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If, like me, you live on Russian Hill in San Francisco, or if you care for fine and adventurous writing, Ben Tarnoff’s The Bohemians: Mark Twain and The San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature is for you. Mark Twain lived and wrote in San Francisco for a few years in the 1860s, and he formed close friendships with a few other writers in this city. San Francisco was far from the action of The Civil War, but was seeing meteoric growth because of it. The Gold Rush had more or less played out, but the city was becoming a manufacturing and shipping hub, and there was an unusual number of newspapers and magazines, all of which needed typesetters and writers.
Twain and Bret Harte were men with both these talents, and in San Francisco they formed, with the poets Ina Coolbrith and Charles Warren Stoddard, a literary group that became known as The Bohemians. The West in general, and California (and San Francisco) in particular, were the home of a remarkable literary boom that was fueled principally by these four people. Its signature style – particularly in the work of Twain and Harte – was notable for its use of western slang, a kind of swagger and drawl that at first was more a spoken style than a formal written one. The tall tales of the far west used that slang to great popular amusement. Twain and Harte wrote the finest examples of it…in Twain’s case “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” published in 1865, and in Harte’s “The Luck of Roaring Camp” in 1868. Both men became celebrities, and were lionized nationwide once they were recognized by east coast publishers like William Dean Howells, who held themselves as the arbiters of literary taste in the United States at the time.
Twain’s career went on to become legend, while with time those of the other three writers faded. The Bohemians shows nonetheless that the four of them wrote in ways that opened an entirely new American writing that was freed of the restraints imposed on it by its until-then adherence to straitened European standards of decorum. You could now write about the wilds of America out west, and do it in the language of the west. It was a revolutionary moment in American letters.
Writing about the beginnings of this literary flourish, Tarnoff says this: “The Far West offered a possible path forward. On the frontier, the rudiments of a new kind of writing were beginning to take shape. It would succeed only on its own terms, not by slavish emulation of New England or the wholesale adoption of Atlantic tastes, but by discovering the value of its local materials, by broadening its vision to see what was hiding in plain sight.”
Writers are often pictured as solitary individuals wrestling with their own thoughts in isolation and worry. When they are in the actual act of writing, this is usually true. But as so often happens, the collaborative exchange of ideas and feelings between writers is equally important to what they eventually put on the page. Tarnoff writes with great feeling about the friendship that these four writers shared in rough and tumble San Francisco, and the eventual breakdown of that friendship as Twains’s star rose and those of the others faded. Bret Harte was an invaluable editor to Twain, Stoddard and Coolbrith, while Twain helped his friends with advice, affection and, occasionally, money. Ina Coolbrith’s home on Russian Hill was the scene of many conversations, cups of tea, and the sharing of ideas and inspirations. Emblematic of the affection that these writers had for each other, at least during their time together in San Francisco, is a remark that Ina Coolbrith made to Charles Warren Stoddard: “The friendship between us has been more to me than the love of any man.”
Many other compelling characters figure in this fine book. The wealthy San Francisco society woman Jesse Benton Frémont was instrumental to the beginnings of the Bohemian flowering, as was a Unitarian preacher named Thomas Starr King, a riveting public speaker whose 1864 funeral was attended by 20,000 San Franciscans. Artemus Ward, a famous comedian and best-selling author, was on tour, and befriended Mark Twain in San Francisco. His influence was instrumental to Twain’s own development as a comic writer and, above all, a major public figure.
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro, about an artist in San Francisco, will be published later this year. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.