Review by: Mark Palm
That the Civil War was a watershed moment in American history goes without saying. It was also a harbinger of many changes, both societal and psychological that helped define the Industrial Era. The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature by Ben Tarnoff tells the tale of a revolution that is just as important to people who love books and literature, American or not.
Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, is one of four people featured in this fascinating piece of history. Lesser known to us now, but not so then, we also get the inter-twined tales of Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard and Ina Coolbrith. Mr. Tarnoff takes us from the early careers and lives of these writers and editors who helped shape the new literary landscape, and shows us the ways that their lives and careers took shape in the crucible of San Francisco, a city that was at once sophisticated and rough-and-tumble at the same time.
Mr. Tarnoff does a great job of sharing time between all of his varied characters, showing their faults and foibles alongside their triumphs, and placing them in their proper context as the leaders of a movement that would shift American literature away from stuffy New England classrooms to the mining camps and raucous cities of the West and mid-West. Despite his fairness and even-handedness Twain ends up dominating the book, and it is no fault of the author's, or the characters about whom he writes. All of the featured characters stories are interesting and often moving, particularly Ms. Coolbrith, but Twain was a once in a lifetime talent, with a personality to match. It is a testament to Mr. Tarnoff's skill that the rest of the Bohemians hold their own with one of America's Great writers.
This book is well-researched but reads like a novel, never letting the story lag so that the author can pontificate about an historical point he wishes to make. Of particular interest are the early days of the forming of the Bohemians, when all of these disparate characters, and many others who the writer brings to life deftly, all come together at the end of the Civil War. The literary scene of that time was to me both stunningly and amusing rowdy, with fact and fiction mingling with an extent that borders on being called Gonzo. The same can be said of the behavior of many of the writers, in particular Twain, who seems to have spent almost as much time fighting and feuding as he did writing. As the book continues Mr. Tarnoff shows us how each of his principle characters left an indelible footprint on the making of modern American Literature, and he makes it all a great deal of fun. They may seem rather undignified for a book about History and Literature to some, but seems perfect for a book about this group of Bohemians.