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Editor’s Choice: The Village by John Strausbaugh

The Village by John Strausbaugh; Ecco, 624 pages ($29.99). This book is a great rarity, to be sure. Just as certainly, it will be one of the major books of 2013 when the final accounting is done. The subtitle of this hugely readable anecdotal history of Greenwich Village – “the most famous neighborhood in the world” the dustflap calls it with almost no argument (its European forebear, Paris’ Left Bank, would be its only competition) – is “400 years of a History of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues: Greenwich Village.”

Almost everyone you can think of, from Walt Whitman to Patti Smith, is enclosed within. To make it simple then, this history of Greenwich Village in its entirety may be singular. The historian and anecdotalist is John Strausbaugh.

His encyclopedic history sometimes, perforce, lacks depth but it makes up for it in scope. Even so, Strausbaugh’s panoramic camera frequently stops to give us cultural portraiture which is, in its way, exemplary in its completeness. Take, for instance, his portrait of the great avant-garde American composer Edgard Varese who lived for more than three decades at “885 Sullivan Street, one of William Sloane Coffin’s MacDougal-Sullivan town houses. Contrary to later myths that would paint Varese as a lonely avant-garde hero who toiled in obscurity in culturally benighted America, he was received in New York with open arms … Back in the 1920s Varese had disparaged ‘jazz as a negro product exploited by Jews’ but bebop and free jazz appealed to him and he’d go to Village clubs to hear it. He even conducted a free jazz workshop in 1957 with musicians including Mingus, Art Farmer and Teo Macero.” The even-handed and informative completeness of that is close to unique.

So it’s all here – the First Bohemians of the 19th century, early 20th century’s heirs, eccentrics Joe Gould and poet Maxwell Bodenheim, hordes of artists, writers and musicians. We’re talking about those from the two Dylans (Thomas and Bob) to Robert Mapplethorpe and beyond, fabled nightclubs like the Village Vanguard and Village Gate etc. A one-of-kind treasure.

– Jeff Simon