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

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

Sherry L. Smith. Heyday, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-1-59714-516-9

Historian Smith (Reimagining Indians) explores the complex dynamic between poets and political activists Sara Bard Field (1882–1974) and Charles Erskine Scott Wood (1852–1944) in this nuanced, well-written portrait. A corporate lawyer, free speech advocate, and “philosophical anarchist” in Portland, Ore., Wood decided in his 40s that “monogamous marriage was antithetical to Nature.” (By that point, his wife had given birth to six children.) Raised in Michigan, 18-year-old Field married a Baptist minister more than twice her age after her “domineering, tyrannical” father refused to fund her college education. She became a well-regarded orator in the suffrage movement, and eventually settled with her husband in Oregon, where Clarence Darrow (whose mistress was Field’s sister) introduced her to Wood. Though Wood’s wife refused to grant him a divorce, Field left her husband and children to be with him, and the two lived together from 1919 until Wood’s death in 1944. 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. (Aug.)