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Book Club Reflection: The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff

23 Jul

A few weeks back, my book club met to discuss The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. If you remember my review, I wasn’t a huge fan. I thought the book was too much of a textbook to be enjoyable as a casual read. Seems I wasn’t alone.

Most people in the group finished the book and most of us agreed it was too long and too much information so it read like an assigned textbook. We suspect that Twain’s name was in the title to help it sell. If Harte’s name or another’s were there, there wouldn’t have been the name recognition and we doubt it would have been as successful. We had one member who did enjoy it and she thinks it’s because she was born in Missouri and lived in California. She knew about Twain’s history with California and the Gold Rush. She was already two steps ahead of most of us.

The book did succeed in highlighting an interesting cultural change in literature during a big change in technology, specifically the transcontinental railroad. I would never have thought to associate the two. Those who traveled West before the railroad brought the Eastern culture with them and civilized the region. We were surprised at the number of magazines in San Francisco. The stories the Bohemians created were reflective of the new and exciting place they were living. They were living somewhere fun and would be damned if those Easterners were going to come ruin it for them. Though at the same time, they wanted Eastern approval and money.

The Bohemians were very hot and cold with each other. Sometimes they’re friends helping edit each other’s work and encouraging new ideas. And then sometimes it was fierce competition and ignoring those who had helped another rise. Specifically, the relationship between Harte and Twain. It reminded me of the movie Mean Girls.

Most of us didn’t know that Twain had such a struggle toward success or that he had become famous through lectures. We were especially surprised to find he became famous first in California. Most of us associate him with Missouri. It seemed ironic that the man who wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn wanted to avoid the draft. But I guess principles hold out over adventures. We found Twain’s obsession with poverty a bit unnerving. It almost felt like he had a mood disorder because of his deep depressions and manic highs. He seemed to be living at the edge of bankruptcy and was either crippled by it or reveling in it. It seemed convenient that his wife came from so much money. During his good moods, Twain seemed like the man everyone wanted to be friends with. He was the life of the party and fun at the bar, weaving great stories. It was his nature to be a bit hodge-podge and lie and be messy. The amount of editing Harte had to do for his work is a bit representative of that. We wondered if there were first drafts available so we could see the amount of change in editing his work went through.

Those in our group who knew the most about Twain knew it because of a 2014 PBS documentary by Ken Burns. Here’s the link if you’re interested.

Harte’s drastic change in the end was really shocking. He was angry and mean when Twain started to become famous instead of being happy for his friend. When The Heathen Chinese made him famous overnight, he went from a diligent writer and editor to an unreliable alcoholic. He went solo and things went downhill from there. He couldn’t produce when it was for someone else. It was better doing it for himself and being a kingmaker than writing for another editor.

We didn’t speak about Coolbrith and Stoddard much. There wasn’t much to say about these two who disappeared into obscurity. We felt bad for Coolbrith because she seemed to be the only responsible one in the group. She was a very modern woman with the way she cared for her family and worked. Stoddard seemed like a lost soul, but we suspected he might have had ADHD which would have contributed to his inability to focus and stay in school.

Our overall comment was about how we felt those in the book threw caution to the wind much more readily than we would in 2015. We have bills and mortgages and families while these things didn’t seem to hold Twain and Harte back. Maybe this is a bunch of women (and a few men) talking because Coolbrith did seem to be held back by the things that plague us today. Though I have to admit I would love the freedom to pick up and move across the country. It would be very freeing.

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