An extraordinary portrait of a fast-changing America—and the Western writers who gave voice to its emerging identity
At once an intimate portrait of an unforgettable group of writers and a history of a cultural revolution in America, The Bohemians reveals how a brief moment on the far western frontier changed our culture forever. Beginning with Mark Twain’s arrival in San Francisco in 1863, this group biography introduces readers to the other young eccentric writers seeking to create a new American voice at the country’s edge—literary golden boy Bret Harte; struggling gay poet Charles Warren Stoddard; and beautiful, haunted Ina Coolbrith, poet and protector of the group. Ben Tarnoff’s elegant, atmospheric history reveals how these four pioneering writers helped spread the Bohemian movement throughout the world, transforming American literature along the way.
“Tarnoff’s book sings with the humor and expansiveness of his subjects’ prose, capturing the intoxicating atmosphere of possibility that defined, for a time, America’s frontier.” -- The New Yorker
“Rich hauls of historical research, deeply excavated but lightly borne.... Mr. Tarnoff’s ultimate thesis is a strong one, strongly expressed: that together these writers ‘helped pry American literature away from its provincial origins in New England and push it into a broader current’.” -- Wall Street Journal
Tarnoff's (A Counterfeiter's Paradise) glimmering prose lends grandeur to this account of four writers who built "an extraordinary literary scene" in the frontier boom town of 1860s San Francisco. Twain gets the most page time, but is the least delicately handled; Tarnoff reserves his affection for the city itself and its "community of fellow misfits" who, drawing on the unique energy of young California and the language, humor, and mythology of the West, create a "native national literature, liberated from the cultural imperialism of the Old World." While the revolutionary claims are ambitious Twain's jumping frog of Calaveras County is "the Fort Sumter of American letters," his The Innocents Abroad "a bullet in the heart of America's literary establishment" Tarnoff thoughtfully situates the rise of "a unique American vernacular" in a confluence of economic, geographic, and historical forces. The impacts of the self-styled Bohemians emerge most clearly in the nostalgic reflections of the chief characters only after they have left San Francisco for parts abroad. Nevertheless, the lively historical detail and loving tone of the interwoven biographies make a highly readable story of this formative time in American letters, starring San Francisco as the city that lifted Twain "to literary greatness." Photos.