Book review: The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature by Ben Tarnoff

The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American LiteratureThe Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature by Ben Tarnoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this book as a digital ARC from the publisher through Net Galley in return for an honest review.

This book describes the lives of Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Ina Coolbrith and Charles Warren Stoddard. They were the main writers of the “Bohemian” movement in San Francisco in the late 19th century.

Location 42:

By the 1860s, the city had spawned on extraordinary literary scene – a band of outsiders called the Bohemians. Twain joined their ranks, and the encounter would shape the entire current of his life.

Despite the fact that the author gave a certain emphasis on Mark Twain’s literary career, their work progressed as well as Twain’s.

About the Bohemians:

Location 54:

The Bohemians were nonconformists by choice or by circumstance, and they eased their isolation by forming intense friendships with one another.

Location 64:

The Bohemians would bring a fresh spirit to American writing, drawn from the new world being formed in the Far West. If the gold guard of American literature was genteel, moralistic, grandiose, then the Bohemians would be ironic and irreverent.

Location 762:

Together they would do more than anyone of the era to put the Far West on the national stage.

Location 3213:

A group called the Bohemian Club started in 1872, had briefly offered hope of keeping San Francisco’s creative energy alive.

Location 3219:

By the time Oscar Wilde stopped by in 1882, the transformation was complete. “I never saw so many well-dressed, welled, business-looking Bohemians in my life,” he remarked.

About Mark Twain:

Location 113:

—“mark twain” meant “two fathoms,” a phrase that could signal safety or danger depending on the ship’s location.

Location 1602:

But Hawaii wasn’t purely a vacation: it also gave Twain invaluable training in travel writing, the genre that would produce his first major book, The Innocents Abroad.

Location 2617:

Roughing It would be part fiction, part fact: the story of the six most formative years of his life, beginning with that fateful day in 1861 when he boarded a stagecoach with his brother Orion and fled the Civil War for the far frontier beyond the plains.

Location 2881:

No wonder Twain loved England: it gave him the legitimacy he always wanted.

Location 2903:

If The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It showed a young country struggling up to adulthood, The Gilded Age would be the story of its growing pains.

Location 2971-72:

Yet for all its faults, The Gilded Age represented a major step forward for Twain. It was his first novel, and his first published attempt to put his boyhood memories into a full-length work of fiction.

About Bret Harte:

Location 2443:

In the coming years, the The Heathen Chinese would become a rallying cry and a recruiting tool for the crusade against Chinese immigration.

Location 2719:

For years, he had mentored them. He had given them a platform, a Bohemia to belong to. Then he went East and slammed the door shut behind him.

Location 3024-28:

Harte had lost his sense of early California as a cosmic joke. He now eulogized the pioneers with the same rhetoric he once ridiculed. In fact, his description of the miners of 1849 – an “Argonaut brotherhood” of  “jauntily insolent” young Americans – sounded curiously like another frontier fraternity: the Bohemians of the Pacific coast.

About Ina Coolbrith:

Location 440:

Tragedy changed her. It bred a depressive streak that tempered the wilder impulses of her girlhood, made her reticent, yet also unusually solicitous toward people in pain.

About Charles Warren Stoddard:

Location 1437:

“Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” still reads brilliantly, but it’s not as funny now as it was when it first appeared.

Location 2749:

South-Sea Idyls would be an anti-travelogue in the tradition of Twain’s Roughing It.

Concluding remarks:

Location 3218:

By becoming “Bohemians,” California’s postwar parvenus could playact at glamorous poverty. They could pretend that art, not money, was what united them.

Location 3272:

For Harte, Stoddard and Coolbrith, Bohemia had meant the best years of their lives.

I found this book a masterpiece of the American literary criticism, to be read by all fans of American fiction.


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