‘The Bohemians’ by Ben Tarnoff: Book Review
The Bohemians by American writer Ben Tarnoff has a massive sub-title: ‘Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature’. In this fantastic book penned in 2014, Tarnoff has chronicled the friendship of four prominent Bohemian writers of San Francisco, which is in California on the Western coast of America. These four writers were Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Ina Coolbrith. They have defined their coast’s literature. Except for Mark Twain, the other three writers have escaped into anonymity. Tarnoff has brought their friendship back to life. He has shown how their friendship and even their enmity transformed how we regard the American Western Coast literature in Post-Civil-War America. If it were not for these Bohemian writers and their poems and prose writings, we would not have had the American literature we have today, which has impacted the lives of Americans and Indians like me who are reading and studying American literature in the twenty-first century.
I bought this book from the Trilogy Bookstore-cum-Library in Bandra West, Mumbai. I picked it up in 2019 but only got a chance to read it in November 2020. Trilogy Bookstore and Library has been one of my all-time favorite books haunts in Mumbai, which is well known for its curated books. If you want to read more about this bookstore and my life in books and with books, you can check out my memoir, The Reclusive Writer and Reader of Bandra. You can buy this little memoir from my blog’s product page. The Bohemians is the real-life, well-chronicled story of Twain, Harte, Stoddard, and Coolbrith. They were the founding literary personalities of the literature and writings of the Western coast of America. Their writing careers started immediately after the American Civil War (1861-1865). Tarnoff shows how this wonderful group of writers struggled, failed, succeeded, overcame, and instilled in the American people a respect for the literature of San Francisco and the Western coast. Tarnoff’s book is well crafted, brilliantly illustrated, and reads like a story, making it comfortable to read. He shows how Twain had to work very hard to achieve literary stardom, which he attained with his two classic books: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But he did not manage this alone. Without the support of Harte, Stoddard, and Coolbrith, there probably wouldn’t have ever been a Mark Twain. Here are short pointers about how the three went about their lives during this period:
- Harte was the then golden boy of American letters. He was already famous before Twain during the gold rush period of California and the Western coast. He was a contributor to many literary journals, newsletters, and magazines. He also edited several journals earning a sizable income. His pride was his downfall. He slowly started getting a bit jealous of Twain, who gave better lecture tours and wrote finer literary works than he did. He began to ‘act’ like a writer but never wrote any substantial work, which ruined his name with the people who had loved him earlier. He tried to imitate Twain by going on lecture tours to encourage the American people to read his works, but his tours were an absolute disaster. Later, when he was hard up for money, and his creditors pressed him for payment, he worked as a government worker in Germany and relocated to Germany. He never returned to California.
- Stoddard was Gay and the youngest of this group of Bohemians. He was always unsure about what he wanted from his life and career. After reading the text, one realizes he had more promise as a writer than even Twain. Because of his uncertainty, he squandered his time traveling and indulging in sex with his gay partners in Hawaii. He did not give his all to his writing career. He produced a few good books which became best-sellers but did not work on them. He traveled with Twain to London at one point in his career, and there became Twain’s secretary. He helped Twain with a book that Twain was trying to pen. He became a hardcore alcoholic there but managed with Twain’s help to get the work done. He was very close to Ina Coolbrith but never divulged more about himself to her. His literary career too ended, not in a disaster like Harte’s, but because of inaction.
- Ina Coolbrith was the only woman in the group. She wrote excellent poetry and was a local sensation in San Francisco. However, she had too many family responsibilities, which took up most of her time, primarily her commitment to her relatives, who only gave her trouble and never allowed her to grow. Coolbrith was a stabilizing factor for the other three men. She was very close to Stoddard and seemed to have a brotherly affection towards Harte, which was a bit romantic if one studies the text closely. She had a special place where the Bohemians of San Francisco used to come together and talk about their work and their literature. Her literary career lagged way behind the men. She never traveled and was staunch in her profession as a school teacher. She hardly earned any money from teaching, and later when she was confident she could do nothing to improve her literary career settled down as a librarian.
One observes that Twain was the most unlikely of the four Bohemians to have reached the stardom he ultimately achieved. As we read Tarnoff’s book, we get an idea the most likely candidate for stardom was Harte. Twain tried to help Harte in his career. There are several instances of Twain and Harte being racists, especially towards the Chinese immigrant population of San Francisco. This is especially noticeable in their co-production of a play based on a Chinese protagonist called ‘Ah Sin’. However, during the play’s production, Harte took every opportunity to insult Mrs. Twain and the home of Mark Twain. Twain, who had always been a man of fiery temper, took all this very much to heart and became a sworn enemy of Harte. Tarnoff, in a lucid manner, brings out the downfall of Harte, who could have become a great literary personality of his time. But Twain beat him to it, not because Twain was a better writer than Harte, but because Twain took hold of the opportunities afforded him to advance his career. Anyone who wants to study this period in Mark Twain’s life should read this book. We get an in-depth account of the rise of Mark Twain as a writer not only in San Francisco or the Eastern coast of America but also in England. Twain was never afraid to experiment. He tried writing short stories, sketches, speeches, novels, novellas, essays, and travelogues so long as he could keep his name in the public eye and earn his money through his writing. Twain was undoubtedly the most pioneering of the West Coast Bohemians. I have reviewed some short stories by Mark Twain on my blog, which you can check out for reference.
When one reads The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff, one sees the following:
- There were many opportunities to excel in writing and create an excellent literary career so long as you had the drive. Twain had that kind of drive, and though he was an alcoholic, his drinks never got in the way of his literary output. He may have made quite a few enemies because of his alcohol and fiery temper, but his scholarly work was excellent. I especially loved the photograph of him giving one of his speeches where he uses mnemonics to remember what he had to say on a lecture tour. I love to use mnemonics in my studies and teach my school students to use mnemonics to study their school work. I also recommend my children to read the classic works of Mark Twain to improve their writing. If you are an educator and trying to get your wards to read the classics, you can check out my how-to book titled Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them. You can buy this book from the products page on my blog. Harte failed in this regard. He was a terrible speaker because he was an introvert and not flamboyant like Mark Twain. He was also too proud. Towards the 1870s, he started acting the part of a writer rather than writing. Where Ina Coolbrith was concerned, that was not the case.
- Ina Coolbrith was a genuine writer. She spent all her time writing her poems. Sadly, just because she was a woman and had family responsibilities, she could not travel to the East coast of America, which could have helped her career. It pains us when we read about the demise of Coolbrith’s literary career only because of this factor. However, she outlived all the men. Coolbrith was given due recognition when in her seventies for her role as one of the Bohemian writers of the West Coast of America. She died a decade after the men and in an unmarked grave. Maybe women’s situation in America has improved over the years, but most of our women are still tormented and abused from the cradle to the grave in India. In my novella Nirmala: The Mud Blossom, I have chronicled one little Indian urban girl’s story that you can check out on my blog’s products page. Coolbrith used to keep on writing and confessing her true feelings about her lot in life to Stoddard. One notices she was a very broad-minded woman for her time and accepted Stoddard as a Gay despite the narrow-minded society in which she lived.
- The famous American classic writer Jack London was one of the readers at Ina Coolbrith’s library. He remembers her fondly as the librarian who shaped his career as a writer. He felt if it were not for her, he would never have read the books he read and would not have found his calling as a writer. This is such a tender moment in the book it brings tears to one’s eyes to think of how indirectly, even in her mid-life and old age, Coolbrith was in her way encouraging writers to excel in their reading and writing.
- Stoddard always considered himself to be a failure in life, and that was his drawback. He never finished school, never wrote the works he wanted to write and kept on negating his sexual orientation. Stoddard even experimented with various forms of the Christian faith to find solace for his sexual needs and feelings. He ultimately converted to Roman Catholicism.
- Stoddard used to love to travel, especially to Hawaii, to have sex with the Hawaiian boys. He spent too much time on his sex life and less time on his writings. Twain and Harte tried to help him out the best they could, but Stoddard was so unsure of himself he foiled all their attempts to get him the big break he so desired.
- Stoddard was the youngest of the Bohemian writers of San Francisco and looked very much like an adolescent. He was the best looking of them, did not have a beard, and had a flawless complexion. Even though Stoddard was conceited because of his good looks, he was very good at heart and a gentleman with Coolbrith. But Harte had pockmarks on his face that marred his looks, while Twain always had a bombastic ego. Mark Twain was a forty-year-old man with the temper of a ten-year-old, especially with regards to Harte. Twain used to dress flamboyantly and think himself to be very good looking. We see Mark Twain’s childish ego and ill-temper, highlighted by his biographers down the ages.
All in all, The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff was an excellent read with strategic pacing, excellent narrative quality, and a unique subject that has not customarily been dealt with in-depth in the books of the current era. I highly recommend this book by American writer Tarnoff which brings to light the wealth of the literature of the Western Coast of America. It is an excellent book for American literature students, and I implore every student to read this amazing book. It can be read even if your work schedule is hectic. It is a quick, easy read and can be read by teenagers. The publisher, The Penguin Press, has done a fantastic job with the cover, and it looks like a gem in one’s hands while one reads the book. Do buy this book on Amazon or order it from your closest bookstore right now. Support Ben Tarnoff and get your copy of The Bohemians today.
I enjoyed reading and reviewing this book on my blog. I hope to read, review, and analyze American writers’ works in the coming days till January 2021. I wish to celebrate the literary works of America and American writers during this time. This is in keeping with the fact the 2020 American Elections have just come to a close, which was one of the most crucial elections of the decade. So, if you are looking for more American bookish content, this is the site which you should keep watching.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out my blog’s products page or my author’s page on Amazon. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
Copyright @ 2020 Fiza Pathan