Saturday, July 2, 2011

Bohemian versus bohemian

The air tastes just like you, it's the smell of June
A sensory shock that jolts my spirit, I slowly swallow you
--Jasmine and Rose, Clan of Xymox

When you say “bohemian” to people,  many conjure up images of fringed boots, floral skirts, and kohl eyeliner.  Or perhaps Jack Kerouac with his notebook, drinking a jug of wine, cursing the hippie counterculture swirling around him during its Haight Ashbury height.
Me?  I think of beer.  Guns.  A community bucket of vinegar-soaked radishes passed around at a sokol auditorium while polka plays in the background. 
So who has the true image of a Bohemian?

The answer requires a bit of a history lesson.  The only thing that qualifies me to give this lesson is some hand-me-down family information and self-study at the public library, so be aware that none of this may be accurate.  I blame Wikipedia and red wine for any errors.  Also, writers tend to embellish, but apparently that’s okay nowadays, even in memoir.  So here goes.
Bohemia is one of the historical lands that make up the current Czech Republic.  Its ancient roots are linked to a Celtic tribe that settled the area in B.C. times.  It was overrun during the Barbarian Invasions by Slavic tribes and eventually became a kingdom in the Holy Roman Empire.  At some point there was an uprising against the Roman Catholics and a period of rule by the Habsburg-Austrian empire.  During the mid 1800s, internal rebellions caused the first of three main waves of Czech immigration to America.  During WWII, Bohemia became a Gestapo-run puppet state of Nazi Germany.  Years of brutal oppression and extermination of Czech patriots and intellectuals thankfully came to an end with the Allied victory.  A few decades of communism followed, overthrown in the pleasantly named “Velvet Revolution” that resulted in the dissolution of Czechoslovakia.  Tah-dah, say hello to the current democratic Czech Republic.
So how did we get from a bunch of Slavic marauders to the modern day image of flower children?  Or the more disturbing question, why do the tabloids lump the Olsen twins into my heritage?  Back to the historical drawing board. 
In the 1800s, there was an influx of Romani nomads into France, and they were thought to be from Bohemia, although this has been disputed.  As artists and writers settled in the same poor areas that these “Bohemians” did, they were also included under the umbrella of this moniker.  As their artistic work spread, so did the name.  Some think that Balzac was the first to embrace “bohemian” as a catch term for artists and intellectuals, especially those seen as unconventional in their work.  He said:  
"This word 'boheme' is self-explanatory. Bohemia possesses nothing, yet contrives to exist on that nothing. Its religion is hope; its code, faith in itself; its income, in so far that it appears to have one, charity."
Eventually when Bohemian nationals started immigrating to America during the revolutionary times of the Austrian empire, “bohemian” became synonymous with radicals and those who questioned the status quo.  American writers influenced by both types of European bohemians created a cultural group in New York in the 1850s.  When the Civil War took many of these journalists for war correspondence, they were referred to as bohemians.  By the late 1800s, groups of like minded literati in San Francisco started using the name as well.  Even Mark Twain at one point identified himself as bohemian.  
The culture and environment of this period in American history was founded on the principles of unconventionality; the idea of a community of free souls--free thinkers.  Bohemianism became the identifier for those with intellectual or artistic focus.  That idea has persisted through the decades, interpreted by each new group of artists--the beatniks, the hippies, zen counterculture, even punk.  All could be considered a genre of that original case of potentially mistaken origin.
My great great grandparents were born in Bohemia.  In 1884, they took a boat to America with their six children and then traveled inland to the Nebraska prairie to claim a tract of land they’d never seen.  Their progeny still owns that land and the home they built is now on the National Registry of Historic Places.  If you’re in to history, here’s an actual PDF about it.
I don’t know why they came to America, some say it was due to religious persecution.  I do know that the house my double-g grandpa built was reminiscent of the homes wealthier Czechs lived in, not immigrants.  I like to think it was his way to show there were no constraints on what he or his family could become in America--there were no boundaries of class.  It amazes me to imagine the hardships they faced obtaining the necessities for life in a foreign and often harsh new land.  I doubt if my grandparents ever read any of the authors that identified themselves as bohemian.  But they certainly were unconventional people who didn’t care about society’s perceptions of them.  They were determined to create and live life on their terms--free thinkers.
So maybe Bohemians really are equivalent to bohemians.
The novel that earned me representation is all about my Bohemian roots--with a bit of artistic license, of course.  It’s the story of a family that essentially is the Czechoslovakian mafia of a little farm town in the middle of Nebraska, running everything via the local carnival.  It was my effort to be a little bohemian about being Bohemian.  It gave me great pleasure to research my heritage and give it another dimension.  I only wish that I would have had the opportunity to speak directly to my great-great grandparents to know their true motivations.
Someday I want to get to Bohemia to see what my ancestors left behind in order to start over.  Until then, I carry a bit of Bohemia with me.
Have you ever included a piece of your heritage in what you write?
I must thank Illumielle, who designed this tattoo, and the artists at Grinn and Barrett Tattoo who brought it to life.


  1. 'I blame Wikipedia and red wine for any errors.'

    This made me smile.

    'Also, writers tend to embellish, but apparently that’s okay nowadays, even in memoir. So here goes.'

    This made me laugh.

    Good payoff after 'here goes,' jules. Does anyone ever call you jules? (Well, I guess I just did.)

    I love the passage about hope and charity.

    Congratulations on securing representation on your novel. I hope you keep us 'posted' on its release. :)

  2. Congrats on securing representation!!

    I was, uh, born in Iowa. That probably won't get me many points for style, but I did use my hometown in one of my backstory passages.


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