Dunbar's Bohemian Gallery: Foreign Color and Fin-de-Siecle Modernism.
Two decades before Harlem Renaissance vanguardists Claude McKay and Jean Toomer took seats at noisy Village tables, however, the writer whom Booker T. Washington honored as the "Poet Laureate of the Negro race" had elbowed his way into a grander, less localized conversation about bohemian styles and economies. In his 1899 collection Lyrics of the Hearthside, composed as nonconforming crowds filled Schwab's, Mould's, and Maria's, Paul Laurence Dunbar offered a compact gallery of self-dramatizing bohemian portraits. Eight poems in, just past "A Sailor's Song" and a hymn to "The Mystic Sea," came the first of these portraits, a short lyric given the definitive title of "The Bohemian." Employing a never-spoken dialect of Standard English, the poem's six tart pentameter lines read as follows:
Bring me the livery of no other man. I am my own to robe me at my pleasure. Accepted rules to me disclose no treasure: What is the chief who shall my garments plan? No garb conventional but I'll attack it. (Come, why not don my spangled jacket?)
This poem's missing subtitle might as well be the one Dunbar gave to his better-remembered lyric "The Dilettante": namely, "A Modern Type." The man with the spangled jacket represents Dunbar's take on the dandy, the best-publicized social type of the European bohemian during the 1890s and a direct descendant of Baudelaire's flaneur, the power-strolling bohemian paradigm who scouted and classified the commercial mysteries of the metropolis for the 1840s, '50s, and '60s. Like Oscar Wilde, persecuted and imprisoned in 1895, or, for that matter, Paul Arabian, the race-weary Wilde enthusiast who martyrs the Harlem Renaissance at the finale of Wallace Thurman's 1932 novel Infants of the Spring, Dunbar's modern type is an urbane construction of polished elegance and willful idiosyncrasy. Along with these more tragic bohemians, Dunbar's dandy assumes that artistry is not so much the signature of a disciplined talent as the possession of a special sort of dissident person, one whose self-integration of art, life, and fashion legibly distinguishes him from the multitudes of men in black. However, unlike both Wilde and his fictional Harlem admirer, Dunbar's clotheshorse avoids all tokens of gender trouble or elastic sexual interest. In his half-comic insistence that rejecting conventional garb is an act of bold self-ownership, of lonely war against inherited laws and authorities, this bohemian stakes a claim as a man's man but a man alone, uninterested in performances of affect and identity beyond those confirming his own muscular sovereignty. A dandified creation of his private dressing room, he is nonetheless no fin-de-siecle decadent, wasted by bookish neurasthenia. Neither, in his self-possession and racial indeterminacy, is he the second coming of Zip Coon, the stock character of the preening black city slicker who referenced the threat of racial amalgamation on the blackface minstrel stages of the mid-nineteenth century (Lott 134-35). Instead, Dunbar's dandy qualifies as a model and trope of confident discursive autonomy, no more likely to enter the theater of Village dialogue than to dress someone else's undignified part. In the semi-dramatic monologue of this hearthside modern, Dunbar talks back to Schwab's, Mould's, and Maria's by not talking with anyone anywhere in their vicinity.
Quite a load to hang on a six-line frame, I admit. But I also believe that this brief poem displays, in useful relief, a critical but neglected element of Dunbar's millennial overture to the modern. From his 1897 London expedition to the publication in 1902 of his last novel, The Sport of the Gods, Dunbar more than once reached for the modern type of the bohemian when approaching the busy intersection of metropolitan life, aesthetically ambitious commercial literature, and the migratory male self. In particular, as suggested by the self-governing speaker of the poem I have just discussed, Dunbar turned to figures of bohemia when negotiating the proper stance of a racial-national bard and professional African American man of letters to the emerging modernist ideology of aesthetic autonomy, primed by the Kantian theory of disinterestedness and mainstreamed in the literary avant-gardism of Europe's nineteenth century. Cracking Dunbar's forgotten bohemian code thus offers a fresh approach to the problem of his own literary modernity, still generally wedded to the question of whether his work in American Negro dialect adopts the black modernist strategy Houston Baker dubbed the "mastery of form" and effectively resignifies rustic racial stereotypes with masquerading, subtly reblackening irony (25). (In Baker's own judgment, Dunbar's confessed wearing of the mask never succeeded in "adopt[ing] masking as a self-conscious gamesmanship in opposition to the game white America [had] run on him" .) There is more to Dunbar's courtship of a proto- or partial modernism than can be detected through the hunt for traces of symbolic resistance within plantation school vernaculars. His fin-de-siecle bohemian texts in Standard English unexpectedly testify, in fact, that modernism entered Dunbar's orbit of judgment neither as a muse of signifying mastery nor as a series of remote, unforeseen formal breaks and resistances, but as a set of transatlantic contents and conventions recognizably akin to the designs of southern history and to local color's everyday use.
For his part, Dunbar first entered the field of European bohemia via the steamship Umbria in February 1897, bound for England and a six-month working vacation in London's clubs, music halls, and private homes. Cultural history's judgment of this dip into Black Atlanticism has been split. One verdict ratifies Dunbar's public remembrance of a triumphant official visit in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass, and follows the lead of his journalistic piece "England as Seen by a Black Man" (1897), an uplift-minded valentine to the supposed "beauty and perfection" of Anglo-Saxon family life (253). Other renditions of the voyage draw from Dunbar's private letters to emphasize his impoverished speedwriting after his literary agent's flight to Paris, or the tension between his secret engagement to Alice Ruth Moore and his admitted attraction to English emissaries of "Bacchus and ... Venus" (qtd. in Alexander 125). What is absent from all of these travel narratives is Dunbar's attention to London's outposts of bohemian mythology, precisely that mythology of the modern artist calculated to manage jump-cuts between bourgeois exactness, doomed romantic love, picturesque artistic destitution, and the compulsive desublimation of the senses--in other words, many of the contrary limits of Dunbar's English self.
Despite Henri Murger's pace-setting opinion that "Bohemia only exists and is only possible in Paris" (45), London in 1897 was arguably European bohemia's second city, among the likeliest spots on the planet for a dapper, brilliant, alcoholic, tubercular, and sexually driven author to discover the bohemian rhapsody able to harmonize these demanding qualities. Dunbar traced the footsteps of Mallarme and other self-exiled Symbolists through old French quarter of Soho, and undertook a pilgrimage to the Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, an antique pub that, as Bernard Bergonzi notes, merged Parisian intellectual cafe life with homegrown Johnsonian geniality (27). In a commemorative poem anticipating Du Bois's comfortable sit-down with Shakespeare, Dunbar recalls the embrace of the Cheshire's canonical ghosts: "And now, applauded, unreproved, / I [held], with pardonable pride, / The place that [Samuel] Johnson occupied" (11. 10-12). The Savage Club, the sponsor of Dunbar's most successful London reading, was then the toniest place in the city for graying bohemians to go somewhat straight and gracefully to seed. More theatrically, Puccini's indifferently reviewed but wildly popular opera La Boheme (1896) made its English debut two months after Dunbar's arrival (Brooker 1), forever after obscuring the relative cynicism of its source text, Murger's Scenes de la Vie de Boheme (1845-49), which had couched bohemia as a single stage of artistic finishing school, a "preface to the Academy, the Hotel Dieu [the hospital], or the Morgue" (45). (Murger's sketchbook, the literary fountainhead of modern bohemian style and cliche, was itself translated from the French and published in London as recently as two years before Dunbar's visit.)
Given all these happenings, it is not surprising that the poem Dunbar intended as the lyric postcard of his London trip opens on the same iconic scene as La Boheme. "The Garret," the second major bohemian portrait in Lyrics of the Hearthside, sets its 32 lines "[w]ithin a London garret high, / Above the roofs and near the sky" (11. 1-2), just the altitude where privation meets transcendence and the dandy's plush dressing room finds its still-bohemian opposite. Dunbar's lyric "I" escapes the fate of Puccini's Rodolfo, a bankrupt poet trapped between his tubercular lover and his opulent tenor voice, obliged to burn his own manuscripts for heat. Yet this "I" is likewise a rhymer whose "rather bleak and bare" (1.9) room contains a single "broken chair" (1.10), a scrap of furniture unredeemed by the hallucinatory colors of Van Gogh's Bedroom at Arles (1888-89), the definitive libidinalizing of the austere, non-dandified, late-century bohemian interior. Throughout the poem, Dunbar's bohemian speaker flaunts his devotion to his humble vista and material circumstance. "Though chimney-pots be all my views," he insists, "'Tis nearer for the winging Muse" (11. 29-30). Several tempting symbolic compensations can be found in his stark, elevated room, from a therapeutic, point-for-point alternative to the high perch and gilded racial cage of Dunbar's famous poem "Sympathy" (1899), to a historical compromise on the model of the modern Cheshire Cheese, a grand alliance between the sporadic semi-modernists of the aestheticist 1890s and the scribbling Grub Street hacks of Dr. Johnson's eighteenth century. Most interesting of all is an imaginary resolution between the habitually opposed errands of aesthetic autonomy and insistently professional authorship--a resolution underlined, in fact, in the poem's transhistorical marriage of the garret-haunting hack and the disinterested aesthete. For all of his confidence that the "winging Muse" favors souls without money, Dunbar's speaker remains a proud producer of words for bare profit: "My ill-rewarding pen I ply / To win me bread" (11.3-4). The classic bohemian evasion of the work ethic, peaking in the dandy's suggestion that idleness is itself an artwork, thus finds no place in Dunbar's London room of his own.
What, in the end, connects the sturdy discursive autonomy of Dunbar's poem "The Bohemian" to this nearby sketch of a garreted, gainfully employed artist for art's sake? What, this is to say, distinguishes the overall thrust of Dunbar's bohemian gallery from the many others built during the cross-Atlantic bohemian revival of the 1890s? The answer is best uncovered, I think, by means of a negative example, and in a prose genre owned and largely occupied by bohemia's bourgeois enemy. Dunbar's 1902 novel The Sport of the Gods is every bit the extended critique of the Plantation Tradition described in the scholarship. But it is also a fierce parodic attack on a shiftless, untethered, sexually ambivalent bohemianism in whiteface, here imagined as the Plantation Tradition's favorite charity. The wrongful arrest of Dunbar's briefly glimpsed hero Berry Hamilton, the most upstanding of African American servants, is triggered by a character that might feature in an update of Murger's Left Bank anatomy. Francis Oakley, the half-brother of patrician plantation owner Maurice Oakley, cuts an archetypally Euro-bohemian figure. "[A] handsome man, tall slender and graceful," with "the face and brow of the poet, a pallid face framed in a mass of dark hair" (Sport 325), he does inattentive readers the self-typologizing service of residing in the Latin Quarter, surrendering himself to absinthe, painting without hope of compensation, and flashing "romance and fire and passion" at everyone other than socially appropriate marriageable women (Sport 327). His unshakable reliance on his half-brother's cash, and through it, on the pilfered capital of the southern plantocracy, spurs him to betray the faithful Hamiltons, and to launch their representative travels along the most punishing road to the northern city. In this sense, a needy, corrupt bohemianism acts as the proximate, if not ultimate, cause of African American exodus in Dunbar's fantasy-theory of the young Great Migration. Rather than blaming the boll weevil or the lynching bee, The Sport of the Gods fingers the absinthe-drinker as the migrants' last straw.
Judged alongside the self-supporting Dunbar-approved bohemians of Lyrics of the Hearthside, Francis Oakley is guilty of practicing a non-autonomous brand of aesthetic autonomy, of promoting a migratory route into a new modernist century fatally dependent on the quasi-feudal economics of the American racial nadir. His is a dangerously idle pre-bourgeois bohemianism, born from the secret sympathy of the pensioned Euro-dandy and the slave-dependent Dixie aristocrat--a sympathy that distantly echoes the Parisian Baudelaire's momentous admiration for the Virginian Poe. In Francis Oakley's hybrid case, the dandy's spangled jacket is sewn from the lineaments of black labor, propelled as sport from South to North. Neatly reversing the speaker of "The Bohemian," Oakley's extravagant livery properly belongs to another man. He may have learned to dress and method-act the bohemian part in the Latin Quarter, the stage set of its invention. But in Paris or in his native South, his role relies on another's servitude, and finds no ground on which to boast that "I am my own to robe"--and design--"at my pleasure" (1.2).
The whole of Dunbar's bohemian gallery, stretching from the poetry of his London journey to The Sport of the Gods, thus presents a collection of bohemian types ranked according to their nurturing of thorough, inclusive autonomy within the self-conscious anti-materialisms of the Big House and the romantic garret--in other words, within the strangely comparable self-idealizations of southern American and Euro-bohemian ideology. The bohemians of Lyrics of the Hearthside are praised for succeeding precisely where Oakley fails; their valor rests on their independence from the extorted labor as well as the calcified respectability of others. On this score, the speaker-heroes of "The Bohemian" and "The Garret" project Dunbar's unsystematic hope for a more-than-aesthetic autonomy capable of liberating artistic license from economic dependency. Tutored by African American history at large in addition to his own grueling path to literary professionalism, Dunbar roughed out a vision of aesthetic sovereignty that went all the way down, linking the lofty garret and the workaday ground floor, the free exercise of literary invention and the yearning to unshackle such invention from the unfreedom of others.
Dunbar's bohemian texts tour subcultural monuments of Paris and London as they outline this hyper-autonomous version of aesthetic autonomy, and thus range beyond the theater of Greenwich Village conversation similarly born in the 1890s. All the same, what may be called the "foreign color" of Dunbar's bohemian portraits rarely drifts an ocean away from the social histories and literary conventions associated with the postbellum South. Among other mutual qualities, the colorfully foreign Euro-dandy and the regionally recurring Colonel's brother are both oddball character types attached to specific physiologies and political shorthands. One is southern American and the other is continental European, but both lend the modern "color" derived from typifying the recognizably irregular with dramatic efficiency. In "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century," Walter Benjamin's 1939 expose for his massive, never completed Arcades Project, the bohemian flaneur is defined in part by "flattering himself that, on seeing a passerby swept along by the crowd, he has accurately classified him, seen straight through to the innermost recesses of his soul--all on the basis of his external appearance" (21). This pride in the power of rapid-fire classification is finally tragic, contends Benjamin, and "testifies to the anguish of the city dweller who is unable to break the magic circle of the type even though he cultivates the most eccentric peculiarities" (22). By contrast, in Dunbar's bohemian gallery, the ability to typologize the peculiar is prized as a tool with which to break the magic circle of any one (urban or rural) locale, to transpose the southern American scene onto the European metropolis, and vice versa. Eccentric typology, in this case, is a vehicle of geocultural expansion as much as conceptual reduction. Through the lens of such typology, sharpened not least in the seemingly antimodernist landscape of the Plantation School, Dunbar early recognized the bohemian advanced guard as fellow travelers. Lyrics of the Hearthside and The Sport of the Gods welcome the modern type of the bohemian into African American writing, receiving the attendant modernist signs and values as fresh but conventional idiosyncratic content, and thus anything but the formal shock of the new. Seen in a bohemian light, Dunbar's turn-of-the-century work, generally isolated from the history of modernism apart from the debate over dialect, thus winds up suggesting a revisionist thesis on the earliest impact of Euro-American modernism on African American letters: namely, the proposition that this impact has been overlooked due neither to a genuine absence nor to a confusion of racially dissonant terms, but because it was absorbed so gamely, so swiftly, and so easily.
Alexander, Eleanor. Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore. New York: New York UP, 2001.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.
Benjamin, Walter. "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century." 1939. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999. 14-26.
Bergonzi, Bernard. The Turn of a Century. London: Macmillan, 1973.
Brooker, Peter. Bohemia in London: The Social Scene of Early Modernism. New York: Palgrave, 2004.
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. "At Cheshire Cheese." Lyrics of the Hearthside 121-22.
--. "The Bohemian." Lyrics of the Hearthside 13.
--. "England as Seen by a Black Man." The Sport of the Gods and Other Essential Writings 252-56.
--. "The Garret." Lyrics of the Hearthside 22-23.
--. Lyrics of the Hearthside. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1899.
--. The Sport of the Gods. 1902. The Sport of the Gods and Other Essential Writings 319-433.
--. The Sport of the Gods and Other Essential Writings. Eds. Shelley Fisher Fishkin and David Bradley. New York: Modern Library, 2005.
Murger, Henri. Bohemian Life [Scenes de la Vie de Boheme]. 1845-49. Trans. Leslie Orde. London: Downey, 1895.
Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
Seigel, Jerrold. Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930. New York: Viking, 1986.
Stansell, Christine. American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century. New York: Metropolitan, 2000.
William J. Maxwell is Associate Professor of English and Interpretive Theory, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches modern American and African American literature. He is the author of the award-winning book New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism between the Wars (1999) and the editor of Claude McKay's Complete Poems (2004). He is now at work on a book manuscript, "FB Eyes: How Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African-American Modernism."
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|Author:||Maxwell, William J.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2007|
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