Books: ‘The Bohemians’ looks Mark Twain’s literary development in California

These days, Bret Harte is mostly known for the schools named after him in Sacramento and Oakland, and – if at all as a writer – for his stories of the Gold Rush, including “The Luck of Roaring Camp.”

Ina Coolbrith is remembered through some poetry prizes, a San Francisco park and a couple of lines from one of her poems that grace the foyer of the new California State Library building on N Street.

Charles Warren Stoddard’s work is familiar only to fans of 19th century travel writing.

But Mark Twain? Everybody knows his name.

He’s the white-suited, cynical critic of humanity, skewering our foibles from the stage; the creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, two of the rowdiest rascals ever to exemplify American boyhood; and he’s one of the founders of an American literature that focused on the scenes and language of working America, the dialect and dust that make up the fabric of our storytelling, always with an overlay of irony.

Twain wouldn’t have become Twain without his experiences in Northern California and his participation in the literary scene that Harte, Coolbrith and Stoddard helped create, argues Ben Tarnoff in “The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature” (The Penguin Press, $27.95, 336 pages),

Tarnoff, a San Francisco native, writes about American history for Lapham’s Quarterly and has been praised by The New York Times for his use of biography as a way to show the development of historical change. On Wednesday he will read from “The Bohemians” at Time Tested Books.

“The discoveries (Twain) made in the West,” said Tarnoff, “the type of discoveries that he later used to transform American literature – this deeper use of dialect, this rich irony, this rambling tableau – all of this was something that other writers of the community, particularly Bret Harte, were interested in and were trying to develop on their own.”

When in 1864 Twain arrived in San Francisco from Nevada, where he’d failed at mining the Comstock Lode and turned to newspapering in Virginia City, he was as fascinated and overwhelmed by the city as later generations of Americans have been.

But, important for Twain’s development as a writer, by then San Francisco had become a literary hub.

“Because people had so much money, they could sustain a large base of subscribers and advertisers,” said Tarnoff, who described California as “an exceptionally literate frontier,” where people expected a certain amount of culture and even those who lacked formal education could read and write.

“There was a thriving newspaper culture in California that helped sustain a class of professional writers, which allowed a literary scene to emerge,” said Tarnoff.

That scene, with writers such as Harte, Coolbrith and Stoddard, was already in place when Twain arrived, and he quickly joined the party. His success, particular his later emergence as a major literary figure, had to do, Tarnoff said, “with his raw talent.”

“But there are also other factors,” he said. The last third of ‘The Bohemians’ addresses the rivalry, almost a literary feud, that developed after both Harte and Twain had gone back east.

“When Harte went east in 1871, he was considered the most famous writer in America and certainly the most highly paid writer in America,” he said. But once he left California, Harte never again had literary success. Tarnoff describes this as self-destruction, but also noted that Harte was unable to integrate into the Eastern establishment as Twain did.

“Twain was the writer who managed to really push through and connect with this cultural revolution that unfolded in the decades after the Civil War,” said Tarnoff. “Twain was the first modern American writer. He understood the new zeitgeist that had developed and he used it to become this incredibly important cultural icon.”

But Tarnoff’s main argument in “The Bohemians” is that Twain needed San Francisco’s literary culture in order to develop that image.

“I agree with Tarnoff that Twain’s style developed in dialogue with his connections to Harte, Coolbrith and Stoddard,” said Hsuan Hsu, an associate professor of English at UC Davis. Hsu has published academic papers on Twain’s and Harte’s writing about the Chinese in California.

“But I think it’s also important to point out that Twain’s literary style drew heavily on oral storytelling,” Hsu said. These included the stories he heard from former slaves in Missouri, as well as from James Gillis at Angels Camp in Calaveras County.

“Oral storytelling provided Twain with rich examples of irony, improvisation, dialect and iconoclastic scenes in which uneducated locals got the better of privileged travelers,” said Hsu. “Aside from his style, Twain’s lifelong effort to combat racial injustice was also influenced by his time in San Francisco.”

Hsu also noted that both Twain and Harte were deeply affected by the mistreatment of Chinese in San Francisco, a point on which Tarnoff agreed, and about which he wrote in a recent essay for Politico.

“California has an incredibly unique history,” said Tarnoff. “For decades, it was host to an extraordinary social experiment that produced some of the country’s greatest writers. Part of the purpose of this book was to try to bring Californians back to this golden age of Western literature and to try to understand what it means to the present.”