Friday, March 28, 2014


The Bohemians
by Ben Tarnoff

Penguin Press
Release Date: March 14, 2014
Genre: History, Nonfiction, Biography
Pages: 336
Amazon | Indiebound | Goodreads

The unforgettable story of the birth of modern America and the western writers who gave voice to its emerging identity: The Bohemians begins in 1860s San Francisco. The Gold Rush has ended; the Civil War threatens to tear apart the country. Far from the front lines, the city at the western edge roars. A global seaport, home to immigrants from five continents, San Francisco has become a complex urban society virtually overnight. The bards of the moment are the Bohemians: a young Mark Twain, fleeing the draft and seeking adventure; literary golden boy Bret Harte; struggling gay poet Charles Warren Stoddard; and beautiful, haunted Ina Coolbrith, poet and protectorate of the group. Ben Tarnoff’s elegant, atmospheric history reveals how these four pioneering western writers would together create a new American literature, unfettered by the heavy European influence that dominated the East. Twain and 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.

At once an intimate portrait of an eclectic, unforgettable group of writers and a history of a cultural revolution in America, The Bohemians reveals how a brief moment on the western frontier changed our country forever.

While it did focus largely on Twain and Harte, they were the more prominent and influential writers. The friendship and later rivalry between Harte and Twain plays out like a good drama, and the interaction between all of them allows you to see how they developed as writers. Mark Twain's personality really came to life by examining this period of his writing and personal development that made him the famous writer that he is, and seeing his rough and tumble character against the backdrop of the west, and later trying to refine his rougher edges to appeal to wider audiences is really funny at times. It gives you perspective on Twain and the culture of America at the time--constantly trying to define itself and be successful.

One thing I noticed was that the descriptions and portrayal of Ina Coolbrith seemed one-sided--she was always brooding and sad about her life circumstances, and seemed like a much lesser artist than Twain or the others. I don't think this was entirely accurate, at the least it didn't seem like Coolbrith was realistic or rounded as an artist or person.

The highlight for me was the absolutely fascinating setting of San Francisco and California during that time. I loved how he discussed California and the West as having their own identity and making some important cultural contributions to America, while at the same time not forgetting the dynamic with the New England literary scene where they still sought attention and approval.

An advanced copy was provided by the publisher for an honest review.

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