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

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9780143126966: The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature

An extraordinary portrait of a fast-changing America—and the Western writers who gave voice to its emerging identity

At once an intimate portrait of an unforgettable group of writers and a history of a cultural revolution in America, The Bohemians reveals how a brief moment on the far western frontier changed our culture forever. Beginning with Mark Twain’s arrival in San Francisco in 1863, this group biography introduces readers to the other young eccentric writers seeking to create a new American voice at the country’s edge—literary golden boy Bret Harte; struggling gay poet Charles Warren Stoddard; and beautiful, haunted Ina Coolbrith, poet and protector of the group. Ben Tarnoff’s elegant, atmospheric history reveals how these four pioneering writers helped spread the Bohemian movement throughout the world, transforming American literature along the way.

“Tarnoff’s book sings with the humor and expansiveness of his subjects’ prose, capturing the intoxicating atmosphere of possibility that defined, for a time, America’s frontier.” -- The New Yorker

“Rich hauls of historical research, deeply excavated but lightly borne.... Mr. Tarnoff’s ultimate thesis is a strong one, strongly expressed: that together these writers ‘helped pry American literature away from its provincial origins in New England and push it into a broader current’.” -- Wall Street Journal 

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About the Author:

BEN TARNOFF is the author of A Counterfeiter’s Paradise. He has written for the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, 1865.

INTRODUCTION

The Civil War began with an outburst of patriotic feeling on both sides and the belief that a few battles would result in a swift victory. It ended with the death of 750,000 soldiers and a nation shaken to its core. The wise men of an earlier era found themselves entirely unequal to the crisis. The great political and military leaders of the past—eminences like John Crittenden and General Winfield Scott, both born in the previous century—went into forced retirement, while younger, more modern minds like Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant rose to the challenge. The Civil War destroyed old assumptions and rewarded radically new thinking. It triggered a cultural upheaval comparable to the one wrought a century later by the Vietnam War, a national trauma that made an older generation suddenly obsolete and demanded novelty, innovation, experimentation. The 1860s was bloody, bewildering—and, if you managed to survive, a magnificent time to be a young American.

If America belonged to the young, then its future lay in the youngest place in America: the Far West. The pioneers who settled it were overwhelmingly young, and untethered from traditional society, they built a new world without the benefit of their parents’ counsel. If their encampments often reeled with postadolescent excess, they also offered opportunities unlike any that might be found in the colleges and countinghouses of the East. These new Americans were the “tan-faced children” of Walt Whitman’s poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers,” the vanguard of democracy:

All the past we leave behind;

We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world,

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

When Whitman looked West, he didn’t just see a place. He saw an idea, rooted in a mystical tradition as old as the country itself. Thomas Jefferson had been its founding prophet. He and his disciples believed that American civilization would march inevitably toward the Pacific, and that the continent’s limitless supply of virgin land would be settled by yeoman farmers who embodied the nation’s egalitarian spirit. Of course, the reality was often more complicated. The region contained land that resisted cultivation, and Indians who resisted extermination. But as the line of settlement inched steadily forward—past the Alleghenies, then the Mississippi, then the Rockies—the Jeffersonian dream of a westward “empire of liberty” began to look like prophecy. Even Henry David Thoreau, when departing for his daily walk in Concord, felt drawn in a westerly direction. “The future lies that way to me,” he wrote, “and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side.”

Mark Twain was born in 1835 and reached young adulthood at the best possible time, just as the country embarked on the most extraordinary period of change in its history. He was a westerner by birth, raised on the Missouri frontier. The outbreak of the Civil War forced him farther west, as he fled the fighting in his native state for the region beyond the Rockies. There he found another frontier—and a social experiment unlike any in the country. In 1848, the discovery of gold in California had triggered a swift influx of people from all corners of the world. As the gateway to the gold rush, San Francisco went from a drowsy backwater to a booming global seaport. Mostly the newcomers were young, single men—they hadn’t come to stay, but to get rich and get out. They erected tents and wooden hovels, makeshift structures that made easy kindling for the city’s frequent fires. They built gambling dens and saloons and brothels. They lived among the cultures of five continents, often condensed into the space of a single street: Cantonese stir-fry competing with German wurst, Chilean whores with Australian. On the far margin of the continent, they created a complex urban society virtually overnight.

By the time Twain got there, San Francisco still roared. It was densely urban, yet unmistakably western; isolated yet cosmopolitan; crude yet cultured. The city craved spectacle, whether on the gaslit stages of its many theaters or in the ornately costumed pageantry of its streets. Its wide-open atmosphere endeared it to the young and the odd, to anyone seeking refuge from the overcivilized East. It had an acute sense of its own history, and a paganish appetite for mythmaking and ritual. Even as the gold rush waned, and the miners’ shanties became banks and restaurants and boutiques, the city didn’t slow to a more settled rhythm. Rather, it financed the opening of new frontiers—in Nevada, Idaho, and elsewhere—and leaped from one bonanza to the next. Its citizens spent lavishly: on feasts of oysters and terrapin, on imported fashions and furnishings. They drank seven bottles of champagne for every one drunk in Boston. Long after the gold rush, they kept the frontier spirit of the city alive.

They also sustained a thriving publishing culture. California was always crawling with scribblers. The first generation wrote the story of the gold rush themselves, in letters and diaries and in the pages of the newspapers they started as soon as they arrived. San Francisco’s printing presses cranked out pamphlets, periodicals, and books, relieving the loneliness and boredom of the frontier. By the 1860s, the city had spawned an extraordinary literary scene—a band of outsiders called the Bohemians. Twain joined their ranks, and the encounter would shape the entire current of his life.

Bret Harte was their leader. Immaculately dressed and witheringly ironic, he didn’t mix easily with others. He held himself apart, and hated the mediocrity of most California writing. In the gold rush, he would discover material that met his exacting standards: tales of the frontier, infused with dark humor and colorful slang. These would feed the country’s growing fascination with the Far West, and catapult him to the top spot in American letters. He drew other young Californians into his orbit, helping them grow into writers capable of seizing the national stage.

Charles Warren Stoddard needed the encouragement. Dreamy and frail, he always doubted himself. He was what his idol and sometime correspondent, Walt Whitman, would call “adhesive”—gay—and he struggled to square his sexuality with a world that offered few outlets for it. He buried himself in poetry and became the boy wonder of the Bohemians. But his real breakthrough came when he traveled to the South Seas, where he discovered a tropical paradise that sated his sensuality and inspired his best writing.

Ina Coolbrith also suffered for her secrets. A painful past had forced her to live outside the narrow mold of Victorian womanhood, and she was determined to make the most of it. She earned recognition from an early age for her poetry, and later became the first poet laureate of California. To the Bohemians, she provided companionship, sympathy, and support that proved indispensable to the growth of the group. She also gave them a place to gather, in the parlor of her parents’ house.

The Bohemians were nonconformists by choice or by circumstance, and they eased their isolation by forming intense friendships with one another. San Francisco was where their story began, but it would continue in Boston, New York, and London; in the palace and the poorhouse; in success and humiliation, fame and poverty. They benefited from the disruptions of the 1860s, as the Civil War shattered the moral certainties of antebellum America and created rifts in the culture wide enough for new voices to be heard. At the same time, the war made America smaller. It connected California to the rest of the country with railroad track and telegraph wire, and fostered a spirit of nationalism that brought East and West closer together. San Francisco emerged from its seclusion, and its writers found a wider readership at a moment when the nation sorely needed new storytellers.

The Bohemians would bring a fresh spirit to American writing, drawn from the new world being formed in the Far West. If the old guard of American literature was genteel, moralistic, grandiose, then the Bohemians would be ironic and irreverent. They would prefer satire to sermons, sensuality to sentimentalism. They would embrace the devilish sense of humor that flourished in the communities of the frontier. Above all, they would help break the literary monopoly of the East. The Bohemians would prove that the Pacific coast could produce literature on a par with the Atlantic—that the Far West wasn’t a backwater but a civilization of its own, capable of creating great art.

No Bohemian made better art than Twain. San Francisco gave him his education as a writer, nurturing the literary powers he would later use to transform American literature. He would help steer the country through its newfangled nationhood, and become the supreme cultural icon of the postwar age. But first, he would spend his formative years on the Far Western fringe, in the company of other young Bohemians struggling to reinvent American writing.

  I  

PIONEERS

Mark Twain in 1863, taken on his first visit to San Francisco. He was twenty-seven.

ONE

What 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. Printers transcribed it with hyphens and dashes, trying to render rhythms so complex they could’ve been scored as sheet music. He rasped and droned, lapsed into long silences, soared in the swaying tenor inherited from the slave songs of his childhood. He made people laugh while remaining dreadfully, imperially serious. He mixed the sincere and the satiric, the factual and the fictitious, in proportions too obscure for even his closest friends to decipher. He was prickly, irreverent, ambitious, vindictive—a personality as impenetrably vast as the American West, and as prone to seismic outbursts. He was Samuel Clemens before he became Mark Twain, and in the spring of 1863, he made a decision that brought him one step closer to the fame he craved.

On May 2, 1863, Mark Twain boarded a stagecoach bound for San Francisco. The trip from Virginia City, Nevada, to the California coast promised more than two hundred miles of jolting terrain: sleepless nights spent corkscrewing through the Sierras, and alkali dust so thick it caked the skin. These discomforts didn’t deter the young Twain, who, at twenty-seven, already had more interesting memories than most men twice his age. He had piloted steamboats on the Mississippi, roamed his native Missouri with a band of Confederate guerrillas, and as the Civil War began in earnest, taken the overland route to the Territory of Nevada—or Washoe, as westerners called it, after a local Indian tribe.

Now he fell in love with the first and only metropolis of the Far West. “After the sage-brush and alkali deserts of Washoe,” he later wrote, “San Francisco was Paradise to me.” Its grandeur and festivity exhilarated him, and he gorged himself with abandon. He drank champagne in the dining room of the Lick House, a palatial haunt of high society modeled on the banquet hall at Versailles. He toured the pleasure gardens on the outskirts of town. He met a pretty girl named Jeannie, who snubbed him when he said hello and said hello when he snubbed her. He rode to the beach and listened to the roaring surf and put his toes in the Pacific. On the far side of the continent, he felt the country’s vastness.

He hadn’t planned to stay long, but a nonstop itinerary of eating, drinking, sailing, and socializing kept him too busy to bear the thought of leaving. In mid-May, he wrote his mother and sister to say he would remain for another ten days, two weeks at the most. By early June, another letter announced he was still in San Francisco, had switched lodgings to a fancier hotel, and showed no signs of slowing his demonic pace. “I am going to the Dickens mighty fast,” he wrote, a taunt aimed squarely at his devoutly Calvinist mother. The city offered many after-dark amusements—high-toned saloons and divey dance halls, gambling dens and girlie shows—and Twain rarely returned home before midnight. He was never at a loss for companionship: he reckoned he knew at least a thousand of the city’s 115,000 residents, mostly friends from Nevada. The city’s main thoroughfare, Montgomery Street, where crowds and carriages swarmed under gleaming Italianate facades, reminded him of his hometown. “[W]hen I go down Montgomery street, shaking hands with Tom, Dick & Harry,” he wrote his family, “it is just like being in Main street in Hannibal & meeting the old familiar faces.”

Spring turned to summer, and still Twain hadn’t left. Dreading the inevitable, he clung on as long as he could. “It seems like going back to prison to go back to the snows & the deserts of Washoe,” he complained. In July, he finally said farewell. He had been away from Nevada for two months. Even after he had settled back into the sagebrush on the dry side of the Sierras, the city lingered in his mind. Over the course of the next year he would find many reasons to return: first to visit, then to live. He would chronicle its quirks, and hurt the feelings of not a few of its citizens. In exchange, San Francisco would mold him to literary maturity. It would inspire his evolution from a provincial scribbler into a great American writer, from Hannibal’s Samuel Clemens into America’s Mark Twain.

· · ·

ON FEBRUARY 3, 1863, Three months before the carrot-haired rambler roared into California, the residents of Virginia City, Nevada, awoke to find an unfamiliar name in their newspaper. That day’s Territorial Enterprise ran a letter from Carson City, the nearby capital, about a lavish party hosted by the former governor of California. The reporter arrived in the company of a bumptious, ill-bred friend—“the Unreliable”—and proceeded to drain the punch bowl and sing and dance drunkenly until two in the morning. Several famous citizens made cartoonish cameos. Affixed to the bottom of this waggish sketch of Washoe society was a new name: “Mark Twain.”

This debut didn’t attract much notice at the time. Clemens had written under a number of pseudonyms; it occurred to no one that his latest, Mark Twain, would someday be the most famous alias in America. The writing was clever, but only faintly colored by the brilliance that would later revolutionize American literature. He was always a late bloomer; his gifts took time to develop, and to be understood. He entered the world on November 30, 1835, a pale and premature child. “When I first saw him I could see no promise in him,” his mother said.

The origins of his pen name remain a mystery. In one disputed account, Twain claimed to have stolen the pseudonym from a famous steamboat captain named Isaiah Sellers. On the Mississippi, the leadsman would mark the depth on the sounding line and call it out to the pilot; “mark twain” meant “two fathoms,” a phrase that could signal safety or danger depending on the ship’s location. To a pilot in shallow water, it...

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Book Description Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2015. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. An extraordinary portrait of a fast-changing America--and the Western writers who gave voice to its emerging identity At once an intimate portrait of an unforgettable group of writers and a history of a cultural revolution in America, The Bohemians reveals how a brief moment on the far western frontier changed our culture forever. Beginning with Mark Twain s arrival in San Francisco in 1863, this group biography introduces readers to the other young eccentric writers seeking to create a new American voice at the country s edge--literary golden boy Bret Harte; struggling gay poet Charles Warren Stoddard; and beautiful, haunted Ina Coolbrith, poet and protector of the group. Ben Tarnoff s elegant, atmospheric history reveals how these four pioneering writers helped spread the Bohemian movement throughout the world, transforming American literature along the way. Tarnoff s book sings with the humor and expansiveness of his subjects prose, capturing the intoxicating atmosphere of possibility that defined, for a time, America s frontier. -- The New Yorker Rich hauls of historical research, deeply excavated but lightly borne. Mr. Tarnoff s ultimate thesis is a strong one, strongly expressed: that together these writers helped pry American literature away from its provincial origins in New England and push it into a broader current . -- Wall Street Journal. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780143126966

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