Joanna LevinBohemia in America, 1858-1920

Stanford University Press, 2010

by marshall poe on March 17, 2011

Joanna Levin

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[Crossposted from New Books in History] You’ve probably heard of hipsters. Heck, you may even be a hipster. If you don’t know what a hipster is, you might spend some time on this sometimes entertaining website. Where do hipsters come from? Lets work backwards. Before hipsters (1990s), there were slackers (1980s): middle-class, college-going, white kids into Alternative rock. They were hipsters in all but name. Before slackers, there were punks and pseudo-mods (1970s): middle-class, college-going, white kids into Punk and New Wave rock respectively. Neither of them was really “hip” because they liked to take speed and be “intense.” Before punks and pseudo-mods, there were hippies (1960s): middle-class, college-going, white kids into rock and folk. They weren’t “hip” because they smoked a lot of dope and were embarrassingly earnest. Before hippies, there were beats (1950s): middle class, college-going, white kids into outré poetry and literature. They weren’t “hip” because they took narcotics and liked to be “cool.” Before beats, there were proto-hipsters (1940s): middle-class, college-going, white kids who liked hot jazz and black people. They were more like modern wiggers than hipsters. (If you don’t know what a wigger is, here you go.) And before proto-hipsters, there was the mother of all middle-class, college-going, white American subcultures—the bohemians. They were a lot like hipsters.

These hipsters-before-hipsters are the subject of Joanna Levin‘s fascinating new book  Bohemia in America, 1858-1920 (Stanford UP, 2010). In it, she deftly traces the mid-nineteenth-century migration of bohemianism from the Parisian Latin Quarter to American shores and its spread to middle class, white culture thereafter. Bohemianism offered Americans who, as Tocqueville noted, were all about equality (read: conformity) a chance to be different in a safe way. The bohemians practiced a kind of satire-of-the-deed: they used themselves–the way they dressed, talked, loved, worked–to poke fun at everything “bourgeois.” They were performance artists, and they wanted attention. Just like hipsters.

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