Bohemians West: Free Love, Family, and Radicals in Twentieth Century America


Hardcover, 6 x 9. ISBN: 9781597145169. Available on Aerio and at your local independent bookstore.

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By Sherry L. Smith


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 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 charted a new kind of romantic relationship, and their personal pursuits frequently came into contact with their deeply engaged political lives. As Sara’s star rose in the suffrage movement, culminating in her making a cross-country car trip in 1915 and gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures for a petition to Congress, 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.


“[A] nuanced, well-written portrait. . . . Smith probes the contradictions between Bard’s activism on behalf of women’s rights and her infatuation with Wood, and between Wood’s ardent defense of the poor and his epicurean lifestyle, and details the ‘deep wounds’ they caused other people in pursuit of ‘their hard-won personal relationship of intellectual and emotional companionship, reciprocity, shared power and work, and mutual sexual satisfaction.’ Readers will find the radical relationship at the center of this fine-grained account both frustrating and fascinating.”—Publishers Weekly

 

“This is a wild, alluring tale of radical sex meeting up with radical history during the most radical decades of the twentieth century—told with admirable sympathy for both of its larger-than-life principals.”—Vivian Gornick

“An amazing collection of people passed through this remarkable couple’s lives. . . . Sherry L. Smith does a splendid job of bringing this cast of characters to life.”—Adam Hochschild, author of Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes

“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 light on our present.”—Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

“[Through] a vast trove of intimate letters, deftly integrated by Sherry Smith, Bohemians West reads like a bodice-ripper novel, while offering a serious reconsideration of American countercultures.”—Linda Gordon, winner of two Bancroft Prizes, author of Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits and coauthor of Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements

“Sherry Smith tells a fascinating story of two lovers who tried to turn passion into principle and instead lived a life of contradiction, turmoil, tragedy, selfishness, adventure, and an ultimate odd contentment. It is a story of sex, love, betrayal, and a relationship whose story illuminates the bohemian and radical West.”—Richard White, author of The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896

“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, both its ideals and contradictions. And to say Bohemians 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

“Pulsing with ideas and emotion, Sherry Smith’s riveting narrative explores how two unforgettable people found each other and created a set of commitments about living that progressives today would immediately recognize as their own.”—Daniel J. Sharfstein, author of Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War

“The great virtue of this book . . . is not only that it revives vivid and emblematic personalities who have dropped out of the American historical canon, but also that it focuses on issues involving sexual equality and political progressivism as relevant today as they were a century ago.”—Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

“Smith brilliantly illuminates the pursuit of women’s suffrage, free love, labor radicalism, and anarchism over one hundred years ago. But she also shows how her subjects’ lives speak so relevantly to our own time and its preoccupations.”—Margaret Jacobs, author of White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880–1940

“As a biography of a love affair in a turbulent time awhirl with new ideas, Bohemians West is a bell ringer of a book, a fully realized tour de force.”—Dan Flores, New York Times best-selling author of Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History

“Readers will not be able to put down this remarkably detailed and absorbing love story. . . . Wood and Bard Field’s failings, ideological inconsistencies, and relationships of power remain current.”—Laurie Mercier, Claudius O. and Mary W. Johnson Distinguished Professor of History, Washington State University

“In Bohemians West Sherry Smith introduces us to a woman and a man—each fascinating and complicated—to their love as it evolved over decades, and to what both can teach us about America and its West. Through it all she reminds us there have always been those who have found in the West the inspiration to question national platitudes and received wisdoms, and to pursue that questioning with a passion like that Erskine and Sara had for each other.”⁠—Elliott West, historian and author of The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Photo by Zach Andres

Sherry L. Smith is a University Distinguished Professor of History (Emerita) at Southern Methodist University. A historian of the American West and Native America, Smith’s award-winning books include Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power and Reimagining Indians: Native Americans through Anglo Eyes, 1880–1940, both published by Oxford University Press. She is a former president of the Western History Association and received the Los Angeles Times Distinguished Fellowship at the Huntington Library, which supported research for Bohemians West. Smith has also been honored with fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright Foundation, and Yale University. She lives in Moose, Wyoming, and Pasadena, California. Visit her website at sherrylsmith.com.