Archive | 11:56 AM

Book Review: The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff (2/5)

15 Jun

My book club tries to read non-fiction twice a year. I’m not sure where this rule came from and to be honest, I might advocate bucking the trend. Don’t get me wrong, I like non-fiction. I don’t tend to read it as often as this club does and I don’t think it makes for a good discussion. We’ll see how this talk goes, but I think this book is one that will generate little conversation.

Cover Image via

Cover Image via

The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature by Ben Tarnoff

Summary from Goodreads:

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 arrives by stagecoach in San Francisco in 1863 and is fast drunk on champagne, oysters, and the city’s intoxicating energy. He finds that the war has only made California richer: the economy booms, newspapers and magazines thrive, and the dream of transcontinental train travel promises to soon become a reality. 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. The star of the moment is Bret Harte, 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 star ascends—drawing attention from eastern taste makers such as the Atlantic Monthly—Twain flounders, questioning whether he should be a writer at all.

The Bohemian moment 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 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.

Well, that’s quite lengthy. Though truthfully, the book was quite lengthy as well. I found it a bit repetitive and hard to follow. The characterization of the characters, especially Harte, were a bit redundant. I found it hard to follow as the narrative would tend to follow one person for a while until he or she interacted with another character and then jump back in time to talk about the next character. I couldn’t follow the timeline. My overall rating is mostly due to my disinterest in the subject. This isn’t a book I would pick up unless it was a topic I wanted to know more about and unfortunately, I didn’t really want to hear about Mark Twain’s literary awakening.

The four Bohemians were well described and I, being a woman, felt Ida Coolbrith was the most human. She had real problems I could see people having. Stoddard was a flake, Hart was passive aggressive and cocky and Twain was too aggressive. All very human traits but not ones of people I know well or want to know well. I understand why they flocked to each other, but I would have flocked in a different direction.

Ida was my favorite character and I was so sad when she didn’t have a happy ending. Though if she had, she’d be as famous as Twain. She was very grounded and I feel I am the same way. I’ll likely never be a poet laureate, but I work hard each day to keep my small family (aka my husband) running. Coolbrith was never looking for accolades though she very much deserved some.

I liked the parts about Twain because I found him to be the most interesting character. His life was exciting and seemed to have the adventure he lectured and wrote about. The other characters seemed dull in comparison which, while realistic, doesn’t make for engaging reading. A bit of a yawn there.

I hated the jumping timeline. It really frustrated me to read about Stoddard’s wanderlust and adventures around the Pacific and Europe which ended in meeting Twain in London. Then we jump back to Twain in New England before he goes to London and the plot goes on until they meet. I was so frustrated. I understand it’s easier to follow one character for a while and then switch to another, but the plot didn’t do this most of the time. We would follow more than one character and then would spin-off as someone did something interesting. You’re probably finding reading this explanation confusing and that’s because what I’m describing is confusing. I didn’t like it.

There’s no set formula for what will make a writer successful. Ina was talented but went nowhere. Hart was talented and enjoyed moderate success but his selfishness was his downfall. Stoddard was incredibly giving but didn’t have the talent to make it. And Twain had talent, but he needed others to edit his stuff for him and help him forward at every step. So why was he successful? There’s a phrase among writers that you have to write every day. And Twain was able to do that. Ina was busy with family life, Stoddard didn’t have the drive, and Hart seemed to give this up. So Twain was successful. Will it work every time? No. But it worked for him. Though I suspect talent still had something to do with it.

Writer’s Takeaway: This one is a bit hard for me because I don’t see myself writing nonfiction. I think a more interesting subject would be best. You can write a great book on the lives of sloths but unless I love sloths (like Kristen Bell), I won’t read it. There’s been some nonfiction I really enjoyed but this didn’t do anything for me.

A bit dull, a bit slow, and a bit confusing. Two out of Five stars.

This book fulfills the 1800s time period for my When Are You Reading? Challenge.

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Related Posts:
REVIEW: The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature by Ben Tarnoff | The Literary Flaneur
Freshly Baked Books: A Review of The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff | Readers Unbound
“The Bohemians” by Ben Tarnoff | Look at Books