The Shores of Bohemia

Shores of Bohemia coverThe Shores of Bohemia: A Cape Cod Story, 1910-1960
John Taylor Williams
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (May 17, 2022), 348 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon Hardcover $29.99

I’m always happy to get my hands on a book about the literary and creative world, so I added The Shores of Bohemia to my to-be-read list when I saw it reviewed. I was not disappointed.

Today we think of Cape Cod as an upscale, elite place, but it was not always the case. It was at one time rural and inexpensive: that’s what attracted the “bohemian” types in the first place. As the subtitle indicates, the book covers half of the twentieth century. That was a span that covered two world wars and the Great Depression.

Among the first residents were playwright Eugene O’Neill and novelist John Dos Passos. In its latter days as a bohemian haven the likes of literary critic Alfred Kazin spent time there. Notable figures such as Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy (who for a time were married) lived there.

The book’s angle of vision is not limited to Cape Cod. O’Neill wanted, obviously, his plays to reach as large of an audience as possible. He developed some of his plays at Cape Cod, but then produced them in New York City. In fact, many of the Cape Cod bunch spent part of the year in New York. Author John Taylor Williams also shows us what many of the group did in Europe, especially during the two world wars.

Politics was a big part of these people’s lives. Many of them were sympathetic to the Communist cause, and some were members of the Communist Party of the United States. Many, however, became disenchanted with Stalin’s brutality and distanced themselves from Communism while perhaps still being sympathetic to socialist ideals.

If you think that sex and relationships were a big part of the lives of artists and writers in the first half twentieth century, this book will not disabuse you of that notion. There were relationships, marriages, extra-marital affairs, and divorces aplenty and The Shores of Bohemia documents many of them. There was no shortage of hanky-panky in that world.

One particularly poignant chapter near the end of the book discusses the children of this group. Obviously, the divorces and affairs had an effect on the kids, and the author takes the time to examine how that lifestyle affected them. That chapter is followed by a discussion of the Bauhaus and other schools of architecture, material that seemed somewhat out of place.

Ending the narrative in 1960 was not an arbitrary decision on the author’s part. It was a time when politicians began forming the concept of the Cape Cod National Seashore and when the remaining residential areas began to take on a suburban character. It was clearly the end of an era.

The Shores of Bohemia is a well-written look at a fascinating slice of American cultural history.

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