A NEW THEORY OF BOHEMIANS

From The Knickbocker, March 1861, pp 311-317

BY CHARLES ASTOR BRISTED (CARL BENSON)

Last spring: the spring of 1860, I mean — if this communication waits as long as some of mine have done, it may be spring before last, or spring before that, when it is published — in the spring of 1860, I say, it was rumored in New York that a club of Bohemians had been established on the European principle; an idea which provoked much ridicule from some of the Europeans settled among us. This set Carl Benson a-thinking (for he does perform that operation sometimes, and it was not the first time he had performed it on the very same subject) about the differentia of the Bohemian — what he is and what he is not, what properly constitutes him, and whether he is a specific product of a particular city, as the European critics alluded to seem to think, or one of all civilized countries.

The name, if not invented, was at least fixed in circulation by Henry Murger. His ‘Bohemian Life' was published some fifteen years since, and about half as long ago Carl Benson translated it in tutta la sua parte sana, according to the Italian editors' phrase — that is to say, rather less than half of it—for the Knickerbocker, as some of the Knickerbocker's readers may or may not remember. The term was of course borrowed from the Gypsies, and his Bohemians led a precarious, Gypsy-like existence. Artists and authors (in intention at least) with no capital but their wits, they struggled on till they had fairly made their way into decent, tax-paying society, and were Gypsies of Art no longer, or else succumbed in the struggle and perished miserably. Never having read 'Friends of Bohemia,' or other English works, in which the same class is specially treated of, I am unable to say how closely this type has been followed by Anglo-Saxon writers, but I suspect they took substantially the same view of Bohemian life as the idealization of vagabondism. A light heart and a thin pair of breeches will go through all the world, my brave boys, as the old song had it a long while before Henry Murger. Or in the words of the German ballad, which you will find at the end of this treatise, the bore of life is fiddled, smoked and slept away. All very well for a time, but some day — generally before you have gone through all the world — the other side of the account-book is turned over. Suppose Justice Oldmixon puts you in the stocks for a vagrant. Suppose there is no money to smoke with; for even the cheapest tobacco costs something. You may sleep, to be sure; and he who sleeps dines, on the authority of the French proverb; but does he who sleeps also smoke? Even the fiddle-strings will wear out in time, and you can't 'rosin the bow' without the chino. So does insulted respectability find its revenges brought about by time's whirligig.

Bohemianism, then, we see considered by its first historians as a necessarily transient state, which men must get out of or be swallowed up by; a state of poverty, and incidentally of vice. I say incidentally of vice, because its inventors as a status, a metier, were Frenchmen, and everything in France must have a spice of vice about it.

Now this I maintain to be a limited and inadequate conception of Bohemianism. It is not necessarily a state of poverty, (if by poverty you mean want of substantial comforts) still less of vice, that is, of dissipation. It is not necessarily a transition state; on the contrary, people are born to it, and live and die in it. Sala, it appears to me, first hinted at the truth of the case when he talked of a Bohemian going home at ten o'clock to read Plato and take water-gruel. Paradoxical it must have seemed to many of his readers, but nevertheless literally true. There are Bohemians who go home at ten o'clock to read Plato and drink water-gruel. There are Bohemians with houses and lands and rent-rolls and government stocks. Nay, there are Bohemians who keep their accounts and their appointments with rarely deviating regularity. And Bohemianism, I repeat, is not a phase, a transitory period of a man's life, but the whole of it. The Bohemian may be born poor, and die rich, or vice vena: he is always a Bohemian.

But who and what, then, is the Bohemian, you may ask. Define him at once, or we find it more difficult to tell who is not a Bohemian than who is. Well then, I proceed to my definition.

A Bohemian is a man with literary or artistic tastes, and an incurable proclivity to debt.

To many members of our mercantile community the second head of this definition would appear to be merely a natural sequence from the first. It has long been a doctrine on change that authors and artists and such people are bound to be in debt and difficulty and more or less risk of starvation all their lives. But this is a fallacy of juxtaposition and imperfect generalization which it is not worthwhile to confute seriously or at length. Look at a fashionable English portrait painter, or indeed at an English artist generally. Can there be anything less Bohemian? How many Wilkies do we find for one Haydon? Look at our own literary men. How many Bancrofts and Prescotts and Everetts are there for one Poe!

On the other hand, it is evident that the unfortunate propensity to run in debt, is not confined to literary men and artists, but is common to some of them with many men of all and of no profession, utterly innocent of any artistic or literary pretension or performance. This again is so obvious, that to enlarge upon it would be merely platitudinous.

But why does the Bohemian get into debt, since it is not in virtue of his profession? The answer to this question will develop the constituent points of the Bohemian character.

In the first place, the Bohemian is always a man with a hobby. He may have more than one, but one he must have, and that not a mere theoretic and speculative, but a substantial, material, money-costing hobby. It may be larger or smaller according to his means and position, but is very apt to be too large for those means, whatever they are. If he is a rich man, he may be fond of horse-flesh, which is not an illiterate taste as some over-wise people would have you believe; or he may have a mania for collecting pictures, of which even good artists are not necessarily the best judges; or a weakness for fine furniture and jewelry; many great authors have run into such seemingly feminine extravagances. If poor, he will have some smaller weakness, but one equally fatal in proportion to his income. Men have ruined themselves buying pipes. La Brunie, who wrote under the name of Gerard de Nerval, was in this respect perhaps the most finished type of the Bohemian. He had garrets full of curiosities and bric-a-brac, and no certain daily means of procuring a dinner. At last he was found hanging in one of his garrets. He would sooner part with life than part with his curiosities, or give up the habit of collecting them. Of course such manias are not the peculiar property of authors and artists; most readers of sporting literature are familiar with the story of the clerk who lived on offal in a granary-loft, that he might keep his hounds and horses, and a more common example is that of the inveterate gambler. But the Bohemian is a literary or artistic man with a hobby; though it must be observed that his hobby is not necessarily connected with literature or art.

Moreover, it is necessary that his hobby, or weakness, or whatever you choose to call it — his 'wanity,' as Sam Weller would say — should not be a profitable one. The man who collects pictures, or books, or horses — curiosities or animals of any sort — with a view to selling them again, is the very reverse of a Bohemian. There are many such speculative collectors to be found; Paris is particularly flush of them just now. They are only a variety of Barnum. It is true that the real Bohemian's reckless expenditure may sometimes, by pure accident, turn out to his pecuniary advantage. Thus there is a story of Balzac how he had once very absurdly furnished his parlor all in white satin with magnificent chandeliers, and some jolly friends dining with him had lighted up the chandeliers 'to see the effect.' Suddenly a publisher 'happened in,' and was so struck by (what appeared to be) the author's daily luxury that he made him a huge offer for his next romance. But these are only accidental hits; the Bohemian's hobby is necessarily an expensive and very likely a ruinous one.

Now don't fancy that I disapprove of hobbies. On the contrary, I believe in them immensely. Every man ought to have a hobby, provided he can keep it within bounds, and doesn't ride it over other peoples' toes. The misfortune is, that the Bohemian's hobby can't be kept within bounds, but is always tending to eat its own head off and outrun the constable. Here, then, we have the first reason why the Bohemian must and will get into debt.

Secondly, the Bohemian is generous; free of his money when he has any, and sometimes when he has not. There are plenty of men who live 'about' on society generally, and contrive to support themselves at the expense of others; some of these are literary men, or soi-disant ones; there may be some quasi-artists among them too; but they are not Bohemians, (though sometimes erroneously confounded with the real article) they are only sponges.

Thirdly, beside these particular debt-incurring traits, the Bohemian has a general inaptitude for business. Not merely a distaste for business details — this he may have and often has — but even if he has brought himself to conquer this dislike, nay, even if he has it not, (for there are Bohemians, rather methodical than otherwise, as we have already remarked,) he always makes a mess of his business.

This incapacity for business is by 'men of the world' and men of the ledger frequently attributed to all votaries of art and literature indiscriminately; and some literary men have accepted the imputation, and rather gloried in it. Thus, Alphonse Karr allows it as the most natural thing in the world that a novelist should know nothing of any other figures than those of metaphor, and he illustrates the position by some odd comparisons. The danseuse, he says, develops her legs at the expense of her chest; so the literary man develops his brains at the expense of his — chest, he probably would have said only the pun can't be made in French. But this rule (as we also have had occasion to remark previously) is subject to so many limitations and exceptions that it cannot be considered a general rule at all. No doubt a lad who has been stuck into a counting-house at seventeen will know more of book-keeping and trade at twenty-one, than if he had passed that time at a university, or in an atelier. So too an author plunged suddenly into any business matter — made a consul, for instance — may find himself at first awkward in the routine. But it is a long jump from this to the conclusion that the scholar or the painter is ipso facto incompetent to manage his private business, or a reasonable amount of public business. Some scholars and writers and painters are, and these some are the Bohemians. How many such young men have I seen put into, or putting themselves into, mercantile harness, working for years invita Minerva enough, God knows! but diligently and conscientiously, only at last to ruin themselves and others. And when they were ruined, and thoroughly given up to Bohemianism, they were happier than before; and the business world was happier too, to be rid of them. Their un-Bohemian period of life had been a dead loss to themselves and to society. If the phrenologists could only invent an organ of Bohemianism, and prevent such persons from being placed by mistaken parents upon counting-house stools, destined to be real stools of repentance; or placing themselves in 'firms,' which are anything but firm, what a blessing it would be to all concerned! But of course the phrenologists can't, any more than they can do anything else of real practical utility.

Having thus defined the subject of our investigation, we have next to consider whether the popular prejudice against him on the ground of vice is justly founded.

Theoretically, and in the abstract nature of things, there is no reason why it should be. So far as a man is artistic or literary, he is pro tanto provided with resources and mental occupation, and is so far better protected against the temptations of gross animal vice than the mere man of business who has no intellectual resources outside of his ordinary occupation. A man's taste, though it can never be a substitute for religion and morality, may often be a valuable auxiliary to them. True, we can imagine a man taking up vice artistically, plunging into the haunts of dissipation that he may be able to portray them graphically, or even deliberately committing sin in order to study its effect upon himself and his fellow-sinner. So Firmilian murders his friends and blows up the cathedral in order to realize and analyze the feelings of an assassin and incendiary. But the Firmilians are rare and monstrous exceptions, and can scarcely occur save in a thoroughly diseased condition of society.

The source of the connection in the popular mind of one particular form of immorality with Bohemianism, we have already hinted at. The Bohemian was first taken from the Parisian point of view, and all society taken from that point of view, (except perhaps some purely poetic and Utopian state) is equally immoral. If Murger's artist tenants have their mistresses, the bourgeois landlord (a married man too) has his. This count of the indictment then we may summarily dismiss.

Drunkenness is another vice charged upon the Bohemian, especially by those who, ignorantly or malevolently, confound jollity with drunkenness. Here again the exceptions are constantly made to serve for the rule; a Jarvis or a Poe is obstinately represented as the type of a whole class. A lot of laughers and quaffers are set down as an orgy, though their potations may be nothing stronger than Lager. This much I admit, that your true Bohemian generally has in him a potentiality of drink, not an energy or entelechy constantly acting, but a dynamis (how is our friend T. L., by the way?) enabling him to enjoy his liquor on proper occasions, though most nights he may go home early to his water-gruel (like Sala's example) or tea or orgeat. In teetotalers' eyes the Bohemian is lost and condemned. But we are not writing for teetotalers.

Smoking is another vice popularly attributed to the Bohemian. It certainly is a common Bohemian habit. The grave and important question, how far this practice is necessarily a vice, would demand a separate treatise. Let us merely remark that some of the usual objections to it are much the reverse of fact; as when it is said that smoking directly encourages drinking, whereas the case is just the contrary. Nothing has done more to put down after-dinner tippling than the segar. As to the excess of the practice, let us notice with special reference to the Bohemian, that the man who works or talks with interest, putting his whole mind into his work or talk, is much less likely, nay, much less able to smoke excessively than he who works mechanically, and whose mind is idle during the intervals of repose.

A modern school of reformers do indeed maintain that drinking and smoking are always excesses; that there is no such thing as temperance in the use of wine and tobacco, all indulgence, however limited, in those articles, being intemperance, and tending to shorten life. Possibly, in a certain sense, they do so tend; and probably the creed of these philosophers was never so pithily summed up as in the advice of Punch's Scotchman to his son: “Wear thick shoes, eat oatmeal porridge, and walk ten miles a day; thus you may live a hundred years, and enjoy the last year as much as the first.'' The question is, what such a man's life is worth. He can hardly be said to have gelebt und geliebet.

One vice, indeed, the Bohemian must have; it is an essential part of his character and definition. He must be normally and habitually in debt. A terrible thing to be in debt, no doubt, and a great theme to moralize on. One's children, and society, and the bad example, and so forth. Unfortunately, it is with some people a natural infirmity, perhaps a hereditary one; men are born to get into debt, and so born Bohemians, as I said. Now here again, if the wise phrenologists could only invent an organ of get-into-debt-iveness — that and philippism, and a great many other propensities stronger than most of those in their charts, they have never been able to locate. Perhaps after all, though, it is as well that these unfortunates cannot be labeled for life beforehand, have hay put on their horns, (foenum in corn) at the risk of being prematurely cut off. Well, go read 'Panurge's Apology for Debt,' and while you are looking for it in your 'Rabelais,' remember that I don't more than half believe that dogmatic adage about 'being just before,' etc. I am not by any means sure that it is always better to be just (in the sense implied by the adage) than to be generous. There is Lamartine, one of the real kings of Bohemia, a man certainly not profligate, certainly not idle, but always in pecuniary difficulties. That is a generous man. Now on the other side, take a Jew tailor; he is a just man in the mercantile sense, agrees with his laborers for a penny, or ten-pence a day, as the case may be, pays them that theirs is, and does what he likes with his own, as is lawful. Which would you rather be — I mean apart from all reference to the former's literary reputation; merely looking at the conscience and feelings of the two men — Lamartine or the Jew tailor?

One point remains, too important to be passed over in silence; the relation of woman to the Bohemian life. It is a delicate question. My own opinion (which I express with diffidence, and which to some readers will appear not the least novel position in my novel theory) is that women are not fit for Bohemians. They are flowers too delicate for the violent extremes of the Bohemian climate. They can't stand the ups-and-downs. When women have to pass from luxury to privation, (positive or comparative) they are in danger either of losing their temper, or of going to the bad altogether. Moreover, it is difficult for a woman, without some loss of delicacy, to be very unconventional, and that is just what a Bohemian is apt to be. Indeed, it is so general a trait of the Bohemian character, that I had at first some thoughts of adding it to the definition, thus: 'A Bohemian is a man with literary or artistic tastes, an incurable proclivity to debt, and a strong disbelief in Mrs. Grundy’ I fancy women must believe a little in Mrs. Grundy. This unconventionalism is, after all, the crying sin of the Bohemian in many people's eyes, because they vaguely imagine it to include and connote almost every possible vice. All things considered, I am inclined to think that when a man has the misfortune (for misfortune on some accounts it certainly is) to be a Bohemian born, it is better for him and for society that he should light upon a wife of rather anti-Bohemian tendencies to keep his house in order.

I am well aware that not only the above opinion, but the whole theory of this essay, may be strongly contested. It may be considered an unfounded pretension on my part to admission among the Knights of the — what Table? No Table at all, most probably, like the soiree of Murger's hero, where they could only sit down metaphorically. Certainly I do claim to be a Bohemian, as a literary man by profession and (after a fashion) practice, and as never having been out of debt but twice since the age of sixteen. Once I recollect having had a balance at my banker's; they stopped payment immediately after, which I accepted as a judgment and a lesson. Nevertheless, if any of Old Knick's readers refuse to accept my claim or my theory, and cling obstinately to the old pre-conceived type of Bohemian, let us present them with this ballad as a peace-offering in accordance with their own conception of the subject. It has already appeared once in print, but where the un-Bohemian portion of Knick's subscribers would hardly think of going to look for it; besides, it has received a few touchings-up for its new destination. Strike up, fiddlers! Hats off in front, and small boys will please to sit down. Don't be frightened at the rhythm; it goes to an air from Wagner's 'Music of the Future:'

The Three Gypsies

FROM THE GERMAN OF LENAU

Once I came upon Gypsies three,

In a green spot together,

As my carriage dragged wearily

Over the sandy heather.

 

One in his hands a fiddle had got,

All to himself — more pity!

The evening sun shone round him hot,

As he played a fiery ditty.

 

The second had a pipe in his mouth;

He looked at the smoke, as jolly

As if upon earth, from north to south,

All else to him was folly.

 

The third one's banjo hung on a tree,

The wind o'er its strings was sweeping;

A dream swept over his soul, while he

Beneath lay cosily sleeping.

 

For clothes the three had around them curled

Mere tatters and rags most various;

But they laughed no loss at all the world,

Its honors and joys precarious.

 

Three-fold they showed me, as there they lay,

How those who take life in the true sense,

Fiddle it, smoke it, and sleep it array.

And trebly despise its nuisance.

 

As I went on I had to look back,

Watching those curious creatures,

Watching their locks of hair, jet black,

And their merry dark-brown features.

Paris, December, 1860



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