Longtime Village Voice theater editor Wetzsteon (1932–1998) celebrates with wit, insight, and love the political radicals, poets, painters, and just plain eccentrics who lived and worked in Greenwich Village during the first half of the 20th century.
The roster of rebels who moved through the Village’s approximately four square miles in those years, alternately partying and charging the cultural and political barricades, includes names that are carved firmly in America’s artistic heritage and others that reverberate only among political activists. Socialists, Marxists, anarchists, and others fomenting political change held sway in the years preceding WWI, among them John Reed, Louise Bryant, Max Eastman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Emma Goldman. They met to eat and drink and talk—always talk—in socialite Mabel Dodge’s salon on Fifth Avenue near Washington Square. Wetzsteon presents his history in lively chapters devoted to these and other idiosyncratic personalities, including Eugene O’Neill, Edna Millay, William Carlos Williams, Thomas Wolfe, Djuna Barnes, e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, Dawn Powell, Jackson Pollock, and lesser-knowns but perhaps no less important to the Village myth. One of the most evocative chapters concerns Joe Gould, a Harvard graduate (made semi-famous by Joseph Mitchell’s New Yorker profile) who spent his life on the streets of the Village, always in need of a bath and a meal, allegedly compiling An Oral History of Our Time. Villagers’ lives overlapped in unexpected ways, defining a “community obsessed with individualism, independence, self-expression, and self-fulfillment.” Sexual relationships were a core issue, Wetzsteon believes, because what drew people to the Village was the opportunity for sexual freedom. When the 1960s opened the doors to sexual liberation coast to coast, the Village, for the most part, lost its usefulness.
An invigorating plunge into the sexual, intellectual, and artistic ferment of the enclave that nurtured 20th-century artists and writers whose work and lives still resonate in the 21st.