Although the 19th century was the great age of Bohemia, and a few men of letters, few artists and musicians, did not at some time fall beneath its spell, there is one man who deserves the title of The First Bohemian. He was not the first in time, or the most distinguished, but he gave the word Bohemia its currency. Henry Murger crystallised the impression of Bohemia which has come down to the present day. He fixed a certain vision of the Bohemia way of life, and, rightly or wrongly, he gave it lasting glamour.
Henry Murger was born in Paris in 1822, the son of a concierge, and spent his youth in utter povery in the company of penniless artists and writers, trying to find his true medium.
At the Cafe Momus he met Courbet and Baudelaire, who had still to make their names in painting and poetry, and the realist novelist Champfleury, and Nadar, the great journalist and photographer. Encouraged by them to abandon poetry for prose, he finally won fame in 1849 with his Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, the tragi-comic story of his life in the Latin Quarter from which he and Barriere adapted their play, and Puccini his opera, La Boheme.
Henry Murger was the first chronicler to establish in the conventional mind that romantic picture of Bohemian life which has persisted to this day.
The Latin Quarter had its origin in the 13th century when Robert de Sorbon created the college which developed into the great Universite de Paris - "la Sorbonne." Its name came about because the common language of the students of Sorbon's day, come together from all over Europe, was Latin. At first merely a closed corporation of scholasticism, the Quartier Latin eventually became the stamping-ground for apprentices in the seven arts, as well as for the scholars. But to the conventional general public the Latin Quarter remained more or less of an unknown world until Murger's 'Scenes de la Vie de Boheme' brought Parisian artist life into high relief.
Starting in a Paris magazine in 1845, this series of stories of Latin Quarter life immediately captured popular imagination. Out of the drama, the comedy, the melodrama, the drabness of artist life, Henry Murger created an enduring and glamorous legend. He made "Bohemia" and "Latin Quarter" magic terms all over the world.
While Murger's myth has been crystallizing throughout the decades, the man himself has been steadily receding into a hazy limbo. Bohemia has become identified in the popular mind, with the opera of 'La Boheme' which was adapted by Puccini in 1895 from Murger's original tales. Yet swarms of young artists and writers of all nationalities are even today living a Latin Quarter life upon which they embarked through the power of the Murgerian tradition.
Coming late into the Romantic movement, with Realism already rampant, Henry Murger managed to walk a literary tight-rope between the two. The general reading public was not yet ready for Realism and the literary world was beginning to be satiated with Romanticism. Murger made himself the 'petit maitre' of the transition. His 'Scenes de la Vie de Boheme' carried enough of Romanticism to arouse popular interest in those tales of Latin Quarter life. And, owing to his journalistic training, he was able to invest them with an air of verisimilitude which made them the pre-eminent chronicles of a milieu little known to the outside world. Fairly accurate reportorial sketches of the trials and tribulations and buffooneries of himself and his friends, these tales were marked by a bright wit, a charm, a glamour which lifted them above the other contemporary 'feuilletons'.
'Vie de Boheme' is replete with sentiment but its humour redeems it from being mere sentimentality. Murger knew his Bohemia and he could laugh at it as well as weep over it. Murger's humour, even at this day, does not pall. It is essentially modern in its keen sense of the ridiculous, in its grasp of the absurdities of situations - it is burlesque. A man with a genius for camaraderie, Henry Murger gathered to himself during his short life a host of literary and artistic friends. His wit, his conversational charm, contributed to his contemporary renown. He became one of the most popular and most discussed writers of his period. His friends were always ready to rush to his defence. The critics of his day were inclined to over-praise him. His few enemies, by the very violence of their attacks, only dignified his position.
Murger followed up the instantaneous success of 'Vie de Boheme' with a dozen other assorted volumes of stories, essays and plays, but he never recaptured the almost ephemeral qualities which have made that first work legendary.
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