How capitalist, consumerist ideas invaded Greenwich Village
Hip Hot Spots
Let Them Eat Lifestyle
The Queen of Cool
Are Black People Cooler than White People?
How I Escaped My Addiction to Hip
It Took a Village
There’s nothing new about business co-opting hip life. In his 1934 book, Exile’s Return, Malcolm Cowley recounts how the bohemian spirit of Greenwich Village fueled America’s consumer culture.
Greenwich Village was not only a place, a mood, a way of life: Like all bohemias, it was also a doctrine. By 1920, it had become a system of ideas that could roughly be summarized as follows:
1. The idea of salvation by the child.
Each of us at birth has special potentialities that are slowly crushed and destroyed by a standardized society. If a new educational system can be introduced, one by which children are encouraged to develop their own personalities, to blossom freely like flowers, then the world will be saved by this new, free generation.
2. The idea of self-expression.
[Our] purpose in life is to express [ourselves], to realize [our] full individuality through creative work and beautiful living in beautiful surroundings.
3. The idea of paganism.
The body is a temple in which there is nothing unclean, a shrine to be adorned for the ritual of love.
4. The idea of living for the moment.
It is stupid to pile up treasures that we can enjoy only in old age. Better to seize the moment as it comes, to dwell in it intensely, even at the cost of future suffering.
5. The idea of liberty.
Every law, convention, or rule of art that prevents self-expression should be shattered and abolished. Puritanism is the great enemy. The crusade against puritanism is the only crusade with which free individuals are justified in allying themselves.
6. The idea of female inequality.
Women should be the economic and moral equals of men, should have the same pay, the same working conditions, the same opportunity for drinking, smoking, and taking or dismissing lovers.
7. The idea of psychological adjustment.
We are unhappy because we are maladjusted, and maladjusted because we are repressed. If our individual repressions can be removed—by confessing them to a Freudian psychologist — then we can adjust ourselves to any situation, and be happy in it.
8. The idea of changing place.
"They do things better in Europe." By expatriating himself and living in Paris, Capri, or the South of France, the artist can break the puritan shackles, live freely, and be wholly creative.
All these, from the standpoint of the business-Christian ethic then represented by the Saturday Evening Post, were corrupt ideas. This older ethic is familiar to most people, but one feature of it has not been sufficiently emphasized. Substantially, it was a production ethic. The great virtues it taught were industry, thrift, and personal initiative. The workman should be industrious in order to produce more for his employer; he should save money in order to become a capitalist himself, then found new factories where other workmen would toil industriously, and save, and become capitalists in their turn. During the process many people would suffer privations: Most workers would live meagerly and wrack their bodies with labor; even the employers would deny themselves luxuries, choosing instead to put the money back into their business. But, after all, our bodies were only temporary dwelling places, and we would be rewarded in Heaven for our self-denial. On earth, our duty was to accumulate more wealth and produce more goods.
That was the ethic of a young capitalism, and it worked admirably, so long as the country was expanding faster than its industrial plant. But after the war [World War I] the situation changed. Our industries had grown enormously to satisfy a demand that suddenly ceased. To keep the factory wheels turning, a new domestic market had to be created. Industry and thrift were no longer adequate. There must be a new ethic that encouraged people to buy, a consumption ethic.
It just so happened that many of the Greenwich Village ideas proved useful in this situation. Self-expression and paganism encouraged a demand for all sorts of products — modern furniture, beach pajamas, cosmetics, colored bathrooms with toilet paper to match. Living for the moment meant buying an automobile, radio, or house, using it now and paying for it tomorrow. Female equality was capable of doubling the consumption of products — cigarettes, for example — that had formerly been used by men alone. Even changing place would help to stimulate business. The exiles of art were also trade missionaries: Involuntarily they increased the foreign demand for fountain pens, silk stockings, and portable typewriters. They also drew after them an invading army of tourists, thus swelling the profits of steamship lines and travel agencies.
I don't mean to say that big business deliberately plotted to render the nation extravagant, pleasure worshipping, and reckless of tomorrow. Though it laid no plots in advance, American business was quick enough to use the situation, to exploit the new markets for cigarettes and cosmetics, and to realize that, in advertising pages and movie palaces, sex appeal was now the surest appeal. The Greenwich Village standards, with the help of business, had spread through the country. Young women east and west bobbed their hair and were not very self-conscious when they talked about taking a lover. The conversations ran from mother fixations to birth control while they smoked cigarettes between the courses of luncheons eaten in black-and-orange tea shops just like those in the Village. The "party," conceived as a gathering together of men and women to drink gin cocktails, flirt, and dance to the phonograph or radio, had become one of the most popular American institutions. It developed out of the "orgies" celebrated by the French 1830 Romantics, but it was introduced into this country by Greenwich Villagers — before being adopted by salesmen from Kokomo and the younger country-club set in Kansas City.
Wherever one turned the Greenwich Village ideas were making their way: Even the Saturday Evening Post was feeling their influence. It allowed drinking, petting, and unfaithfulness to be mentioned in the stories it published, and its advertising columns admitted one after another of the strictly pagan products — cosmetics, toilet tissues, cigarettes. Yet still it continued to thunder against Greenwich Village and bohemian immorality. It even nourished the illusion that its long campaign had been successful. On more than one occasion it announced that the Village was dead and buried. "The sad truth is that the Village was a flop," the magazine announced in the autumn of 1931. Perhaps it was true that the Village was moribund — of that we can't be sure, for creeds and ways of life among artists are hard to kill. If, however, the Village was really dying, it was dying of success. It was dying because it became so popular that too many people insisted on living there. It was dying because women smoked cigarettes on the streets of the Bronx, drank gin cocktails in Omaha, and had perfectly swell parties in Seattle and Middletown — in other words, because American business and the whole of middle-class America had gone Greenwich Village.
Excerpted with permission from Exile's Return (Viking, 1931).
Part of Utne Reader cover story, November/December 1997.