- The Bohemian South: Creating Countercultures, from Poe to Punk ed. by Shawn Chandler Bingham and Lindsey A. Freeman
The twenty-first-century American South, defined by Shawn Chandler Bingham as "stretching from Kentucky and West Virginia to the southern tip of Florida, and from Texas to the coasts of the Carolinas and Virginia" (15), boasts a slew of hipster hotspots, beginning, alphabetically, with Asheville, Athens, and Austin. But that reality clashes with historical and contemporary views of the region as an artistic and cultural backwater. The Bohemian South, which collects eighteen multidisciplinary essays, aims to explain this paradox and argues for the bohemian heritage of "the cast iron South" (4). The volume is timely, engaging, and necessarily eclectic.
The label "bohemian," Lindsey A. Freeman notes in the volume's after-word, describes "someone who is freethinking and not given to conventional modes of life, someone living for art and ideas" (307). Transgressive lifestyles and artistic innovations characterize the Southern lesbian food writers at the heart of Jaime Cantrell's brilliant essay; the train-hopping, homestead-building, old-time-music-playing communitarians that Daniel S. Margolies spins into the volume's standout essay; and the "out" amateurism, musical production, and sexuality of musicians in 1970s Athens, who star in Grace Elizabeth Hale's chapter. But The Bohemian South only inconsistently highlights radical lifestyles. Chapters provide fine literary analyses of the Southern super-realism of James Agee and the "bohemian-Creole" and "Southern/Caribbean" poetry of Brenda Marie Osbey, Yusuf Komunyakaa, Derek Walcott, and Kwame Dawes (89, 90). But as explorations of Southern bohemianism, they present little sense of radical lived experience. Creative chops are a necessary but insufficient bohemian condition.
The transgressive component of bohemian enclaves is essential to emphasize because the line between the bourgeois and the bohemian is blurry. No sooner have most bohemian movements touched off an artistic gestalt or cultural craze than capitalist purveyors market their wares. Consequently, one task for scholars of bohemian enclaves is to explore what Joanna Levin calls "bohemian-bourgeois tension" (37). Zackaryl Vernon's analysis of three twenty-first century "rough South" films illuminates how "bohemian fetishism in the context of the contemporary South leads to faux bohemians who are essentially [End Page 1479] culture vampires devouring the hard-won attributes of the South and commodifying them both for bohemian cultural cachet and economic gain" (161). Such voyeurism, Vernon argues, has political consequences: "If moviegoers consume romanticized versions of the bohemian Rough South, then they may grow complacent when it comes to rectifying the social and economic pathologies facing the region" (161). Here is a compelling explanation for the false righteousness of the stereotypical hipster.
The danger of the hipster is perhaps nowhere more evident today than in Austin, Texas, where the cooptation of the "Keep Austin Weird" slogan encapsulates the fate of many bohemian scenes. Joshua Long's essay on Austin is especially smart because it goes beyond depicting the "nouveau boho flock" in Austin to examine the ongoing struggle by bona fide bohemians to restore the "Austin vibe" and to reiterate that Austin's original turn toward weirdness was itself based on ethnic conflict, marginalization, and exclusion (288, 289, 297).
Despite these nuanced analyses, several essays in The Bohemian South unduly entwine the bourgeois and the bohemian. Alex Sayf Cummings' history of North Carolina's Research Triangle, for instance, traces how high culture attracted scientists and corporate creatives to the Piedmont. But to argue that "the Triangle started out bourgeois and became bohemian—at least, up to a point," (255) raises more questions than it answers. Elsewhere, Bingham's suggestion that The Oxford American "bends … into more bohemian territory" than Garden and Gun magazine because it "boasts a rather thick lineup of serious writers … delving into poverty, laborers, race, underappreciated writers, and landscape" similarly confounds (270-271). Politically engaged craft writers are important figures with much to offer the contemporary South. Some of them may even live bohemian lives. But going "eighteen pages without...