By John Taylor Williams

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 343 pages. $35. ISBN 978-0-374-26275-4


By Hayden Herrera

Simon & Schuster. 248 pages. $17.99. ISBN 978-1-9821-0529-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Bohemia, they say, is always yesterday. People like to look back nostalgically to a time when life was full of promise, there were more interesting characters around, money didn’t seem to matter as much, and it was possible to survive on very little. Or so it seemed. And there may be some truth in it. It costs a lot to be poor these days and rising property and other prices have effectively driven young would-be writers and artists from city centres. Greenwich Village, Montparnasse, Soho have all been gentrified. But there are various reasons for the decline of the bohemian spirit. The American poet Edward Field pointed out that “It was Andy Warhol who declared the end of bohemianism with his camp emphasis on celebrity. Suddenly, becoming successful and famous became the goal of creative artists and the bohemian ideal was finished”.

There is probably significance in the fact that John Taylor Williams has chosen to focus his exploration of bohemianism around Cape Cod on the years between 1910 and 1960. A handy fifty year framework, but it also emphasises that, after 1960, things started to change in terms of the sort of people who began to move into the area. And how developments took place that reflected the tastes and interests of the newcomers, rather than those of the bohemians.

Cape Cod is on the Atlantic Coast of the United States and place names such as Falmouth and Barnstaple reflect how it was one of the earliest English settlements in America. I’m not intending to provide a detailed guide to the area and, from the point of view of The Shores of Bohemia the three locations that John Taylor Williams deals with are Truro, Wellfleet and Provincetown. The latter is probably the best-known because of its associations with artistic activities. Jig Cook and the Provincetown Players, famous in the history of American theatre, especially for their involvements with Eugene O’Neill, were active there. And, on a personal note, I was aware of Provincetown as a place where writers and artists congregated. I recall picking up one or two copies of The Provincetown Review around 1960 or so. 

The magazine, edited by William V. Ward, got into trouble when it published a story by Hubert Selby in its third issue. Ward was taken to court and charged with circulating obscene material. It should be noted that Cape Cod had a local population largely made up of Portuguese fisherfolk, who were Catholics, and descendants of the original settlers who were Protestants. They may have sometimes fallen out with each other, but they could come together in their distrust of the “outsiders”. The writers and artists rallied around Ward and money was raised for his defence. Expert witnesses like Norman Podhoretz, Allen Tate, and Stanley Kunitz came forward to testify to the literary qualities of the story. They didn’t impress the judge, however, and Ward was found guilty and fined. An entertaining account of the episode by Dan Wakefield was published in the February, 1962, issue of the slick New York magazine Nugget.

All that occurred at the end of the period Williams is dealing with, and he doesn’t refer to it, but I thought it worthwhile bringing it in as an example of how there could sometimes be friction between locals and “outsiders”, some of whom had actually lived in the area for several years, though others tended to be summer visitors only. Not everyone could withstand the rigours of the harsh winters along the Atlantic coastline, nor the isolation.

So, let’s go back to where Williams starts his story. He chronicles the influx of artists as beginning from around the time that Charles Hawthorne set up his Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown in 1899. He had previously worked with William Merritt Chase at a Long Island painting school, and when he moved to Cape Cod some of his students followed him. They included Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, and Edward Hopper. Norman Rockwell, who was already living in Provincetown, joined them. Williams quotes an aphorism by Hawthorne that sums up his teaching practice: “Painting is just getting one spot of colour in relation to another spot……Let colour make form, do not make form and colour it”. Williams says that Hans Hofmann, who had an influential later art school in Provincetown, agreed with Hawthorne “that colour was the key to great painting”.

It’s suggested that, along with Hawthorne, one of the people responsible for “luring” many Greenwich Village writers and artists to Provincetown was Mary Heaton Vorse. There were, she pointed out, old warehouses and empty cottages which could be rented or even bought cheaply. Vorse had travelled widely in Europe, spoke French, Italian and German, and had lived on Cape Cod since 1907. She was a radical in her politics and a great supporter of the rights of trade unionists, covering numerous strikes and related activities as a labour reporter. She was also familiar with the bohemians of Greenwich Village. Dee Garrison, Vorse’s biographer, said of her: “As the respected older-warrior of the pre-1912 Village, Mary Vorse served as a model for the younger men and women enlisting in the ongoing revolt”.  That revolt was not only political but artistic and exemplified by the 1913 Armory Show which displayed well over 1,000 works by European and American artists. It brought movements such as Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism to the attention of American painters and sculptors.

Williams provides an interesting and useful survey of the social, political and artistic ferment of the years leading up to America’s entry into the First World War. It was a time of experimentation in living, so the possibilities of creating a new society, even if only on a small scale, on Cape Cod appealed to many of the Greenwich Village bohemians. They were appalled by the way in which increasing industrialisation had ravaged the country and created slums in major cities and corruption in politics. People like John Reed, Max Eastman and Floyd Dell campaigned against injustices in The Masses, at least until the government closed it down in 1917 because of its opposition to American involvement in the European conflict.  In Provincetown they could be largely free from police harassment and indulge in affairs and unconventional behaviour. I lost count of the liaisons as people swapped partners, ran off with someone else’s husband or wife, or just had one-night stands.  And the post-war years didn’t see a let-up in the bed-hopping and extra-marital activities. The so-called Jazz Age encouraged people to loosen up, drink a lot, and often behave outrageously.

Frankly, I got a little tired with tales of infidelity, and was more interested in reading about characters like Harry Kemp and Terry Carlin. Kemp, the “Tramp Poet”, as he was known, lived In a shack on the dunes, and his work was popular in the 1920s. He’d designed a scheme for a League of Bohemian Republics which would unite and overthrow both capitalism and communism. It was a fanciful idea and never likely to come to fruition. Kemp later declined into alcoholism and died in 1960. But he had written novels, poetry and autobiographical material before the alcohol got the better of him. His Tramping on Life is about his experiences hoboing around America. I’ve hunted for years for a copy of his novel, Love Among the Cape Enders, but have never been able to afford to buy it when one becomes available. As for Terry Carlin, perhaps his main claim to fame is that he provided the basis for Larry Slade, a disillusioned one-time anarchist, who sits drinking and philosophising in Eugene O’Neill’s great play, The Iceman Cometh. He doesn’t appear to have been productive as a writer himself though he did contribute to Benjamin Tucker’s magazine, Liberty, and to Hippolyte Havel’s Revolt. Havel was the inspiration for the character of Hugo Kalmar in O’Neill’s play.

In the 1930s there was what might be called a “radicalisation of bohemia” as the effects of the Depression, coupled with the rising tide of fascism in Europe, began to affect the lives of the bohemians. Friendships fell apart as people identified themselves as socialists, Stalinists, and Trotskyists.  Williams has a shaky summary of the Spanish Civil War in which he says that George Orwell served in the communist-controlled International Brigades. He didn’t, and fought with the independent POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) militia which had no connection with the Brigades. The POUM were looked on as Trotskyists by the communists and were eventually suppressed by the Stalinists. And the book Orwell wrote about the Communist Party’s “sinister behaviour” in Spain was Homage to Catalonia and not Animal Farm.  

Among the bohemians who had arrived in the 1930s was Jack Phillips, a Harvard graduate from an affluent family, though he politically aligned himself with the Stalinist wing of the Communist Party. Williams describes him as “preternaturally handsome and charming, and women found him irresistible, although all but the last of his five wives abandoned the marriage”. The first of the wives was Elizabeth “Libby” Blair, who Phillips met in Paris, where she was studying with Fernand Legér, and married. It might be worth noting that Libby eventually also married five times.

While they were together Jack and Libby had two daughters, Blair and Hayden. Hayden Herrera’s Upper Bohemia is a graphic and often touching memoir of what it  was like growing up with parents who were often never there, and if they were had little time for their children: “To follow their own desire was a moral imperative. Repression, sacrifice, and compromise were cowardly”, Hayden says, and “For my mother and her friends, defying all norms of proper behaviour was fashionable. Conformism was beneath contempt”.  It says something for Herrera’s strength of character that she grew up to be a noted art historian, critic, and biographer.

Philips, who became a self-taught established architect, was still active around Cape Cod when things began to return to normal after 1945. New faces were seen in Provincetown, Truro and Wellfleet. Weldon Kees, a significant poet and critic who later disappeared in mysterious circumstances, opened a gallery in Provincetown and ran a series of discussions under the title, “Forum 49”, in which subjects such as “What is an Artist” and “French Art v. American Art” were debated. New York was taking over from Paris as the centre of the art world, and there were new movements in poetry, jazz, and other areas that pointed to a general resurgence of artistic activity.

The politics of the Thirties, which had bitterly divided the community, were in decline, but there was a reckoning to be paid. Some Cape Cod residents were caught up in the HUAC investigations and questioned by the FBI. Williams mentions cinematographer Boris Kaufman who, because of having been born in Russia and with two brothers still living there, “had trouble finding work until Elia Kazan hired him in 1954 to film On the Waterfront, for which he won an award for cinematography”.

Williams also refers to Steve Nelson, a dedicated communist and one-time member of the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. He had moved to Truro because other veterans of that conflict, and members of the Communist Party, lived in the area. Williams refers to Nelson’s role as a “party enforcer in the International Brigades culling out anarchists and socialists”. His “oral biography”, Steve Nelson: American Radical (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981) is worth reading for its vivid account of union organising, war in Spain, and life as a Communist Party activist.

Some members of the group described as the New York Intellectuals could also be seen around Cape Cod, including Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson. McCarthy’s novel, A Charmed Life, is set in what can be identified as Wellfleet, and includes fictionalised portraits of Wilson and others. McCarthy’s characters were often shown in an unflattering light, and her descriptions of the person supposedly based on Wilson (she had once been married to him) were less than kind. She also satirised the artist and writer Mary Meigs who appears in the book as Dolly Lamb, “an untalented painter and do-gooder”. It seemed to many people cruel and unnecessary. Williams puts it this way:  “Always lurking in this highly charged bohemian circle was an underlying tension based on either dangerous liaisons or unsettled intellectual battles”.  McCarthy had additionally “targeted” the composer Gardner Jencks and his wife Ruth, supposedly friends of hers, which caused their son to say: “I guess she thought her duty was to her art and not to her friends”.

There’s no doubt that Cape Cod started to show signs of change as the Fifties progressed. There had always been well-to-do people among the bohemians, and they sometimes nursed ambitions to become writers and artists. But many of the latest arrivals weren’t of that frame-of-mind. Williams quotes Edmund Wilson reflecting on what was happening: “The technocrats make a striking contrast with the old Jig Cook Provincetown…….They were all writers and painters who were working and freely exchanging ideas; but these people are mostly attached to the government or some university…..They are accountable to some institution”.

And Alfred Kazin noted of Joan’s Beach, once the playground of the bohemians; “The great beach was replaced every afternoon by the great society. Every year Joan’s weathered old beach sank more abjectly into the sand while around it rose the mercilessly stylised avant-garde house of a wealthy Leninist from Philadelphia”.  Kazin was getting a dig in at Jack Phillips who had designed the house for Luke Wilson, a wealthy communist sympathiser who fled to Rome when questions were asked about his activities and affiliations.

Wilson closes his account in 1960. He could have extended it beyond that date, I’m sure, but there’s no doubt that there were noticeable changes after 1960 or so which altered the structure of bohemia. I came across a wonderful comment some years ago by someone who had worked for the old BBC Third programme in the 1950s and before it was disastrously changed to Radio 3 with music predominating. He said the organisation was in those days “full of bohemians disguised as bourgeoisie. Now it’s full of bourgeoisie disguised as bohemians”. It says a lot about what was happening in society generally, and not just in America. The expansion of higher education, and the development of arts associations and the like, increasingly led to the sort of “institutionalisation” Edmund Wilson was referring to.

There are so many interesting people named in The Shores of Bohemia that I would have liked to write about. Daniel Aaron, who was one of the “organisation men” referred to by Wilson, but who wrote the informative Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism. Robert Nathan, author of the novel, Portrait of Jennie, which was adapted into a haunting film starring Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones. Edwin O’Connor and his novel, The Last Hurrah, about the politics of Catholic Boston. The splendid poet Frank O’Hara. They all deserve greater attention than I can give them.

Others like the radical novelist and critic Waldo Frank who had broken with the Communist Party in 1937 over their treatment of Trotsky, and the well-known Norman Mailer, were in and out of Provincetown.. Many writers, but there were plenty of painters, not all of them necessarily internationally known. Edward Hopper was famous, but is said to have been a sometimes violent heavy drinker who lived on Cape Cod. The lesser-known Ross Moffett is mentioned by Williams and there is, in fact, a photo of him in the book. It wasn’t all that long ago that I obtained a copy of Moffett’s little book, Art in Narrow Streets: The First Thirty-Three Years of the Provincetown Art Association 1914-1947 in which the text is sprinkled with pictures of old Provincetown. Moffett was old enough to have studied at Charles Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School.

There were the usual oddballs among the bohemians, including the heavy-drinking Frank Shay. He had served in the American Army during the First World War and, Williams says, they (meaning Shay and Harry Kemp) “returned to Provincetown as men who now required a great deal of alcohol to forget”. In fact, it’s unlikely that Kemp ever saw military service. His biography, Harry Kemp: The Last Bohemian by William Brevda makes no mention of it.   He didn’t need an excuse to get drunk.

Shay had owned the Parnassus, a bookstore in Greenwich Village, and when he closed it down loaded the stock into a “rented wooden-sided station wagon” and set off to sell the books in towns around Cape Cod. The vehicle had a logo, “Parnassus on Wheels”, which was the title of a Christopher Morley novel about a travelling bookshop first published in 1917.  It, and a follow-up title, The Haunted Bookshop, were popular in their day, though it’s doubtful if they’re widely read now. Morley also had a hit with his novel, Kitty Foyle, which was turned into a film starring Ginger Rogers and Dennis Morgan. The screenplay was by Dalton Trumbo, with additional dialogue by Donald Ogden Stewart. Both were later blacklisted when Hollywood purged its communists.

There’s a passage in Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels that has always amused me: “The world is full of great writers about literature, he said, but they’re all selfish and aristocratic. Addison, Lamb, Hazlitt, Emerson, Lowell – take any one you choose – they all conceive the love of books as a rare and perfect mystery for the few – a thing of the secluded study where  they can sit alone at night with a candle, and a cigar, and a glass of port on the table and a spaniel on the hearthrug”. I’ve met more than a few people who seemed to think that literature is their private preserve and the rest of us shouldn’t lay our grubby hands on it.     

Williams’s final chapter, “Eden’s End”, says that “The old bohemian Cape began to vanish like Camelot, as did the original world of fishing and farming that had provided the beloved context for bohemian creativity”. And he adds: “Through all their political partisanship, artistic creation, lovemaking and drinking, a generation that cared so deeply about the bohemian ethos was evaporating”. People placed “a much greater emphasis on monetary success, even if they identified themselves as painters, writers, or architects”.

The Shores of Bohemia has much to recommend it, even if sometimes the names tumble over each other. I occasionally lost track of who was related to who, slept with who, fought with who, was an alcoholic (quite a few, according to Williams), and so on. And the photos are disappointing, printed as they are in black and white on the page and not always very clearly. It’s a problem with Hayden Herrera’s book, too.  Still, Williams does have useful notes and a bibliography. Together both books evoke a time when bohemianism had a point beyond merely making copy for publicity purposes.