Tag Archives: Jack London

“The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature” by Ben Tarnoff, 2014


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Ben Tarnoff at his lecture and book signing for the San Francisco Public Library

This new history book picks up on the theme of counter-culture creativity in San Francisco from our selection for June: Season of The Witch.   This time, instead of San Francisco in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s, it’s San Francisco in the 1860’s and 70’s.  Rather than large-scale social movements centered in San Francisco, it’s a countercultural literary movement of several writers including Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Stoddard, and Ina Coolbrith.  As the title suggests, these writers brought a new style of American literature to the international stage and  San Francisco served as its birthplace.

San Francisco in the 1860’s had become a free-spirited, diverse,  wealthy, and sophisticated city through the influx of people and trade from all over the world during the gold rush and Comstock eras.  It was the only real city west of St. Louis and it’s isolation from the East Coast, and from the Civil War, allowed for the germination of new ideas.  Reading, here, was considered more a necessity of life than a luxury, hence there was a large, eager audience for writing and a demand for new publications along with writers to provide content. Previously, American literature was centered on the East Coast and derived from the British traditions.  These four writers mentioned above, self-described as “Bohemian” in their unconventionality, felt unrestrained to come up with a new voice which was more relevant to the spirit of the West.   “Tall Tales” is one of the hallmarks of their style.

Without Mark Twain, it’s safe to say, the  others wouldn’t have achieved the national and international impact that they did, however, without, the “Bohemians” and especially Bret Harte, there probably would not have been a Mark Twain, the writer.  Bret Harte helped Twain to develop his craft and persuaded him to persevere with his writing when Twain suggested quitting to go back to river boats.  Harte edited Twain’s first successful piece, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” and later edited Twain’s, The Innocents Abroad.  Along with these two authors, are Charles Stoddard, a gay writer and friend of Walt Whitman, and Ina Coolbrith, the first California Poet Laureate (first of any state), and the  “literary mother” of Jack London.

Just as the counter-culture idealism of the 1960’s fell into decay after its initial flourish, the Bohemian movement in San Francisco, subsided by the mid 1870’s. The “Bohemian Club”, still in existence today, exemplifies a name-only continuation of the original ideal.  When Oscar Wilde visited them in 1882 he said, “I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed, business-looking Bohemians in my life.”

Having heard the lecture on the book by its author, I look forward to reading the book in the next few days.

Bill Sargeant