The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature
Penguin Press, 2014
336 pp., $27.95
When people talked about Mark Twain, they talked about his head. It is not uncommon to come across an account of someone's first impression of Twain's "wild" or "curly red" hair and his "bushy" eyebrows. When the San Francisco literary boy-wonder Bret Harte first met Twain, he wrote about Twain's "striking head" and "aquiline nose." Not to mention the odd drawl that sprung from his mouth, sounding alien to native westerners out in Gold Country.
Twain's physical appearance was much like the man himself: distinctive. There truly was no one like Mark Twain, which is perhaps why he is always thrilling to read about. When reviewing a Twain biography for The Atlantic in 2003, Christopher Hitchens wrote, "It is altogether wrong that a book about Mark Twain should be boring." Indeed, he lived 100 lives in one. By the age of 25, Twain had already witnessed the start of the Civil War, piloted steam boats on the Mississippi, and fled multiple cities to escape military service. Perhaps no other person lived so much of the American experience as fully as Mark Twain did.
And this is precisely what Ben Tarnoff's new book, The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writer's Who Reinvented American Literature, has going for it. When Twain is at the center of your narrative, you will always have something to write about. Quoting is not difficult, either, since most people who met Mark Twain wrote about their encounters with him. Tarnoff, like many Twain biographers and scholars, relies on such recollections to drive his narrative; the community of Twain's friends provides the frame for the whole book. In Tarnoff's telling, these "Bohemians"—Twain, Harte, and two lesser-known writers, Charles Warren Stoddard and Ina Coolbrith—would change and influence each other and, as the book argues, American literature as a whole.
There is no need to persuade the reader that Mark Twain changed American literature. But there is plenty of work to do regarding San Francisco changing Twain into the literary force he ended up becoming. This is a great joy of Tarnoff's book. He lets you in to the rich cultural landscape that was San Francisco after the Gold Rush. Cities shape individuals, and through the pages of the book it becomes clear that this wild western city did more to Twain than any other place he spent extended time, save for, perhaps, the Mississippi River.
San Francisco in the Civil War era was "densely urban, yet unmistakably western; isolated yet cosmopolitan; crude yet cultured." The residents of San Francisco drank more than the residents of Boston, and the fresh seafood allowed new restaurants to open constantly. Theater and music lit up the nights as the shanties put up by gold miners turned into banks. In the midst of this booming city was the literary scene, which had its beginnings during the Gold Rush, when scribblers would tell their tales of the wild, rich West being built in California. By the time Twain arrived, San Francisco had "more newspapers per capita than any other American city." It was the perfect place to have Twain's one marketable skill: typesetting.
Working with typesetting and apprenticing printers seems to be the job where many notable writers got their start—Benjamin Franklin and Walt Whitman to name a few. Another was Bret Harte, San Francisco's homegrown literary sensation and Twain's comrade through their early careers. The two shared a surprising amount in common, even though their personalities were quite different. They would work closely together as friends and then as partners, though only for a short time.
This short time of friendship and teamwork between Harte and Twain is where The Bohemians finds its central narrative. (Tarnoff struggles to make Coolbrith and Stoddard interesting in their own right.) Ultimately, it's the story of how Twain surpassed Harte to become the great American novelist of their day.
When Twain came to San Francisco from Nevada in 1863, Harte was the best-known writer in California, though he was only 31. Even years later, when the Bohemians disbanded and Harte took a job at The Atlantic, he was the highest-paid writer at the time. Harte was a literary powerhouse we forget about because of the mountainous figure of Mark Twain. Tarnoff gives us the real, slow timeline of Twain's ascent. It took time for him to find his voice, to become the writer we know, to move from "journalist" to "lecturer" to "novelist," from Samuel Clemens to Mark Twain.
It was while he was working for The Californian that Twain discovered his love for mimicry and parody. He was a lousy journalist because he did not really care for the facts. "Mark was the laziest man I ever knew in my life, physically," said his roommate Steve Gills. "Mentally he was the hardest worker I ever knew."