At the close of the Ice Age, the first nomadic hunters met the ocean and realized their journey had ended. From atop the carved, forested mound of glacial till, which geologists call a tombolo, they could see nothing but endless water. The great Wisconsin glacier had pushed its frozen treasure of boulders and gravel across North America until it encountered the even mightier Atlantic, which melted its ice and pulverized its stone cargo into a long, curved sand spit, embracing at its far end a calm harbor shielded from the dangerous Atlantic surge. That sand had slowly spawned a woodland of primeval oaks, cedars, and red pines, dotted with freshwater kettle ponds formed by the melting of isolated masses of ice and fringed by small islands and marsh, which provided abundant game: deer, rabbit, grouse, turkey, fish, and shellfish.
The hunters’ descendants, the Nauset, Pamet, and other related tribes, had a familiarity with Europeans stretching back to the fifteenth-century fishing ships manned by Basque, Catalan, Breton, and Spanish crews, who had come ashore to trade and split, smoke, salt, and barrel their cod for their return trip. None of these visitors had any intention of staying, until the Mayflower, far off course from its planned landing in Virginia, struggled into Provincetown Harbor on November 11, 1620. In a few lifetimes, the great Cape forests were cleared for British naval spars and plank. The land, once subject only to yearly slash-and-burn farming so the first people could plant their Three Sisters mounds atop a fertilizer of netted shad to produce an abundance of corn, squash, and beans for the long winters, was now plowed year-round.
With no tradition of legal ownership of land, the first people soon found themselves fenced out of their traditional hunting grounds and decimated by a plague of new European diseases, including smallpox and cholera. By 1800 they were nothing but a memory evoked by an occasional arrowhead or shell midden and the names they had given to the Cape’s ponds, rivers, and marshes. From their Algonquin language came the names of places, people, and things: Massachusetts (the Massachusetts were a subtribe whose Algonquin name meant Great Hill, probably referring to the sacred Blue Hills adjacent to what is now Boston), sachem (leader), sagamore (tribal head), succotash (a mix of corn and beans), quahog (clam), wampum (beads made of shells, strung together on a belt and used as money), hubbub (their favorite board game of chance), and the animals they named, such as raccoon and moose.
By the early twentieth century, the Outer Cape from Provincetown to Wellfleet had reverted to its original postglacial landscape, cleared of forests except for small clusters of locust trees around abandoned farmhouses whose fields were now moors, their topsoil gone. The cod and whales had been fished out or had migrated north to the Grand Banks, where the waters were still cold. For the old Yankee settlers it was a dark period, but to the bohemians, who first encountered the Cape in 1910, it was the most magical of landscapes. Golden beaches beneath towering dunes ran unbroken south from Provincetown on both the bay and the ocean sides, for miles and miles, down to the elbow of the Cape at Chatham. The land, now covered by hog cranberry and beach grass, flowed gently over low hills, from the tops of which one could see the ocean on both sides, as well as small clusters of eighteenth-century shingled houses, barns, and the occasional white church spire that marked a town.
The sea surged around them, providing not only an ever-changing palette but a concert shifting from lulling rhythmic waves to surging Wagnerian storms. The light was clear, dazzling at high noon and more dappled and complex at dawn and dusk. Later, the abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell would report how deeply he was impressed by the Outer Cape’s golden Mediterranean glimmer, so different from the blazing clarity of Mexico, where he had been working. In his memoir, he wrote:
the radiant summer light of Provincetown that rivals the Greek islands, because, I have always supposed, like them, Provincetown is on a narrow spit of land surrounded by the sea, which reflects the light with a diffused brilliance that is subtly but crucially different from the dry, inland light of Tuscany, the Madrid plateau, of Arizona or the Sierra Madres in Mexico, where the glittering light is not suffused, but crystal clear, so that each color is wholly local in hue, as in the landscape backgrounds of Quattrocento Italian painting or in the late collages of Henri Matisse.1
The bohemians’ diaspora from Greenwich Village began to arrive in Provincetown by the day boat from Boston or the night boat to Fall River from New York, which connected to the freight and passenger train that stopped on the hill above Provincetown Harbor. The roads were still mainly sand, and cars were rare. Apartments and old farmhouses at the Cape’s end were cheap to rent, and on a beautiful summer day it didn’t really matter that most had no electricity, indoor plumbing, or heat, other than a stove or fireplace.
2.GREENWICH VILLAGE AND PROVINCETOWN
By 1910, Greenwich Village was the acknowledged center of those who claimed to be bohemians and whose lifestyle caused others to label them as such. America’s bohemian movement had deep artistic and political roots in nineteenth-century England and France. The English suffragist movement and the international progressive, socialist, Marxist, and French syndicalist labor movements had found many American adherents. These social and political passions were further fueled by the influx of German and Russian Jews into New York during the period, many fiercely committed to labor reform, anarchism, or socialism and early converts to the new psychology movement inspired by Freud and Jung. The arts were now influenced by the work of the French avant-garde led by Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, and Guillaume Apollinaire, so beautifully depicted in Roger Shattuck’s Banquet Years.
However, America’s bohemian movement was both more inclusive as to one’s class, religious adherence, or ethnicity and more directed to establishing a new “American” definition of democratic socialism and an “American” voice and style in literature, theater, and painting. These would be unique because by 1900 America was the only great nation without a state religion and already had the most polyglot population.
America was a new nation in search of an identity separate from its European origin. As Henry Adams observed in his Education, many Americans were becoming appalled by the gigantic and brutal forces that post–Civil War capitalists like Rockefeller, Frick, and Morgan had loosed on both the landscape and its formerly independent agricultural and skilled workforce. The mines, the blast furnaces, the textile mills, and the factory production lines, lampooned in Chaplin’s Modern Times, had already stripped much of the country of its forests, polluted its rivers, and resettled its laborers in squalid tenements and tent camps. These “captains of industry” had seized control of state legislatures, and finally Congress, by such unabashed bribery that two of the most powerful states, New York and Pennsylvania, moved their capitals in a futile attempt to escape the stranglehold of corrupt political machines like New York City’s Tammany Hall. “Fighting Bob” La Follette, who was first Wisconsin’s congressman, then governor, and finally senator from 1906 to 1925, joined Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive wing of the Republican Party in opposition to these “bosses” and “vast corporate combinations.” TR had helped lead the progressive Republicans to victory in 1900 under his Square Deal for labor policy (later to be transformed by his cousin FDR into the New Deal).
Social reform was a major goal for many bohemians deeply influenced by Jane Addams’s Hull House home for desperate women and Jacob Riis’s daring exposé of the plight of the poor, How the Other Half Lives, particularly for the many young women who had come to the Village to work in its poorer tenements and schools, which housed Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants. Many marched with their hero Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party, whose motto was “The class which has the power to rob upon a large scale has also the power to control the government and legalize their robbery.”
The original Greenwich Village community of artists, writers, and activists centered on Washington Square, where Fifth Avenue ended at Stanford White’s new towering arch. Some resided in well-maintained brick houses like 61 Washington Square, nicknamed the House of Genius due to the brilliance of its inhabitants, including Willa Cather, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser. While a group referred to by the conservative press as “the muckrakers,” the new socialist writers and organizers Emma Goldman, Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, John Reed, and Lincoln Steffens, packed into cheap boardinghouses. A few, like Mabel Dodge, lived in rather grand town houses, but none dared live above Fourteenth Street and claim to be a bohemian.
Dodge, an heiress from Buffalo, was in her early thirties when she arrived in New York in 1912 and established herself as a patron of the arts. After a decade in France and Italy, now divorced with a young son, she had through pure force of personality attracted bohemia’s leaders to her new Village salon. Her young friend Max Eastman wrote of her, “She has neither wit nor beauty, nor is she vivacious or lively-minded or entertaining. She is comely and good-natured, and when she says something, it is sincere and sagacious, but for the most part she sits like a lump, and says nothing.”1
In her fabulous house at 23 Fifth Avenue, complete with polar bear rugs, Venetian chandeliers, and an English butler, she entertained lavishly, not just for her social peers but for almost any person of intellect or talent.
Emma Goldman (1869–1940)
Copyright © 2022 by John Taylor Williams
Map copyright © 2022 by Jeffrey L. Ward
Copyright © 1975 by Elena Wilson, Executrix of the Estate of Edmund Wilson.
Copyright © 1980 by Helen Miranda Wilson