Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: B.F. Cummings Jr. on Bohemians

BFCummingsJrWhen does an artist or author’s lifestyle matter? While the reader may only care about the quality of what is on the page, friends and relatives and neighbors may care very much about the lifestyle of the authors or artists in their lives. And when Mormonism enters the question, we end up caring a lot about a lifestyle that may have an impact on the author or artist’s eternal life.

The lifestyle of an artist, like that of any potential role model, might also influence admirers among the youth and young adults, and it was probably this potential influence that led to B. F. Cummings’ views of Bohemians, the romantic-era unconventional lifestyle associated with artists of the late 19th century.

Cummings was himself an author, a journalist and editor who worked from his teens for the Deseret News. He later purchased, with his brother Horace, the weekly Logan Leader (predecessor of the current Logan Herald-Journal), although Horace apparently ran the paper. Cummings also educated himself in the law, passed the bar and became a district judge. He also served several terms in the state legislature.

But despite his experience as a reporter and editor, Cummings took a dim view of the Bohemian lifestyle:



By B. F. Cummings, Jr.

I AM not at present prepared to explain just how this term came to be applied to the class of individuals usually designated by it, as I have heard different explanations of the matter; but it is a name given to persons who dabble in literature or art, in a random, irregular, unsettled sort of a way, and who confine themselves to no special nor legitimate branch of either; but do “odd jobs” for any price they may be able to obtain.

Your true literary “bohemian,” is nearly always a man of some talent; varied and extensive information, quick wit and ready pen; is likely to have been a traveler; knows all about living leading men, and can quote from the poets, novelists and philosophers. He is rarely a family man, and, frequently, his ideas of religion and morality are more speculative than practical, and abstract rather than concrete. He writes letters for the newspapers, articles for the magazines, and sketches for the literary periodicals, and occasionally, perhaps, tries his hand at verses. For these productions of his brain, he gets the cash.

If he be a “bohemian” in art, he will enlarge a daguerrotype, sketch a landscape, model a bust in plaster, or paint you an indifferent portrait, charge you a price which he expects to reduce one-half, or more, before he gets it, and when through with one “subject,” will canvass for another. When a boy, I had read of the bright side and romantic phases of the life of a literary “bohemian,” and was charmed. How delightful to be a “bohemian;” to travel, write articles and sketches, and, whenever one should be out of pocket-money, to send a production of his brain to some publisher, with a good round price marked on it, and to spend the result with professional non-chalance.

When I grew older, duty called me on a journey to a large eastern city. There I met Dr. B-. Here was my ideal of a happy man, a representative “bohemian.” He was a graduate of a western medical college, and an ex-editor, wrote articles on philosophy for the Phrenological Journal, articles on hygiene, for medical publications, and had written pamphlets on finance, and treatises on metaphysics. He gave phrenological dilineations, sometimes lectured on various topics, and was on hand for any kind of literary work. I envied him, and wanted to be like him. But, as our acquaintance progressed, I noticed that his wardrobe was seedy, that he lived in a cheap boarding house, and that he was chronically “hard up.” He could write articles, but it was a very different matter to get a price for them. He could “phrenologize” people, but “subjects” were rare. He could lecture, but could not draw an audience, and his roving habits, prevented any attempt at practicing medicine. In fear of his landlady, in dread of the tailor, and haunted with the phantom of a washer-woman, whose demands his exchequer could not meet; one side, at least, of his life was the opposite of pleasant or romantic. My admiration for such a life became somewhat less ardent.

My next experience with “bohemians” was in Washington. I had been introduced to one of the fraternity, and one day, at the Capitol, met him in company with two others, to whom he introduced me. One of the latter, a really good newspaper writer, when sober, was too intoxicated to walk straight, but, true to his instinct as a “bohemian” in search of material for a five dollar letter, he proceeded to interview me on the Utah question.

As we were talking, a courtesan passed us, when the other newspaper correspondent to whom I had just been introduced, dropped a remark from which I inferred that he knew too much of her and her kind to be a man of good morals. I subsequently learned more of this class of scribblers, who throng the corridors and lobbies of the Capitol, and that they will lend their brains and pens to any cause or clique that will furnish them money for dissipation, for they are nearly all given to it.

The next I met was an “artist,” whose specialty was crayon portraits. A friend of mine employed him to execute several. After much vexation and delay, the pictures were delivered by the artist, who was “half tight” when he brought them home, and who boasted of the superiority of his work in a manner that would have made Falstaff blush. On investigation, they proved to be pictures made from a photographic negative by a chemical and mechanical process, touched up with crayon in a manner that required but comparatively little skill, and were vastly different from a really artistic “freehand” crayon portrait, though, as likenesses, they were well enough, and a novice would not detect their inferiority. This artist proved to be a dishonest, drunken profligate, brazen enough to beg outright for money from his patrons.
Soon after this I became acquainted with a “bohemian” of the other sex. She was a middle-aged maiden lady, who “wrote for the papers” and contributed to a biographical cyclopæa. She had written biographical sketches of many prominent congressmen and politicians of the day, and was, in truth, what the Yankees call “a mighty smart woman.” But she lodged in a back room in a retired boarding house, lived economically, and spent her time at literary drudgery, in single loneliness. Strong-minded, ascetic, cynical, shrewd, and well nigh without opportunity of social enjoyment, I did not envy her.

I have, at various times, met others of this fraternity, and contact with them has sadly blurred the halo with which my boyish imagination once surrounded them. I have found them to be, in most instances, without home, creed, or firm moral principle, often immoral, generally impecunious, profligate, ever ready to prostitute their talent for money; members of a class to whom may be traced many of the calumnies and slanders that have so retarded the spread of truth, and injured the Saints.

True, all “bohemians” may not be thus described. Among their numbers may frequently be found men of principle, as well as of ability, who would scorn to do a dishonorable act, or to lend their brains or pens to a cause their consciences could not espouse. But the opposite is true in too many instances.

The Contributor, v3 n1, October 1881


Although Cummings didn’t know the origin of the term Bohemian, wikipedia gives its origins as the association of artists and authors with the poor neighborhoods in France, which were generally populated by gypsies. Since the romani were popularly believed to come from Bohemia (the region of Europe that now makes up the Czech Republic), the artists residing there gained became Bohemians by association.

I wonder if the rise of writing and journalism as professions in the 19th century might have contributed to the term. A Bohemian is (per the OED) a ‘socially unconventional person,’ a definition that would easily apply to the culturally very different gypsies. And Bohemians were thought to be unorthodox and anti-establishment, promoting ideas like free love, frugality and even voluntary poverty. To a degree the latter two of these were forced upon both gypsies and at least some authors.

Bohemian entered English in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in 1848, and by the 1860s had become something of an ideal lifestyle among writers. Journalists in the U.S. adopted the term by then, and soon afterwards writers in San Francisco, including Mark Twain, established a Bohemian Club in that city, although the club largely eschewed the idea of poverty for an emphasis on lifestyle and taste, although the group debated the issue.

I have somewhat mixed reactions to Cummings’ critique of the Bohemian idea. While I agree with his critique of Bohemian immorality, I’m not so sure about his critique of poverty. I’m not willing to criticize artists who chose a small income from the work that they love over a more substantial income from work that they hate–it doesn’t seem right to give money that kind of power in our lives. But I also agree with his criticism of artists who do shoddy work that pays well for minimal effort and those who “prostitute their talent for money.” While I share Cummings’ disdain for the immoral, I’m uncomfortable with his intolerance of the unconventional.

Perhaps the value in Cummings’ essay is the potential it gives artists to examine how they chose to live their lives–the lifestyle they choose.

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