The history of the Outer Cape is notable. This narrow strip of sand has hosted wave after wave of wanderers and settlers who, since the “first encounter” with the Nauset people in what is now Eastham, called it a welcome haven. At the start of the 20th century, it became the gathering place of a cluster of “Bohemians.” The term refers not so much to those who arrived from Bohemia as those who came from Greenwich Village or the outskirts — often elegant — of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. Playwrights, painters, architects, and writers thronged to Provincetown, Truro, and Wellfleet, and The Shores of Bohemia, published last month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, chronicles their arrival and their stay.
Its author, John Taylor Williams (known almost universally as “Ike”), is the perfect privileged witness to this story, and he tells it well. From 1910 to 1960, these shores hosted a clan of creative personalities whose careers are nearly synonymous with the cultural reach of “the American Century.” There were artists here before 1910, and there are artists here today, but Williams focuses on that half century as a kind of microcosm and emblem of the whole. He shows them, warts and all.
The list of celebrated names is long. “Before he closed his village bookstore, the Parnassus, and moved full-time to Provincetown,” Williams writes, “[Frank] Shay left several legacies: the first the thickly inscribed door to his 4 Christopher Street bookstore, which … bears the signatures of 242 writers, poets, playwrights, and postwar luminaries, including Sherwood Anderson, Floyd Dell, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Susan Glaspell, Josephine Herbst, Harry Kemp, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Nathan, Upton Sinclair, John Sloan, Mary Heaton Vorse, and William Zorach.” Add Eugene O’Neill, Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, and a host of others to the honor roll, and you have some sense of how extensive was the gathering that comprised, as in the book’s subtitle, “A Cape Cod Story.”
It was true as well for painters and architects. Helen Frankenthaler, Dorothy Lake Gregory, Hans Hofmann, Edward Hopper, Wolf Kahn, Robert Motherwell, and Jackson Pollack all arrived on the scene, as did the Bauhaus architects Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, Walter Gropius, and Eero Saarinen. Two of the principal players are John (“Jack”) Phillips, who took center stage in last year’s memoir, Upper Bohemia, by his daughter Hayden Herrera, and John (“Jack”) Hall, the author’s former father-in-law.
There were multiple marriages, multiple affairs, almost obligatory skinny-dipping and wife-or-partner swapping. During Prohibition and on either side of it, there was prodigious drinking, dancing, and alcohol-fueled rage. These people worked hard and played harder, and the portrait Williams paints of them is not always flattering; there was collateral damage in the younger generation and jealousy, both personal and professional, throughout. “Always lurking in this highly charged bohemian circle was an underlying tension based on either dangerous liaisons or unsettled intellectual battles,” Williams observes.
Still, the overarching feel of this account is celebratory and respectful; the author watches from a calm remove while his characters cavort. There were overt gay and lesbian couples and collectives, and such figures as Tennessee Williams and Paul Cadmus play their parts. Dwight MacDonald, Alfred Kazin, and a host of political pundits would argue ideology before stripping down to swim on the beach at Newcomb Hollow or in the kettle ponds.
A valuable component of the narrative is worth dwelling on. Throughout The Shores of Bohemia we are reminded of what is happening elsewhere, both in America and abroad. From John Reed, Emma Goldman, and Max Eastman in the time of the Russian Revolution to the various Cape Codders implicated in the “Red scare” and accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee, there was constant interaction with the issues of the day. Williams writes of the Great Depression, the New Deal, the figures of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky and how these artists dealt with them, either admiringly or in opposition. He situates these private people in the public arena. Their friendships and love affairs did not exist in vacuo, and we are constantly reminded — even while they withdraw from it — of the way these celebrants related to the world. Chapter titles including “The Masses,” “The War to End All Wars,” “The Jazz Age,” “The Popular Front,” and “The Crimes of Stalin” underscore this aspect of “A Cape Cod Story,” proving that no man is an island, even if he takes a ferry or, driving, crosses a bridge.
Still, the focus of this well-researched account is on the wharfs of Provincetown, the parties on the seashore, and the homes in Truro or on Wellfleet’s Bound Brook Island. The men are mostly broad-shouldered and tall, the women lithe and lovely, and they raise their glasses and bottles together in a collective bacchanal. Robert Browning wrote in “Home Thoughts From Abroad”: “Oh, to be in England/ Now that April’s there….” Ike Williams’s The Shores of Bohemia offers another geography, but substitute “Cape Cod” for “England” and the sentiment’s the same. His book is filled with anecdote and detail, both clear-eyed and nostalgic, and anyone who reads it will likely share that yearning for a place still present and a time gone by.
Nicholas Delbanco is the author of 31 books. His most recent novel is It Is Enough; his most recent work of nonfiction, Why Writing Matters, was reviewed in the Independent on April 28. He and his wife, Elena, live in Wellfleet.
The event: A conversation with Ike Williams, Nicholas Delbanco, and Ed Miller
The time: Thursday, June 23, 5 p.m.
The place: Wellfleet Preservation Hall, 335 Main St.
The cost: $40 at wellfleetpreservationhall.org