Saturday, March 29, 2014

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

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

The Bohemians is the chronicle of a certain circle of Western writers who redefined American literature, bringing the culture and feel of the West Coast to Eastern readers and in some ways uniting the country as a whole. Ben Tarnoff focuses primarily on Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Ina Coolbrith, some more famous than others, who all lived and worked in California during a certain period. Their friendships and enmities would fuel the growth of Western literary culture. In their own ways, each changed the cliched image of the West and brilliantly portrayed the spirit of California and nearby locales. The Bohemians focuses on this period in the 1860's and 70's when some of these writers rose to fame and others sunk into obscurity. But they were all important, though some were less visible than others.

Although I was never enthralled by this history, I also never put the book down out of boredom. Tarnoff does not use much humor or wit, yet he solidly engaged me with his seemingly accurate history and thought-out observations. Despite the fact that the period isn't one I'm hugely interested in or knowledgeable about, I enjoyed the book, although it was nothing to rave about.

I don't have a great deal to say about this work, but I did find certain elements of it interesting, particularly the way that in the 19th century it took so long for things and people to go from coast to coast and how isolated the two regions used to be. Of course, I knew this already, but The Bohemians reminded me even more of this separation. It was partly the writers who connected the two areas, bringing a sometimes inaccurate portrayal of the West east. The Bohemians set about righting that wrong, and Bret Harte in particular shattered the typical cliches held by many about the West. I believe that I read a few of his stories several years ago, and they turn upside down the tropes of Western stories; the hooker with a heart of gold, a man reunited with his long-lost son who turns out to be an imposter, and more.

Of course, Twain ultimately became the most well known; Ina Coolbrith and Charles Warren Stoddard are all but forgotten, and Bret Harte is very rarely read. As Tarnoff reveals, Harte was at first the toast of the east, causing Twain a lot of jealousy, but Harte ruined his popularity through various social mistakes, and it was Twain who really changed the history of literature (he was embraced wholeheartedly first by the British).

Tarnoff portrays the Bohemian scene in San Francisco quite well. They were a group of highly intelligent, witty, and sarcastic individuals who were frank and not afraid to point out the idiosyncrasies of the very society they were a part of. All of these writers got their start writing fiction, poems and editorials for various San Francisco newspapers, and this is primarily what the author focuses on, although he does also talk about Harte and Twain's first experience with publishing.

The ending was rather abrupt and I kind of wanted more, but overall The Bohemians provided a satisfying and enriching read in which I learned a fair amount about this scene. The book came out about a week ago, and I would recommend it if you're interested in this period or any of these writers. I received an ARC from the Penguin Press.

256 pages (in the ARC).

Rating: ****

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