The Bohemians by
Mark Twain roars into San Francisco in 1863. Pretty soon he''s drunk on champagne, oysters, and the city''s intoxicating energy. Twenty-seven years old, fleeing the Civil War and seeking adventure, Twain finds a global seaport flush with new money and peopled by fortune seekers from five continents. The war that is ravaging the rest of the country has only made San Francisco richer: the economy booms, and newspapers and magazines thrive, feeding the city''s growing literary scene. The bards of the moment are the Bohemians, a band of young eccentric writers seeking to create a new American voice at the country''s edge. There''s literary golden boy Bret Harte; struggling gay poet Charles Warren Stoddard; and beautiful, haunted Ina Coolbrith, poet and protector of the group. Twain joins their ranks, and the experiences that follow put him on the path to greatness.The Bohemians find inspiration in their surroundings: the dark ironies of frontier humor, the extravagant tales told around the campfires, and the youthful irreverence of the new world being formed in the West. Harte is the group''s star, a rising figure on the national scene and mentor to both Stoddard and Coolbrith. Young and ambitious, Twain and Harte form the Bohemian core, but as Harte''s reputation grows - drawing attention from eastern tastemakers such as the Atlantic Monthly - a young Twain flounders, suffering a crisis of confidence that almost leads him to abandon writing altogether.Ben Tarnoff''s elegant, atmospheric history reveals how these four pioneering western writers reinvented American literature by challenging the musty classicism of the eastern establishment. The Bohemian moment that began in San Francisco would continue in Boston, New York, and London, and would achieve immortality in the writings of Mark Twain. San Francisco gave him his education as a writer and helped inspire the astonishing innovations that radically reimagined American literature. 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 country forever. Praise for Ben Tarnoff''s A Counterfeiter''s Paradise''Ben Tarnoff captures the wild early years of America''s financial system . . . . It''s a colorful tale but also an enlightening one [that] helps us understand our financial culture back then - and even today.'' Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life''Fascinating . . . history as it should be written, brimming with the sort of vivid details that make the past come alive.'' Liaquat Ahamed, author of Lords of Finance''Tarnoff [is] the genuine article. I welcome his voice to that tiny chorus of writers who can make American history come alive without dumbing it down.'' Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers and American Sphinx''What an ingenious idea for a book and what a rousing story! A truly gifted writer, Ben Tarnoff has brought to life three unforgettable characters while at the same time providing a window onto the tumultuous financial situation that characterized early American life.'' Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism and Team of Rivals''Lively and insightful . . . makes the most out of the entertaining tale of three master counterfeiters, using their careers to open an unexpected window on the making of the American economic imagination.'' T. J. Stiles, author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelous Vanderbilt and Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War''A rollicking good read.'' The New York Times''A delightful history lesson . . . admirable and altogether charming.'' The Washington Post''Engrossing . . . fascinating.'' The Wall Street Journal''Tarnoff, a first-time author, expertly sketches biographical vignettes . . . .[W]hat elevates [A Counterfeiter''s Paradise] from the novelty shelf is Tarnoff''''s skillful interweaving of the counterfeiter''s work and America''s revolving enchantment with a disapproval of paper money.'' The New York Times Book Review
“In 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad joined the country together and tore San Francisco apart. That's the conclusion [of this] fine book[. …Tarnoff’s] energetic attention [is] on a quartet of versatile writers, […]: Charles Warren Stoddard, […] Bret Harte, […]; Ina Coolbrith, […]; and Mark Twain, who decades later would mysteriously allude to a suicide attempt during his San Francisco years. [...Tarnoff’s] ultimate thesis is a strong one […] together these writers ‘helped pry American literature away from its provincial origins in New England and push it into a broader current.’" — David Kipen, Wall Street Journal
Discussed September 3, 2014.
• What did you like best about the book? The least? Were these the strengths and weaknesses of the book?
• What effect did the author achieve with his writing style?
• Who was this book written for?
• Did his revelations ring true for you? Did you agree with his premise?
• Did you read the notes?
• What has lingered in your mind since you finished the book?
• Do you think the publishing industry has improved in the intervening years?
• Too much on Twain? Or is it really his book?
• What kind of research happened for this book?
• Could you understand his inclusion of Ina Coolbrith? Why? Why not?