Is the Bohemian Dead?

In her new memoir, Country Girl, Edna O’Brien recalls when writers were drunk, brawling, and fabulous.

Writer Edna O'Brien attends the 'Breakfast At Tiffany's' Broadway Opening Night at Cort Theatre on March 20, 2013 in New York City.
Writer Edna O’Brien, 2013

Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Is the bohemian Dead?

One day at an end-of-semester gathering, a student of mine said, “where are all the bohemians?” He was thinking of Dylan Thomas stumbling out of the White Horse Tavern, Mary McCarthy sleeping with three men in one day, and Norman Mailer getting into brawls. The successful adult writers he had lately encountered were dishearteningly bourgeois. They left parties with their wives, at a reasonable hour; were warmly engaged with their children; lived in brownstones; cooked lovely risottos. They were not interested in breaking the conventional rules of upstanding or healthy behavior. They were living, in short, like the bankers or lawyers next door, or wanting to. (Which, of course, is not to say that there aren’t 22-year-old editorial assistants getting drunk at publishing parties and going home with random people, but that the dominant literary culture has shifted.)

Of course, the word bohemian has always been vague, even when Thackeray used it in the 1840s. (A useful definition might be the dictionary’s: “A person with artistic or intellectual tendencies who lives and acts with no regard for conventional rules or behavior.”) And, of course, the writers we currently think of as “bohemians” were themselves wistfully mourning the ideal days of other, more committed bohemians. Edna O’Brien’s wonderful, lively memoir, Country Girl, makes that much clear. When, as a young writer, she is invited to a party where Ted Hughes is rumored to be attending, she writes, “At last! I had read of literary coteries: in San Francisco, the Beat Poets assaulting the sensibilities of the bourgeois, the Russian poets who met underground to recite their words when it was too dangerous to have them printed, and in a pub in Soho a few years before when bohemians, including Dylan Thomas, had convened. So now it was Dulwich and Ted Hughes, the living Orpheus, whom I would meet.”

When she was young, O’Brien, whom critics called a “cut-rate Molly Bloom” and said her “talent resided in her knickers,” ran off with a married, aspiring writer named Ernest Gebler. Her family arrived with the police and a priest to reclaim her from a life of sin. After leaving him, she had many vivid love affairs. (“Perhaps I wanted love too much to ever reconcile it with everyday life.”) There ensued a lot of highbrow excitement, including people smoking pot while the children she was raising alone wandered around. One night O’Brien brought Paul McCartney into her sons’ bedrooms and he sang them a song. (One of her sons was angry at being woken up and said, “Go away, Mother, you must be drunk.”) She wrote an article for a magazine titled “O’Brien Tosses a Molotov Cocktail Through the Stained-Glass Window of Marriage,” and she wrote her lovely, ambient novels that were considered so racy that a postmistress in her town said she should be kicked naked through the streets, and her own mother blacked out passages in her copy.

So why have today’s aspiring Edna O’Briens lost even the desire to be bohemian, the great fuzzy dream of it? Some of it is that we have absorbed the materialism of the larger culture. The idea of a novelist laboring in a garret in poverty has lost its romantic glimmer. It is the novelist who sells his novel to the movies, who has his photograph in Vanity Fair that we admire as successful; the dream has morphed into something less about art or sentences than about fame and money. All of which makes me think of a Joan Didion quote about the failure of radical politics in America:  “The have-nots, it turned out, aspired mainly to having.”

This would be a trivial or juvenile question, if not for one thing: Is all of this healthiness affecting the work? Edna O’Brien said, “[W]riting, I think, is an interestingly perverse occupation. It is sick in the sense of normal human enjoyment of life.” But is that sickness, that perversity, that willingness to live askew of normal life sometimes vital to the artistic endeavor? Is the safeness of current literary life, the modest materialism, the responsible, upstanding bourgeois aspiration affecting or cramping the imagination of its writers? Is there something missing, some great doomed restlessness that is bad for life, but good for work? Are our preoccupations sometimes too cramped, too narrow, our imaginations reined in by what we think will sell, or by a kind of ordinariness or tameness or domesticity or responsibility, by going to the gym every day?

I don’t know the answer, of course, but I wonder. Could a man living a healthy, upstanding, conventional bourgeois life have written the following two beautiful things? The first Dylan Thomas, who was very often drunk, in debt, cheating, and failing to fulfill various professional and personal obligations, wrote in a letter to a friend, the second in a poem.

“Oh, one time the last time will come and I’ll never struggle, I’ll stay down here forever handcuffed and blindfold, sliding my woundaround music, my sack trailed in the slime, withal the rest of the self-destroyed escapologists in their cages, drowned in the sorrows they drown and in my piercing own, alone and one with the coarse and cosy damned seahorsey dead, weeping my tons.”


“the closer I move/ To death, one man through his sundered hulks,/ the louder the sun blooms./ And the tusked, ramshackling sea exults.”

Asked about the tameness of the writing world, the lack of excess, the embrace of safe living by a magazine called Modern Drunkard, Gary Shteyngart said that it is “[b]ecause we are corporatized. We all know who pays us. The stuff I do, I doubt if it will sell ten years from now. It’s a shrinking alliance of those who still go out on a limb.”

It would be absurd to long for more colorfully suffering doomed writers. Who after all would want to be Dylan Thomas? But perhaps a little of it, a little flare, a little Edna O’Brien once in a while? “Writing,” she said, “is the product of a deeply disturbed psyche.”   

It may seem that I am unduly romanticizing pathologies like alcoholism or fear of commitment or falling dramatically apart, and maybe I am, slightly, but if so, it is only to correct for what we all romanticize too much, which is stability, security, financial success, material things, caution, moderation, and conventional, orderly life.