FROM OUR BOOKSHELVES: “GARRETS AND PRETENDERS”

The American counterculture as such didn’t begin in the 1960s. Nor, did it begin with the Beatniks, the Lost Generation, or the 1890s decadents. In his classic work, Garretts and Pretenders (1933), Albert Parry places its beginnings somewhat earlier:

“American Bohemianism, so gay and mellow and, in its later stages, respectable, began with a tragedy. It began with Edgar Allan Poe. In his own time was seldom, if ever, referred to as a Bohemian. The sentimental term applied to a man of art and of unconventional or wandering disposition was brought to America from France at the time Poe was drinking himself to death…an obituary notice of the time read as a stab: ‘A dissolute, fantastic writer died at Baltimore in consequence of fits of intoxication.’ Soft tears and mild sighs befitting the death of a Villon or a Murger hero were absent.”

Parry’s account of the annals of American Bohemianism, from New England to California, from the mid-1850s to the opening days of the Great Depression (his book was later updated, bringing the story up to the Beatniks, and Jack Kerouac) was the first popular work to consider the subject.  Using an endless supply of anecdote and illuminating details, Parry recounts the lives of artists, would-be artists, hangers-on, and casualties still well-known to this day (Walt Whitman, Jack London), or long since forgotten (Ada Clare, Henry Clapp, Fitz-James O’Brien, Nafthali Imber), as they attempted to make art, talk theory, gain an edge over the competition or overthrow society.

Parry was a fascinating character in his own right. Born in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, he emigrated to the US following the Revolution, winding up in Greenwich Village, where he surely first encountered the American species of bohemian in the wild.* Prior to earning his Ph.D in History at the University of Chicago he published two books, the second being Garrets, his debut being Tattoo (1933), the first popular book on the subject, thought especially controversial due to his application of Freudian theory to the question of why people get tattoos — a book well worth reading in its own right. Later professor of Russian civilization and language at Colgate University, where he founded the Russian Studies program, Parry predicted in September 1957 that the Soviet Union would launch a satellite soon; Sputnik entered earth orbit on October 4.

*Note that as early as one hundred years ago, there were already complaints that the Village was being overrun by Philistines, rubberneckers, tourists, and gentrifiers.