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The following review appeared 6 April 2014 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Ben Tarnoff writes that the inspiration behind his latest book The Bohemians can be found in Franklin Walker's San Francisco's Literary Frontier first published in 1939. Walker's study focused on eight major Western writers. Tarnoff's study targets only four: Mark Twain and the "Overland Trinity." They were three young writers in their twenties who launched a prestigious West Coast literary magazine and facilitated the birth of authentic American literature. Bret Harte was a New York native of Jewish heritage who had always dreamed of being a writer; Charles Warren Stoddard was a gay man living in an era when homosexuality was forced to remain hidden; and Ina Donna Coolbrith was an English teacher and poet. A niece of Mormon leader Joseph Smith, she changed her identity after a failed marriage and scandalous divorce.
Tarnoff weaves their biographical vignettes together as they each sought new lives in San Francisco. "Harte, Twain, Coolbrith, and Stoddard differed widely in lifestyle and literary technique. In 1863, their paths were about to intersect. Under the banner of Bohemia, these four writers competed, collaborated, traded counsel and criticism. Some remained friends their entire 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 (p. 43).
In the early 1860s, San Francisco was the only metropolis on the western frontier and still growing. The 1860 U.S. census shows a population just under 60,000. A railroad connecting it to the East Coast was several years in the offing. In spite of its relative isolation from the rest of the nation, California had one of the highest literacy rates in the United States and San Francisco featured more newspapers per capita than any other American city. It could boast more aspiring writers in proportion to total population than any other American city. The Golden Era was the most popular literary weekly on the West Coast and it was where Harte, Stoddard and Coolbrith found early outlets for their writing. Harte and Stoddard both captured the attention of Jessie Benton Fremont, a senator's daughter and politician's wife, and her charismatic minister Thomas Starr King. They were staunch Union supporters during the Civil War, a war fought in the pages of newspapers on the West Coast. To them it was imperative that public opinion be maintained in support of Abe Lincoln and the Union. Harte and Stoddard wrote and published patriotic poems supporting the Union and King delivered them from the pulpit.
Twain, a reporter for the Virginia City, Nevada Territorial Enterprise, was different. He made his first appearance in the Golden Era in September 1863 with "How to Cure a Cold." Tarnoff describes it: "His style was spare, almost telegraphic. It had the clipped cadence of a man on the brink of madness, occasionally bubbling into hysterics before wrangling his demons back into the cupboard ... he unburdened himself of any obligation to be courteous or coherent" (p. 47).
In May 1864 Bret Harte and another Era contributor Charles Henry Webb, a former war correspondent from New York, launched their own publication The Californian. Tarnoff describes the publication as "always contrarian. Its tone was sharper than anything in the Era, tinged with condescension and a dandyish self-regard" (p. 79); "the work of writers in their twenties, quicker to criticism than to creation" (p. 93). Coolbrith was also brought on board as a contributor. Mark Twain, having been run out of Virginia City because of his newspaper hoaxing, was now a reporter on the San Francisco Morning Call. He also hired on at the Californian. Tarnoff describes Twain's contributions: "The moral dimension of his work began to mature. He still told lies, but for better reasons: small, funny lies meant to illuminate large, unfunny ones" (p. 90).
East Coast editors began reprinting Twain's contributions. However, Twain struggled with writing one particular story. He told Harte he had heard it in a mining camp. It was an old folk tale about a jumping frog. It would be difficult to write it the way he heard it told; difficult to translate voice and rhythm into silent print. Tarnoff describes it as a "particular bit of prose that would pass from his pen about as easily as a kidney stone" (p. 103) but was one that "held nothing less than the Fort Sumter of American letters" (p. 105). Twain mailed it to the East Coast. The story "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" appeared in New York's Saturday Press on November 18, 1865--an event Tarnoff considers a red letter date in American literature--"the beginning of the end of the old guard in American letters: the decline of a genteel elite that looked to Europe for its influences, and the rise of a literature that drew its inspiration from more native sources" (p. 115).
Twain landed assignments as a traveling reporter for the California newspapers and began establishing a successful career as a platform lecturer entertaining audiences with tales of his travels. Harte, Coolbrith, and Stoddard united in the summer of 1868 to edit a new magazine, the Overland Monthly. Twain, fresh from a tour of the Holy Land financed by the Alta California, returned to San Francisco that spring with a manuscript for his first travel book, The Innocents Abroad. The manuscript was in need of refinement and his old editor Bret Harte took on the task. In exchange, Harte got the rights to print early excerpts. Eastern critics embraced The Californian and Harte's own stories of "gold diggers, gamblers, and whores" (p. 167). According to Tarnoff, "Harte had come to absorb the lesson of his friend Mark Twain: that frontier humor was the resin in which the peculiar power of American speech was caught and crystallized" (p. 167).
Harte parlayed his own recognition as a Western author and successful editor into a job offer on the East Coast with the Atlantic Monthly. Tarnoff follows Harte's promising beginning in the East to his steady decline in popularity. Harte lacked one thing that Twain had in abundance--an ability to entertain a live audience. Harte was an utter failure as a public speaker, unable to perform on the platform. His writing faltered; he lost his creativity. "He was a foreigner in the East, a man out of context" (p. 212).
As Harte's career declined, Twain's climbed. A born performer on the stage, he scheduled lecture venues that took him to England where he was idolized. In the fall of 1873 his old friend Charles Stoddard was also working in London as a newspaper correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. Twain employed him for a month or so as a private secretary. According to Tarnoff, "Instead of partying with aristocrats, he [Twain] wanted to hunker down with his fellow Bohemian and reminisce" (p. 230). Twain would discuss "his youth with a charm and a freshness that was positively fascinating" (p. 232). Charles Stoddard, the sympathetic listener, witnessed the early development of Twain's ability to recall the voices of his childhood that would lead to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
When Harte was on the last leg of his downward spiral, Twain agreed to collaborate with him on Ah Sin, a play based on the Chinese hero of Harte's famous poem "The Heathen Chinee." Tarnoff characterizes the collaboration as "slumming, trying to cash in on the national fascination with the Far Western frontier they had helped created" (p. 241). The two authors had always engaged in a competitive relationship, often contentious, but their close proximity that winter as Harte spent time as Twain's houseguest in Hartford resulted in personal insults and a final bitter break up. Twain took control of Ah Sin and the work receives harsh criticism from Tarnoff who calls the play which featured a gap-toothed, lying, thieving imbecile Chinaman a moral failure. Twain publicly praised the portrayal as consistent with the Chinese he had seen in San Francisco. "Ah Sin would show him [Twain] not only at his meanest but also at his most mercenary" (p. 244).
The Bohemian scene that fostered Twain and the "Overland Trinity" vanished from San Francisco by 1877. The railroad across America had been completed; the population had soared. Harte abandoned the United States after securing a political appointment overseas. Stoddard's contributions to American literature are seldom mentioned today. Coolbrith became trapped in a dead end job as a librarian in Oakland in order to support her extended family. She referred to it as her tomb. In 1915 she was named California's first poet laureate. Coolbrith's connection to Twain remains sketchy. If Twain left any written record or memoir of her, it has yet to be found. Later in her life Coolbrith recalled "joshing" with Twain when he was "a lanky red-headed journalist" (p. 278). Her home, personal memoirs and library were destroyed in the earthquake and fire that ravage San Francisco in 1906. When asked to help, Twain did contribute to a fundraiser to help establish her in a new home.
Tarnoff provides fifty pages of reference notes at the end of his book. He draws his history from authoritative sources and historical records, some currently unpublished. In his acknowledgments he thanks Ron Powers who helped teach him how to think about history. Tarnoff is an accomplished storyteller. He easily connects and interprets causes, effects, and influences. He has the ability to find the "lightning" word and not just the "lightning bug" word. He can be succinct and on point. Even if you are already familiar with the history behind the Bret Harte and Mark Twain feuds and how Twain bounced around in San Francisco in his bachelor days, Tarnoff's version is well worth reading.