What do Walt Whitman, Josephine Baker and Woody Guthrie have in common? Here, their lives are interwoven with the artistic and cultural movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, all under the umbrella of “bohemianism.”
Brooklyn-based writer Berger and prolific graphic-arts editor Buhle (A People’s History of American Empire: A Graphic Adaptation, 2008, etc.) make fine selections in this thoughtful successor to Harvey Pekar’s The Beats: A Graphic History (2009). In a thorough introduction, Buhle explains the roots of the idea of bohemianism: The real Bohemia, a geographical entity eventually swallowed up by the Czech Republic, was misidentified by French journalists as the source of Europe’s gypsy culture. But Berger and Buhle focus more on those remarkable individuals and movements whose artistic and political spirits ran contrary to the traditions of their times. The writers get the most attention, with stories devoted to spiritual comrades Whitman, Oscar Wilde and Henry Miller, among others. Two very different stories examine the grace of dancer Baker and the beautiful, messy story of Billie Holiday and the song “Strange Fruit.” Other chapters combine stories to capture the origins of cultural movements, such as “Art and the Artist,” which portrays the arrival of modern art in New York in 1915 in astonishing detail. Other chapters summarize the arcs of the labor movement, modern dance and the earliest seeds of the folk music movement, represented here by Guthrie. All of the art is bold and visually distinct; fittingly, many of the artists have deep roots in the underground comics scene—e.g., Peter Kuper. A truly poignant coda by cartoonist Mark Crilley imagines a young Pekar and R. Crumb spending a day together in Cleveland, visiting record and book stores, talking shop and lamenting the paving over of the old world.
A terrific appraisal of culture’s gypsies, tramps and thieves, worthy of the editors’ judgment: “Obituaries for bohemia have, in short, always been premature.”