An unconventional biography that reads like fiction, Sherry Smith’s Bohemians West traces a twentieth-century sojourn with alternative romance. Although the portrait of America’s decades-long transformation through modernity may draw interest on its own—with the complex interplay of new radicals, old conservatives, industrialism, war, and impending recession—it is the even more complex magnetism between Sara Bard Field and Charles Erskine Scott Wood that makes each page turn itself.

Sara and Erskine are first thrown together by Sara’s sister Mary’s not-so-secret lover (and darling of American legal history), Clarence Darrow. By this time, Sara had become tethered to a marriage and expectation of motherhood that she had once wanted but about which she would increasingly grow apathetic. Erskine as well, thirty years Sara’s senior, shared a disdain for the perpetual contract his patriarchal existence imposed upon him. Despite the relatively random circumstances of their meeting, this mutual yet unexpressed dissatisfaction disguised as interest in progressivism and poetry was the very spark that began Sara and Erskine’s flirtations with free love. In a way, this real-life meet-cute was almost predestined, two perfect halves that in another life could’ve made a more perfect whole.

Perfection, however, it was not. Sara and Erskine’s lives were already ridden with unspoken battles with self, spouses, and society. But they weren’t people to stray from conflict and they weren’t going to wait for another lifetime to see where this could lead. From intellectual attraction and collective commitment issues, their relationship expanded into something sensual, professional, and deeply passionate. Nevertheless, what is perceived from the outside-in is that, together, Sara and Erskine were also deeply flawed.

The hundreds of letters on which the “free love” adventure of Bohemians West is based provide a patchwork of sheltered rebellion, anti-feminist devotion, hypermasculine ego, forced self-discovery, and a perpetual web of lies. Although Sara and Erskine’s respective work in advancing women’s suffrage and protesting corporate power ought to be revered, one should be hesitant to hail their successes in pioneering “free love.”

In a presentation with the Oregon Historical Society last October, author Sherry Smith herself expressed this same reservation around the overly romanticized romance of Sara and Erskine. These are not fictional characters. They are real people. What Smith does so subtly yet with unwavering strength is bring their affair into broad daylight, allowing the story to tell itself. Smith does not attempt to make their tumultuous and opposing expressions of “free love” make sense to the reader. In place of explanation, she leaves a question mark and an invitation to consider our own interpretations of “free love.”

Still, actualized “free love,” as opposed to the “free love” that is imagined, comes with consequences. Consequences that Smith communicates and that ought to be received with the utmost care. 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.

Davie Ross
Seattle University