The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature

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: 3.5 of 5 stars

I received this book via Goodreads First Reads in exchange for an honest review.

In The Bohemians, Ben Tarnoff describes how Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Ina Coolbrith interacted with and were influenced both personally and professionally by one another in San Francisco during and immediately after the Civil War before transforming American literature.  It is not only the story of four writers of cultural significance, but of the shining, optimistic early history of California and Far West in relation to the established East.

The main focus of the book as stated clearly in the subtitle is Twain with Harte as the clear secondary focus.  Tarnoff describes the lives of both men before their meeting in San Francisco, their working relationship with one another, their mutual influences on one another, and their at first subtle then overt rivalry.  The book’s narrative essentially ends when Harte leaves for Europe in 1878, never to return to the United States.  If Tarnoff had written about the two men who brought the western literary tradition into acceptance in the New England-dominated American literary establishment only to veer off into different directions, he would have succeeded.

However the inclusion of and subsequence failure to properly include Stoddard and Coolbrith into the account undermines Tarnoff’s work.  Both Stoddard and Coolbrith come off by the end of the book as very minor in their work and accomplishments, which in the case of Coolbrith is literally a slap in the face.  While Stoddard had a working relationship in some capacity to both Twain and Harte as well as his own poetry and prose, Coolbrith’s later elevation to California poet laureate as well as her interesting friendships and experiences both inside and outside her domestic cage are ignored.  In the end their inclusion comes off as being due to sexual orientation and gender than their actual achievements.

The Bohemians gives an insight into how the western branch of American literature sprung up and was intertwined with that of the Eastern establishment to create the cultural landscape we experience today.  Twain, Harte, and the early history of California and the Far West are highlights of the book, however the use of Stoddard and Coolbrith as glorified window-dressing is the major downside.  If given the option I would have given 3 ½ stars, after careful consideration I thought 4 would have been too high.

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