UU Culture Defined

At last we have a book explaining UU culture with clarity and historical value. Virginia Nicholson’s Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living, 1900-1939 catalogs all the arts of self-expression and self-discovery (travel, clothing, sex, child-rearing, food, home decor) and explains the philosophy which unified the Bloomsbury set and the Moveable Feast Crowd. As the granddaughter of Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister), Nicholson marries personal knowledge (which she only lets slip once) and scholarly heft. After viewing the paintings, reading the books, sojourning in the settings, eating at the tables, she can sum it up as a choice to reject Victorian middle class strictures in favor of more exotic world cultures. This is the first time I realized that the Roma and Russians I now take for granted as part of the Western European mosaic made an arrival at a particular date and we experienced for the first time, not just on the Continent, but in England. As Nicholson explains in her chapter on Bohemian fashion, Victoria’s decades of widow’s weeds had left English fashion ripe for revisioning.

The fun of the book is the way she reconsiders the early 20th century literary and arts crowd through the lens of 21st century scholarship, especially sensitivity to unequal opportunities for women and men. Nicholson doesn’t touch on earlier utopian movements, but rather traces this group’s ideas to a particular 19th century book Scenes de la Vie de Boheme by Henri Mugher (also the basis for Puccini’s opera, La Boheme). Nicholson lays out several other literary sources, and, amazingly, gets through the entire enterprise without once mentioning Gertude Stein but not omitting many of the folks who patronized her salons in Paris. Nicholson’s is a thoroughly English point of view.

But so is Unitarianism’s, and therein lie the questions for our religious community.

1) Nicholson is clear that most “Bohemians” had been raised middle class and were rebelling against its strictures. So what happens to a culture of rebellion when that which it rejects has passed away? The middle class is less and less economically stable or culturally dominant. There are starting to be questions about how to define it– always a bad sign for folks who see themselves as rebels. Is it the education? Is it the pattern of family activities? Is it the income level? If we don’t know what it means to be middle class anymore, how can we position ourselves in rebellion to it?

2) Nicholson is clear that although Bohemians made many choices for poverty, there were categories on which they did not scrimp. Neither simplicity nor asceticism appealed to them. Some employed cooks so the women could continue their art, some made special purchases of hats or shoes or such to accent a generally second-hand wardrobe, and many, when they had the money, gathered up friends for a night in a really good restaurant. They traveled to live in cheaper places, esp. France and Italy, but when they came home to England made every effort to keep up what had been cheap local cuisine and now was luxury.

3) Nicholson is clear that Bohemianism was a close cousin to what is known as “genteel poverty,” that is, a cultured lifestyle which struggles to maintain itself amidst economic distress. What kept these folks afloat was economic diversity. It was a tight group which had a few folks with enough money to buy meals, enough art patrons to occasionally fund a purchase and replenish the coffers.  When someone sold a painting or a poem, they were quick to pick up the bill, as had been done for them on other occasions. These were not year-to-year membership rolls, but long-term covenants that outlasted many of today’s marriages. And folks in these covenants had the courage to judge imitators harshly, looking for depth and sincerity before letting in newcomers. (This reminds me of the Mormons, who are extraordinarily generous with members, but set the membership bar high.)

I lift these questions for UUs concerned about knowing ourselves better, in order to maintain that which is good about who we are and to keep doing for this world that which it calls a benefit. Nicholson lays out the philosophy of this group with a clarity that hit me between the eyes. Yes, I said, yes yes yes.

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