Mark Twain, the American original, blossomed in California’s literary climate

03/21/2014 1:00 PM

03/22/2014 8:52 PM

A SPLENDID ORCHESTRA

Is in town, but has not been engaged.

ALSO A DEN OF FEROCIOUS WILD BEASTS

Will be on exhibition in the next Block.

MAGNIFICENT FIREWORKS

Were in contemplation for this occasion,

but the idea has been abandoned.

A GRAND TORCHLIGHT PROCESSION

May be expected; in fact, the public are privileged

to expect whatever they please.

That is how Mark Twain billed his first lecture on his travels to Hawaii.

The doors opened at 7 p.m. “The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock.”

The hall was packed, of course, but not because of the goofy broadside.

They knew then, just as we know now, that Twain was the American original.

How we pulled away from England politically is history, but have you ever wondered how our writers — decades after independence — finally stopped adding to

English

literature and started writing genuine American literature? Ben Tarnoff answers this question in his new book, “The Bohemians.”

“The greenhorn goes to the mines to become a millionaire and dies broke in a boardinghouse: this is the seed of California humor, the collision of romance and reality,” he writes, suggesting that California humor, in turn, is the seed of American literature.

A Library of Congress search for “Mark Twain” in titles yields 165 books. An Amazon.com search for the writer as a subject, 22,018. Writing about Twain is akin to writing about Abraham Lincoln; there always seems to be more to say. In fact, William Dean Howells, Atlantic Monthly editor and a Twain contemporary, famously called him the “Lincoln of our literature.”

Tarnoff successfully contributes to the compendium with a fresh take on Twain’s San Francisco circle, which was akin to the Algonquin Roundtable in Manhattan or “Lost Generation” of writers in Paris.

The book spans two decades, opening near the end of the American Civil War in 1863. We meet a wild, red-haired Twain, editor/writer Bret Harte, and poets Ina Coolbrith and Charles Stoddard.

Bret Harte wanted to be noticed, not only for his writing but for an unusual style.

“He might be seen in a stylish overcoat sporting a lamb collar, brightened by a felicitous flash of color — a crimson necktie, perhaps — that set him apart from the rabble.”

Harte already was the leading “literary light of the Pacific coast — no small feat in a state where even the shaggiest miner aspired to bardhood, and poets were pop stars.” He was almost as irreverent as Mark Twain; for years the two would alternate between being close friends and bitter enemies.

Late in life, Coolbrith became California’s first poet laureate.

“Her neighbors recalled a ‘warm, rich personality, gladdening all about her.’ 

” As a teenager she enjoyed fame in Los Angeles, publishing poetry in the Los Angeles Times.

After a divorce and a series of tragic deaths in Coolbrith’s family, she became a single working mother, ultimately supporting a family of five, and had difficulty finding time for writing. Her first book was published 15 years after her colleagues’.

Stoddard was thin and delicately built with large eyes. According to Coolbrith, he possessed an “ 

‘invincible charm,’ the all-conquering warmth that made people lower their defenses.” There was something childlike about him. Jack London later dubbed him “The Love Man.”

The four became acquainted at a literary magazine called The Golden Era in 1863. “They shared a single purpose: to wage all-out war on mediocrity, materialism, and the middlebrow.” They became the star writers of the Overland Monthly, a literary paper out of San Francisco that competed with the Atlantic Monthly.

“What connected them was their contempt for custom, their restlessness with received wisdom. They belonged to Bohemia because they didn’t belong anywhere else,” Tarnoff writes.

Those who arrived to settle the West were, like these writers, “overwhelmingly young, and untethered from traditional society, they built a new world without the benefit of their parents’ counsel.” This energy and lack/refusal of counsel, proved to be exactly how an original American literature blossomed from the roots of English literature.

During the 1860s, San Francisco had more newspapers than any other city in the country, its economy flourished even after the end of the gold rush, and the Civil War increased California’s wealth as it diminished that of other states.

The war, Tarnoff writes, “triggered a cultural upheaval a national trauma that made an older generation suddenly obsolete and demanded novelty, innovation, experimentation.”

The West was a place where Twain could court disaster but escape professional ruin. He published a news story in “Virginia City Territorial Enterprise” about a Nevada man who scalped his wife and bludgeoned six of his children to death. Reprinted in several newspapers, it was pure fiction.

He said he was exposing the practice of “dividend cooking,” when companies overvalued their stock and sold out before their shareholders discovered the deceit. The fictional murderer was reacting to losing his savings, Twain said. This escapade did not endear him to readers or publishers.

In contrast, Harte was at the summit of California writing and securing a foothold in the well-established East Coast literary scene. He published in the Atlantic Monthly alongside Emerson and Thoreau.

Harte became the nation’s highest-paid writer, earning $10,000 per year, twice that of a congressman. He was no less than a rock star, the telegraph tracking his every move, girls waiting outside his door, partying with Longfellow, Emerson, Henry and William James.

Harte’s success engendered in him a sense of entitlement that seemed to have been his undoing. He blew his contract with Atlantic Monthly by ignoring his deadlines, finally not bothering to turn in any pieces at all. By 1874, Harte “became the living fulfillment of Twain’s worst fears: not just bankrupt, but ‘friendless, forsaken, despised.’ 

Coolbrith’s career climbed more gradually than Harte’s and Twain’s. At the heart of her bohemianism was a refusal of Victorian domesticity, which many other women still aspired to and often hid behind. However, her duties as a mother and caregiver to her own mother rooted her in the home in a way that the three men were not.

Her poems were published in Galaxy and Harper’s Weekly, a major accomplishment, but she would languish in self-doubt after Stoddard, Harte and Twain went east to pursue fame, something she could not do.

Stoddard’s Achilles’ heel was his craving of approval; he would agree with poor reviews of his writing, “that his poetry, as he put it, was the ‘mere wind-fall of unripe fruit.’ 

” So he quit writing, converted to Catholicism, and decided to give acting a try.

Stoddard finally had some literary success, publishing a book of prose called “South-Sea Idyls,” but he disappeared at 35 from the scene for good not long after the book’s publication.

Tarnoff sums up what set Twain apart from the other Bohemians, not simply raw talent but “his relentlessness.” Twain clawed his way to the top via constant experimentation, fearless risk-taking and always keeping an eye out for new lines of attack.

In the 1830s, Ralph Waldo Emerson had called for “the creation of a native national literature, liberated from the cultural imperialism of the Old World.” Then, some 30 years later, a jumping frog plopped on the pages.

Tarnoff suggests that the story of Smiley and his frog, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” was pivotal to American literature because Twain did not present a “dumb yokel” for readers to ridicule, but a “savvy storyteller” — leaving the butt of the joke to be the more well-spoken, but frustrated, narrator who has to listen to rough frontiersman’s rambling tale.

“Twain didn’t just try to make readers laugh. 

He had a higher aim: to give a true portrait of a particular part of America.”

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