A revelatory biography of a radical romance at the dawn of the twentieth century
The opening years of the twentieth century saw a grand cast of radicals and reformers fighting for a new America, seeking change not only in labor picket lines and at women’s suffrage rallies but also in homes and bedrooms. In the thick of this heady milieu were Sara Bard Field and Charles Erskine Scott Wood, two aspiring poets and political activists whose love story uncovers a potent emotional world underneath this transformative time.
Self-declared pioneers in free love, Sara and Erskine exchanged hundreds of letters that chartered a new kind of romantic relationship, and their personal affair frequently intersected with their deeply engaged political lives. As Sara’s star rose in the suffrage movement (including an automobile trip she took across the country in 1915 carrying a petition with thousands of signatures demanding Congress pass the Nineteenth Amendment), she began to ask questions about her own power in her relationship with Erskine. Charting a passionate and tumultuous relationship that spanned decades, Bohemians West offers a deeply personal look at a dynamic period in American history.
“Sherry Smith is a scholar whose books read like the best fiction, character-driven page turners. In Bohemians West, Smith takes the reader on a journey with two of the most interesting characters we have never heard of…Through these real-life characters, Smith brilliantly tells a deep history of the first half of the twentieth century, and in doing so sheds a light on our present.”—Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz,
author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States
from the preface
The twists and turns of Erskine’s and Sara’s experiences, and how they negotiated the dilemmas they faced, were distinctly their own. So, why does their story matter? They are not well known, yet fame matters little in an intimate story of the heart. They offer extraordinary insight into the lived experience of their era—a perspective of American radicalism on a granular scale. There is something compelling about looking at the subject from a vantage point where you can see personal desires, choices, and consequences up close rather than only in large-scale panorama. Value comes through probing the individuals’ struggles to carve out a life of meaning, on their terms. They dared to challenge convention by crafting new philosophies of love and politics. They jumped in, took risks, made choices and mistakes, admitted weaknesses and failures, and lived with the consequences. Their relationship transcends the distant or abstract. By drilling down into the particulars, their story becomes more human, comprehensible, and interesting.
The aim of this book is neither to venerate nor judge Erskine and Sara. It is to illustrate, and understand, how difficult it is to set a new path, negotiate freedom and responsibility, balance love for self with love for others, and live up to one’s ideal—whatever that may be. Digging deep into this couple’s experience is instructive for its reminders of the endless intricacies and inconsistencies in the human heart and within human relationships.
In the course of writing this book, and talking about its central characters with friends and family, I have often been struck by how quickly and intensely listeners react to them. This couple seems to strike a chord . . . or a nerve. Their bittersweet saga, I have come to understand, prompts people to ponder their own loves and losses, life-changing experiences and missed opportunities, risks and regrets. This can be difficult territory. It can unearth disappointment, pain, mistakes, and personal flaws we might prefer to keep buried. Sara and Erskine did not deny their failings but instead shared them with us. I am grateful they left such a complete record in an effort to achieve an honest story.
However one feels about Sara and Erskine and the choices they ultimately made, the challenges and dilemmas they faced remain current. The complications of modern life regarding marriage, family, and relationships of power between men and women continue to confound people. So too do profound inequalities in the larger economic and political spheres. Ongoing assaults on civil liberties and civil rights, conflicts between workers and corporate power, inequality between the extremely rich and the rest of us, and the consequences of past and present imperialism remain vexing problems. Their world seems remarkably familiar. One hundred years after Clarence Darrow introduced them, Sara and Erskine still have something to say to us about the choices we make.
“This irresistible story weaves a tale of passionate love together with one woman’s efforts at liberation within a compelling portrait of progressive culture in the early twentieth century American West. What arises in these pages is a uniquely complex portrait of the sexual revolution. To say Bohemian West makes history come alive is an understatement. You won’t want to put this book down.”–Susan Griffin, author of Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her
“This is a beautiful book. It works not only because Sara Bard Field and Erskine Scott Wood are compelling, brilliant and flawed, fearless and naïve, but because Sherry Smith cares about getting them right – the intimacy of their love and lives, and the complexity of their time, their passions, and the American West they inhabited and influenced.”–WILLIAM DEVERELL, DIRECTOR, HUNTINGTON-USC INSTITUTE ON CALIFORNIA AND THE WEST