THE SHORES OF BOHEMEAN: A History of Cape Cod, 1910-1960
By John Taylor Williams
There is something ineffable about the appeal of the far reaches of Cape Cod for generations of writers, artists and architects. Maybe it’s just that, as Thoreau observed, “one man can stand there and put all of America behind him.” Perhaps – and this was certainly true for the first part of the 20th century – it was the remoteness and isolation of the place, the feeling that as the land stretches out towards the Atlantic, in one long, twisting branch, the current conventional world slips away, allowing you to rethink, reinvent, and get away with all sorts of things. Perhaps some sort of pre-modern way of life – with so few conveniences and material comforts – attracted the urban cliques that gravitated to it, repelled as many were by the excesses of capitalism.
Yet the extent of the attraction is staggering. In John Taylor Williams’ tale of 50 years of bohemian living in and around Cape Cod’s last three towns, “The Shores of Bohemia,” you’re almost overwhelmed with famous names. Painters Charles Hawthorne and Hans Hofmann accelerated the arrival of an ever-changing cast of artists who rushed to learn in their studios. Leftist intellectuals of all ages and stripes – from John Dos Passos to Edmund Wilson, from Dwight Macdonald to Alfred Kazin, from Norman Podhoretz to Mary McCarthy – spent their time arguing, debating and making Politics. An important 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 successfully reinvented American theater on the Provincetown waterfront. Edward Hopper and Mark Rothko carved their own distinctive paths in this wilderness.
The editors and editors of the smaller political and literary magazines—Partisan Review, Dissent, and The New Republic—played softball here on balmy summer afternoons. This is where Dwight Macdonald held his nude swim parties on the beach; where Norman Mailer fought in a bar; where Frank O’Hara was painted by Willem de Kooning. “Our happiest times were here, by the land, by the ocean, by the dunes,” wrote Alfred Kazin. On the outermost cape, he continued, “you can still walk, have sex, and swim.”
One of the oldest sayings about P-town is that the “P” stands for permission, and the pages of this book are full of those who have taken it. Marriages, divorces and remarriages have occurred with dizzying frequency. Business was steady; so was terrible parenting. He also sometimes comes across as if everyone is perpetually drunk. A glimpse of fun in the dunes: “Mardi’s cocktails were both brilliant and basic: Start with a gallon of vodka, a gallon of gin, a bottle of Noilly Prat vermouth.” Add a cooked ham and “let the good times roll”.
It’s amazing that any of them did the job. But not every binge seemed to affect productivity. Tennessee Williams had the Provincetown routine: he “could bring a sailor or another pickup” back to the cabin of a room he rented, “but when the encounter was over, he would throw them out, take a shower with a garden hose and a leaky bucket he had rigged, and climb into bed, not to sleep, but to write all morning. fame, more and more gays and lesbians came to check it out.The author notes that it was the existing population of conservative Catholic Portuguese who first made money from the newcomers , creating single-sex guesthouses, bars and restaurants.
There were innate ironies and stark contrasts. In a deeply traditional place, where these fishermen worked hard and old WASPs bought land, freshly arrived radicals plotted first a new communist world, then a new socialist world. In an environment of cottages, back roads, and clapboard buildings that still retain their cluttered rustic charm, Bauhaus architects built huge, stripped-down boxes with massive windows, all in straight lines, and sparse furniture. A place famous for its stunningly beautiful landscapes and natural light helped give birth to Abstract Expressionism.
Somehow, being outside the usual world has helped these creative men and women reinvent it. And in every expression of free love, in naked swimming, late nights under bright stars and watered bonfires on the beach, a larger consciousness began to develop. Villages with very English names — Wellfleet, Truro and Provincetown — have become small melting pots of superior culture. By mid-century, Williams writes, Provincetown had become a Paris, “where you might find Tennessee Williams, Walter Gropius, or John Ashbery sitting next to you in a bar.” Later Coming: Mary Oliver, Michael Cunningham, Tony Kushner, Mark Doty.
Did they all have something in common? At the turn of the century, a kind of pattern emerged: a deeply idiosyncratic boredom with – and rebellion against – the dominant world, its prices and values; voracious appetites for sex, alcohol, fame and sensuality; a passion for being “totally involved in the radical culture of their time and almost maniacal in their attempt to sleep with every beautiful woman, chronicle every social upheaval and always be the center of the public’s attention”.
One of my favorite details in the book is that Norman Mailer invited his frequent intellectual sparring partner James Baldwin to stay at his brick house in the far east, a place that seems to almost float on the bay itself. – and Baldwin has done it, for many summers. I wonder if, on his way to town, Baldwin ever crossed paths with another gay character, Roy Cohn, who lived 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, loves and lineages, the book is invaluable. But it’s also extremely dense, an overly floured chowder so stuffed with 50 years of names, names, and more names that some paragraphs read like a phone book. This is partly a function of the thoroughness of the book, but it makes it difficult to read – 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 as these men and these women once did. But Williams quotes prose from many of her subjects to convey the magic of the place.
“Where we live, the land is wild, with sandy roads that mostly lead nowhere,” is how Francis Biddle, the United States Attorney General and Nuremberg Judge, described the ‘attraction. But of course, in the world of art, writing, theater and architecture, these pioneers and bohemians led somewhere – to a future they tried to evoke in the refuge of the present. that they found.
Andrew Sullivan, author of The Weekly Dish on Substack, is the author of “Out on a Limb: Selected Writing 1989-2021”.
THE SHORES OF BOHEME: A History of Cape Cod, 1910-1960, by John Taylor Williams | 368 pages | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $35