From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
I, who screamed hunger
--"La Bohème" (1966) by Charles Aznavour
"The Bohemians of whom it is a question in this book have no connection with the Bohemians whom melodramatists have rendered synonymous with robbers and assassins. Neither are they recruited from among the dancing-bear leaders, sword swallowers, gilt watch-guard vendors, street lottery keepers and a thousand other vague and mysterious professionals whose main business is to have no business at all, and who are always ready to turn their hands to anything except good." --Bohemians of the Latin Quarter (1888), a Vizetelly translation of Henri Murger's Scènes de la vie de bohème (1851)
Bohemianism is the practice of an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people, with few permanent ties, involving musical, artistic, or literary pursuits. In this context, Bohemians may be wanderers, adventurers, or vagabonds.
The term bohemian was first used in the nineteenth century to describe a subculture of marginalized and impoverished artists, writers, musicians, and actors in major European cities. The bohemian lifestyle is often associated with coffeehouses, drug use (particularly opium), alcoholism, and absinthe. Bohemians were associated with unorthodox or anti-establishment political or social viewpoints, which were expressed through free love and voluntary poverty.
The term emerged in 19th century France when artists and creators began to concentrate in the lower-rent (the proverbial garret), lower class gypsy neighbourhoods. The term "Bohemian" reflects a belief, widely held in France at the time, that the Gypsies had come from Bohemia.
The first usage of the term Bohemianism in its current meaning was by French journalist Félix Pyat in 1834 in an article called "Les artistes". He derogatorily described this personality type as "alien and bizarre ... outside the law, beyond the reaches of society ... they are the Bohemians of today" (tr. Levi Asher). The term became commonplace in the 1850s when the writer Henri Murger began publishing and staging a series of stories called La Vie de Bohème which would eventually become the world-known Puccini opera La bohème.
In the twentieth century, the bohemian impulse was famously seen in the 1940s hipsters, the 1950s Beat generation (exemplified by writers such as William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti), the much more widespread 1960s counterculture, and 1970s hippies.
Literary "Bohemians" were associated in the French imagination with roving Romani people (called "bohemians" because they were believed to have arrived from Bohemia), outsiders apart from conventional society and untroubled by its disapproval. The term carries a connotation of arcane enlightenment (the opposite of Philistines), and also carries a less frequently intended, pejorative connotation of carelessness about personal hygiene and marital fidelity. The Spanish Gypsy in the French opera "Carmen" set in Seville, is referred to as a "bohémienne" in Meilhac and Halévy's libretto (1875).
- "The term Bohemian has come to be very commonly accepted in our day as the description of a certain kind of literary gypsy, no matter in what language he speaks, or what city he inhabits .... A Bohemian is simply an artist or "littérateur" who, consciously or unconsciously, secedes from conventionality in life and in art." (Westminster Review, 1862)
Henri Murger's collection of short stories "Scènes de la Vie de Bohème" ("Scenes of Bohemian Life"), published in 1845, was written to glorify and legitimize Bohemia. Murger's collection formed the basis of Giacomo Puccini's opera La bohème (1896). Puccini's work, in turn, became source material for Jonathan Larson's musical Rent. Like Puccini, Larson explores a Bohemian enclave in a dense urban area, in this case, New York City at the end of the twentieth century. The show features a song, "La Vie Boheme", which celebrates postmodern Bohemian culture.
In England, Bohemian in this sense initially was popularized in William Makepeace Thackeray's novel, Vanity Fair, published in 1848. Public perceptions of the alternative lifestyles supposedly led by artists were further molded by George du Maurier's highly romanticized best-selling novel of Bohemian culture Trilby (1894). The novel outlines the fortunes of three expatriate English artists, their Irish model, and two very colorful Central European musicians, in the artist quarter of Paris.
In Spanish literature, the Bohemian impulse can be seen in Ramón del Valle-Inclán's play Luces de Bohemia (Bohemian Lights), published in 1920.
In his song La Bohème, Charles Aznavour described the Bohemian lifestyle in Montmartre. The film Moulin Rouge! (2001) also reflects the Bohemian lifestyle in Montmartre at the turn of the 20th century.
In 1845, Bohemian nationals began to emigrate to the United States, and from 1848 the wave included some of the radicals and ex-priests who had wanted a constitutional government. In New York City in 1857, a group of some 15–20 young, cultured journalists flourished as self-described "Bohemians" until the American Civil War began in 1860. Similar groups in other cities were broken up as well; reporters spread out to report on the conflict. During the war, correspondents began to assume the title "Bohemian", and newspapermen in general took up the moniker. Bohemian became synonymous with newspaper writer. In 1866, war correspondent Junius Henri Browne, who wrote for the New York Tribune and Harper's Magazine, described "Bohemian" journalists such as he was, as well as the few carefree women and lighthearted men he encountered during the war years.
San Francisco journalist Bret Harte first wrote as "The Bohemian" in The Golden Era in 1861, with this persona taking part in many satirical doings, the lot published in his book Bohemian Papers in 1867. Harte wrote, "Bohemia has never been located geographically, but any clear day when the sun is going down, if you mount Telegraph Hill, you shall see its pleasant valleys and cloud-capped hills glittering in the West..."
Mark Twain included himself and Charles Warren Stoddard in the Bohemian category in 1867. By 1872, when a group of journalists and artists who gathered regularly for cultural pursuits in San Francisco were casting about for a name, the term Bohemian became the main choice, and the Bohemian Club was born. Club members who were established and successful, pillars of their community, respectable family men, redefined their own form of bohemianism to include people like them who were bons vivants, sportsmen, and appreciators of the fine arts. Club member and poet George Sterling responded to this redefinition:
- Any good mixer of convivial habits considers he has a right to be called a Bohemian. But that is not a valid claim. There are two elements, at least, that are essential to Bohemianism. The first is devotion or addiction to one or more of the Seven Arts; the other is poverty. Other factors suggest themselves: for instance, I like to think of my Bohemians as young, as radical in their outlook on art and life; as unconventional, and, though this is debatable, as dwellers in a city large enough to have the somewhat cruel atmosphere of all great cities.
Despite his views, Sterling associated very closely with the Bohemian Club, and caroused with artist and industrialist alike at the Bohemian Grove.
The impish American writer and Bohemian Club member, Gelett Burgess, who coined the word blurb among other things, supplied this description of the amorphous place called Bohemia:
- To take the world as one finds it, the bad with the good, making the best of the present moment—to laugh at Fortune alike whether she be generous or unkind—to spend freely when one has money, and to hope gaily when one has none—to fleet the time carelessly, living for love and art—this is the temper and spirit of the modern Bohemian in his outward and visible aspect. It is a light and graceful philosophy, but it is the Gospel of the Moment, this exoteric phase of the Bohemian religion; and if, in some noble natures, it rises to a bold simplicity and naturalness, it may also lend its butterfly precepts to some very pretty vices and lovable faults, for in Bohemia one may find almost every sin save that of Hypocrisy. ...
- His faults are more commonly those of self-indulgence, thoughtlessness, vanity and procrastination, and these usually go hand-in-hand with generosity, love and charity; for it is not enough to be one’s self in Bohemia, one must allow others to be themselves, as well. ...
- What, then, is it that makes this mystical empire of Bohemia unique, and what is the charm of its mental fairyland? It is this: there are no roads in all Bohemia! One must choose and find one’s own path, be one’s own self, live one’s own life.
The term has become associated with various artistic or academic communities and is used as a generalized adjective describing such people, environs, or situations: bohemian (boho—informal) is defined in The American College Dictionary as "a person with artistic or intellectual tendencies, who lives and acts with no regard for conventional rules of behavior."
Many prominent European and American figures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries belonged to the bohemian subculture, and any comprehensive "list of bohemians" would be tediously long. Bohemianism has been approved of by some bourgeois writers such as Honoré de Balzac, but most conservative cultural critics do not condone bohemian lifestyles.
In the twentieth century United States, the bohemian impulse was famously seen in the 1940s hipsters, the 1950s Beat generation (exemplified by writers such as William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti), the much more widespread 1960s counterculture, and 1970s hippies.
Rainbow Gatherings may be seen as another contemporary worldwide expression of the bohemian impulse. An American example is Burning Man, an annual participatory arts festival held in the Nevada desert.
- Modernity and its Discontents (1964) by César Graña.
- Original 1896 La bohème poster by Adolfo Hohenstein
- The Bohemian (Renoir painting)
- A Prince of Bohemia (1840) by Balzac
- Former bohemian communities
- Related terms
- Anti-bourgeois and bourgeoisophobe
- Art colony
- Bohemian style
- Counterculture of the 1960s
- History of subcultures in the 19th century
- History of Western subcultures in the 20th Century
- Simple living
- Related cultures or movements
- Beat Generation
- Hipster (1940s subculture)
- Hipster (contemporary subculture)
- Merry Pranksters
- Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood