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

By Ben Tarnoff

The Penguin Press | 2014 | 319 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford


The Freedom of Isolation

For me, the major lesson I learned once again from The Bohemians--and a lesson I have harped on many times in my writings in these pages-- is that the literature of the New World is a dynamic, ever growing narrative.

In addition, it is composed of multiple steams of thought pushed forward by independent minded thinkers.

One key to these thinkers being able to think for themselves was to get as far away as they can from all the clerics and nabobs that insisted that they think in a certain way; and mid 19th century San Francisco, the first real unban center on the Pacific coast, offered such a place.

San Francisco rose up because the San Francisco Bay offered one of the world’s greatest natural ports for shipping,

In addition, it also offered a gateway to Asia.

Still, in 1848, the same year that the Treaty of Guadalupe ended the Mexican-American War and gave California to the United States, San Francisco was hardly much of an unban center with a little over 40,000 citizens, with the overwhelming of them men.

All of this changed almost at the blink of an eye: Writes Tarnoff,” In 1848, the discovery of gold in California (which must have greatly pissed off the Mexicans because they had just lost such a treasure) 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 men...they lived among the cultures of five continents…Cantonese stir-fry competing with German wurst, Chilean whores with Australians. On the far margin of the continent, they created a complex urban society virtually overnight.”

The Bohemians profiles in depth, and interesting, telling details, four writers, all in their twenties, that formed the core group of writers Tarnoff labels The Bohemians: Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard and Ina Coolbrith.

The most well known, Mark Twain, fearing being caught up the Civil War, arrived by stagecoach in San Francisco in 1863 after several years in Nevada. Bret Harte, who was already a fairly well known poet, when Twain arrived, first stepped foot in Oakland, California in 1854 as a seventeen-year-old from New York; the gay poet Stoddard, also a New Yorker, arrived in 1855, at age eleven.

The most interesting of the four for this reader, and the only woman, was Ina Coolbrith. And quite a story the melancholy poet had to tell. Her father died five months after she was born in 1841. Her uncle was none other than Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. When Ina was three, Smith died in an Illinois jail, murdered by a mob.

In 1851 her stepfather led her family West, where at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, the family met Jim Beckwourth, a freed slave turned Crow chieftain. He had recently discovered a path through the Sierras—the famous Beckwourth Pass.

Writes Tarnoff, “She remembers him as ‘one of the most beautiful creatures that ever lived.’” who said to her and her sisters after he had led them in sight of the other side, “Here is California, little girls, here is your kingdom.”

The family settled in Los Angeles, where she found local fame as a poet. But grief continued to follow her, including giving birth to a child that died, and a deranged and jealous husband who tried to kill her and her mother, saved only after her stepfather shot him in the hand as he was attacking them.

Notes Tarnoff, “She loved Lord Byron, and her ordeal made her more Byronic: an outcast with a secret past:“‘

“Only twenty, and my world turned to dusk,” she wrote.

Like Byron, she went into exile, embarking to San Francisco in 1862.

A year later, when Mark Twain rode into town on his stagecoach from Virginia City, Nevada, this was not the San Francisco of the Gold Rush. Writes Tarnoff, “By the time Twain got there, San Francisco still roared. It was densely urban, yet unmistakably western; isolated yet cosmopolitan; crude yet cultured…Even as the gold rush waned, and the miners’ shanties became banks and restaurants and boutiques, the city didn’t slow to a more settle rhythm, Rather, it financed the opening of new frontiers—in Nevada, Idaho, and elsewhere—and leaped from one bonanza to the next.”

In other words, by the 1860s, San Francisco reigned over a flourishing economic empire.

What was more important for Twain, Harte, Stoddard and Coolbrith was that San Francisco also supported a thriving publishing cultural.

“California was always crawling with scribblers,” Tarnoff points out.

Harte, as the most recognized literary light in the city, led the way. As a columnist for the leading literary weekly on the Pacific coast, the Golden Era, he began calling himself “the Bohemian.”  By 1863, all four were writing for the Golden Era.

“Under the banner of Bohemia, these four writers competed, collaborated, traded counsel and criticism. Some remained friends their lives. Others became bitter enemies. What connected them was their contempt for custom, their restlessness with received wisdom. They belonged to Bohemia because they didn’t belong anywhere else,” Tarnoff writes.

As we well know, only Mark Twain received worldwide recognition and had a profound impact on American literature. Harte and Stoddard had limited success outside of San Francisco, with Harte flashing boldly on the larger national literary stage for a few minutes, but quickly fading.   No such national recognition happened to the haunted Coolbrith. She became a librarian in Oakland, but did find recognition late in life, as she became the first California poet laureate.

As she accepted her reward in San Francisco at the age of seventy-four, in 1915, she quietly said to the crowded auditorium:

“I feel that the honor extended me today is meant not so much because of any special merit of my own, as in memory of that wonderful group of early California writers with which it was my fortune to be affiliated, and of which I am the sole survivor.”

Nothing I could write could better sum up this book.  The Bohemians is an excellent American literary history lesson, well worth spending some time with.

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