The Bohemian Roots of JMP

The park seems noisy today. Dogs bark and play on the trails and in the dog park beyond those trees. Snippets of conversation float above the roar of freeway and air traffic, an ocean of sound underneath the forest's daily goings-on. Dogs are called with clickers, shouts, and whistles worthy of the piccolo line. A chickadee rumble bursts out near me, four little birds attacking each viciously, emitting the most adorable flurry of angry peeps. A lone crow's got something to talk about. A maintenance truck crunches down the road. And that's all outside my head...the inside is full of poetry!

This weekend I attended the Gatsby Summer Afternoon, a historic recreation of the Jazz Age (a term coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald, did you know?), where I co-hosted a literary circle where we did readings from The Great Gatsby and poets of the era

While I was researching "Art Deco Lit: a collection of Modernist poets," the little anthology I put together for the Art Deco Society of California, I became delirious with the poetry of the late 'teens, 1920s, 30s, and 40s. It was during this time that the CWC was getting organized and helping build Joaquin Miller Park. I grouped the poets into "Modernist Megastars," (Robert Frost, Rupert Brooke); "Expats & Internationals," (Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Alfonisina Storni); "Rennaissance Men" out of Harlem (Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer), and "Women of Words" (Edna St. Vincent Millay, Djuna Barns, Mina Loy). There was also a section on California writers that included Gertrude Stein, Kay Boyle, and Yone Noguchi, who had a direct connection to the Park—and you'll hear about on October 9th!

The writers who hung out here in "The Hights" might be better categorized as the "California Bohemians," and they came a generation before those rock stars. Bohemianism was a 19th century movement that embraced "an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people...involving musical, artistic, literary, or spiritual pursuits." San Francisco journalist Bret Harte (whose name is on an awesome middle school down the hill,) first wrote as "The Bohemian" in The Golden Era in 1861, with this persona taking part in many satirical doings. 

Other writers in this magazine—the first culture rag of the Gold Rush era—were Mark Twain, Ina Coolbrith, and Charles Warren Stoddard. "Under the banner of Bohemia, these four writers competed, collaborated, traded counsel and criticism," writes Ben Tarnoff, author of The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (Penguin Press). "Some remained friends their entire lives." Two of these members were good pals with Joaquin Miller. Miller and Twain knew each other. Bret Harte hated him. 

Coolbrith and Stoddard were honorary (not dues-paying) founding members of the CWC, as was George Sterling. All of them were also founding or honorary members of The Bohemian Club, as was Jack London. Yes, that Bohemian Club—so famous it doesn't even have a website. So exclusive that it has its own group of conspiracy theorists. It's where millionaires and billionaires now gather, politicians of every party, to shape the world with their ideas and leave the rest of us to sort it out. Which is ironic since Sterling famously said, "There are two elements, at least, that are essential to Bohemianism: The first is devotion or addiction to one or more of the Seven Arts; the other is poverty." (He didn't mention a penis, which is the a priori requirement. Only one women has ever been a member: Ina Coolbrith.) The Bohemian Club supposedly began as a going-away party (for Mark Twain perhaps?) that turned into an artsy parody of secret societies that eventually became not just a "secret society" but, 150 years later, THE "secret society."

I look forward to introducing these artists at "From Ina to Ayodele" at "A Blanket and a Basket of Chow!"

(And if any Bohemian Club members are reading this, why yes, I'd love to lunch with you at the club!)


  1. "The charter members, after fierce debate, agreed to call themselves “Bohemians,” although a minority fretted about the ugly implications of the name: cheap wine, stringy hair, unpaid rent, contagious diseases.… They voted to keep out rich people, publishers, and other natural enemies of the muse."


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