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The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature


Edited by Jeff Alexander

An unforgettable portrait of a fast-changing America, and the Western writers that gave voice to its emerging identity.

The Bohemians begins in 1860s San Francisco. The Gold Rush has ended; the Civil War threatens to tear apart the country. Far away from the frontlines, the city at the Western edge roars. A global seaport, home to immigrants from five continents, San Francisco had become a complex urban society virtually overnight. The bards of the moment are the Bohemians: A young Mark Twain, escaping conscription and seeking adventure; literary golden boy Bret Harte; struggling gay poet Charles Warren Stoddard; and beautiful, haunted Ina Coolbirth, poet and protectorate of this band of lost boys. Historian Ben Tarnoff’s elegant, atmospheric story tells how together these four pioneering Western writers would create a new American literature, unfettered by the heavy European influence that dominated the East.

Twain arrives by stagecoach in San Francisco in 1863, and is fast drunk on champagne, oysters, and the city’s intoxicating energy. He finds that the war has only made California richer: Trade and manufacturing boom, print thrives and the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 assures that the dream of transcontinental travel would soon become reality. Looking to the vibrant world around them, Twain and the Bohemians find inspiration in the bawdy, tall tales of Western campfires; the majestic landscapes; and the radical moral code of the frontier. The opportunities of the moment are seized by Bret Harte, star of the literary Golden Era, and mentor to Stoddard and Coolbrith both. Graduates of the “poor boy’s college” of printer apprenticeship, equals in ambition, Twain and Harte form the Bohemian core. But as Harte’s star ascends—drawing attention from Eastern standard bearer the Atlantic Monthly—Twain flounders, plagued by self-doubt, money woes, and the repercussions of youthful pranks. No one could have predicted then how their fortunes would reverse, when the ambassadors of Western Bohemia move East to prove their worth.

The Bohemian moment would continue in Boston, New York, and London, and would achieve immortality in the writings of its hero, Mark Twain. It’s Twain’s masterworks that prove the lessons of the San Francisco days—in vernacular, humor, and the magic alchemy of the high-low mix—invaluable and enduring. At once an intimate portrait of an eclectic, unforgettable group of writers, and a history of an aesthetic shift in American letters, The Bohemians reveals how a brief moment at the country’s borders changed our literature forever.


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Praise

“Tarnoff breathes fresh life into his narrative with vivid details from the archives… giving us a rich portrait of a lost world overflowing with new wealth and new talent… [A] stylish and fast-paced literary history.” San Francisco Chronicle

“Tarnoff powerfully evokes the western landscapes, local cultures and youthful friendships that helped shape Twain. He has a talent for selecting details that animate the past.” Chicago Tribune

“In 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad joined the country together and tore San Francisco apart. That’s the conclusion afforded by two fine books: The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature, Ben Tarnoff’s nonfiction chronicle of the literary Bay Area in the 1860s and Emma Donoghue’s historical novel of the 1870s, Frog Music. Rich hauls of historical research, deeply excavated but lightly borne, distinguishes both.” The Wall Street Journal

“Adeptly wrapping a wonderful story around these young writers; Tarnoff glides smoothly along….[A] delightful book.” Boston Globe

“Tarnoff provides a fascinating snapshot of the era, when the city’s prosperity and unique international character (he points out that in 1860 almost two-thirds of the city’s adult males were foreign-born) brought about a thrilling, if chaotic, admixture of idealism and fun.” The New Yorker Page-Turner Blog

“Tarnoff’s glimmering prose lends grandeur to this account of four writers (Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Ina Coolbrith) who built ‘an extraordinary literary scene’ in the frontier boom town of 1860s San Francisco….The lively historical detail and loving tone of the interwoven biographies make a highly readable story of this formative time in American letters, starring San Francisco as the city that lifted ‘Twain to literary greatness.’” Publishers Weekly

“Tarnoff energetically portrays this irresistible quartet within a vital historical setting, tracking the controversies they sparked and the struggles they endured, bringing forward an underappreciated facet of American literature. We see Twain in a revealing new light, but most affecting are Tarnoff’s insights into Harte’s ‘downward spiral,’ Stoddard’s faltering, and persevering Coolbrith’s triumph as California’s first poet laureate.” Booklist

Excerpt

What people remembered best about him, aside from his brambly red brows and rambling gait, was his strange way of speaking: a drawl that spun syllables slowly, like fallen branches on the surface of a stream. Printers transcribed it with hyphens and dashes, trying to render rhythms so complex they could’ve been scored as sheet music. He rasped and droned, lapsed into long silences, soared in the swaying tenor inherited from the slave songs of his Southern childhood. He made people laugh while remaining dreadfully, imperially serious. He mixed the sincere and the satiric, the factual and the fictitious, in proportions too obscure for even his closest friends to decipher. He was prickly, irreverent, ambitious, vindictive—a personality as impenetrably vast as the American West and as prone to seismic outbursts. He was Samuel Clemens before he became Mark Twain, and in the spring of 1863, he made a decision that brought him one step closer to the fame he craved.

On May 2, 1863, Mark Twain boarded a stagecoach bound for San Francisco. The trip from Virginia City, Nevada, to the California coast promised more than two hundred miles of jolting terrain: sleepless nights spent corkscrewing through the Sierras, and alkali dust so thick it caked the skin. These discomforts didn’t deter the young Twain, who, at twenty-seven, already had more interesting memories than most men twice his age. He had piloted steamboats on the Mississippi, roamed his native Missouri with a band of Confederate guerrillas, and, as the Civil War began in earnest, took the overland route to the Territory of Nevada—or Washoe, as Westerners called it, after a local Indian tribe.

Now he fell in love with the first and only metropolis of the far west. “After the sagebrush and alkali deserts of Washoe,” he later wrote, “San Francisco was Paradise to me.” Its grandeur and festivity exhilarated him, and he gorged himself with abandon. He drank champagne in the dining room of the Lick House, a palatial haunt of high society modeled on the banquet hall at Versailles. He toured the pleasure gardens on the outskirts of town. He met a pretty girl named Jeannie, who snubbed him when he said hello and said hello when he snubbed her. He rode to the beach and listened to the roaring surf and put his toes in the Pacific. On the far side of the continent, he felt the country’s vastness.