- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 23, 2002

As Ross Wetzsteon points out at the beginning of "Republic of Dreams," Greenwich Village isn't what it used to be nor has been since 1916, when locals already complained of tourists, poseurs and other undesirables invading their neighborhood. Yet Wetzsteon admits that the Village has been a victim of its own success in exporting its brand of
counterculture into the heartland of America. "It could even be argued that the degree to which the Village is no longer the locus of bohemia is the degree to which the Village has contributed to winning that battle," he writes, "from the early days of insistence on the right to premarital sex and access to birth control information to the more recent days of feminism and gay liberation."
Subtitled "Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960," Wetzsteon's history of these four squares miles in lower Manhattan bounded by 14th St. to the north, the Hudson River to the west, Houston St. to the south and Third Avenue to the east is a celebration of self-actualization, "the liberated self," as the ascendant philosophy of our time. Whether they were artists, anarchists or amorists, Villagers embraced the principles of Jean Jacques Rousseau and rejected what they considered narrow-minded, bourgeois morality and materialism.
"They were self-assured rebels, harbingers of a new social order," writes Wetzsteon, longtime drama critic and editor at the Village Voice who died in 1998 (the book is published posthumously). "The Villagers made a cult of carefree irresponsibility, but in the service of transcendental ideas."
In some ways, the book is Wetzsteon's lives of the poets, since he tells his story as a series of mini-biographies profiling the people who passed through the Village during the first half of the 20th century. The list is impressive: William Carlos Williams, Thomas Wolfe, Djuna Barnes, E.E. Cummings, Dawn Powell, to mention a few writers awarded their own chapters, as well as lesser known local characters such as Harry Kemp, the Hobo Poet, and Guido Bruno, the Barnum of Bohemia. In fact, just about everybody who did anything notable before the sixties, from DeWitt and Lila Wallace, who founded the Reader's Digest beneath a speakeasy at 113 McDougal St. in 1922, to Lauren Bacall, named Miss Greenwich Village of 1942, seems to have spent time there.
Wetzsteon, however, concentrates on five years between 1912 and 1917, the Golden Age of the Village, when the free-spirited radicalism associated with the place developed its exuberant and exasperating temperament. In particular, he focuses on five people Mabel Dodge, John Reed, Max Eastman, Eugene O'Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay who came to embody the passion, irreverence and iconoclasm of the moment.
Dodge, a thirtysomething socialite bored with her husband and blessed with a talent for entertaining, was famous for her salon at 23 Fifth Avenue, which attracted a curious assortment of journalists, poets and socialists. Wobbly spokesman Big Bill Haywood was a regular, as were Carl Van Vechten and Lincoln Steffens, Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, as well as an assortment of colorful hangers-on with names like Hippolyte Havel, "a long-haired, walrus-mustached, glitter-eyed anarchist." Dodge's gatherings had themes the Dangerous Characters Evenings alternated with the Sex Antagonism Evenings and Evenings of Art and Unrest and she threw what was probably the first peyote party in the Village.
"One Evening might founder in factionalism, another might degenerate into disputation, another might conclude in incoherence but the Lyrical Left defined itself more by its energy than by its ideas," writes Wetzsteon. Dodge's critics dismissed her as a dilettante (she invented radical chic long before Leonard Bernstein) but her soirees proved vital to New York intellectual and social life. "More than any other person, Mabel recognized, if only intuitively, that the repressive traditions against which the Village radicals were rebelling political, economic, sexual, artistic were inextricably linked, and that the most immediately necessary radical act was not to focus on specific reforms but to break down the barriers between the radicals themselves, to affirm both the range and the unity of the insurgent spirit itself."
Likewise, Eastman, editor of the small but influential magazine The Masses, and Reed, a staffer who would become the most famous American communist ever, personified Village aesthetics. "The broad purpose of The Masses is a social one," wrote Reed, for a time Dodge's lover, in a draft of the magazine's manifesto: "to attack old systems, old morals, old prejudices the whole weight of outworn thought that dead men have saddled up us … We intend to be arrogant, impertinent, in bad taste, but not vulgar."
Reed was the Golden Boy of the Village's Golden Age, and Millay was the Golden Girl. Attractive, articulate and alluring, Vincent, as everyone called her, was a celebrity at age 20 with the publication of her poem "Renascence" in a 1912 anthology. After graduating from Vassar, she moved to the city and began having affairs with a series of prominent men, including the critic Edmund Wilson. "Vincent was addicted to making men fall in love with her," writes Wetzsteon, who shows real insight into the vagaries of the human heart, "and, like most addicts, she was frequently overcome with remorse."
Like most in her set, Millay advocated free love and espoused sexual experimentation, yet she was disingenuous, even hurtful, in her relationships. The Villagers probably did more to establish the sexual candor we take for granted today, but these early practitioners were just as conflicted as their later acolytes. "In order to make Vincent a brazen symbol of sexual freedom, readers had to ignore her somber undertone of sexual unease," writes Wetzsteon. "She eagerly succumbed to the fever and frenzy, then dismissed it as unworthy, and for all her surface merriment and romantic yearning, she treated her lovers a partners in animality and dispatched them with postcoital hostility."
Millay came out, so to speak, as the ingenue in a forgettable one-act comedy mounted by the Provincetown Players. The troupe was founded by George "Jig" Cook, a playwright manque from Iowa, in a ramshackle wharf up on Cape Cod, but it become famous as the avant-garde Village theater dedicated to remaking the American theater. "Alternately ecstatic about his destiny and despondent about his life, Jig felt fated both to transform the American theater and to die unknown," writes Wetzsteon. "The paradoxical fate of genius, according to Village mythology in the teens and for decades thereafter, was to fail in the realm of commerce in precise proportion to one's success in the realm of culture."
Cook introduced another tortured genius to the world, Gene O'Neill, producing his first play, "Bound East for Cardiff," as well as "The Emperor Jones" and "The Hairy Ape." The son of an accomplished Broadway actor, O'Neill had drifted around the world as a deckhand before returning to New York and settling in the Village, where he distinguished himself as a drunk. "In later generations of Villagers there would be a skid row sentimentality, a romance of the riffraff authenticity of experience measured by degree of degradation and in a sense Gene found his self-worth precisely in the extent to which his dissipation displeased his father," writes Wetzsteon. "But he gradually shifted from self-destruction to self-expression and, in finally articulating his pain, transcended it."
Wetzsteon lovingly explicates the lives of these eminent Villagers, each intimately intertwined with the others. An elegant writer, astute critic and amusing anecdotist, he adored the Village and all it stands for, while recognizing its foibles and pretensions. "It is the community where irresponsibility, naivete, and self-indulgence are transformed into virtues," he admits. "… It is the refuge for social misfits. It is the home of poseurs, eccentrics, and drifters, and a romantic alternative to mainstream society. It is a metaphor for iniquity."
New Yorkers will love this book, which lists the brownstones and watering holes where these bigger-than-life characters worked and played. The poet Hart Crane, for example, moved to a room at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn, a street overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge, where he worked on his epic "The Bridge," and where unknown to him the architect of the monumental structure had lived during its construction. (The building is now torn down, providing a view of the bridge to this reviewer even as he types.) There's great gossip in the book. Theodore Dreiser once asked his live-in lover to sleep in another room so he could have could have a one-night stand with a pickup, and some needed debunking of Village myths (what really happened the night Dylan Thomas supposedly drank himself to death at the White Horse Tavern).
Out-of-towners, too, should enjoy "Republic of Dreams," at least those interested in literary and cultural history. Villagers' insistence on self-expression, self-determination and self-fulfillment has become America's unchallenged credo, and freedoms unthinkable a century ago are now considered unalienable rights. But as Wetzsteon shows in these profiles of bohemia, liberty doesn't always lead to happiness, or progress to peace of mind.

Rex Roberts is a freelance writer, editor and designer living in New York City.

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