Bruno’s century

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In the solitude of my garret have I thought about all this business that is setting aflame with barbaric rage one world and creating uneasiness, constraining personal liberty and sowing the seeds of hatred among brothers in the other.

And because I am an American citizen, and because I thank the belligerent countries for some of the best and most essential things of my life, I feel that I must voice these thoughts of my solitude and tell them to you, who were born and raised in America, and who might better understand after this, and to you who are citizens as I am by your own choice, but who perhaps had never time or inclination or the intuition to think about it all.

These words – published 100 years ago today – launched Bruno’s Weekly. “Bruno” was Guido Bruno, a fixture of New York’s Greenwich Village who, as the cover proclaimed, edited the publication “in his garret on Washington Square” (until November 1916, at least, when said garret went up in flames). His Weekly, the most extensive of six different journals he produced between 1915 and 1922, celebrated the bohemian past and present of the Village and comparable environments in war-torn Europe, and ran until the end of 1916.

Posterity, so far as it remembers him at all, spares few kind words for Bruno. He was considered a charlatan, mixed up in sub-lawful schemes, tirelessly promoting his publishing and theatrical projects, appointing himself with little justification as the conduit between bohemia and mainstream society. He even kept a studio stocked with real live bohemians, a human zoo steeped in artful squalor that visitors could gawp at – for a quarter.

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The commoditisation of the bohemian experience was almost as old as bohemianism itself. In early 19th century Paris, quick-witted minds recognised that while the upstanding bourgeoisie professed shock at the unconventional lives and loves of this artistic underworld, they enjoyed the frisson. The figure of the “struggling artist” was born, and it was the struggle which fascinated as much as the art. “Disdain for a commercial culture was being turned into a marketing strategy,” writes Ross Wetzsteon in Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960, “the American cult of boosterism was exploiting a community that condemned consumerism, entrepreneurs were profiteering on those who’d turned their back on mercenary values.”

In one sense, at least, Bruno was Bohemian: he was born under the name Curt Kisch in a village north of Prague in 1884, the son of a rabbi. Whether he could truly be regarded as a small “b” bohemian was a matter of contention. Yes, he worked in Greenwich Village, but he commuted every day from his family home in Yonkers. The suspicion that he wasn’t the genuine article foreshadowed the kind of conflict between “real” and “fake” which would play out on these same few blocks decades later during the folk revival.

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With all this in mind, one might pardonably expect Bruno’s Weekly to be a lightweight throwaway of little value. The surprise, then, is that it was actually an engaging, forward-thinking and at times enlightening read.

Considering the era into which it was born, it is the cosmopolitan spirit of the journal – as seen in that opening passage – which impresses most. In the words of contributor Hippolyte Havel (a Czech anarchist who adopted Berenice Abbott as his daughter): “The term Greenwich Village is to me a spiritual zone of mind.” It was a zone which extended far beyond its borders, and the journal’s urbane outlook acknowledged that a Village inhabitant would have more in common with a bohemian counterpart in Montparnasse, Chelsea or Schwabing than, say, a Kansan farmhand. Even in wartime.

A good deal of Bruno’s Weekly is taken up with Bruno’s own writing. While hardly a great prose stylist – I refer you once again to the opening passage – he nonetheless conveys a vivid sense of time and place. His contributions often record events right outside his door on Washington Square, rendered in impressionistic, flaneur-style vignettes. He recognised nostalgia as an essential component of the bohemian outlook, running articles about Greenwich Village in the time of Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry and Henry James. He further offered readers a grounding in bohemianism itself, a primer for an entire sensibility, including a study of Octave Mirbeau, a history of Parisian cabaret, translations of Baudelaire and articles like “What is Æstheticism?”.

But Bruno was also very much attuned to his age, and the age to come. He was the first to publish Hart Crane, then just 17, and presented the work of radical Central European writers only now coming into the focus of English-speaking readers (Paul Scheerbart, Peter Altenberg) or still awaiting proper discovery (Stanislaw Przybyszewski). One article was a serious appraisal of the work of mentally ill artists, many years before the terms Art Brut or Outsider Art were in currency. Naturally the war wasn’t entirely absent from these pages; Bruno published postcards drawn by artists in the German trenches, pondered the fate of Poland and his native Bohemia and ran a tribute to sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, fallen in battle.

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Bruno’s Weekly kept readers up to date with book reviews and the latest from other avant-garde journals, including 291, Der Sturm and Margaret Anderson’s Little Review. As well as promoting the cause of women’s suffrage, Bruno also featured the work of female contributors, including the artists Ilonka Karasz, Pamela Colman Smith and Clara Tice, whose lissom nudes dance across the pages as if through a bohemian Eden. Muriel Cielkovska’s reports from the French capital predated Janet Flanner‘s “Letter from Paris” for The New Yorker, describing a milieu that would draw young Americans in substantial numbers after the war.

In January 1916 the byline of Djuna Barnes first appeared in Bruno’s Weekly. Writer and editor were never particularly close, and Barnes later included an unflattering caricature of Bruno in Nightwood under the name Felix Volkbein. Bruno published her first book – for better or for worse (“If one truly cared for Djuna Barnes,” sighs biographer Phillip Herring, “one would say very little indeed about The Book of Repulsive Women“). Barnes’s own illustrations from that work – vaguely Beardsley-esque monochrome figures – also appeared in the weekly, alongside the genuine article (or maybe not; Bruno was once caught trying to sell fake Beardsleys). By this time Bruno’s Weekly was clearly taking John Lane’s Yellow Book as its model.

This was part of Bruno’s greater obsession with the 1890s and, above all, Oscar Wilde. Few issues passed without a reference to Wilde – a survey of his trip to the US, reports from a warden at Reading Gaol, pieces by associates such as Ernest Dowson and Vincent O’Sullivan. When Wilde’s friend and biographer Frank Harris arrived in New York, Bruno’s Weekly could talk of little else. This Wildean infatuation was shared by Maintenant, produced in Paris around the same time by Wilde’s nephew Arthur Cravan. There were further similiarities, despite the ocean that separated them: like Cravan’s journal, Bruno’s Weekly was a blog born in the wrong century – gossipy, informative, sketchy, opinionated and conspiratorial, with a focus at once international and hyper-local (Bruno’s advertisers included the ice cream shop underneath his garret).

For more on Guido Bruno’s publishing ventures, the most thorough account is a piece by Stephen Rogers in The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, while you can browse all 73 issues of Bruno’s Weekly at Princeton University’s Blue Mountain Project.

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5 comments

  1. Linda Hollander

    You make such amazing connections, James. And, I either didn’t know or forgot that Cravan was Wilde’s nephew. Great post.

  2. philipcoggan

    “…still awaiting proper discovery (Stanislaw Przybyszewski).” A change of name might help.

  3. Pingback: The Blind Man | Strange Flowers

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