It seems odd to describe a doorstop like Republic of Dreams as a brisk read, but indeed it is. Too brisk, in fact — the story rushes to a conclusion just as it's getting good. Blame it on the sprawling subject matter, the author's approach to telling his story, and tragedy. Village Voice contributing editor Ross Wetzsteon set out to recount a 50-year chunk of the history of Greenwich Village, the New York neighborhood that has housed everyone from the Founding Fathers to Mark Twain to Bob Dylan, and birthed nearly every American social innovation except, as one denizen notes in the preface, Prohibition. The author died in 1998, before he could pen his book's final chapter, but until then he did a witty, entertaining job of telling his tale. Still, the result is something less than the sum of its gossipy parts.
And gossipy it is — if you've been wondering about anarchist Emma Goldman's pet name for her genitalia, look no further. In the book, Wetzsteon defends his obsession with the bed-hopping of bohemia, asserting that for Villagers the personal was often political. Republic consists of lively, if sometimes overly psychoanalyzed, profiles of the neighborhood's most influential residents, from journalist Jack Reed and playwright Eugene O'Neill to poets Edna St. Vincent Millay and Dylan Thomas, with attention also paid to neighborhood kooks (such as hobo Joe Gould, made infamous by New Yorker scribe Joseph Mitchell) and local heroes (such as Robert Clairmont, a mind-bogglingly generous millionaire playboy who spent money like it was going out of style — until, in 1929, it did).
Along the way, Wetzsteon works two themes — that people in every era have pined nostalgically for Greenwich Village's past and declared its present moribund, and that the country's middle and bohemian classes have always defined themselves mostly in relation to one another. The sheer bulk and details of his people stories, though, overtake his grand themes, and the sameness of his mini-bios' conclusions (it seems like everyone who didn't die an early, debauched death wound up as a crabbed, reactionary anti-Semite) creates a perhaps unintended, tragic undertow. Republic was meant to praise Greenwich Village but, ultimately, it buries it.
REPUBLIC OF DREAMS — GREENWICH VILLAGE: THE AMERICAN BOHEMIA, 1910-1960
By Ross Wetzsteon
Simon & Schuster
$35.00, 617 pages