Pine Nuts: Ben Tarnoff looks at the early Bohemians of San Francisco |

Pine Nuts: Ben Tarnoff looks at the early Bohemians of San Francisco

McAvoy Layne

Generally I do my book reading by night. Ben Tarnoff’s “The Bohemians” I read day and night.

“The 1860’s was bloody, bewildering – and, if you managed to survive, a magnificent time to be a young American,” Tarnoff writes in the book.

“If America belonged to the young, then its future lay in the youngest place in America: the Far West.”

Tarnoff reads like he was fired and cast right out of the 1860s: “By the 1860s San Francisco had spawned an extraordinary literary scene – a band of outsiders called Bohemians. Mark Twain joined their ranks, and the encounter would shape the entire current of his life.” Bret Harte was the leader of this merry band of Bohemians. Charles Warren Stoddard, the poet, and Ina Coolbrith, like Gertrude Stein in Paris, were the glue that held this cluster of vanguard literary artists together.

Tarnoff tells us, “The Bohemians would bring a fresh spirit to American writing, drawn from the new world being formed in the Far West. If the old guard of American literature was genteel, moralistic, grandiose, then the Bohemians would be ironic and irreverent. They would prefer satire to sermons, sensuality to sentimentalism. Together they would reinvent American writing.”

On Stoddard: “His mercurial mind never lingered in one place long enough to be properly embalmed by his professors.” Harte handed Stoddard this accolade: “He was as much out of place in this very material country as Pegasus in a quartz mill.”

On Whitman: “The Brooklynite who sang the body electric in sinewy strokes of free verse. He spoke of America as a living poem.”

On Harte as editor: “He wasn’t timid, although he treated his writers with enough tact to dull whatever pain they felt at his incisions.”

On Harte as an author: “…he liked being the flea in the region’s boosterish hide.”

On the Calaveras Frog: “The manuscript held nothing less than the Fort Sumter of American letters, exploding in the annihilating blaze of a jumping frog. This wasn’t another sarcastic squib of the Bohemian school: it was a fable of the frontier, drawing laughter deep from the country’s diaphragm, changing the course of American literature forever.”

On Twain: “Anyone with a fleeting familiarity with his work knew that he rarely told the unvarnished truth. In San Francisco he still told lies, but for better reasons: small, funny lies meant to illuminate large, unfunny ones. He loved the backcountry’s fibbers and fabulists, but felt no sympathy for its ‘poetical asses.’”

The Boston Globe: “He stacks fifty pages of endnotes at the back of the book but such archival sweat doesn’t show in the prose.”

There is a fresh new Twain scholar in the house, and I suspect what Albert Bigelow Paine said about Twain could be said about Tarnoff: “He was limitlessly human.”

More than discovering an engaging book that beams strong sunlight upon a formative period of Mark Twain’s life, I was grateful to discover an author, Ben Tarnoff, whose observations on any subject I can look forward to reading with pleasure. V isit

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