a predicament magnified by an election that also functioned as a reassertion of gender as well as racial hierarchies, it’s imperative for us to think clearly about the relationship between gender ideologies and the American nation-state. Cecil Dreeme helps us to do just that.

When did the era of New York as “this magical place” begin? Where did all the utopian municipal fantasies come from?

The novel centers on Robert Byng, a well-to-do young man who, after several years studying and traveling in Europe, has come back to his native New York City to find work as a chemist and to figure out what kind of a person he wants to be. The moral categories are drawn with that exacting clarity so common to 19th-century novels. Vice and evil beckon in billiard halls, glittering house parties, and the person of Densdeth, a sardonic man-about-town. Everybody in town seems to know that Densdeth is bad news, but this only intensifies Byng’s crush on him: “I cannot resist the desire to know him by heart.”

Virtue has at first no similarly alluring avatar—until Byng meets Cecil Dreeme, a painter who lives upstairs from Byng’s antiques-cluttered sublet. The two develop an intimate friendship. “Him I love with a love passing the love of women,” Byng confesses aloud to himself, while gazing on a sketch Dreeme has given him. “If I should lose him, if he should abandon me, I might be ready to take the world as Densdeth wishes.”

This is no plodding fable of sentiment; the writing crackles on nearly every page. Of the proto-hipsters at the pool hall, Winthrop writes: “Everybody was bored. Life was a burden at the windows, by the fire, at the billiard-tables, of that rotten institution.” On a summer day, “the sluggish heat lay clogged and unrippled in the streets of the furnace-like city.” The book’s overt question about the perils of vice—can one ever be a curious onlooker without being pulled into the pit?—is dwarfed by a still more interesting one: what sort of men and women best befit the new American republic? The nation’s identity is still in flux, and Byng wants to figure out “the hopes and duties of my generation to our country.” He imagines the answer has something to do with unprecedented genders: “Acting together, on a larger scale, with a grander co-operation,” he rhapsodies, “we will inaugurate the new era for the noblest manhood and the purest womanhood the world has ever known.”

If the heroes of this book are any indication, the best new Americans will be those who depart binary gender altogether. At book’s end, Cecil Dreeme is “revealed”—spoiler alert—to “be” a woman, though one who was “weird” and unfeminine as a child. After the reveal, Byng—described as “a gentleman whose touch to mind and body is fine and gentle as a woman’s”—continues to refer to his beloved as Cecil rather than by the character’s birth name, and as both “him” and “her.” A bearded poet from Brooklyn had proposed a similarly polymorphous national ideal about five years earlier, producing a new lyric form to accommodate it. But Winthrop, by couching this vision within a novel of moral instruction, confronts conventional morality head-on, enacting a thoroughly queer (or perhaps a frustratingly homonormative—discuss!) revision of right and wrong. And Cecil’s paintings hold more truth than either biography or biology can hope to encompass. Art’s story about the self, Cecil insists, is more complex than what the body on its own appears to tell. And the city furnishes a place where that complicated story can be told, for the good of the nation.

Set one century after the events of Cecil Dreeme and in the same Greenwich Village neighborhood, Sarah Schulman’s The Cosmopolitans, published last year, is similarly concerned with questions of morality, though the question of whether dallying with evil sullies one’s own moral makeup is considerably murkier here than in Cecil Dreeme. This becomes especially apparent when the novel is read together with its unofficial companion volume, an astringent nonfiction book by Schulman that also came out in 2016, titled Conflict Is Not Abuse. There, Schulman argues that honest and direct engagement with other people is an ethical imperative, and that it is politically and morally abhorrent to refuse to engage with somebody who has behaved in a way one dislikes. She writes of “a heightened rhetoric of threat that confuses doing nothing, normative conflict, and resistance with actual abuse,” and notes that “this overstatement of harm is often expressed in ‘shunning,’ a literal refusal to speak in person with another human being.”

In The Cosmopolitans, a loose retelling of Balzac’s 1846 novel Cousin Bette, Schulman puts Conflict’s central concepts to the test, retooling Balzac’s revenge-driven old maid as a scrupulously honest woman who manipulates her relatives and coworkers because it’s the only way to get her shunners to listen to her and stop lying. Bette appears at first to be a simple secretary in her 50s, blissfully content to observe the rituals of her 10th Street block and to eat dinner every night with her only friend, a gay black actor named Earl who lives across the hall. Earl works in a meatpacking plant; he rarely gets roles, because he refuses to portray undignified characters. “‘No butlers. No ooga-booga cannibals.’ He waved his fork. ‘No chauffeurs. No shufflers.’” He longs to play Othello.

More than halfway through the book, Earl embarks on an insincere romance with Bette’s cousin, an aspiring actress newly arrived from rural Ohio. He hopes the relationship will dull the painful effects of homophobia and racism, but Bette calls him on his dishonesty. He stops speaking to her. Bette then hatches a multistep revenge plot that she hopes will not only rekindle the friendship but also force everybody who’s ever shunned her to hear the truths she thinks they’re ignoring.

This is where the novel, quite slow in its first half, gets interesting. As in Conflict Is Not Abuse, the manifest moral code of The Cosmopolitans, voiced by Bette, declares that honesty is good, shunning is bad, and forcing dishonest shunners to face the truth is necessary, no matter what it takes. Yet as Bette says, quoting Balzac, “Everything has two faces. Even virtue.” Bette derives a thrill from her cruelty while still nursing her injured righteousness and moral superiority: “Oh, these false people who respond to falsity. The absolutely rotting excrement of their selfishness. How it showed them to be undeserving of respect.”

Like Bette, The Cosmopolitans is hard to love. The book is billed as an homage to James Baldwin’s Another Country, but Schulman’s heavy prose lacks the fluid music of Baldwin. More frequent here, unfortunately, are clunky passages (“Her apartment’s windows offered this gift as well, but in panoramic variation so that the simultaneity of our lives became irrefutable”) and implausible metaphors (“She was a novice mountain climber swinging alone from peak to peak”). And though the meticulous emotional workings of The Cosmopolitans recall Balzac or even Henry James, the realism is neither as precise and evocative as Balzac’s nor as compellingly baroque as James’s.

A more apt literary predecessor is Jane Bowles. Schulman is writing a similar sort of alien hyporealism, where people carry out stiffly and at two levels of remove the activities of human life. When skillfully done, such awkward estrangement can demand an active critical engagement from its audience. As an exploration of the ideas in Conflict and their possible limits, The Cosmopolitans makes just such a demand. And as an allegory for a contemporary New York invaded by entitled twits from the hinterland, Schulman’s novel raises the possibility that when confronting a city ruled by wealth, whiteness, and ambition, the cure may be just as ugly as the disease.


Diane Arbus and the Power of Cruel Art

By Anne Higonnet

“The world, especially the art world, was changing.” So observes James Bennett, a synaesthetic art critic, in Tuesday Nights in 1980. “The brilliant bohemia he’d discovered when he’d moved to the Village had been ratcheted up a notch … there was a new air of possibility and a new wave of capital coming in, which gave the scene a new edge.” Bennett is suspicious of the shift. Tuesday Nights in 1980 would be a better novel if it shared his skepticism, but it instead peddles a stale, shallow version of New York creative life. Raul Engales, an Argentinean-raised painter who comes to the city to escape his country’s Dirty War, thrills to “the artistic adrenaline that the gorgeous downtown grime produced” and “this frequency of pure, unfettered hope.” When a neighborhood artists’ squat gets shut down, Engales reflects that “they had had one another, and they had their projects, and they had this space they could make their own—these were the things that kept them from freezing.” He becomes involved with the beautiful Lucy Olliason, newly arrived from Idaho, who “believed that the world was wide and available and filled with the potential for feeling and subversion and art and wonder.” When calamities arise to make life more difficult for the characters, blunting their ecstatic profusions, it comes as a relief.

This novel paints a sanitized, Disney-ready version of urban art history, one in which queer and women artists fade to the background and avant-garde aesthetics are dumbed down almost beyond recognition. Tuesday Nights is basically a straight, pre-AIDS Rent, with a few real names thrown in for curious readers to Google. The internationalist angle that frames the book places the artistic goings-on within a hemispheric context, but Prentiss doesn’t carry the superficial juxtaposition nearly far enough to save her story from vapidity and irrelevance.

Despite these shortcomings, or perhaps because of them, Lucy just may have what it takes to become a new heroine for the wide-eyed children of privilege who descend on New York year after year in ever greater numbers, desperate for a chance to live an intense and creativity-adjacent life, full of “feeling and subversion and art and wonder”—these young who may, alas, have more influence on the city’s future than all the well-meaning mayors and attorneys general and street protesters can muster. Maybe this time next year, amid the Taylor Smith wannabes and the Lena Dunham disciples, we will see, on the L train, young women angling to be the next Lucy. I hope they will all be wise enough, at least, to stand clear of the closing doors. icon

Featured image: iCycle. Photograph by Lou Bueno / Flickr