I’ve never been one for crowds, cliques or entourages. Subsequently, I’ve never really been a part of a team that wasn’t a requirement for a school project, work assignment, community-organized event, or gym class. Being a part of a group or associated with a label, for the most part, just didn’t appeal to me … then came my discovery of bohemia.*
*That’s bohemia with a small “b” as to show deference to the origins of Bohemia and the evolution of that label for people whose history, countries of origin, and culture are distinct and only loosely related to how we use the term today.
I first became fascinated with bohemians in college while taking courses in whatever suited my fancy because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to minor in. I was already on track to earn a degree in English Literature, so the majority of those required classes were predetermined. But as for a minor or concentration, I felt myself untethered, so I chose courses in whatever interested me — theater, dance, religion, African-American Cultural Studies. You get the picture.
And it was during my Buddhism and Hinduism class that the subject of bohemian culture became a topic of discussion, and my interest was piqued. Fast forward two decades later and I’m still wondering if I’ve found the one group to which I actually might want to belong. As luck would have it, a writer by the name of Laren Stover, along with her co-author Paul Himmelein, would create a book that encouraged me to explore a little deeper.
Bohemian Manifesto: A Field Guide To Living On The Edge was originally published in 2004. It was a fun — some may call silly — tome for those who proudly claimed ownership of the label “bohemian” and said, “Not only is this me, but look how diverse and interesting we are.” Stover and Himmelein managed to cull a variety of sources, concepts, and ephemera, then gave them focus and intention, and in the process created a world in which thousands, if not millions, would see a reflection of themselves. Essentially, they did what all bohemians do.
I say Bohemian Manifesto is fun, even silly, in that it takes a topic that most dismiss as trendy or superficial, and reminds us of its legacy, but in a lighthearted way. Although serious in intent, the book shares descriptions about a way of life that in the modern world, we are told not to take seriously. And the authors — as well as the readers — know this. So within its pages of categorizations, recommendations, and not-so-subtle condemnations of the status quo lies a humor, a tongue-in-cheek wink and nod that says “I know I’m odd, but that is why the world needs me. It’s the odd ones who make life worth living.”
And it is that energy that greeted me on Saturday, April 27th as I walked into Dixon Place in the East Village to celebrate the launch of the newly updated Bohemian Manifesto: A Field Guide To Living On The Edge with Laren Stover, Paul Himmelein, and a cast of beautifully crafted minds who came together to celebrate the new edition and present it to a crowd of bohemians and their unapologetic fervor. I’ve been to my fair share of book signings and book launches, and the short, but sweet soirée that relaunched the new Bohemian Manifesto was unlike any other.
How many book launches have you attended that were kicked off with a video dedicated to dust — yes, dust — narrated by Richard E. Grant? How many book launches feature a song or three from velvet-voiced enchanteuse Mx Justin Vivian Bond? How many book launches include laugh-until-you-groan introductions from stand-up comedians (Thank you, Serg Gonzalez!), a selected reading from the book chapter on nudity by Debi Mazar, and a crowd of supporters dressed as fairies, goth fairies, and a matching top-and-bottom ensemble featuring the repeated image of Kim Kardashian’s ugly cry face (I see you, Iris Smyles!).
Between the praiseworthy blurb from Alan Cumming to the pro-environmentalism message that runs throughout its pages to the gorgeous watercolor illustrations from singular Parisian-born, New York-based artist Izak Zenou, this book is for those who change the conversation while embracing the unconventional and recognizing its beauty. Updated to reflect a world constantly in flux, Stover and Himmelein have made some important additions and subtractions to their manifesto. To name a few: Gypsy Bohemians are now Folkloric Bohemians; several new subtypes are introduced including Fairy Folk, Zen Fairy, Fairy Goth, and Zen Dandy — a category created with Mr. Cumming as its muse; and a very pro-vegan, pro-vegetarian, pro-anything that benefits a sustainable earth that can better heal itself from humankind’s destructive behavior is hammered home in multiple chapters.
It’s been a cool decade since I last read the original book, so I may be wrong, but I don’t recall there being case studies of modern-day bohemians living their best life. If so, my memory is not what it used to be because I can easily say it’s my favorite part of the new edition. I love hearing the history and tales of nonconformist extraordinaires like Lord Byron, Virginia Woolf, and Neal Cassady, but those stories often come with the haze of “Well, it was easier to live outside the societal norm back then — especially if you had money.” So I think it’s important to give readers a perspective on how some modern-day bohemians do it in a world ever-focused on image, protecting one’s image, and leading with one’s image.
Personally, I found the case study featuring Ryan, the general labor foreman/yoga instructor, the most inspiring. Perhaps that’s because I, too, live in New Jersey, favor the Beat Bohemians, am closer to my 50th birthday than my 25th, and can appreciate the perspective of balancing the “respectable” day job with my more bohemian characteristics.
I also appreciate the general chapters on books, music, and film. Not simply to see which bohemian’s collection I most identified with — it was Beat, of course — but to also write down recommendations from the other types as well. (Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, Dandy Lion: Black Dandy and Street Style by Rose Callahan, and Writings on Irish Folklore, Legend and Myth by W.B. Yeats are just a few I’m adding to my TBR wish list.)
With that in mind, I’d like to make a suggestion for a third edition, should one ever come about.
I would love to see more people of color bohemians included in the book. Not simply for the sake of being more inclusive, but also, thanks to the rise (and semi-fall) of the hipster, the issue of appropriation versus appreciation is a tricky concept to navigate. In the sphere of being more hyper-aware of how what we do can contribute to the marginalization of already disenfranchised communities, it’s important to show bohemians are not only inspired by the Asian, Indigenous, African, Latin and Pacifika Diasporas, but that the Diasporas are also members of the bohemian family itself. I think if readers see that bohemians of color approach life very much in the same way as their white counterparts, lines in the book alluding to being the “first” to move to “up-and-coming neighborhoods” and the presence of Buddha statues in homes of people who aren’t Buddhists may be less likely to set off problematic sirens.
Other than the case study on Ishimoto and a few fun facts about the fabulous Josephine Baker and always brilliant Frida Kahlo, most of the information within the book focuses on European and Euro-American bohemians. I understand this may be a result of who you know and what research is readily available and accessible, but I’d love to see more details, case studies, or fun facts referencing bohemians outside a European-focused lens. And although I adore the concept of bohemians being a magpie of knowledge and cultural perspectives, I’d like it more if we moved away from the possible accusation that bohemians often take from those who are marginalized and repackage their culture for the palates of those who do the marginalizing.
I can’t speak for perspectives outside my own, but I would count artists Do-Ho Suh and Yayoi Kusama, writer and poet Saul Williams, actors Lisa Bonet, Cree Summer, and Jason Momoa, dancer and choreographer Fatima Robinson, and musicians Erykah Badu, André 3000, Tracy Chapman and Lenny Kravitz all as bohemians of color. And I imagine there are plenty more whose names escape me now. Perhaps some of them do not view themselves as bohemians — which is fair, but I would argue that a distinctive “bohemian-adjacent” mindset lurks in each of their characters and finds a way to express itself unapologetically in their lives.
Of course, all the names I mentioned are contemporary bohemians. If one were to look to the legacy of bohemian culture from generations past, they’d likely produce a different list of bohemians of color. And I’m all for that as well.
Until then, I’ll continue to celebrate Stover and Himmelein’s creative take on a world where the odd are beloved and the beloved embrace the odd. If you’ve read the original or the updated Bohemian Manifesto, let me know where you landed in the breakdown of types.** And if you attended the book launch party, let me know your thoughts on Iris Smyles’ outfit. 😉
** I’m not a pure Beat, mind you. The quiz declared me a split personality. 50% Beat, 30% Zen, a skosh of Folkloric, with a soupçon of Dandy. But you can call me a Beat Zen for short.