Bohemians and Vagabondia

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"Bohemians" and "Vagabondia": these terms represent a state of mind, a style of living, and an approach to writing. The two are closely related and overlap somewhat, but there is a crucial difference between them. One connotes stasis, whereas the other suggests movement. The phrase "bohemian quarters" refers to the artists' districts in major metropolitan areas and bohemians are the starving artists and authors who populate them. The term "Vagabondia," on the other hand, closely associates literature and the outdoors. Literary vagabonds are simply perambulatory bohemians. Both the stationary bohemians and the peripatetic litterateurs made important contributions to American literary and cultural history during the waning decades of the nineteenth century and the early ones of the twentieth.


To shape their personal outlook, turn-of-the-century bohemians in urban America found inspiration in earlier figures in American literary history as well as in British authors of more recent decades. Among their American precursors, none influenced these new bohemians more significantly than Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849). Casting aspersions on Poe after his death, his detractors little realized that they were setting him up for veneration among subsequent American authors. Imagined as a derelict who indulged his baser instincts, flaunted social convention, and withstood poverty because he refused to compromise his aesthetic principles, Poe became an object of bohemian admiration.

Whereas Poe's life offered a general pattern for the bohemians to emulate, one particular work of the British author Edward FitzGerald (1809–1883) offered a specific philosophy of living. Perhaps no single work more greatly shaped bohemian attitudes of the late nineteenth century than FitzGerald's translation of the poetry of the twelfth-century astronomer-poet of Persia, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859). Mocking traditional values, Rubáiyát emphasized the importance of enjoying and appreciating the sensual pleasures of the moment. In the world according to Omar Khayyám, the greatest desiderata were "a jug of wine, a loaf of bread—and thou." American readers were not quite ready for Rubáiyát when FitzGerald's translation first appeared, but the work became enormously popular starting in the 1880s and continuing into the twentieth century.

The numerous cheap, pocket-size editions of Rubáiyát let people tote the book with them and read it whenever and wherever they wished. Reading Rubáiyát thus became one of the pleasures of the moment the poem itself advocated. Carried in the pocket, the volume took on the quality of a talisman, allowing its possessors to assume the values it represented through a kind of contagious magic. The popularity of Rubáiyát extended well beyond the bohemian crowd. Also published in an expensive edition (1884) handsomely illustrated by Elihu Vedder, the work could be found on the parlor tables of countless individuals in the 1880s. Herman Melville (1819–1891), for one, owned a gilt-edged copy of Rubáiyát. Though Melville had long since stopped trying to please the reading public, he was fascinated with the popularity of Rubáiyát, cut out multiple newspaper articles about it, and tipped them into his copy for safekeeping.

Other contemporary enthusiasts found different ways of honoring the work and its author. Omar Khayyám clubs were established in New York, Boston, and other cities across the United States. In 1898 John Hay (1838–1905), soon to be U.S. secretary of state, gave an address before the New York club titled, "In Praise of Omar." Hay's address was published separately in Portland, Maine, by Thomas B. Mosher (1852–1923) and also with editions of Rubáiyát. The writer and editor Elbert Hubbard (1856–1915), whose Roycroft complex at East Aurora, New York, was developing a reputation as a bohemian mecca, incorporated Hay's address as the introduction to an 1899 edition he published. Mosher and Hubbard, as editors and proprietors of important little magazines, represent another aspect of the bohemian movement.

Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) also influenced the outlook of the bohemians through both his writings and his personal presence. The American production of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's Patience in 1882 presented Wilde the opportunity to visit the United States: Wilde and one of the opera's characters, Bunthorne, became closely associated because of the "art for art's sake" aesthetic they shared, and the producers decided that bringing Wilde to America for a lecture tour would help promote Patience and could prove a lucrative venture in itself. Wilde reached New York on 2 January 1882. Upon his arrival, he purportedly told a customs official, "I have nothing to declare but my genius." The clever customs official purportedly responded, "That, sir, is a commodity which does not require protection in the United States." Wilde's initial lecture, "The English Renaissance," proved too weighty a subject for American audiences, so he greatly revised and abbreviated it into a lecture titled, "The Decorative Arts," which had much more popular appeal.

Wilde's lecture tour took him up and down the East Coast, across the North American continent, deep into the South, and through parts of Canada. In some places he spoke to huge crowds; in others to just a few. Everywhere he exemplified his personal aestheticism. Wilde saw himself as both spokesman and representative of the aesthetic movement, a man who, in terms of dress and mannerisms, emphasized the importance of cultivating beauty in an increasingly ugly and impersonal world. The mainstream American press ridiculed Wilde, yet he made many converts to the aesthetic movement among young, liberal, intelligent American men. Wilde inspired many new bohemians, who even copied his attire: roundabout jackets, their buttons filled with garish artificial sunflowers, became the fashion of the day.

The vagabond poets shared these same influences and had many others in addition. To those who enjoyed vigorous outdoor exercise, Walt Whitman (1819–1892) and Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) may have been greater influences than the city-dwelling Poe. In a number of his poems, Whitman beckoned readers to follow the path he blazed, and many did. From its opening lines, "The Song of the Open Road," for example, celebrates the joy and freedom involved with tramping through forest and field:

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose

( Poetry and Prose, p. 297)

Thoreau's Walden (1854) presented an alternative lifestyle eschewing social proprieties that readers began to admire in increasing numbers. A minor work that also let young litterateurs know that poverty was no obstacle to travel and pleasure was Vagabond Adventures (1870), by Ralph Keeler (1840–1873). Upon the publication of this autobiographical account of its author's low-budget travel adventures, America's great man of letters William Dean Howells (1837–1920) befriended Keeler and wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that he hoped Vagabond Adventures "would prove the germ of an American novel in the manner of Gil Blas, for writing which its author gave distinct promise" (p. 366). Sadly, Keeler died just a few years later and never fulfilled his literary promise. Nevertheless, Vagabond Adventures did exert a modest influence on subsequent travelers and writers. Mary Weatherbee, to cite one late-nineteenth-century American traveler, wrote, "For years I read delightedly all such vagabond adventures as those of young Ralph Keeler, of all the struggling authors and artists who, like myself, had counted privation and discomfort light in the balance against their desire to reach their Mecca" (p. 937). Whitman's encouraging words and the examples of Thoreau and Keeler provoked several young American authors to seek their own vagabond adventures.


Though many authors and artists in late-nineteenth-century America can be termed bohemians, a bohemian movement per se never really coalesced in the United States as it had in Europe. Still, many high-minded creative types lived bohemian lives, meaning that they eschewed social conventions—habits, dress, even morals—and preferred to live a life dedicated to their art. Bohemians live in poverty because they refuse to compromise their art for the sake of commercial gain. The humorist George Ade (1866–1944) took literary bohemianism as his satiric target in his 1899 short story, "The Fable of the Bohemian Who Had Hard Luck." Of his title character, Ade writes, "After being turned down by numerous publishers, he had decided to write for posterity." The suggestion is that although bohemian authors might contend they cannot get published because they refuse to compromise their art, in fact (according to Ade) bohemians feign superiority as a way of masking their lack of talent.

Before establishing his reputation with The Red Badge of Courage (1895), Stephen Crane (1871–1900) lived the life of a bohemian, too. After privately publishing Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893), he moved into the Art Students' League Building in New York, where he found himself surrounded by young artists who exemplified the bohemian lifestyle. For his fourth novel, The Third Violet (1897), Crane made use of these personal experiences. After an excursion to the country, the novel's protagonist, Billie Hawker, returns to his New York studio, where he lives with numerous other artists. They often hide from their landlord because they cannot afford to pay the rent. They have virtually no food in their flat but, on one occasion, do manage to make coffee and eggs on a portable gas stove precariously balanced on a rickety chair. One character does pen-and-ink drawing for a sensational magazine, which has not paid him for three months. They are visited by a charming, attractive woman named Florinda O'Connor, a character inspired by George Du Maurier's Trilby (1894). Florinda works as an artists' model and holds unconventional views regarding the place of women in society. In conversation, they discuss how rotten the work of more successful artists is, as if to succeed the artist must throw away all his aesthetic principles.

Of all the writers active in late-nineteenth-century America, perhaps none more personally exemplified the bohemian spirit than Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904). Born in the Greek Ionian Islands, Hearn attended school in France and England. Eventually his guardians withdrew him from school and sent him to America to fend for himself. He reached New York in 1869 and quickly made his way to Cincinnati, where he found work in the publishing industry, learning to set type and also doing some editing and proofreading. It was not until he started writing for the Cincinnati Enquirer in the 1870s that Hearn found his métier. He developed a reputation for crime reporting that showed his fascination with the seamier side of life. The lurid nature of the violence he reported contrasted sharply with his elegant style of writing and made his published accounts stand out all the more. In the mid-1870s, he coedited a literary weekly with Henry Farney entitled Ye Giglampz. In addition, he sidelined as a translator, publishing English versions of several stories by Théophile Gautier and also a translation of Gustave Flaubert's 1874 novel La Tentation de Saint Antoine (Temptation of Saint Anthony). An affair with a mulatto woman led to his dismissal from the Enquirer and eventually prompted Hearn to relocate to New Orleans in 1877.

Sickly and impoverished during his early months in New Orleans, Hearn was unable to find work until the middle of the following year, when he became assistant editor of the New Orleans Item, in which he published more translations of Gautier and other contemporary French authors, including Émile Zola. In 1881 Hearn obtained a much more prestigious position as literary editor for the New Orleans Times-Democrat, where he published numerous reviews and translations. He became intrigued with the diverse folk culture of New Orleans, which encouraged him to study folktales and legends from around the world. While living in New Orleans, Hearn finally gained acceptance within the national literary establishment and started publishing in some of the major magazines of the day, including Harper's New Monthly Magazine and Lippincott's. A commission with Harper's prompted him to move to the West Indies, where he lingered for two years. Returning to the United States in 1889, he split his time between New York and Philadelphia and continued writing at a furious pace. Upon contracting with Harper's to write a book-length work about Japan, he left America for Asia in March 1890, never to return.

Several aspects of Hearn's literary career in the United States exemplify the life of the bohemian: his bouts of hunger and poverty; his rescue from hunger and poverty by a chance newspaper or magazine assignment; his fascination with the dangerous classes, to use a term coined by Hearn's contemporary Charles Loring Brace; the miscellaneous nature of his writing activities; his desire to develop a voice of his own unfettered by the dictates of the literary establishment; his disregard of contemporary moral standards; his fascination with contemporary French literature, which many Americans considered morally bankrupt; his interest in many different cultures; his creativity in finagling assignments from magazines with deep pockets; and his restlessness. The bohemian quarters in cities across America during the late nineteenth century were filled with men and women exemplifying these qualities. Lacking Hearn's talent and perseverance, many of his fellow bohemians have been consigned to oblivion.


William Bliss Carman (1861–1929) is the foremost poet of Vagabondia. As a student at Harvard during the 1880s, he studied with Francis Child, the great authority on the traditional ballad, and such traditional verse significantly shaped Carman's writing style and his outlook on life. Combine this literary influence with his love of the outdoors and hiking and one has the form and subject matter of Carman's poetry. He was a prolific author, publishing numerous collections of essays, but his fame derives from his verse. One collection, Songs from Vagabondia (1894), which he cowrote with his fellow traveler and poet, Richard Hovey (1864–1900), gave the term "Vagabondia" its currency and gave subsequent nature-loving poets the inspiration to summon the call of the open road. Characterizing the general impetus of the poetry contained within this volume, a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly observed, "'Free' is the note struck at the outset, and the shaking off of conventional trammels is the constant theme of rejoicing." Carman and Hovey published two follow-up collections, More Songs from Vagabondia (1896) and Last Songs from Vagabondia (1900). Some years later Carman published a solo fourth collection, Echoes from Vagabondia (1912).

As a student at Dartmouth College, Richard Hovey established a reputation as an eccentric as he closely followed Oscar Wilde's aesthetic movement in terms of both dress and mannerisms. Once he and Carman became friends, they began to go on walking tours together. Songs from Vagabondia established Hovey's reputation, and the following Vagabondia books again gave his readers what they wanted, that is, verse exemplifying the bohemian lifestyle. Besides the cowritten Vagabondia collections, Hovey also published solo works, the most important being Along the Trail: A Book of Lyrics (1898).

The year Bliss Carman published the fourth and final volume in his Vagabondia collection, another sort of vagabond poet was making his way across the continent. Vachel Lindsay (1879–1931) devised an idealistic theory that it should be possible for a poet to convert the products of his or her work into sustenance. Before setting off on a lengthy tramp across the West, Lindsay had a collection of forty-four of his poems printed. He titled the pamphlet Rhymes to Be Traded for Bread (1912). An introductory paragraph presented his credo:

This book is to be used in exchange for the necessities of life on a tramp-journey from the author's home town, through the West and back, during which he will observe the following rules: (1) Keep away from the cities. (2) Keep away from the railroads. (3) Have nothing to do with money. Carry no baggage. (4) Ask for dinner about quarter after eleven. (5) Ask for supper, lodging and breakfast about quarter of five. (6) Travel alone. (7) Be neat, truthful, civil and on the square. (8) Preach the gospel of beauty.

A subsequent paragraph listed several exceptions to the rule of carrying no baggage.

Loaded with his pamphlets and the materials necessary to preach the gospel of beauty, Lindsay set off on foot from his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, on his way to Colorado, a journey he recounted in Adventures while Preaching the Gospel of Beauty (1914). The pamphlet met with mixed success. In Jefferson City, Missouri, Lindsay managed to trade two copies of his pamphlet for some doughnuts. At another stop, he traded Rhymes for some bread but no butter. In Kansas, he traded one woman a copy of Rhymes for dinner—providing he also spent an hour hoeing weeds in her orchard. In short, Lindsay learned that rhymes could be traded for bread—but they were no substitute for a strong back and arms.

By no means are the bohemians and literary vagabonds in American culture restricted to the few decades clustered around the turn of the century. As a state of mind, bohemia transcends time. Since 1920 perhaps no bohemian movement has more fully coalesced than the Beat movement, whose de facto leader, Jack Kerouac (1922–1969), delivered much the same message in On the Road (1957) as Ralph Keeler and Bliss Carman delivered before him. Having coined the phrase "the Beat movement," Kerouac was often asked when it started. He told one interviewer that it began in 1910. Choosing this particular date, Kerouac was being somewhat arbitrary, but the date does show his indebtedness to and continuity with the turn-of-the-century bohemians and vagabonds. The idea of living a life without compromise, of dedicating the self to one's aesthetic principles, of preferring poverty to prosperity as a way of safeguarding those principles transcends time.

The opening lines of William Bliss Carman and Richard Hovey's Songs from Vagabondia (1894) provide a good indication of the collection as a whole.

Off with the fetters
That chafe and restrain!
Off with the chain!
Here Art and Letters,
Music and wine,
And Myrtle and Wanda,
The winsome witches,
Blithely combine.

Carman and Hovey, Songs from Vagabondia, p. 1.

See alsoAestheticism; Genteel Tradition; Orientalism


Primary Works

Carman, Bliss, and Richard Hovey. Songs from Vagabondia. Boston: Copeland and Day, 1894.

Crane, Stephen. The Third Violet. New York: D. Appleton, 1897.

Howells, William Dean. "Ralph Keeler." Atlantic Monthly 33 (March 1874): 366–367.

Keeler, Ralph. Vagabond Adventures. Boston: Fields, Osgood, 1870.

Lindsay, Vachel. Rhymes to Be Traded for Bread. Springfield, Ill.: Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, 1912.

"Major and Minor Bards." Atlantic Monthly 75 (March 1895): 407–411.

Weatherbee, Mary. "Europe on Nothing-Certain a Year." Century Magazine 32 (October 1886): 937–942.

Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose. Edited by Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. Edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis. New York: Henry Holt, 2000.

Secondary Works

Cott, Jonathan. Wandering Ghost: The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Hayes, Kevin J. Stephen Crane. Tavistock, U.K.: Northcote House, 2004.

Levin, Harry T. "The Discovery of Bohemia." In Literary History of the United States, edited by Robert E. Spiller, Willard Thorp, Thomas H. Johnson, and Henry Seidel Canby, pp. 1065–1079. New York: Macmillan, 1948.

Lewis, Lloyd, and Henry Justin Smith. Oscar Wilde Discovers America, 1882. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1936.

Masters, Edgar Lee. Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America. New York: Scribners, 1935.

Wallace, Mike. "Mike Wallace Asks Jack Kerouac: What Is the Beat Generation?" In Conversations with Jack Kerouac, edited by Kevin J. Hayes, pp. 3–6. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Kevin J. Hayes