Free Yet Flawed: On Sherry L. Smith’s “Bohemians West”

November 28, 2020   •   By Elaine Elinson

Bohemians West

Sherry L. Smith

WOMEN INSPIRED BY suffragist Sara Bard Field and her daring campaign drive across the United States in 1915 will be surprised that she almost didn’t go on that journey — because of a man. On the eve of her departure, she wrote to her lover, lawyer Charles Erskine Scott Wood, “I am absolutely yours for any service by way of this trip or by staying at home.”

Luckily, he urged her to go. That undertaking not only changed her — as she nearly froze in a Wyoming snowstorm, slogged through miles of mud in Nebraska to get help for the immobilized car, and spoke before huge crowds on the steps of state capitols from Salt Lake City to Albany — but also the course of history. By the time her group reached Washington, DC, they had collected four million signatures for the suffrage amendment on the petition that she presented directly to President Woodrow Wilson.

The decades-long tumultuous love affair between Field and Wood is the centerpiece of Sherry L. Smith’s new book, Bohemians West: Free Love, Family, and Radicals in Twentieth Century America. Both were avid letter writers, and Smith discovered thousands of pieces of correspondence — 2,700 just between the two of them, and more between each of them and their friends, family members, and colleagues. Smith used this voluminous correspondence, as well as an oral history of Field and interviews with Wood’s descendants, to piece together their personal and political history in great detail.

Field was 30 years Wood’s junior, so the story of their lives spans more than a century and includes many prominent figures. Wood’s father, the surgeon general of the Navy, arranged a meeting for his son with President Ulysses S. Grant. Toward the end of her life, Field met with Alan Watts over their common interest in Vedantic thought. Wood, an anarchist, and Field, a socialist, were involved in many left-wing political movements, where they crossed paths with the likes of Lincoln Steffens, Ella Winter, Crystal and Max Eastman, John Reed, Louise Bryant, and Emma Goldman.

But rather than using the intertwined lives of Field and Wood to illuminate the burning issues of the time, Smith puts these two — iconoclastic and adventuresome, but often not attractive — personalities in the forefront. Key movements, like the rise of the IWW, the battle over birth control, and the suffrage campaign, only serve as the backdrop as the author traces the minutiae of their roller-coaster relationship.

When Clarence Darrow, the lover of Field’s sister Mary, introduced them in 1910, Field was the wife of a Baptist preacher and mother of two, dissatisfied with her marriage. Wood was a well-to-do attorney, also married and a father, but well known as a philanderer. “They found their greatest connection through verse,” Smith writes, adding “poetry mattered more than anything.”

Sara’s belief in Wood’s poetic genius, partly explained why she put him before all other causes and her own writing. Wood justified his relationship with Sara on the basis of poetry as well. She offered encouragement, understanding, inspiration, and much-needed editorial assistance. “The courage with which they had broken from their pasts, and started anew, doing what they thought most worthwhile — writing poetry — made them especially notable,” Smith asserts.

Unfortunately, as they broke from their respective “pasts” — including marriages and families and political commitments — they caused pain to many others, and often to themselves.

Though Wood made his fortune from litigation around land and water rights, his later cases are more interesting. He represented Margaret Sanger when she was arrested for handing out her birth control pamphlet “Family Limitation” in Portland and stepped in to defend the trade unionists accused in the Los Angeles Times bombing. In 1918, he represented Marie Equi, a Portland physician, open lesbian, and militant advocate for labor, women’s suffrage, and pacifism. When Equi was charged under the Sedition Act for speaking out against US involvement in World War I, Wood argued the law was unconstitutional and violated her freedom of speech. Ultimately, he was unsuccessful and Equi spent two years in San Quentin.

Smith’s extensive research uncovered not only their adoration of each other and their pioneering commitment to free love, but also many of their deepest flaws. Both were unflinchingly self-centered, sometimes recklessly so. For example, when Field was on the cross-country drive gathering signatures for suffrage, Wood had an affair (one of many) while she was away. When the National Woman’s Party invited Field to speak at the New York memorial service of Inez Milholland and even paid her train fare across the country, Field decided to make a detour to Portland to visit Wood — and arrived late, missing the memorial entirely.

Their lives were rife with contradictions. Wood “joined fashionable clubs and counted wealthy men and corporations among his clients,” but he considered himself a radical and an Intellectual Proletariat. Still he was stung by Emma Goldman’s remark at her 1914 Portland speech decrying “rich people’s dilettantism,” which he felt was aimed at him, even after he had paid the rental fee and advertising costs for her talk.

If Wood’s primary flaw was his sexism, Field’s was racism. During the suffrage campaign, though she spoke to African American audiences, she made disparaging remarks in her private correspondence. In a letter to Wood about her visit to Alice Paul and other suffragists in prison, she wrote that the wardens made these “refined, lovely women” sleep “with syphilitic negres [sic] prostitutes and eat awful food.” Her racism extended to Asians, writing to Wood on the eve of World War I that she feared the “yellow race by sheer force of numbers will swarm us out of existence…”

Perhaps this is why Field ignored some of the burning issues of her time — such as the brutality of the Jim Crow era — and some especially important to the West, including violence against Filipino farm workers (which her contemporary Ella Winter wrote about) and vitriolic nativist campaigns supporting anti-Asian legislation.

While Smith asserts that they found “their greatest connection through verse,” the book curiously includes very little poetry from either of them. She cites a few lines from Wood’s first poem “Civilization,” which “Sara believed would become his masterpiece.” However, upon reading the first draft she felt “his determination to preach dominated, making the poem more sermon than art.” With her encouragement, he revised his poetry substantially, and his lengthy Poet in the Desert, printed in book form in 1915, won some critical attention.

Though some of Field’s lyrical writing emerges in her correspondence, her poetry is likewise sparsely represented. Smith describes a night-time gathering at the Pan Pacific Exhibit, where a women’s chorus sang “Woman’s Hymn” written by Field, but words to the song are not included.

Wood’s beleaguered wife Nanny, whom he never divorced, “believed her husband was vain, needy (particularly for the attentions of younger women), deceptive and disloyal.” And Smith notes that “Sara’s inability to break through her thoughtlessly crude ideas about race and class erode her standing as a forward-thinking feminist.” After reading their words excavated by Smith’s extensive research, readers may agree that these free love advocates, often celebrated for breaking social convention and their devotion to aesthetics, “fell short of their own ideals of honesty and integrity.”

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Elaine Elinson is the former editor of the ACLU News and the co-author of Wherever There’s a Fight, winner of a Gold Medal in the 2010 California Book Awards.