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REPUBLIC OF DREAMS: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960, By Ross Wetzsteon, Simon & Schuster: 620 pp., $35

July 21, 2002|WENDY SMITH | Wendy Smith is the author of "Real-Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

Greenwich Village! Those two words conjure up a rush of images. Narrow, winding streets defiantly at odds with the grid pattern imposed on the rest of Manhattan in the early 19th century. Tiny theaters presenting plays no commercial producer would touch. Precariously financed magazines publishing articles so incendiary in language, so blunt that the contributors frequently found themselves in court. Smoky coffee shops crowded with people dressing and behaving in ways that would never have been tolerated in the hometowns they had fled.

For more than a century, the Village gave refuge to the nation's misfits, enfolding them in a community that embraced individual eccentricity. This community may now seem fragmented, dispersed to New York City's outer boroughs as rents skyrocket and the investment bankers move in, but fragmentation, dispersal and gentrification are nothing new. "Greenwich Village isn't what it used to be," critic and editor Ross Wetzsteon reminds us, was uttered as early as 1916.

Wetzsteon's sweeping yet intimate history of America's most famous bohemian neighborhood is, regrettably, both the first and last book he wrote. (He edited two collections of plays.) The intelligence, wit and shrewd analytical abilities that distinguish "Republic of Dreams" will be familiar qualities to those who read Wetzsteon's theater reviews and essays in the Village Voice during the three decades before his death in 1998.

The structural flaws of the narrative's second half may be attributed in part to the fact that he didn't live to finish or revise the manuscript; his daughter Rachel's afterword states that he planned a final chapter bringing the story up to the present. However, it's unlikely that chapter would have resolved these technical problems, which spring from the author's generous spirit and ambitious desire to encompass the entire Village experience. Like the rebels he profiles with such sympathy and acuity, Wetzsteon's successes and failures are inextricably intertwined.

To begin with the good news, he has written the best account to date of the explosion of artistic and political energy between 1912 and 1917 that has been called everything from "the joyous season" to "the lyric years." Wetzsteon achieves a delicate equilibrium of abiding affection and clear-eyed criticism as he examines such outsized personalities as Mabel Dodge, John Reed, Max Eastman, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, Jig Cook and Eugene O'Neill, with long-overdue attention paid to lesser-known women like Crystal Eastman and Mary Heaton Vorse.

Through such seminal, though short-lived, institutions as The Masses magazine and the Provincetown Players, he argues, this generation gave shape to the amorphous notion of what it meant to be a bohemian in America and located its geographic center: "Young men and women dissatisfied with a small-town or middle-class life but only vaguely attuned to the insurgent sensibility began to hear tales of an almost mythical place called Greenwich Village ... where people pursued love and beauty and justice without having to respond to parental invocations of responsibility."

Many writers, particularly academics, have condescended to the prewar Villagers' exuberant but intellectually sloppy intermingling of socialism, feminism, Freudianism, modernism and any other -ism they could find. Popular histories such as Allen Churchill's "The Improper Bohemians," while more sympathetic, have tended to jovially trivialize the rebellion as a simple expression of youthful high spirits, which is hardly a full assessment of the risks of lengthy jail terms knowingly taken by Sanger when she disseminated birth-control information or by The Masses editors when they opposed in print the United States' entry into World War I.

Wetzsteon avoids both of these traps. He's well aware that his subjects "alternated between the frivolous and the fearless," and he's particularly shrewd on the role played by their well-publicized antics (climbing to the top of Washington Square Arch to declare the Village "a free and independent republic" is typical) in establishing "a common phenomenon of the twentieth century--success measured not by praise but by notoriety."

But he values their espousal of personal liberation as a political principle, spotlighting it as an enduring trait of American dissidence in all its varieties: "Wasn't heightened consciousness the path both to individual happiness and social justice? Change yourself and change the world--the agenda of the Lyrical Left in the prewar Village may have been naive but it was hardly modest."

That all-encompassing ethos reemerged during the 1960s, and Wetzsteon (who arrived in the Village early in that decade) clearly shares it. He knows the difference between a visionary and a crank, but he understands that the Village has been shaped by both, and he refuses to leave out the cranks. This decision, in many ways admirable, has an ultimately unfortunate impact.

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