Review- Stansell, “American Moderns”

Christine Stansell, “American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century” (2000) – New Yorkers already think they’re at the center of the universe- why write books arguing for it? I’m being facetious, there’s more to Stansell’s books on the Edwardian counterculture in the Village than that. But even as she nods to New Yorker self-importance, she still basically grants it’s right. We’re not stuck with Victorianism anymore because of the mixture of libertines, political radicals, and artists who glommed themselves together in Greenwich Village between 1890 and 1920, is the basic thesis. They got together, broke various rules pertaining to art, expression, and relationships — across gender, class (sort of), nationality, but not generally race lines — and broadcast the results to the rest of the country and world. Change followed.

I don’t know… this book seems well-researched. Stansell is part of a wave of accomplished American social historians who came around in the 70s and 80s who know their way around the archives. You can learn a lot about stuff New Yorkers said to and about each other. But look- I’ve read a lot of histories pertaining to the 1960s counterculture, as someone not notably interested in it qua itself but for other reasons. And the thing you get from there is that it was less the actual activities the hippies did that were so unique — their parents were on various drugs (pills and booze), slept around, used to listen to unapproved music (jazz), etc. — but more… well, it’s hard to say. Some people figure it out better than others, but most just go on and on about Ken Kesey as though there’s something intrinsically interesting about the man. And whatever the equivalent of that analytic something is for the 1910s bohemians of the Village, Stansell doesn’t really say it. It’s just assumed that they are as they presented themselves, the diametric opposite of a standard order that Stansell also doesn’t really define or interrogate.

I like to defend old-school social history. It did a lot of good things in terms of bringing to light the lived experience of everyday people, and at its best used that to create larger, more systemic pictures. But the cultural turn had its uses, namely, it shook up people’s assumptions about the immutability of social structures. This leads to some issues (it took the new cultural historians a while to really think seriously about capitalism) but it also means challenging ground assumptions. Like that we all just know what the norms are and how people relate to them, and that the function of “norm-upholder” and “norm-violator” just sort of wander through history perennially, unattached to any cultural or social structures because they ARE structures. But they’re not. They’re dependent too.

I’m making this book sound awful. It isn’t. Artistic resistance is something of a cringe topic for me- I first came to political awareness at the height of the power of adbusters-style culture-jamming nonsense, so that stuff plucks some bad chords for me, especially seeing genuine radicals like Emma Goldman get wrapped up in it. But if you want to know about this stuff, Stansell isn’t bad. But for someone more interested in the broader significance, it’s about as useful as yet another recitation of the deeds of Timothy Leary. I guess I do it to myself by picking these books, but hey… I don’t see anyone else here writing reviews, do you? ***

Review- Stansell, “American Moderns”

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