As 19th-century San Francisco evolved from a rowdy Gold Rush boomtown into the financial center of the American West, its rambunctious poets and writers—especially the self-styled Bohemians—sought to bring a skeptical, caustic, humorous Western voice to American writing that had been long dominated by the relatively staid literary eminences of Boston and New York.
This not-so-quiet literary revolution is the story San Francisco-born writer Ben Tarnoff tells in his well-researched, well-told The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. Tarnoff focuses on four writers—Charles Warren Stoddard, Ina Coolbrith, Bret Harte and Mark Twain—whose lives converged in San Francisco in 1863.
As Tarnoff’s narrative begins, Harte, “a shy, soft-spoken dandy” and a talented editor, was the most famous Western storyteller in the country. The young Twain, recently arrived from Nevada, was best known for a few callow journalistic stunts and was unsure enough of his talents that he would soon consider giving up writing altogether and returning to life on the river in Missouri. The forever-boyish Stoddard, a “dreamy and frail” poet, struggled with his sexuality and only found himself as a person and as a writer when he ventured to the South Seas. Coolbrith, perhaps the most tragic figure in this story, was a poet with some talent, but she was increasingly shackled by financial responsibilities, first for her ailing mother and then for her orphaned nieces and nephews. She could never fully develop her gifts but, as an Oakland librarian, influenced writers like Jack London, and was named California’s first poet laureate near the end of her life.
Tarnoff alternates his narrative among these four aspiring writers struggling to achieve something new. He vividly describes a vibrant 10-year period when San Francisco was adjusting to the impacts of the Civil War and the arrival of the transcontinental railroad. But the strongest and most fascinating strand of Tarnoff’s story focuses on the friendship and rivalry between Harte and Twain. This sad drama offers important insights into how young Twain—by turns helped and hindered by an increasingly irrational and vainglorious Harte—became the great American writer he was.