“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
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.