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

Bohemians West: Free Love, Family, and Radicals in Twentieth Century America
Hardcover, 6 x 9, 408 pages.
ISBN: 9781597145169.

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 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 charted a new kind of romantic relationship, and their personal pursuits frequently came into contact with their deeply engaged political lives. In 1915 Sara’s star rose in the suffrage movement when she drove across the country in a daring car trip, carrying a four-mile long petition with thousands of signatures demanding Congress pass the Nineteenth Amendment. In the process, 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.


"An unconventional biography that reads like fiction, Sherry Smith’s Bohemians West traces a twentieth-century sojourn with alternative romance. [...] Bohemians West, so long as human emotion and radical spirit persist, will forever be a cautionary tale of what could be if we were to allow our hearts to captain our lives, unabashed by fear of logic and untainted." Pacific Historical Review
"Bohemians West is written with elan for general readers. But it also reflects Smith's impeccable scholarship; historical context weaves tightly through tales of radicalism and romance." Western Historical Quarterly
“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
“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
“In his youth one member of this remarkable couple met Ulysses Grant; in her old age, the other talked with the man who introduced Zen Buddhism to America in the 1950s and ’60s, Alan Watts. In between, an amazing collection of people passed through their lives, from Clarence Darrow (who introduced them) and Lincoln Steffens to Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman. 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 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
“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, who were among the thousands of literary figures and activists who were ahead of their time. In the compelling story of Sara Bard Field and Charles Erskine Scott Wood, we meet their better-known acquaintances, anarchist Emma Goldman, poet Robinson Jeffers, Mark Twain, birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger, radical lawyer Clarence Darrow. 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
"Bohemians West is written in a wholly accessible style that does not forsake critical analysis. Only the most gifted and seasoned of historians can pull off such a feat." —PETER BOAG, Oregon Historical Quarterly
“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
Bohemians West invites readers into a new understanding of some key early twentieth-century figures of artistic and political dissent. These daring pioneers could be found not only in New York but even in staid Portland, Oregon; their free love was both theory and practice, their entanglements producing hurt and jealousy but also a new form of freedom and loyalty; their sexual radicalism, at times self-indulgent, often strengthened their commitment to social-justice campaigns, notably for women’s suffrage and free speech. Luckily, the protagonists of this study, Sara Bard Field and Charles Erskine Scott Wood, left 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
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Category History

About the Author

Sherry L. Smith

Sherry L. Smith

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

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