Book Review: “The Shores of Bohemia,” by John Taylor Williams

THE SHORES OF BOHEMIA: A Cape Cod Story, 1910-1960

By John Taylor Williams

There is something ineffable about the appeal of the outer reaches of Cape Cod to generations of writers, artists and architects. Maybe it’s simply that, as Thoreau observed, “a man may stand there and put all America behind him.” Maybe — and this was certainly true for the first part of the 20th century — it was the place’s remoteness and isolation, the sense that as the land reaches out toward the Atlantic, in a single long, crooked limb, the present conventional world slips away , allowing you to rethink, reinvent and get away with all manner of things. Maybe a sort of pre-modern living — with so few amenities and creature comforts — drew the urban cliques who gravitated there, repelled as many were by the excesses of capitalism.

Still, the scope of the attraction is astounding. In John Taylor Williams’ account of 50 years of bohemian life in and around the last three towns on Cape Cod, “The Shores of Bohemia,” you’re almost overwhelmed with famous names. The painters Charles Hawthorne and Hans Hofmann turbocharged the arrival of an ever-changing cast of artists who rushed to learn at their studios. The lefty intellectuals of every era and stripe — everyone from John Dos Passos to Edmund Wilson, Dwight Macdonald to Alfred Kazin, Norman Podhoretz to Mary McCarthy — spent their time arguing, debating and politicking. A hefty section of the Bauhaus school of architecture, led by Walter Gropius, experimented in the dunes of Truro and beyond. Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams managed to reinvent American theater among the wharves of Provincetown. Edward Hopper and Mark Rothko carved their own distinctive paths in this wilderness.

The editors and writers of the small political and literary magazines — Partisan Review, Dissent and The New Republic — played softball here on balmy summer afternoons. This was where Dwight Macdonald organized his nude bathing parties on the beach; where Norman Mailer got into bar fights; where Frank O’Hara was painted by Willem de Kooning. “Our happiest times were here, at the edge of the land, the ocean, the dunes,” Alfred Kazin wrote. On the outermost Cape, he continued, “you could still contentedly walk, make love and skinny-dip.”

One of the hoariest sayings about P-town is that the “P” stands for permission, and the pages of this book are full of those who took it. Marriages, divorces and remarriages occurred with dizzying frequency. Affairs were constant; so was terrible parenting. It also appears at times as if everyone was perpetually drunk. A glimpse of the fun in the dunes: “Mardi’s cocktail parties were both brilliant and basic: Start with one gallon of vodka, one gallon of gin, one bottle of Noilly Prat vermouth.” Throw in a baked ham and “laissez les bon temps rouler.”

It’s amazing that any of them got any work done. But all the carousing didn’t seem to affect productivity. Tennessee Williams had the Provincetown routine down: He “might bring back a sailor or other pickup” to the one-room cabin he had rented, “but once the encounter was over, he would throw them out, take a shower from a garden hose and punctured bucket he had rigged, and climb into bed, not to sleep, but to write all morning.” And as Provincetown’s freewheeling ambience gained renown, more gay men and lesbians came to check it out. The author notes that it was the existing population of conservative Catholic Portuguese locals who first made some money off the new arrivals, setting up single-sex guesthouses, bars and restaurants.

There were innate ironies and stark contrasts. In a deeply traditional place, where these fishermen toileted and old-money WASPs bought land, freshly arrived radicals plotted first a new Communist and then a new socialist world. In an environment of cottages and tiny roads and shingled buildings that still keep their rustic cluttered charm, the Bauhaus architects built huge stripped-down boxes with massive windows, all straight lines and sparse furniture. A place famed for its staggeringly beautiful landscapes and natural light helped give birth to Abstract Expressionism.

Somehow being outside the usual world helped these creative men and women reimagine it. And in every expression of free love, in naked swimming, late nights under the brilliant stars, and boozy beach bonfires, a larger consciousness began to develop. The villages with very English names — Wellfleet, Truro and Provincetown — became little crucibles for higher culture. By midcentury, Williams writes, Provincetown had become a Paris, “where you might find Tennessee Williams, Walter Gropius or John Ashbery sitting next to you at a bar.” Later to come: Mary Oliver, Michael Cunningham, Tony Kushner, and Mark Doty.

Did they all have something in common? Early in the century, a kind of pattern emerged: a deeply idiosyncratic boredom with — and rebellion against — the mainstream world, its prizes and values; voracious appetites for sex and booze and fame and sensuality; a passion to be “totally involved with the radical culture of their time and almost manic in their attempt to sleep with every beautiful woman, chronicle every social upheaval and always be at the center of public attention.”

One of my favorite details in the book is that Norman Mailer invited his frequent intellectual sparring partner James Baldwin to stay in his brick house in the far East End, a place that seems to bob almost on the bay itself — and Baldwin did, for many summers. I wonder if, on his way into town, Baldwin ever crossed paths with another gay figure, Roy Cohn, who lived just a few doors down.

As a comprehensive guide to every family and famous person who lived on the Outer Cape in the first half of the last century, their friendships, love affairs and lineages, the book is invaluable. But it’s also extremely dense, an over-floured chowder so packed with 50 years of names, names and more names that some paragraphs read like a telephone book. It’s partly a function of the book’s thoroughness, but it makes it hard reading — even for someone like me who has now spent 26 consecutive summers in exactly this part of the world, for many of the same reasons these men and women once did. But Williams does cite the prose of many of his subjects to convey the magic of the place.

“Where we live the land is untamed, with sandy roads that for the most part do not lead anywhere,” is how Francis Biddle, the US attorney general and Nuremberg judge, described the pull. But of course, in the world of art, writing, drama and architecture, these pioneers and bohemians did lead somewhere — to a future they tried to conjure up in the refuge from the present that they found.

Andrew Sullivan, writer of The Weekly Dish on Substack, is the author of “Out on a Limb: Selected Writing 1989-2021.”

THE SHORES OF BOHEMIA: A Cape Cod Story, 1910-1960, by John Taylor Williams | 368 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $35

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