Story type: Essay
Lunching with a talented English comedian and his wife the other day, the conversation turned on Bohemia, the evasive no-man’s-land that Thackeray referred to, in so many of his books, and to which he looked back lovingly in his later years, when, as he said, he had forgotten the road to Prague.
The lady remarked: “People have been more than kind to us here in New York. We have dined and supped out constantly, and have met with gracious kindness, such as we can never forget. But so far we have not met a single painter, or author, or sculptor, or a man who has explored a corner of the earth. Neither have we had the good luck to find ourselves in the same room with Tesla or Rehan, Edison or Drew. We shall regret so much when back in England and are asked about your people of talent, being obliged to say, ‘We never met any of them.’ Why is it? We have not been in any one circle, and have pitched our tents in many cities, during our tours over here, but always with the same result. We read your American authors as much as, if not more than, our own. The names of dozens of your discoverers and painters are household words in England. When my husband planned his first tour over here my one idea was, ‘How nice it will be! Now I shall meet those delightful people of whom I have heard so much.’ The disappointment has been complete. Never one have I seen.”
I could not but feel how all too true were the remarks of this intelligent visitor, remembering how quick the society of London is to welcome a new celebrity or original character, how a place is at once made for him at every hospitable board, a permanent one to which he is expected to return; and how no Continental entertainment is considered complete without some bright particular star to shine in the firmament.
“Lion-hunting,” I hear my reader say with a sneer. That may be, but it makes society worth the candle, which it rarely is over here. I realized what I had often vaguely felt before, that the Bohemia the English lady was looking for was not to be found in this country, more’s the pity. Not that the elements are lacking. Far from it, (for even more than in London should we be able to combine such a society), but perhaps from a misconception of the true idea of such a society, due probably to Henry Murger’s dreary book Scenes de la vie de Boheme which is chargeable with the fact that a circle of this kind evokes in the mind of most Americans visions of a scrubby, poorly-fed and less-washed community, a world they would hardly dare ask to their tables for fear of some embarrassing unconventionality of conduct or dress.
Yet that can hardly be the reason, for even in Murger or Paul de Kock, at their worst, the hero is still a gentleman, and even when he borrows a friend’s coat, it is to go to a great house and among people of rank. Besides, we are becoming too cosmopolitan, and wander too constantly over this little globe, not to have learned that the Bohemia of 1830 is as completely a thing of the past as a grisette or a glyphisodon. It disappeared with Gavarni and the authors who described it. Although we have kept the word, its meaning has gradually changed until it has come to mean something difficult to define, a will-o’-the-wisp, which one tries vainly to grasp. With each decade it has put on a new form and changed its centre, the one definite fact being that it combines the better elements of several social layers.
Drop in, if you are in Paris and know the way, at one of Madeleine Lemaire’s informal evenings in her studio. There you may find the Prince de Ligne, chatting with Rejane or Coquelin; or Henri d’Orleans, just back from an expedition into Africa. A little further on, Saint-Saens will be running over the keys, preparing an accompaniment for one of Madame de Tredern’s songs. The Princess Mathilde (that passionate lover of art) will surely be there, and–but it is needless to particularize.
Cross the Channel, and get yourself asked to one of Irving’s choice suppers after the play. You will find the bar, the stage, and the pulpit represented there, a “happy family” over which the “Prince” often presides, smoking cigar after cigar, until the tardy London daylight appears to break up the entertainment.
For both are centres where the gifted and the travelled meet the great of the social world, on a footing of perfect equality, and where, if any prestige is accorded, it is that of brains. When you have seen these places and a dozen others like them, you will realize what the actor’s wife had in her mind.
Now, let me whisper to you why I think such circles do not exist in this country. In the first place, we are still too provincial in this big city of ours. New York always reminds me of a definition I once heard of California fruit: “Very large, with no particular flavor.” We are like a boy, who has had the misfortune to grow too quickly and look like a man, but whose mind has not kept pace with his body. What he knows is undigested and chaotic, while his appearance makes you expect more of him than he can give–hence disappointment.
Our society is yet in knickerbockers, and has retained all sorts of littlenesses and prejudices which older civilizations have long since relegated to the mental lumber room. An equivalent to this point of view you will find in England or France only in the smaller “cathedral” cities, and even there the old aristocrats have the courage of their opinions. Here, where everything is quite frankly on a money basis, and “positions” are made and lost like a fortune, by a turn of the market, those qualities which are purely mental, and on which it is hard to put a practical value, are naturally at a discount. We are quite ready to pay for the best. Witness our private galleries and the opera, but we say, like the parvenu in Emile Augier’s delightful comedy Le Gendre de M. Poirier, “Patronize art? Of course! But the artists? Never!” And frankly, it would be too much, would it not, to expect a family only half a generation away from an iron foundry, or a mine, to be willing to receive Irving or Bernhardt on terms of perfect equality?
As it would be unjust to demand a mature mind in the overgrown boy, it is useless to hope for delicate tact and social feeling from the parvenu. To be gracious and at ease with all classes and professions, one must be perfectly sure of one’s own position, and with us few feel this security, it being based on too frail a foundation, a crisis in the “street” going a long way towards destroying it.
Of course I am generalizing and doubt not that in many cultivated homes the right spirit exists, but unfortunately these are not the centres which give the tone to our “world.” Lately at one of the most splendid houses in this city a young Italian tenor had been engaged to sing. When he had finished he stood alone, unnoticed, unspoken to for the rest of the evening. He had been paid to sing. “What more, in common sense, could he want?” thought the “world,” without reflecting that it was probably not the tenor who lost by that arrangement. It needs a delicate hand to hold the reins over the backs of such a fine-mouthed community as artists and singers form. They rarely give their best when singing or performing in a hostile atmosphere.
A few years ago when a fancy-dress ball was given at the Academy of Design, the original idea was to have it an artists’ ball; the community of the brush were, however, approached with such a complete lack of tact that, with hardly an exception, they held aloof, and at the ball shone conspicuous by their absence.
At present in this city I know of but two hospitable firesides where you are sure to meet the best the city holds of either foreign or native talent. The one is presided over by the wife of a young composer, and the other, oddly enough, by two unmarried ladies. An invitation to a dinner or a supper at either of these houses is as eagerly sought after and as highly prized in the great world as it is by the Bohemians, though neither “salon” is open regularly.
There is still hope for us, and I already see signs of better things. Perhaps, when my English friend returns in a few years, we may be able to prove to her that we have found the road to Prague.