Ross Wetzsteon, an editor and mensch for more than three decades at the Voice, died in 1998 while in the midst of writing Republic of Dreams, an impressionistic book that looks at the history of Greenwich Village bohemia via its most colorful characters. Many of these tales have been told before—Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dawn Powell, and Hart Crane have been recently biographied, and Christine Stansell’s American Moderns, a rigorous take on the period, was published last year. Wetzsteon’s book is appealing for its lively blend of social history, critical analysis, and thumbnail portraits, conveying a well-rounded sense of the social forces and personal baggage that created “the blasphemous, un-American, and unhygienic enclave of nonconformists south of 14th Street.”
The early chapters glow with the author’s passion for Greenwich Village’s Golden Age (1912-1917), when the neighborhood teemed with revolutionary ideals and riveting personalities (Emma Goldman, John Reed, and Margaret Sanger) eager to whip them into action. But by 1916, nostalgic crankiness was already circulating: As Floyd Dell complained back then, “The Village isn’t what it used to be.” This is the keynote of the book, which traces how quickly bohemia narrowed from radicalism to eccentric individualism—from an era in which socialism, feminism, and Freudianism were used to a launch an assault on social oppression and mores to a time when kicking against the status quo and self-expression became an end in itself.
Although disappointed by the fading of insurgency, Wetzsteon does as sensitive a job sketching all-out eccentrics à la Joe Gould and Baroness Elsa as the more heavyweight figures like Max Eastman and Eugene O’Neill. Most of these chapters mix vibrant and biographical detail (often with emphasis on love life) with historical context, to entertaining effect. On Goldman, a frumpy woman who preached both anarchist violence and free love: “Emma’s notoriety made her search for love even more difficult—overthrowing the government seemed easier.”
The book ends before the second heyday of bohemian Greenwich Village (the ’60s), but inside his portraits of local antiheroes Wetzsteon touches on issues that continue to resonate, like the role of politics in art and vice versa. He never offers any conclusions or closure on the topic, but then he died before finishing the book—one explanation for the uneven quality of Republic of Dreams. Somehow this seems fitting, because in the end Wetzsteon’s Greenwich Village is a delightful jumble of unrequited idealism and unfinished symphonies.