The Golden Era of Cape Cod’s Bohemia

With a title like The Shores of Bohemia: A Cape Cod Story, 1910-1960, a reader might expect that the author, John Taylor Williams, would specifically focus on Cape Cod and the many “bohemians” who lived and socialized there — as Williams writes, “those dedicated to radical political reform, a new exploration of personal relationships free from Victorian strictures, and the search for a new ‘American’ voice in writing, painting, architecture, and theater.”

Instead, this substantial book comprises a sweeping and international history that traces the left’s uneasy relationship with Russia — and Stalin — through World Wars I and II, the Spanish Civil War, the Great Depression, and the immediate postwar world. Even more, The Shores of Bohemia traces the formation of postwar American culture itself: from theater to art to journals such as the Partisan Review and the New Yorker, it seems almost all major American cultural figures found themselves at some point at one of the cocktail parties across the vast coastal landscapes of the Outer Cape and its towns of Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown. Part cheap and part beautiful, like a magnet Cape Cod drew the “bohemians’ diaspora” to the sandy peninsula that Thoreau called the “very form of a ripple.”

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The roads were still mainly sand, and cars were rare. Apartments and old farmhouses at the Cape’s end were cheap to rent, and on a beautiful summer day it didn’t really matter that most had no electricity, indoor plumbing, or heat, other than a stove or fireplace.                                                                               

With so many well-known American and often European artists, writers, or activists staying in Cape Cod for summers of discussion, drinking, and affairs (including John Reed, Louise Bryant, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Edmund Wilson, and Mary McCarthy), it starts to seem odd if one was not there — and this is where the sparseness of major Black cultural figures is noticeable: While a Black senator, Edward Brooke, helped establish the Cape Cod National Seashore, and Paul Robeson and James Baldwin visited the Cape (Robeson performed at the Provincetown Playhouse), their welcome was complicated and not always warm. As Williams points out, “These onetime lions of the Left, who had celebrated the Civil War’s ending of slavery, were not yet ready to accept Black Americans as equals.”

Williams married into the Cape Cod bohemians, and his father-in-law, the self-taught designer and Hatch House architect Jack Hall, should be the core of the book. Yet Williams instead provides an impressive — at times almost overwhelming — amount of backstory featuring a vast, mobile, and international cast of characters, many of whom were involved (or getting themselves uninvolved) with the perilous politics of the American Communist party. The too-few intimate details told to him and only him by his in-laws that should be delicious are instead strangely incongruous against this sweep of history. Some people do thread through the political alliances, revolutions, and wars: Edmund Wilson, for instance, is a regular character, but the reader is left primarily with the sense of a much-married abuser with a drinking problem (all-too-common traits in the book, which includes one of the most famous Cape Cod drinkers, Norman Mailer). Another frustratingly blurry family is the L’Engles, with its most well-known member omitted altogether: Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, which alerted generations of children to the evils of enforced corporate uniformity.

In general, the Cape Cod women artists, writers, and thinkers come off as corollary to their lovers and husbands: Dorothy Day for instance only appears as one of the eight wives of Berkeley Tobey (who is surely not nearly as well known as Day today). Emma Goldman is given some time, but as much as for her lovers as for her activism. Civil rights is a distant roar, even though the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which persecuted many of the Cape Cod artists and activists, made much of any connections between American communism and civil rights — an association that still haunts us today.

However, Williams’s deeper insights on the Jewish émigrés who had such a powerful impact on reshaping American culture and character after the war help focus the latter half of The Shores of Bohemia. Of particular interest too is a chapter on the “New, New Bauhaus,” which ties European war migrations to the postwar flowering of culture grounded in the Cape, where architects and artists could freely experiment.  

Toward the end, Williams at last allows his true affection for his in-laws to show, along with his admiration for the decades of activism that allowed them, despite their many personal flaws, to imagine a better, fairer world — one we are still tragically far from realizing. “[T]hey envisioned an Athenian America where its citizens engaged in intense public discourse, be it in writing, painting, or architecture. Where its heroes were those who served as public intellectuals disputing theories of what was best in full view of its citizens,” he writes. “They would not have comprehended Fox News.”

The Shores of Bohemia: A Cape Cod Story, 1910-1960 by John Taylor Williams (2022) is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and is available online and in bookstores.


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