The Exile's Return (first published in 1934, then a revised edition in 1951), is an account of his generation -- famously called, by Gertrude Stein, the "lost generation" -- who were born in the 1890s and 1900s. As Cowley describes them, they went to college and then served in WWI; many of his friends, literary types, were, like Hemingway and Cummings, ambulance drivers or served in non-combative capacities. After the war, they soaked up Parisian bohemia, a long-standing tradition of cultivated people living in reduced straits for the sake of a romantic dream of the creative life, then went back to New York and found work reviewing books and writing books and working in advertising. What he makes clear is that the kind of intelligentsia his crew represented was a newer Grub Street -- they were making their way as professionals of printed copy -- but they had, thanks to their glimpse of bohemia, developed avant-garde pretensions. One of the more amusing moments in the book is when Cowley lays out the history of bohemia as an ethos with very specific "rules" for belonging: one of the most enduring being the sense of a willful separation from the mainstream. But as Cowley points out, while bohemians might claim they're slumming for the sake of art, most are just hangers-on in search of the thrill of the unusual. Those like him in "the new Grub Street" might believe in their ability to make art, but they're actually too busy being the time's equivalent of yuppies. They set a smart-set intellectual tone, but they don't -- but for the extremely gifted oddballs among them (Hart Crane gets a chapter to himself: "The Roaring Boy") -- ever get around to producing that elusive masterpiece.
The book that in some ways furthered this idea for me was Stuart Hobbs's historical account of The End of the American Avant-Garde (1997), a book which looks at the situation that pertains after WWII because for a brief time New York was able to sustain not just a colorful bohemia of "alternate lifestyles" and creative behavior, but an actual artistic avant-garde that had its roots in the period Cowley was knocking around in (the time when some Dadaists fled the Europe of WWI and took up in New York) and continued through the WPA and into twin apotheoses in 1) the abstract expressionist painters who for a time defined modern art, and 2) the "beat" (or what Mailer calls "the hipster") fulfillment of the long-standing bohemian strain of literature -- and its other versions as well: Black Mountain, the New York school, and so on. In other words, the late '40s-late '50s achieved a certain status for "the outsider" as a mainstay of whatever art in America could or would be. And there was still a New York intelligentsia of sorts to sustain it through praise and rebuke. Something to go up against, in other words.
What kills the avant-garde? The same thing that kills bohemia. Success. The proliferation of bohemias and avant-gardes through the lens of the various kinds of media attention they receive, not the least of which is the academic media. Think only of someone like Dylan who ambles in as the "great unwashed" arriviste in the folk-purist bohemia that still exists in early '60s NYC (as if the Depression and the FDR liberal dream that might almost become socialism were still the latest thing), conquers it and, in a matter of years, becomes an electrified hipster riding the currents of youth culture adulation into big bucks and media overkill and "the future of rock" post-Beatles.
Whither goeth bohemia and grub street and the avant-garde after its last flourishing in the "drop-out culture" of communal free love apostles, hawkers of Zen, and psychedelic savants? Into academia, where the barely ekeing a living professionals are now found in the interminable Grub Street of graduate school and adjunct faculty posts, while the avant-garde are the various hot property academic stars dispensing their idiosyncratic forms of theory and cultural crit within an ivory tower consecrated to what modernism hath wrought and postmodernism hath brought, and where the bohemian is bound to be found in one of the "programs of study" -- women studies, regional studies, marxists studies, hyphenated-american studies, media studies, creative writing -- that have proliferated en academe since the '90s the way New Age bookstores and headshops proliferated in the gently gentrified "ethnic" quarters of many cities in the '70s.
But what of the "real avant-garde"? Most of their most prominent denizens have at least one foot in the educational system or in mainstream media. In the world of the merger and conglomerate everyone's more or less getting their funding from those sources that fund "that sort of thing" -- supported by "patrons" who have collective identities like AT&T or Getty or Mobil -- where avant-garde starts to mean: celebrated, but doesn't sell (or won't "sell out," but...). And "the real bohemians" are simply the youth underclass (and those perennially young at heart) working dead-end jobs -- with irony! -- while sporting a tonsorial or sartorial style that has yet to make the walkways. Living not for art so much as for the freedom to be a cult of one. And where -- Grub Streeter, avant-gardist, bohemian -- do we meet? In the cyber café on the internet, and it's like, y'know, totally global.