Tuesday, April 1, 2014, 7:00 P.M., City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco
discussing his new book
The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature
from Penguin Press
The Bohemians begins in 1860s San Francisco. The Gold Rush has ended; the Civil War threatens to tear apart the country. Far away from the frontlines, the city at the Western edge roars. A global seaport, home to immigrants from five continents, San Francisco had become a complex urban society virtually overnight. The bards of the moment are the Bohemians: A young Mark Twain, escaping conscription and seeking adventure; literary golden boy Bret Harte; struggling gay poet Charles Warren Stoddard; and beautiful, haunted Ina Coolbirth, poet and protectorate of this band of lost boys. Historian Ben Tarnoff's elegant, atmospheric story tells how together these four pioneering Western writers would create a new American literature, unfettered by the heavy European influence that dominated the East.
Twain arrives by stagecoach in San Francisco in 1863, and is fast drunk on champagne, oysters, and the city's intoxicating energy. He finds that the war has only made California richer: Trade and manufacturing boom, print thrives and the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 assures that the dream of transcontinental travel would soon become reality. Looking to the vibrant world around them, Twain and the Bohemians find inspiration in the bawdy, tall tales of Western campfires; the majestic landscapes; and the radical moral code of the frontier. The opportunities of the moment are seized by Bret Harte, star of the literary Golden Era, and mentor to Stoddard and Coolbrith both. Graduates of the "poor boy's college" of printer apprenticeship, equals in ambition, Twain and Harte form the Bohemian core. But as Harte's star ascends—drawing attention from Eastern standard bearer the Atlantic Monthly—Twain flounders, plagued by self-doubt, money woes, and the repercussions of youthful pranks. No one could have predicted then how their fortunes would reverse, when the ambassadors of Western Bohemia move East to prove their worth.
The Bohemian moment would continue in Boston, New York, and London, and would achieve immortality in the writings of its hero, Mark Twain. It's Twain’s masterworks that prove the lessons of the San Francisco days—in vernacular, humor, and the magic alchemy of the high-low mix—invaluable and enduring. At once an intimate portrait of an eclectic, unforgettable group of writers, and a history of an aesthetic shift in American letters, The Bohemians reveals how a brief moment at the country’s borders changed our literature forever.
Ben Tarnoff has worked at Lapham’s Quarterly and his writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the author of A Counterfeiter's Paradise from Penguin Press. He graduated from Harvard in 2007 and currently lives in New York City.