Catching Up with the Avant-garde

Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830–1930

by Jerrold Seigel
Viking, 453 pp., $25.00

Pleasures of the Belle Epoque: Entertainment and Festivity in Turn-of-the-Century France

by Charles Rearick
Yale, 240 pp., $29.95

France: Fin de Siècle

by Eugen Weber
Harvard University Press, 294 pp., $20.00

Theory of the Avant-Garde

by Peter Bürger, translated by Michael Shaw, foreword by Jochen Schulte-Sasse
University of Minnesota Press, 135 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Poets, Prophets, and Revolutionaries: The Literary Avante-Garde from Rimbaud through Postmodernism

by Charles Russell
Oxford University Press, 303 pp., $29.95

The Culture of Time and Space: 1880–1918

by Stephen Kern
Harvard University Press, 372 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Mapping Literary Modernism: Time and Development

by Ricardo J. Quinones
Princeton University Press, 303 pp., $28.00

Eight books dealing with various aspects of Western literature and the arts during the last 150 years should tell us something about how we are learning to sort out our recent past. The only artist to whom all eight works assign an important place is Baudelaire. Bergson, Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset, and William James appear in most of them. All are written by professors of history or literature in (with one exception) American colleges and universities. Behind several of these works I detect the needs of higher education as now organized in the United States. Both the survey course and the graduate seminar call for comprehensive categories that can be laid out and illustrated in a semester. The metaphor of the map that appears in Quinones’s title recurs in nearly every introduction. The terrain these writers wish to describe is cultural and artistic and can presumably be discovered by careful reference to contemporary documents. All but one of them have a thesis rather than a theory; Bürger carries a fairly heavy burden of Frankfurt-school Marxism. None has written a major critical or historical work. Taken together they reveal enough patterns and omissions to reward careful scrutiny.


A Renaissance scholar and former Marxist, Jerrold Seigel has written the most ambitious and illuminating of these books. His subtitle, “Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830–1930,” insists on the symbiotic relations of bohemia—seen as a social category—to the bourgeoisie. Associated from the start with art, youth, and vagabond living bordering on criminality, the bohemians came to assume an important pioneering function. “Individuals in modern society can explore forms of action and expression, enter new territories of personal and social life, without the cataclysm of revolution.” Seigel’s study of how the amorphous territory of bohemia overlapped that of street performers, ragpickers, artists, gypsies, the underworld, and restless bourgeois individuals leads him to challenge attempts to distinguish between a genuine revolutionary bohemia and a romantic hedonistic bohemia. In Image of the People (1973) the art historian T.J. Clark singled out the socialist Jules Vallès to represent the true condition of bohemia and he insisted on the need “to rescue Bohemia from Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème.” Seigel’s response takes better account of the historical evidence.

In [Clark’s] Marxist schema, the boundaries of bourgeois experience are known in advance; uncertainty, ambivalence, and the testing of limits disappear…. Such a view mistakes a division that existed within individuals, and which was often shifting and uncertain, for a firm distinction between one group and others.

Seigel portrays Murger as the spokesman for an emergent social status that drew on the mythology of withdrawal, marginality, parasitism, and opposition—what we now call alienation.

Seigel’s teeming social history of bohemian Paris gains concreteness from the album of full-length portraits it incorporates, approximately one per chapter for thirteen chapters. After Murger, Seigel examines little-known figures like Alexandre Private d’Anglemont, chronicler of offbeat professions, and Emile Goudeau, cofounder of the Chat Noir cabaret, and…

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