The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff, review by Carl Caton
Samuel Clemens did not become Mark Twain overnight. It was a gradual and not altogether smooth process, and Clemens was fortunate to become a part of a circle of talented writers in San Francisco during the American Civil War, from which Clemens had essentially excused himself. The story of Clemens’ metamorphosis into Twain is told in Ben Tarnoff’s new book The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers who Reinvented American Literature.
Following his disappointing efforts as a silver miner during the Nevada silver rush, Clemens made his way to San Francisco, the up and coming gem of the Pacific coast. Struggling to make it as a journalist, Clemens became acquainted with three other young and rising writers. Bret Harte, a family man with ambition and talent was at the time the most successful of the group that became known as “The Bohemians”. Charles Warren Stoddard was a gay poet, and Ina Coolbrith was a poet who over time became the mother hen of the group. The Bohemian label arose as these writers, both deliberately and subconsciously, wrote prose and poetry completely unlike those of the established writers of the eastern seaboard. Wanting to differentiate themselves from and compete with Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and others, the Bohemians wrote in a distinctly western vernacular and perspective. Each was to become successful, in varying degrees and over different timeframes, with eastern readers.
Tarnoff tracks the struggles, successes, and failures of these very different but aligned people, over the decade or so in which Harte’s flame flared and then fizzled, and Clemens found his voice as America’s greatest writer. Despite setbacks, such as a piece written as a hoax that backfired, Clemens experimented with storytelling based on his experiences in the west, and simultaneously became an accomplished lecturer, filling lecture halls and delighting audiences with his droll delivery and outrageous tales. Although Harte and Clemens were once close, their relationship soured as Harte spiraled down and Clemens rose in stature and fame. Stoddard, meanwhile, struggled both personally and professionally, with sporadic and sometimes marginal support from Coolbrith and Clemens. Coolbrith was the least mobile of the group, as she was tied to San Francisco and her extended family, who relied on her for both livelihood and nurture. As the others traveled around the country and the world, Coolbrith remained rooted in California, trapped and increasingly isolated from her friends.
Tarnoff has written an engrossing account of the relationships among this group. He provides an insightful look at how Clemens became Mark Twain and how his career took off from the mining camps of Nevada amid the growing stature of San Francisco and California in the aftermath of the Civil War.