Skip to main content

Magic Casements

ISSUE:  Summer 1933

Garrets and Pretenders—A History of Bohemianism in America. By Albert Parry. New York: Covici-Fricde. $3.50.

Contrary to all that I expected, or failed to expect, from a history of Bohemia in America, Albert Parry’s “Garrets and Pretenders” is the most entertaining book that has come into my hands in several months. For novels, at this moment, whatever admirable qualities they may possess, can with no effort of the imagination be called amusing. Perhaps simply because they deal with this present world, by which, like Queen Victoria, most of us, readers and writers, find ourselves not amused. But this story of perilous seas and faery lands forlorn, and of the sometimes gifted, sometimes merely sublimely idiotic persons who inhabited those lands and sailed those seas for nearly a century, is pure delight. Mr. Parry, also, has collected an extraordinary amount of information, new in the mass to many persons, and in detail, I am sure, to practically everyone. In an introduction, Mr. Parry traces all roads of Bohemianism to Paris, leaving Munich, rather strangely, entirely outside his consideration. Francois Villon, he truly says, was “almost the founder of that state of mind and that mode of living” which, centuries later, Henri Murger called La Boheme.

The American renaissance of this attitude, Mr. Parry attributes to Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s Waverly Place and Carmine Street addresses, romantically employed by Floyd Dell and other recorders of the old Greenwich Village, here appear no more than an accident, as indeed all true Villagers of an earlier day were accidental Villagers. Poe was, however, the first American intellectual refugee from the environment in which he was born. And his reasons were the basic reasons for all the sincere dwellers in garrets, who are not pretenders: the elements which formed his being, and the terrible uncertainties of his social position at home. Before Poe, the American literati were genteel, even at the point of starvation. Poe, without the soothing admiration of a Montmartre or a Village for his support, laid their foundations in America, and started here a tradition of spiritual outcasts. But since Poe is too great a figure to be classified as a Bohemian except academically, the real story of this strange kingdom begins in 1855, when Ada Clare— whose baptismal name was Jane McElheney—of Charleston, South Carolina, sent her first poem to The Atlas, a New York weekly. Because of her blond beauty, and her talent for writing exactly the sort of verse that the editors of the ‘fifties and ‘sixties preferred, Ada Clare, as she was known until her tragic death in 1874, became also known as “Queen of Bohemia.” She is, beyond doubt, the most spectacular figure of this story which ends today, and distinguished herself by publicly acknowledging her illegitimate son, and keeping him with her.

The “King of Bohemia,” contemporaneous with Ada Clare, who, unlike the Queen, abhorred his title, and was never heard to utter the word Bohemia, was Henry Clapp, a New Englander, son of East Gloucester seafaring folk, in early life a Sunday-school teacher and temperance lecturer. When his reign was over, some time after the death of Ada Clare, he committed a deliberate and slow alcoholic suicide. The literary career of the Bohemian queen, Ada Clare, like that of many literary ladies who succeeded her, was more or less spurious. Her blue eyes and “cornsilk hair” had been seen and noted by several editors at the New York literary parties of the ‘fifties before her verse was passionately acclaimed in their magazines, and her book reviews were often a medium for paying off old grudges. But Clapp, whose connection with her was completely impersonal, in The Saturday Press did for many young authors of the period what Mencken did more than half a century later in the old Smart Set. Had he lived in a later period he would no doubt have achieved respectability and become an institution. As it was, he became established only as a personality and a wit, and lived and died in a vaguely disreputable atmosphere.

It is an interesting fact that the ringleaders of this group of drunkards, loafers, and, in many cases, peculiarly dramatic suicides, were born in Charleston and Massachusetts. Here is another link between old New England and the seaboard South of the Thirteen Colonies, the two sections of this country which, in spite of slavery and Abolition, most closely resemble one another and have, from earliest Colonial times, through the Revolution and the Civil War, shared a divine madness, expressed in utterly different forms, which has set them slightly apart from the other States.

A beer cellar kept by a German named Pfaff remained for many years the rendezvous of their followers, generally known as Pfaffians. Herr Pfaff, like Frank Case of the Algonquin in our own time, often fed his hungry patrons free of charge when they were out of luck, or work, and set apart a long table, instead of a round one, for his special favorites. The Civil War virtually smashed the Pfaffian group, as the Great War killed the spirit of Greenwich Village more than fifty years later. In a vivid sentence or two Walt Whitman returns to Pfaff’s after his work as a war nurse in Washington, to drink with the old German a toast to earlier days and the Pfaffians killed in battle, in tall glasses of champagne. William Dean Howells, however, never approved of Pfaff’s, and reluctantly remembered that Clapp had published his first work. There are later chapters concerned with George Sterling and Jack London, and the Bohemian Club of San Francisco; with Schlogl’s in Chicago, when Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Margaret Anderson, Harry Hansen, Burton Rascoe, and others, made it their meeting place; and with the Greenwich Village of Edna Millay, Floyd Dell, John Reed, Randolph Bourne, Max Eastman, Eugene O’Neill, George Cram Cook, of the Liberal Club, the Masses, and the Provincetown Theatre.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading