In the early twentieth century, an exuberant brand of gifted men and women moved to New York City, not to get rich but to participate in a cultural revolution. For them, the city's immigrant neighborhoods--home to art, poetry, cafes, and cabarets in the European tradition--provided a place where the fancies and forms of a new America could be tested. Some called themselves Bohemians, some members of the avant-garde, but all took pleasure in the exotic, new, and forbidden.
In American Moderns, Christine Stansell tells the story of the most famous of these neighborhoods, Greenwich Village, which--thanks to cultural icons such as Eugene O'Neill, Isadora Duncan, and Emma Goldman--became a symbol of social and intellectual freedom. Stansell eloquently explains how the mixing of old and new worlds, politics and art, and radicalism and commerce so characteristic of New York shaped the modern American urban scene. American Moderns is both an examination and a celebration of a way of life that's been nearly forgotten.
New York's Greenwich Village, writes Princeton University historian Christine Stansell in this engaging study, became the epicenter of this great social earthquake. Fueled by wealthy patrons and fed by refugees from Europe and the Midwest, New York's once isolated bohemian community generated social trends that would be widely copied, and in the process "made Greenwich Village into a beacon of American possibility in the new age." Among their number were the anarchist politician Emma Goldman, the radical journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant, and the writers Eugene O'Neill and Kenneth Burke, all of whom insisted on making an art form of one's life--and on rattling a few cages while doing so. The individual actors in this social revolution, Stansell observes, may be little remembered today, but elements of their belief--openness in social relationships, equality among men and women, and "a skepticism at once relentlessly questioning of America and entirely embroiled in its future"--are our common coin today. --Gregory McNamee