Mark Twain is a constant presence in any discussion on the greatest American writers. The American South claims Twain as its own; it was the setting for his greatest literary successes. That makes it easy to overlook his early years as a developing writer on the West Coast.
Twain and a host of writers developed their reporting and literary skills in a burgeoning city far away from one of the country’s most turbulent times. San Francisco was a world away from the Civil War but enjoyed all the benefits of growing economy and industry.
San Francisco was in transition from Old West town to bustling city. At the heart of that transition were the writers capturing the goings on, both real and imagined. Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard and Ina Coolbrith helped shape a new American literature far removed from the European influences that shaped so many American writers.
Ben Tarnoff constructs a sharp, charming history of these writers and the incredible circumstances they worked in as one of America’s greatest cities was finding its identity. Tarnoff explores the writers’ relationships with each other, the literary scene and the context of what was happening in the country.
This group of writers, known as the Bohemians, pushed a brash, innovative approach to writing. Twain in particular used his time in San Francisco to develop his style, sometimes at the expense of newspaper readers looking for a truthful story. The Bohemians were more concerned about riling up the readers and pushing boundaries. Reporting facts was not necessarily a requirement for good writing.
Tarnoff writes with a friendly admiration for his subjects. The book is an engaging snapshot of a time and place and the remarkable people who were trying to make sense of it all.