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

Midway through The Bohemians, Ben Tarnoff describes “the seed of California humor” as “the collision of romance with reality.” The same is true of his new book. Subtitled Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers who Reinvented American Literature, this examination of the intertwined literary fortunes of four close friends—Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Ina Coolbrith, and Charles Warren Stoddard—delves into another kind of collision, the idealized romance of writing when it clashes with the harsh realities of the publishing world. It also examines the collision between the supposed romantic life of the writer and the all too present reality of family responsibilities and a constant threat of poverty.

Tarnoff traces the four writers’ friendships, their support for each other’s literary efforts, their helpful critiques, and their unfortunate jealousies. Twain, Harte, Coolbrith, and Stoddard opened publishing doors for one another; and slammed them closed. They worked hard to craft a new voice for American literature, one born in the West, with western idioms and western story-telling, western bravado and western satire, western scope and western humor. From the editorial rooms of the Overland Monthly to the welcoming parlor of Ina Coolbrith, they tried out ideas, talked constantly , tested various literary forms, shared their manuscript drafts, and experimented stylistically. Then they scattered. For three of the four, their best literary days were behind them. Only Mark Twain was able to soar beyond the psychological confines of California.

Near the end of The Bohemians, Tarnoff calls the foursome “a community of fellow misfits.” Indeed, they were an unlikely group of friends. They tended to drink too much, and appeared unable to settle down. They were poor, always scrambling for money. What they had in common, I think, was a hunger to produce innovative writing that escaped the restraints of a European literary tradition and what they perceived as a New England narrowness of substance and style. They also shared an almost unslakeable thirst for provocative literary conversation. They loved to banter and debate and argue almost as much as they loved to write. And write they did, always experimenting and, for a few brief years, constantly stretching their talents.

Although Tarnoff focuses on the Bohemian’s San Francisco years together in the 1860s, he also reports on how their lives subsequently diverged and disintegrated. Harte, who finally settled in Europe, lost entirely his sense of the vernacular. He never accomplished anything to match what he wrote in California. Stoddard became a wanderer, nomadically roaming around the globe. He never quite found a home, or a genuine literary calling, anywhere. Coolbrith, a penny-pinching librarian in Oakland for many years, outlived the other three but never wrote much of substance as she aged. We know, of course, that the fourth, Mark Twain, outstripped his peers. Only he was able to take a Bohemian imagination and establish a true American literary voice for generations to come. But Twain’s achievements are another story. This one is the tale of the Bohemians, a fortuitous coalescence of four writers, their friendships, and their foibles together. Written with a distinctive style, Tarnoff’s book well captures the energy and the verve of those early California creators, and what they did for (and to) the course of American literature. Not quite biography and not quite literary criticism, The Bohemians is an accessible, quite readable tale of real-life men and women brought together for inspiration and for a momentous collision between reality and romance.   -Ann Ronald

Also available by Tarnoff: A Countefeiter’s Paradise.

2 Responses to The Bohemians

  1. Dave says:

    Great review. I didn’t know this history though I knew a lot about Twain, have read a lot of his books. I am intrigued to learn about the Bohemians. A local ironic joke is that the Bohemian Grove on the Russian River (N. California) is a club for very rich and powerful men.

    • Thanks, Dave – I think Bohemian Grove members probably share the literary foursome’s fame for drinking. Ann’s review really makes me want to take a second look of Ina Coolbrith – not exactly the image I’m familiar with. What’s neat is that having left the Bay Area and snuggly settled in Reno, I still get to claim Twain as “one of ours.”

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