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

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Overview

The unforgettable story of the birth of modern America and the western writers who 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 from the front lines, the city at the western edge roars. A global seaport, home to immigrants from five continents, San Francisco has become a complex urban society virtually overnight. The bards of the moment are the Bohemians: a young ...

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

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Overview

The unforgettable story of the birth of modern America and the western writers who 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 from the front lines, the city at the western edge roars. A global seaport, home to immigrants from five continents, San Francisco has become a complex urban society virtually overnight. The bards of the moment are the Bohemians: a young Mark Twain, fleeing the draft and seeking adventure; literary golden boy Bret Harte; struggling gay poet Charles Warren Stoddard; and beautiful, haunted Ina Coolbrith, poet and protectorate of the group. Ben Tarnoff’s elegant, atmospheric history reveals how these four pioneering western writers would together 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: the economy booms, newspapers and magazines thrive, and the dream of transcontinental train travel promises to soon become a reality. Twain and the Bohemians find inspiration in their surroundings: the dark ironies of frontier humor, the extravagant tales told around the campfires, and the youthful irreverence of the new world being formed in the west. The star of the moment is Bret Harte, a rising figure on the national scene and mentor to both Stoddard and Coolbrith. Young and ambitious, Twain and Harte form the Bohemian core. But as Harte’s star ascends—drawing attention from eastern taste makers such as the Atlantic Monthly—Twain flounders, questioning whether he should be a writer at all.
 
The Bohemian moment would continue in Boston, New York, and London, and would achieve immortality in the writings of Mark Twain. San Francisco gave him his education as a writer and helped inspire the astonishing innovations that radically reimagined American literature. At once an intimate portrait of an eclectic, unforgettable group of writers and a history of a cultural revolution in America, The Bohemians reveals how a brief moment on the western frontier changed our country forever.

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Editorial Reviews

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Bret Harte once wrote, "Bohemia has never been located geographically," a statement that some might find odd because Harte himself had been associated with not one, but two major bohemian uprisings: one in lower Manhattan and the other in San Francisco. But as Ben Tarnoff's brilliant new history reveals, Harte was both right and wrong: Literary Bohemia is both locale-specific and inextricably connected with all the others. Thus, The Bohemians displays a rich literary movement in the act of blooming even as it shows how the four writers it features (Mark Twain, Harte, Ina Coolbrith, and Charles Warren Stoddard) changed the face of our national culture. Tarnoff's subject is fascinating, but I would be remiss if I failed to mention his nuanced, even poetic writing. More than once I paid his prose the ultimate compliment: To linger on its rich cadences and metaphors, I read entire passages aloud myself.

—R.J. Wilson, Bookseller, #1002, New York NY

Publishers Weekly
01/13/2014
Tarnoff’s (A Counterfeiter’s Paradise) 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. Twain gets the most page time, but is the least delicately handled; Tarnoff reserves his affection for the city itself and its “community of fellow misfits” who, drawing on the unique energy of young California and the language, humor, and mythology of the West, create a “native national literature, liberated from the cultural imperialism of the Old World.” While the revolutionary claims are ambitious—Twain’s jumping frog of Calaveras County is “the Fort Sumter of American letters,” his The Innocents Abroad “a bullet in the heart of America’s literary establishment”—Tarnoff thoughtfully situates the rise of “a unique American vernacular” in a confluence of economic, geographic, and historical forces. The impacts of the self-styled Bohemians emerge most clearly in the nostalgic reflections of the chief characters only after they have left San Francisco for parts abroad. Nevertheless, 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.” Photos. Agent: Joy Harris, Joy Harris Literary Agency. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
2014-01-05
Four ambitious writers star in this literary history. Journalist Tarnoff (A Counterfeiter's Paradise: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Early American Moneymakers, 2011) tells a lively story of mid-19th-century San Francisco, focused on champagne-swilling Mark Twain, foppish Bret Harte, poet and essayist Charles Warren Stoddard, and little-remembered poet Ina Coolbrith. Despite the book's hyperbolic subtitle, Tarnoff does not make a case for these writers' revolutionary impact on American literature; nor, in fact, that Stoddard and Coolbrith had any impact at all. In the 1860s, Harte was well-known for humorous short stories about California life, but by 1871, when he came East for a speaking tour, his career was over. "It was the corpse of that Bret Harte that swept in splendor across the continent," Mark Twain announced. Although Twain had by then reconciled with his one-time rival, he did not mourn Harte's literary downfall. His star was rising, partly due to his recognition by William Dean Howells, the influential editor of the Atlantic Monthly; partly due to his status as a brilliant performer who attracted huge audiences to his one-man shows; partly due to the fact that readers east of the Mississippi were enthralled by fiction set on the raunchy frontier. Exuberant stories gave the young nation new myths, establishing the West as "a place of paradox and incongruity, where conventional rules of sentiment and syntax broke down, and humor overlaid everything." Twain proved to be a master of this new genre. In such works as Innocents Abroad, a best-seller in 1869, Twain's characters were ordinary middle Americans, honest, open and free of an old-world veneer of sophistication: "They belonged to a country of the future: an innovative, economically ascendant nation with a style all its own." It may be, as Tarnoff asserts, that these writers spent the best years of their lives in California, but only Twain, living in New York and Connecticut, left a lasting literary legacy.
Library Journal
02/15/2014
San Francisco-based Tarnoff (A Counterfeiter's Paradise) chronicles the lives of four American writers—a young Mark Twain falls in with rising literary star Bret Harte, poet Charles Stoddard, and dark poetess Ina Coolbirth—living in the Bay Area from the early 1860s to 1878, a tumultuous time of boom and bust. Together, these "so-called Bohemians" carouse, chase fame, and heavily influence one another's work. Harte eventually takes on a mentorship role, becomes editor of The Overland, but ultimately his self-absorbed personality effectively dissolves the group. In the book's first half, Tarnoff successfully paints a grand portrait of San Francisco, bringing to life the friendship and rivalry of the writers. While the latter half of this title lacks the spirit infused into its beginning, Tarnoff describes admirably Twain's growth following his departure from the West Coast and his courtship of Olivia Langdon. Particular attention is paid to Twain's evolution from story writer to star author, with his publication of The Innocents Abroad in 1869. VERDICT Readers hoping for a work wholly dedicated to the writers living in San Francisco during the period may be somewhat disappointed, as two of the four are not in the city for half of the years covered in the book. Recommended for fans of the authors, particularly Harte and Twain, and readers of American history, biography, and American literary history. [See Prepub Alert, 10/1/13.]—Benjamin Brudner, Curry Coll. Lib., Milton, MA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594204739
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 3/20/2014
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 92,034
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Ben Tarnoff has written for The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Lapham’s Quarterly, and is the author of A Counterfeiter’s Paradise: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Early American Moneymakers. He was born in San Francisco.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2014

    thoroughly enjoyable

    Skillfully captured a part of history of America through a literary lens and focus on California. Meticulously researched and well presented, even the word choice brought delight. Truly an interesting read. I gave it as two gifts even before i had finished it myself.

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