The author of Sissy Nation: How America Became a Nation of Wimps and Stoopits (2008) and other cultural criticisms and histories returns with a long, loving and thoroughly researched look at what he calls “a zone of rogues and outcasts from the start.”
Strausbaugh begins his chronological Village tour in the 17th century, when the Indians, Dutch and English were contesting for Manhattan. But once might prevailed, the area—which was indeed once a separate village—evolved initially in the post-Revolutionary era as something fairly upscale: summer retreats for the wealthy. Later, Paine and Poe were there, as was Walt Whitman, who took Emerson for a drink at Pfaff’s. As the decades proceeded, the author necessarily focuses on key individuals, events and places. The many African-Americans who once lived there emigrated to Harlem; the 1911 Triangle fire propelled social change; liberals and radicals arrived, including Lincoln Steffens and Emma Goldman. Writers and artists proliferated, and soon it was a hotbed for small theater productions. Susan Glaspell and Eugene O’Neill mounted early shows there; later came Albee and Shepard. Publications and publishers came, too—The Little Review, Village Voice, Evergreen Review, Grove Press. Strausbaugh charts the music history of the area, from jazz to folk (Bob Dylan will not like his portrait here) to rock. Early and/or sordid death is a theme—from Phil Ochs and Dave Van Ronk to Lenny Bruce. The author spends a lot of time on the emergence of the Village as a battleground for the LGBT communities—from actual clashes (Stonewall) to the desperation of AIDS. He seems saddened by the gentrification of the Village—at the impossible prices and rents that exclude the creative and contentious bohemians of yesteryear.
Fine social history humanized with a sort of paradise-lost wistfulness.