Bohemia is a land with only three exits: success, compromise, or death. This has been the great subterranean theme of all literature about Bohemia since the term was coined to describe the world of independent, artistic Parisian strivers in the 1830s.
And for as long as there have been artists and writers living apart from an organized system of patronage, there have been bohemians destroyed by heartbreak, alcoholism, adventure, and, of course, poverty. Noble poverty. Careful poverty. Reckless poverty. Mooching poverty. Criminal poverty. Honest poverty. Stylish poverty. Grinding poverty. And illness, too. Always, the threat of illness, from consumption to AIDS, La Boheme to Rent.
John Keats died of consumption. Keith Haring died of AIDS. Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned near Lerici, Italy, while boating in a storm. Jackson Pollock drank too much. Hart Crane jumped off a steamship returning from Mexico, drowning at sea. Mary Wollstonecraft’s sexual nonconformity made her a pariah in her lifetime. The list of artists who died in penury is practically endless. All this is so well-known, so commonly understood as the occupational hazard of a life lived in accordance with a set of values other than pure market ones, that it is a cliché, a truism. It is the written warning on the wall.
Some bohemians created great art and works of literature. But many more did not. They lived, they tried, and they went down in flames.
But Meghan Daum wanted to be safe. A middle-class girl from a musical, suburban New Jersey family who came to New York City, she writes, to be “artsy” and “intellectual,” she flew too close to the blazing bohemian sun, got her wings singed, and fled.
David Brooks makes much about the intermingling of bohemian and bourgeois values and culture from the perspective of professionals in Bobos in Paradise. But what happens when the product of a profoundly credentialist, meritocratic culture undertakes the difficult project of actually making a living as an independent artist? Art becomes even more dependent on marketing than it has historically been. She begins to think she needs academic credentials, rather than learning, to create. She needs an M.F.A. or an M.A. in comparative literature. She needs to go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop or acquire sparkly, Ivy League diplomas. She needs networks and contacts and colleagues and mentors and advocates. And she needs to make money at her art. Or else she’s a failure.
But sometimes, education and tracking destroy the ability to make necessary sacrifices. Sometimes, education opens too many other seductive options, leading a person away from fond hopes. Sometimes, the debt required to get the education to follow her dreams makes following her dreams impossible.
According to the title essay in My Misspent Youth, first published in the New Yorker last fall, that became Daum’s predicament. After getting an undergraduate degree from Vassar and an M.F.A. from Columbiaand taking out $60,000 in loans to do soDaum settled at 100th Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan and became a freelance writer. But because she suffered from what Brooks calls “status-income disequilibrium”the disjunction between a high cultural status and a low financial oneshe wound up, she says, “completely over my head in debt.”
That’s why, after seven years of pursuing her dream life of oak-floored Manhattan apartments, glamorous compatriots, and gin-soaked nights, she moved to Lincoln, Neb., to write, shovel snow, and care for a small sow named Loretta. But first, like any good, contemporary New York writer with one Jimmy Choo-clad heel planted in the fashion world and the other on less wobbly terrain, she had to publish a defense of her decision in the New Yorker.
In the late ’90s, the New Yorker was home to an astonishing number of first-person articles about the inability of its writers to live in New York on what they earn as writersor as biographers or staffers for political rags, for that matterand served as a sort of command central for documenting the wave of tertiary gentrification that seized Manhattan at that time, rendering it largely uninhabitable to newcomers without established fortunes. And especially uninhabitable to the types it used to attract.
Those types now live in Astoria, Queens. They live in Williamsburg and Fort Greene, Brooklyn. They live on 136th Street, not in Greenwich Village. They live in Hoboken.
But Daum didn’t want to live there. Ever since she visited the Morningside Heights apartment of a music copyist with her father at the age of 17, she writes, “[E]verything I did, every decision I made, every college applied or not applied to, every job taken or not taken, was based on an unwavering determination to live in a prewar, oak-floored apartment, on or at least in the immediate vicinity of 104th Street and West End Avenue.”
My Misspent Youth, a collection of 10 essays, eight previously published, falls into the broad category of books about the issues of the meritocracy. (I hesitate to call them problems.) But it’s also, at times, about being a single woman in your 20s and about the conflict between the values of your original home world and your adopted values in a society with semipermeable social boundaries. Daum skewers, explicates, and self-consciously confesses the interior landscape of those who seek upward mobility by acquiring just the right C.V. and ever-important characteristics not verifiable by the Educational Testing Servicesuch as beauty, charm, and mastery of the signifiers of class. She writes about strivers.
“[M]y education was primarily about becoming fully versed in a certain set of references that, individually, have very little to do with either a canon of knowledge as defined by academia or preparation for the job market,” Daum writes in “My Misspent Youth.” “My education had mostly to do with speaking the language of the culturally sophisticated…Name dropping was my drug of choice and I inhaled the stuff.”
My Misspent Youth is Daum’s first book and only the third published by Open City Books, an imprint allied with Open City, the edgy New York literary quarterly. Daum’s first-person essaysseveral of which show evidence of having been reported magazine articles (phrases such as “During the week that I observe training” tend not to show up in the more reflective essays)cover the “psychodynamics of e-mail, air travel, floor coverings, sex, death, and various other cultural anxieties that surround bourgeois, urban life at the very end of the twentieth century.” In each, she has sought to use herself, as she wrote recently in Slate, “as a tool to talk about various cultural and social phenomena (and sometimes for pure satire).”
Daum’s tone is instantly recognizable to readers of women’s and fashion magazines. In addition to writing for the New Yorker (two stories), Harper’s, the New York Times Book Review (two first-person “Bookends”), and Nerve.com, Daum has contributed to Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Self. And, boy, does it show. In some essays, such as “Carpet Is Mungers,” an extended riff on the semiotics of wall-to-wall carpeting (“Carpet is a class issue”), she adopts a snobbish, stylish tone that ricochetslike so much magazine writingbetween the cruelly superficial and the breathlessly worshipful. It’s a tone you’ll find again and again in pieces published in New York magazine, the New York Observer, and just about everything published by Condé Nast. At its worst, this tone conveys the most objectionable qualities of superironic New York hipsters. But in Daum’s hands, something interesting happens: This tone rubs up against a more substantial set of questions about community, identity, and authenticity.
According to Daum’s biography on the religion Web site Beliefnet.com, for which she wrote a monthly column, “The Moral Playground,” My Misspent Youth was originally slated to be called Let the Trinkets Do the Talking. So it makes sense that Daum’s introduction focuses on the role of acquired objects in creating the self. We have all become the curators of our own lives, obsessed with the presentation of self. It’s not just the media that did it to us, either. The education of the meritocrat, with its endless striving and mobility, demands it.
Her book, says Daum, tries to get at what is partly a question of aesthetics and partly a problem of distancing and the way fictional narratives of our lives overtake and displace actual events:
the tendency of contemporary human beings to live not actual lives but simulations of lives, loving not actual people but the general idea of those people, operating at several degrees of remove from what might be considered authentic if we weren’t trying so hard to create authenticity through songs and clothes and advertisements and a million other agents of realness. In other words, this book is about a world ruled by accessories, about a citizenry that expresses its tastes, its politics, its dreams, and its heartbreaks via the trinkets on its shelves. But maybe that’s just me.
It’s not a big leap from purchasing a life to just making one up wholesale, suggests Daum. And where does that get you? Another day older and deeper in debt. At best. She rails against America’s ongoing production of earnest, ridiculous subcultures by those who are desperately seeking identity. Revulsion is not too strong a word to describe her reaction to a small community of sci-fi-reading, transgressivist Californian polyamorists in “According to the Women I’m Fairly Pretty.” This is false authenticity, even if rooted in a real desire for organic community. “American Shiksa” describes Daum’s transformation from being just another blonde to being a shiksa, “discovering the exoticism inherent in her blandness.” “Music Is My Bag” skewers “music lovers” who are “too in love with the trappings” of appreciation, with keychains and tote bags and scarves and all the detritus of immature, unself-conscious identity. All, it seems, have confused the trappings of lifestyles with something more genuine.
And yet, despite Daum’s caustic dismissals of repulsively sincere people with big hair, ill-fitting jeans, and crooked hemlines, she herself yearns for a more straightforward, honest world and way of relating than the one she’s found in glossily competitive Gothamfor something that seems real. “On the Fringes of the Physical World” recapitulates a failed romance with PFSlider, a man who e-mailed Daum out of the blue, “is this the real meghan daum?” Despite wearing her cynicism proudly, she flirted madly and fell for this stranger on the Internet. But after a long and passionate e-mail exchange, her correspondent was unable, when she met him in person, to live up to the intensity of his disembodied adulation. “It was not,” she realizes, “the Internet that contributed to our remote, fragmented lives. The problem was life itself.” It was the way she had been raised to be “selfish by design,” the way vulnerability has become “the worst sin imaginable.” Though she traveled 3,000 miles to visit PFSlider in Los Angeles, her perfect, ethereal beloved was dragged down to earth by the always flawed and intrusive physical world: sight, smell, and sound. Later, after they have a blank, final dinner together in New York, she stands on her stoop and feels “that familiar rush of indifference.”
Amid the witticisms and snide asides, some of Daum’s essays have a wistful and honest quality that’s refreshing. Others are as ennui-drenched as they come. “Publishing and Other Near-Death Experiences” details the lives of editorial assistants in New York “dreaming of the day when we’ll become an assistant editor” and of the sepia-tinged glamour of the literary life. They are disappointed to find that “Webster Hall is no longer filled with the literati but with drag queens” and that they spend “considerably more lunch hours waiting in line at Ess-a-Bagel than sitting at the counter at the Oyster Bar.”
Here Daum’s cynicism about entering what seems like a ruined, inauthentic world appears forced. Sure, the White Horse Tavern may no longer be a magnet for writers and artists, but there are plenty of new venues that serve the same basic purpose, some of which aren’t even in Manhattan (gasp!). Contemporary publishing may be exceptionally pulpy, but it is not yet wholly a lowbrow commercial enterprise. And Daum has participated aplenty in New York’s actual, contemporary cultural phenoms, such as the KGB Bar reading series and Open City editor Robert Beller’s Web site, www.mrbellersneighborhood.com. She has helped create her times, just as thousands of others have.
It has always been difficult to become a writer, to balance the work you do to survive with the work you hope will itself survive. But people still try to do it. Bohemians have not been banished from New York by high rents; they’ve just rearranged themselves. But they’re there. They don’t watch Sex and the City or expect success by age 30. They read Flaubert for fun and care more about the content of your character than the cut of your shoe.
Daum addresses a generation that is torn between the poles of Dave Eggers and Jedediah Purdy, between different calculuses of irony and sincerity. With self-mocking good humor and bracing nastiness, she plants herself squarely in ambivalent territory. CP