Friday Reads: Bohemians: A Graphic History by Paul Buhle and David Berger

BohemiansBohemians: A Graphic History is an enjoyable, and flawed, collection of illustrated vignettes about influential people, places and times in the bohemian movement. Beginning in 1850s Paris, and ending in 1950s New York, several different graphic artists take a turn at telling part of the bohemian story. The variety of artistic styles keeps the eye interested, and many of the characters you already know are larger than life—Walt Whitman, Josephine Baker, Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Stein, and Charlie Parker.

So what is a bohemian? The authors will give you many possible examples, but they will not give you an exact definition, which is appropriate considering that the movement itself encouraged disregarding boundaries and not letting life be limited by societal expectations. You could argue that free love and free thought were important to bohemians, but you’d want to remember those words meant something different in the Victorian era (and even in the United States of the 1950s), when rigid conformity was expected in society and relationships, even more so than today.

I read one review of this book by Joseph Donica in Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics that had this great line: “One rarely reads a book that disappoints on several levels and still decides to recommend that book to every likeminded reader he knows.” I think I like the book more than this reviewer, but I have reservations. I think advances in technology had a lot to do with the appeal of this movement—entertainment and communication were changing, and their influence on society can’t be underestimated. (This beginning of this era brings us the invention or accepted use of the telephone, the phonograph, the typewriter, and the camera.) Also, and this might be a critique more of the movement than the book—it’s easier for some people to reject society’s rules and still have a comfortable life, than it is for others. Class, race, and gender power structures still existed in the world, and sometimes the authors don’t give us this historical context—some bohemians sought freedom from, and some sought freedom to. But the stories are definitely enjoyable, and there’s enough of a variety that you’ll find plenty to appreciate even if not every story is to your liking. The graphic novel format works effectively in its portrayal of an array of places and times.

The authors prefer not to capitalize bohemian—perhaps to clearly separate the bohemian culture from the geographic area of Bohemia, which as Nebraskans (familiar with the “Bohemian Alps”) we know is a region of the Czech Republic. Incorrectly thought by nineteenth-century French dilettante historians to be the place of origin of the Romani people (sometimes known as “gypsy” people, a term now recognized as pejorative), the movement took the name because it found the Romani people’s “freedom” to be inspiring. This might seem strange to the modern reader, who knows that the Romani people were persecuted and impoverished, and later almost wiped out completely by the Third Reich. To think of their lives as “romantic” and “free” seems optimistic at best.

Buhle, Paul, and David Berger. Bohemians: A Graphic History, 2014. Print.
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