Intended as a group biography, Mr. Williams’s book is at times more 'group' than 'biography,' its pages popping with the names of the well-known and forgotten, from the free spirits of the first generation to the variously hued leftists and ex-leftists of the 1930s and ’40s to the academically employed sunseekers of the 1960s ... Mr. Williams’s account is as breezy as a spring day by the shore, an approach that honors the spirit of his seashore colony even as it occasionally disregards the facts ... what’s ultimately more interesting than how much these writers and artists partied is how much they got done anyway ... although The Shores of Bohemia is structured as a kind of lament for the golden days before the Cape was overrun by RVs and clam shacks, Mr. Williams’s own effort is evidence enough that the old fascination still sparkles.
... atmospheric, gossipy ... His interviews with several dozen longtime Cape denizens, combined with his firsthand knowledge of the area, give The Shores of Bohemia an engaging immediacy. Loving descriptions evoke the golden light that attracted generations of painters, the kettle ponds nestled behind towering dunes, the golden sands fronting the Atlantic. You can practically smell the fresh fish roasting and hear the clink of ice cubes at the annual beach party celebrating the Perseid meteor shower thrown by Jack Phillips ... the plethora of names he showers on readers is a mixed blessing ... It can be difficult to keep all those names straight as Williams’s very loosely organized narrative zigzags through the years and a large cast of characters ... His aim, achieved somewhat at the cost of coherence, is to convey these bohemians’ sense that it was all connected: artistic experiment, political activism, sexual freedom, and intoxication of every kind ... meandering, affectionate.
Nearly all seem to have been graduates of Ivy League schools. But their passion and urgency for social justice is vividly evoked in Williams’s book ... I was grateful for the education in the politics, culture, and social history of the 1910s and 1920s, especially since our current age seems to be mimicking those years in all sorts of frightening ways, including, almost to the year, a global pandemic. But the names begin to pile up. The crowding becomes even more intense as the founding generation pairs off, splits up, finds new arrangements, has children ... at some point Williams’s compulsion to summarize each life—a cataloging of ancestors, schools, lovers, children, and professional accomplishments—begins to overwhelm the narrative. Williams celebrates his subjects’ liberation from the constraints of conventional thought and living arrangements in a prose style that only a law clerk could love ... Only at the very end, when a personal note enters, did the writing become evocative for me.