American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century
Occasionally, in 'getting to know you' circles, the question of what period you would have most liked to have lived in is brought to the table. Granted, for many, these are not quite as appealing as banally declaring mint chocolate chip is the finest of the flavors, in your humble opinion, but I think the prior question may be more telling about a person. Christine Stansell’s newly revised American Moderns has changed my response to this telling question. For a long time my semi-automated, ice cream flavor-style response would have been the late '60s, specifically 1968: the birth of Hair, the Chicago 10, and all around political radical goodness. Now, it is 1914 and the original teens, if you will: the birth of modern feminism, the New Woman, and all around political radical goodness.
The book sweeps the reader far away to a Greenwich Village full of poetry and literature and so much love, something lost now to NYU bars on McDougall and overpriced faux French bistros pretending to be forbidding and tucked away. Perhaps walking along a brownstone block on a very snowy day, with no one around, you can begin to imagine what it was like back then: cafes brimming with radical thought and discussions of masculinities and feminities, what love means, why we express it the way we do. Maybe that image can stay with you as you walk east to a village that used to be full of immigrants exporting ideas of anarchism and free speech, not a place where CBGB is replaced by John Varvatos, and it is seen as a lesser of possible evils.
Unfortunately, I have found that nearly impossible in the real world, but steeped in the pages of this book that world is real again. Emma Goldman runs from Rochester to the safety of the immigrant bohemia in the East Village and moves from immigrant to anarchist to feminist to patriot, all the while freely falling in and out of love with prisoners and hobos. Margaret Sanger takes on the Comstock laws and fights for free speech and access to information on birth control. (Perhaps one of the few remaining vestiges of this time is the Margaret Sanger Center, still next to the very first Planned Parenthood.) Mabel Dodge returns from years in Italy to cast her husband aside and take on New York society while adopting artists one-by-one. And so many stories of women and men that we never hear of: the writer couples, the forgotten lovers, and the revolutionaries who never made the history books.
The book raised questions about the past and future of feminism, with this striking quote: “Older women's rights leaders had been formed by nineteenth-century notions of sex as fundamentally dangerous to women and were repelled by the new ideas.” Over a century later and we're facing the same exact battles. What kind of movement are we fighting for really? Are the New Women a lost vestige? Is the future of feminism a doomed cycle of repetition until it dwindles to nothing? Magical and immense, this book can stand simply on the surface, but it speaks to the third wave in such a poignant way that it cannot be ignored.