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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VII, No. 2
Summer-Fall 1983



5. ALAN CHEUSE, THE BOHEMIANS: JOHN REED AND HIS FRIENDS WHO SHOOK THE WORLD. Cambridge/ Watertown, MA: Apple-wood Books, 1982. 358 pp. $12.95. ISBN: 0-918222-32-X.

Why was this novel written? And why was it accepted by Apple-wood Books? Their splendid job of printing, binding and jacketing—crimson title slashing across John Sloan's view of "The City from Greenwich Village"—suggests far more than a modicum of perceptiveness and taste and makes one eager for work more worthy of their commendable craft. Critics, of course, should answer queries, not raise them; but this critic, given this book, has no answers.

Purportedly the personal jottings of John Reed from his boyhood adventures amid the wild natural beauties around Portland, Oregon (the book's best section), through Harvard, New York, Provincetown and Europe (a 31-page postscript by Louise Bryant taking us the rest of the way), it is ungainly and choppy, though it steers a fairly even course among the extremes of opacity, sentimentality, and tastelessness. Not that I dislike the genre; quite the reverse. The historical novel has a long and noble heritage, its best artisans outdistancing historians in bringing the feel of life to figures from the past; and Sharon Kay Penman's monumental, revisionist treatment of Richard III & Co., The Sunne in Splendour, shows that, in capable hands, it has lost none of its vitality and value in the 1980's. Granted, The Bohemians has vitality from time to time; but I search in vain for the second quality.

Most disturbing is the demeaning treatment of Reed's fellow "shakers," especially Mabel Dodge, with whom he had a tempestuous affair. However large her size, question-able her behavior or bizarre her poses, she doesn't deserve transformation into the monstrous grotesque, the bloated caricature, that Cheuse makes her. Take two excerpts from their initial sexual encounter. First, its onset (p. 116, italics added):

"Tonight, dear boy," she declared, as though announcing a concert or a dance, "we must cross the threshold! Are you ready, my darling, for the travail?" Mabel was much broader beneath her gauzy gown than I had imagined. She leaped onto my couch, knocking aside the volumes of Byron and Marx which I had taken for my own late-night bedtime reading.

(A characteristic passage, that: the flaccid attempt at Wildean or Waughesque social satire in the italicized phrase, and the symbolic tomes symbolically toppled by the pounce of the maenadic Mabel.) Then, the aftermath (p. 117):

Gently, she released me and lay back against the couch, her body a pale continent against the oceanic darkness of the room. I took a breath, sat forward, then began. [Began, we find, to recite a poem! (At least he didn't light up a cigarette.)] . . . .

"Jack..." She was weeping. "It's a bronze. A piece of...of...eternity!" [The reader may not share her rapture.]

Like Reed (read Cheuse), she reaches for the grand phrase and comes up with laminated marshmallow. (The other end of the Cheusean stylistic continuum is the tight-lipped staccato, the imitation parody, one hopes—of Hemingway, as in the first meeting of Reed and his future wife, Louise Bryant: "'Hello,' was all she said when I emerged from the pawnshop. 'Do I know you?' I asked, licking the lightest tinge of salt from my lips. 'Possibly.") Bryant, William James, Walter Lippmann, Max Eastman, Lincoln Steffens, Edna St. Vincent Millay and the others fare better than the artful Dodge; they, at least, are not trashed. But none emerges as anything more than a stick-figure, a label attached to some walking dialogue. Hence my query, why this novel?

And why, you might retort, does a review appear in this journal? Because, on 32 of its 358 pages, Eugene O'Neill is mentioned or appears—as he must, having been a friend of the Reeds in both Greenwich Village and Provincetown, fellow worker at the wharf theatre, and sometime lover of Louise—and whenever Eugene O'Neill appears, the Newsletter is there to cover the event. While not here the main event, O'Neill's part in the saga comprises six rounds: (1) Provincetown, in the summer of 1916, from the trio's first meeting on the dunes through the rehearsals of Bound East for Cardiff (during which "Gene raged about the hall waving a bottle and cursing us all for mucking up his drama"); (2) O'Neill's arrival with Louise (first inkling of the incipient romance) at Reed's New York apartment that fall, to discover Reed staring dumbly and Edna St. Vincent Millay cowering timorously in the bathroom; (3) a scene with the recuperating Reed in a Manhattan hospital the following winter, when O'Neill, a fulminator in all his appearances, fulminates against doctors and fathers and recalls his own, much longer stay in such a "monkey house.... Hospitalized for half a year! The doctors hovering over me; TB or not TB, that was the question"; (4) John and Louise's March trip "uptown for the Broadway premiere of The Moon of the Caribees" (sic x 2), which O'Neill had promised Jig Cook but which, "for the sake of the glory and a few dollars more, he had sold ... instead to a big producer," and on which evening the Reeds meet the O'Neills, who behave Long Day's Journically, especially when Gene, as is his wont, gets drunk and raves (James adminishing histrionically; Jamie counterrailing, calling Gene "a royal pain in the hump"; while Ella "slid back along the wall until the darkness masked her face"); (5) Reed's irate reaction, unstillable by Max Eastman, when he gets wind of the O'Neill-Bryant liaison; and (6) John and Louise's subsequent reconciliation, when she tells him about the "awful time" she'd had in New London.

In the scene with Eastman, Reed asks, "How could the boozy animal even know that someone loves him? How could he write a line?" Given Cheuse's O'Neill, the question is understandable. Aside from the "deep-set, searchlight eyes" which, even when he's drunk, have a "blood-rimmed intensity," there is no hint of an explanation how this foul-smelling, booze-swilling nay sayer could have the time, the stamina or the sanity to write anything, even though Reed, after reading the manuscript of Bound East, announces that "we've found American drama washed up on the beach!" and later admits, grudgingly, to having been moved by the "sad, baffling, dark blue music" of the Caribbees premiere.

Mr. Cheuse has demonstrated critical skill in his book reviews for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered"; and one critic, praising his first book, a collection of short stories, predicted that "the demands of a novel will bring out Cheuse's best." Unfortunately, he hasn't applied his critical skill to his own work; and so we must wait longer to see if his early reviewer's prophecy will be fulfilled. If you want a complete and accurate life of Reed, seek out Barbara Gelb's So Short a Time. If you want it less complete and souped up with fictional interstices, go to the movies: Reds does it better. The Bohemians has less to offer than either: a lovely shell, a pretty package with nothing inside.

—Frederick C. Wilkins



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