What is the self? Do we all have one? Is it best treated with Botox or with books? Is it grounded in genetic concrete or manufactured by cultural circumstances? How can you tell the ersatz from the genuine article–and who’s the best judge? Is having a self the same as having an identity, or are the two sequential, a successful excavation of one’s “inner essence” leading to association, political and otherwise, with a group of like-minded essences?

The questions may sound as if they’re lifted from a ditzy and dated issue of Psychology Today, but they are in fact subjects of heated debate in cutting-edge intellectual circles. Few historians (other than some queer ones) participate in such debates; most would claim that they’re above such trendy foolishness, though the real reason may be that historians are a stodgy bunch–they’re conservators, after all, and of The Past no less, that currently scorned, “irrelevant” territory.

But now along comes a young historian named Daniel Hurewitz. With his first full-length book, Bohemian Los Angeles (a guidebook preceded), he jumps feet first into the recondite realm of essences and identities, and does so with the aplomb of a philosopher manqué. Hurewitz’s impressive debut marks–to the extent one can ever predict such things–the arrival of a future scholar of the front rank. The imaginative boldness of Bohemian Los Angeles will inevitably draw counterfire. As I participate in that rebuttal, I hope the reader will keep in mind that I do so from an overall vantage point of admiration.

But let’s get down to it. Working with the sophistication of a seasoned comparative historian, though more lucid than most, Hurewitz traces and evaluates the intersecting histories of three epicenters–artists, Communists and homosexuals–that co-existed in the LA subdivision of Edendale over a forty-year span (roughly the 1920s through the ’60s). Hurewitz’s research on these communities has been deep and comprehensive enough to allow him to raise a set of interlocking questions about how these seemingly disparate communities shaped themselves and influenced one another.

Along the way he tramples rather audaciously on some pretty hallowed ground. He challenges the widely accepted notion, for example, that lesbian bar culture of some fifty years ago was a significant proto-political site for subsequent gay organizing. Hurewitz also takes issue with the widely held view that the emergence of a gay identity in the early twentieth century was closely linked to the rise of capitalism, which, so the argument has gone, allowed individuals to escape the close scrutiny of the family farm for the anonymity of cities–where endemic oppression further politicized them. He thinks the origins of identity politics lay deeper, “in a broad array of social arenas where fundamental questions about the self and politics” were being asked; in “thirdspace” geographical locations like Edendale, at the margins of society (often called “bohemia”), where the values of a dominant bourgeois cultural structure were being undermined and where “the inner life…had to become conceptualized as a foundation of self-hood.”

When dealing with the Communist enclave in Edendale, Hurewitz similarly argues (again, contrary to most historians) that the party created fertile soil in which individuals could examine and nurture their inner lives–in a manner comparable to the surrounding community of artists. Party members did not, in other words, surrender their individuality to the overarching need for a disciplined collective struggle against social injustice. “Edendale Communists,” Hurewitz argues, “cultivated a dynamic relationship between individuals and society that further transformed and politicized the quest for essence.” The search for an “authentic self,” in short, purportedly characterized all three Edendale communities and gave them a shared vision and purpose.

In all of this, Hurewitz is trafficking in a high level of abstraction, one in which either proof or contradiction is difficult to establish. Selves and essences, values and symbolic systems–it makes the ordinary historian’s factually grounded head swim with confusion (or shake with scorn). When Hurewitz argues, for example, that there is an “irreducible core” of uniqueness to each personality–“our psychic DNA”–and declares its discovery a fundamental precursor to political action, he induces an alarming note of panic. (Oh, Lord, do I qualify as having an established self or “core”? Have I mapped my psychic DNA with sufficient rigor? Since I’m unsure, perhaps I’d best refrain from “political action,” lest the commitment be incomplete, inauthentic.)

In staking out his paradigm, Hurewitz proceeds from the assumption that the hallmark of modernity is the value placed on subjectivity. He may well be right, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the hallmark of humanity is the quest for an “interior essence,” coupled with the urgent demand for its expression in the arenas of politics and art. To imply as much is simply to reflect, without interrogating, the Modernist turn that exalts individual specialness and gives questionable coherence (and importance) to our messy, puny existences. Hurewitz’s brand of modernity flatteringly portrays the process of self-discovery as a conscious, willed affair, and rejects out of hand the possibility that our precious selves amount to little more than accidental accumulations of experiences, attitudes and values that centrally derive from the families and cultures we happen to have been born into, matters over which we have no control.

When Hurewitz comes to the third “epicenter” in Edendale–the community of artists that centered on the woodblock engraver Paul Landacre–his discussion lacks the detail he devotes to the Communist and homosexual worlds. He tells us that Edendale’s artists “wrestled with” expressing their “inner selves” as “constituted by feelings and psychological constructs.” But he doesn’t provide enough information about the artistic community to validate such outsized claims, or to convince us that these “wrestlings” transformed Edendale into a place where “self-expression could be the mark of identity and the potential basis of a community.” My nominalism may be getting the better of me, but Hurewitz’s demonstration that several artists’ clubs met regularly and that various friendships endured isn’t enough to convince me that the discussion (or assumption) of shared inner essences was the central ingredient of those clubs and friendships.

Nor has Hurewitz persuasively established substantial interconnections among artists, homosexuals and Communists. Yes, a few isolated figures like Harry Hay, founder of the pioneering gay rights group the Mattachine Society, had ties to the worlds of theater and Communism, but Bohemian Los Angeles offers scant evidence that homosexuals (even covert ones) populated party or artistic circles in significant numbers. Hurewitz takes a still further giant leap when he goes on to insist that Mattachine was following “in the steps of their neighborhood forebears” when it set out, like the artists, “to create a medium in which they could express and discuss their inner lives and desires.”

Setting aside the enigmatic question of what the artistic process actually consists of, it’s implausible to assume that we can somehow quantify the amount of time actually spent in Mattachine meetings discussing “inner lives,” and how deep those discussions might have gone. Hay, for one, saw homosexuals as distinctive enough to claim the title of an oppressed social minority, and he put out the welcome mat for gender nonconformists (effeminate or transvestite men). He also firmly believed that gay people needed to become politicized.

But the majority of Mattachine’s members soon made it clear that they had little tolerance for “fairies” and drag queens, and proved wholly reluctant to leave their closets and publicly demand their rights. Beyond Hay and his limited circle, it’s doubtful that many of Mattachine’s early members were nearly as interested in “bringing their ‘essence’ to the surface” and making demands on the larger society as in ending their personal isolation, finding an outlet for socializing and for educating others about what good citizens–i.e., not degenerate fairies–they in fact were. Many were committed to the view that they were “just folks,” give or take the minor matter of sexual orientation; and in the name of presenting themselves as candidates for assimilation, they downplayed rather than explored and celebrated their specialness. The dominant emphasis in Mattachine, after Hay and his friends left, was not on exploring how wondrously different they were from mainstream Americans but on masquerading as them.

Comparable questions can be raised about Hurewitz’s schematic presentation of Edendale’s Communists. They, too, don’t seem to have considered the discovery and cultivation of their individual “essence,” or its expressive fulfillment, as either the source or purpose of their political commitment. They may well have gained a great deal personally through association with a group of like-minded activists; but consciously, at least, their purpose in affiliating with the party hinged less on a desire for expanding individual “awareness” and more (these matters are impossible to calibrate closely) on putting to work their ideological conviction that economic priorities needed restructuring in order better to serve the needs of the working class.

Hurewitz is surely right to argue that party members did form an intimate community from which they derived considerable personal fulfillment. But a secondary gain is not the same as a primary purpose. Hurewitz soft-pedals the undeniable fact that the party frowned on “subjectivity,” that individual needs were expected to take a back seat to the collective good. And indeed that emphasis, not the discovery of one’s “inner essence,” may well be the mark of any mature politics. The Communists understood that despite the range of personalities within their ranks, they had come together to mobilize against a common enemy, not to fulfill their own singular, eccentric imperatives.

For women, the common enemy remains the patriarchy. For blacks and Latinos, it is still white racism. For gay people, heterosexual oppression. None of these movements function effectively when the focus is on catering to the diverse needs of those enlisted in the ranks; the diversity can be acknowledged and supported, but a shared purpose must, for maximum effectiveness, remain the point of concentration. The common assumption that political action should be based on a fully shared–even identical–set of values and perspectives among those committed to a cause isn’t a good operational guide for effective organizing. Within a given movement, differences are bound to exist among the rank and file in regard to class, race, gender, age, geographical location, religious belief and so on. But when those differences become the prime focus of attention, the energy that should be saved for working against a common oppressor gets diverted and sapped. To form powerful, effective political organizations, individuals cannot be allowed to let the differences that separate them usurp the agenda. One central reason movements for social reform in this country have rapidly run aground is our commitment to the ideological belief (not the practice) of the supreme importance of the individual.

It’s the ambition of Bohemian Los Angeles that calls forth these outsized counterarguments. In raising them I may now and then have attributed to Hurewitz some gross formulations that don’t do justice to the overall subtlety of his argument. Let me repeat, then, my admiration for the book’s many strengths. Hurewitz’s prose is always lucid and sometimes (scholars take note!) downright exuberant–even when he’s writing about fairly arcane matters. He has not only mastered the secondary literature relating to his subjects but has dug deeply into police records and newspaper accounts, as well as conducted a wide-ranging set of interviews. It is Hurewitz, after all, who has amassed the data and risked the interpretations that allow us to question aspects of his argument. If I sometimes longed for more precise definitions of “inner essence” and the like, or wished that his conclusions about “influence” were a bit more grounded and modulated, I have no doubt whatever that Bohemian Los Angeles marks a major, if flawed, contribution to several fields of inquiry, and will stir much useful debate. I strongly suspect that we can expect much from Daniel Hurewitz in the future.