Greenwich Village Intellectuals in the Early 20th Century
The intellectuals who gathered in Greenwich Village in the 1910s celebrated creative individuality over social adjustment, urban diversity and turmoil over middle-class assimilation and tidiness, radical dissent over bureaucratic regulation, improvisation over expertise, artistic vision over political pragmatism.
A Legacy of Pluralism
Their traditions have since inspired the American Left, old and new; movements for women's and sexual emancipations; the artistic avant-garde, to the extent that one has existed in America; and many of the ensuing efforts to redefine American culture as pluralistic, diverse, and cosmopolitan. These struggles have included movements for civil rights, civil liberties, and increased democratic participation by all members of our society -- regardless of race, class, gender, or sexuality.
New York City
These rebels are often referred to as "the Greenwich Village Left" -- although there were other and earlier centers of rebellion, notably Chicago in the first decade of the century. Still, by 1912 or so, most of the cultural radicals of this generation had made their way to New York, and many stayed on for the next five or more years, before disbanding for Paris, Moscow, Taos, Croton-on-Hudson, Provincetown, or the more disciplined socialist community on New York's Lower East Side. The names of some of the leading participants suggest the variety of careers and backgrounds that came together in this "rebellion": Max Eastman, Crystal Eastman, John Reed, Emma Goldman, Floyd Dell, Mabel Dodge, Alfred Stieglitz, Margaret Sanger, John Sloan, Hutchins Hapgood, Dorothy Day, Randolph Bourne.
A Sense of Alienation
What drew this community of artists, journalists, activists, poets, organizers, and malcontents together and to the Village in the years after 1910? Most came from elsewhere -- the majority of the rebels grew up in provincial American towns, children of respectable but often marginal or even downwardly mobile parents. Some historians have suggested that a characteristic shared experience of the rebels, male as well as female, was that they grew up in mother-dominated homes, with absent or failed fathers. Even if such circumstances were not as unusual in late-Victorian America as some historians would make them seem, there is merit to the speculation that such an upbringing produced in the children, especially the sons, a sense of alienation from the more traditional male modes of success in late-nineteenth-century America, as well as an unusual willingness in both genders to accept the possible equality of women.
Combining Politics and Art
Although many of the male rebels were products of Ivy League educations (Eastman, Reed, Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks) and several had continued on to advanced graduate work, most shunned the newly emerging routes to professional success -- whether through university appointments, government service, the professions, or even conventional journalism. Instead, they sought to combine politics and art, advocacy and poetry, life and work -- to reject predictable careers and to improvise. That explains, in large part, the appeal of the Village, where rents were still cheap, studio space and a sense of community still possible, and where the ethnic diversity and marginality of the neighborhood might shelter the "bohemian rebels" from the prying eyes of disapproving bourgeois neighbors. (The Italian immigrants in the Village disapproved, too, but their opinions clearly carried less sanctioning weight.) The women rebels were more likely to be professionals -- lawyers, social workers -- than were the men, but for a woman to enter these professions in 1910 was hardly to surrender to conventionality. In their private lives, these women defied more conventions than did their male comrades, as they challenged the double standard of Victorian sexual morality; advocated birth control,woman suffrage, and an end to traditional marriage and the conventional sexual division of labor; and probably to a greater degree than the men, experimented with homosexual and homoerotic relations as well as heterosexual liaisons. These experiments were not without their complications and emotional costs; conventional mores may be flouted while still maintaining a powerful hold on people's imaginations, fears, and aspirations.
In Need of Revolution
Perhaps the most characteristic unifying belief of the rebels, an idea that united people as different as Max Eastman and Emma Goldman and movement organs as various as The Masses and the Seven Arts, was their linking of artistic experiments -- modernism -- and an eclectic array of radical political positions -- generally some variation on anarcho-socialism -- in a sweeping belief in the primary necessity of a revolution in consciousness. In so doing, many rejected the means if not always the goal of the Marxist socialists' more disciplined advocacy of organization toward a class revolution fueled by the inescapable contradictions of capitalism. Simultaneously and more consistently, the Greenwich Village intellectuals criticized the Progressives' liberal faith in adjustment, expertise, and reform from within the existing political and economic arrangements. Crucial to this faith in the transformation of consciousness was the rebels' sense that the individual consciousness would be the source of revolutionary (usually nonviolent) action. Modern art, liberated sexual energies, cultural criticism, and intellectual dissent would inspire the rejection of materialism, conventional morality, traditional gender relations, and the political status quo. This transformed consciousness would ignite a revolution that would somehow liberate both the individual genius and the oppressed classes of the world. Writers, artists, poets, intellectuals, and critics, of course, would play a defining role in any such reconstruction of consciousness, since they were already exploring the revolutionary implications of modernist literature and syndicalism, surrealism and feminism, Freud (in an often distortedly optimistic and therapeutic sense), and the connections between free love and the demise of private property. These radical aspirations clearly appealed as much to the various personal discontents of these writers, artists, and intellectuals as they did to the larger problem of a transformed social order. To the rebels, this would not have indicted their intentions but justified them, since personal disaffection and unhappiness were-as social scientists had taught them-a direct product of social alienation, political oppression, and economic dislocation. The famous Paterson Pageant of 1913, a rally forstriking silk-workers of the Industrial Workers of the World orchestrated by John Reed and other Masses writers, was just one example of the Villagers' effort to join their political and artistic ideals, their personal desires and social commitments.
In the ensuing decades of [the twentieth] century and for several different generations of the American Left, Greenwich Village has had a continuing and storied importance. But for the celebrated generation of radicals who gave the Greenwich Village "rebellion" its name, the First World War, brought an end to this phase of the history of the Left in the Village. With the federal government's wartime suppression of dissent, including the Post Office's battle against the Masses in 1917-1918, with the imprisonment of pacifists and the deportations of alien radicals like Emma Goldman, many of the Village rebels lost heart. Often they found their already fragmented and improvised political positions increasingly under attack or untenable, and turned to private lives and solutions, to art for its own sake, to postwar Paris or revolutionary Moscow, but in most cases away from the faith in the spontaneous liberation of human consciousness that had once united and inspired them.
Excerpt from Buhle, Mari Jo, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas, eds. The Encyclopedia of the American Left. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission.