Sunday, February 28, 2016

Bicoastals before they Knew They Were

Tarnoff's new book is now available in paperback
The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers who Reinvented American Literature.  By Ben Tarnoff.  The Penguin Press, $17 for the paperback edition.

The Random House Webster’s College Dictionary defines “bicoastal” as “occurring or existing on both coasts, esp. on both the E and W coasts of the U.S.”  This dictionary and other lexicographers consider the word to have arrived in the 1970’s. 

Ben Tarnoff’s The Bohemians chronicles the lives of Americans who were bicoastal before the term was invented.

Tarnoff describes the intersecting careers of four California writers who became prominent in the 1860’s: Mark Twain, Bret Harte, poet Ina Coolbrith and Charles Warren Stoddard, a poet and essayist.  Harte, Coolbrith and Stoddard were California natives.  Mark Twain started in Nevada as a newspaper reporter but became a Californian.

In The Bohemians, Tarnoff shows how Twain, Harte, Coolbrith and Stoddard created a new American writing that shifted the nation’s literary center of gravity from Emerson and the New England writers to the West.  Tarnoff offers several reasons to explain how these writers - - and California itself - - exercised such an outsized influence on contemporary American letters.

Life in the West offered new literary material not found in the East.  As Tarnoff observes, “The land itself inspired a new way of seeing . . . the country beyond the Rocky Mountains was truly another world.”  Twain and Stoddard made their way to Hawaii and the South Seas, finding more exotic experiences not found on the East Coast.  

California achieved a high rate of literacy early in its statehood, which created a vast market of insatiable readers.

Tarnoff is a vivid, well-organized and witty writer.  He shows how the writings of the four authors arose from their individual talent and the times they lived in, telling the reader just enough about each writer’s literary career and placing it on the stage of what was happening in the contemporary society and economy.

Compared to Emerson, Thoreau and other Easterners, Twain, Harte, Coolbrith and Stoddard had hardly any formal education.  They became compelling writers through luck, determination and an immersion in their surroundings.  Of Harte’s view from the window of the Golden Era, a San Francisco literary magazine, Tarnoff observes, “Sometimes all Harte had to do was look out his window.  A ‘small portion of the large world’ passed below.”

Mark Twain, an outsized character, has a tendency to take over any story he gets near.  Tarnoff avoids this peril, usually showing his writers as a quartet.  

When he first started writing in Nevada, Twain often wrote hoax stories; some violated that journalistic rule to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Tarnoff’s account of Twain’s bad behavior early in his career rightfully resets Twain’s reputation with this less well-known information.

Coolbrith became a librarian in Oakland to support her family.  She loved the children she met; her book recommendations to 10-year old Jack London helped shape his writing.  Stoddard, who was likely gay, shuttled between San Francisco and the South Seas and stopped writing.  As they became famous, Harte and Crane became bicoastal, leaving the West Coast for the East. 

Twain and Harte came east by train, an improvement over travel by sailing ship or Conestoga wagon.  If you are jetting between the coasts - - or can’t travel but want the feel of the other coast - - take Tarnoff along.   He chronicles these writers and their work in a fast-paced, delightful and well-organized way!


  1. What an excellent review, I am definitely adding this book to my summer reading list! That is so interesting that California had high rates of literacy early on! And I love learning more about the bicoastal trend setters! So cool! :)

  2. Thanks for reading. You will enjoy the book when you can get around to it. It's so well written.