Mark Twain is perhaps best known for Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, his semi-autobiographical works about growing up in the Missouri River Valley and the adventures that his protagonists would encounter. Because of this, many casual fans of Twain have thought of the legendary writer as the white suited, mustachioed elder that was once a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River.
However, literary scholars would tell you that Mark Twain actually began to make a name for himself after leaving Hannibal, Missouri in the early 1860’s. Born Samuel Clemens, he did not actually use the pen name ‘Mark Twain’ until 1863 while working at a newspaper in Nevada. Twain eventually found his way to San Francisco, and this is where author Ben Tarnoff’s The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature takes place and tells the story of how Twain and these fellow writers began to infiltrate and change American literature.
Regarding one of Twain’s comrade-in-arms, The Daily Beast states in its review of The Bohemians:
“Bret Harte was their leader. He called himself “the Bohemian” in his columns for the San Francisco weekly, The Golden Era, not only asserting kinship with New York’s celebrated Bohemian enclave (which included insurgent poet Walt Whitman) but claiming California as the natural home of such free spirits. “Bohemia has never been located geographically,” he wrote in 1860, “but any clear day when the sun is going down, if you mount Telegraph Hill, you shall see its pleasant valleys and cloud-capped hills glittering in the West.”
Not to be confused with the former WWE Champion, Bret Harte was just one of the like-minded writers that Twain fell in with in his time in San Francisco. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune goes on to say in their review that; “Twain may be the main draw of Tarnoff’s book, but Tarnoff’s writing about a few of Twain’s contemporaries — Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, Ina Coolbrith — is just as engaging. In 1863 San Francisco, where “even the shaggiest miner aspired to bardhood, and poets were pop stars,” these up-and-coming writers were mining not for gold, but for words.”
Mark Twain’s three writer-companions joined together to form the Overland Monthly, which was an outlet to showcase the unique voices that western writers were bringing to the table at that time in a country where the literary pendulum was swinging to the east. The Daily Beast states that: “Tarnoff draws a vivid contrast between sardonic, sophisticated, and sartorially dapper Harte, San Francisco’s literary star, and the unkempt, uncouth Mark Twain who rolled into town in 1863, a scuffling newspaperman looking to move on and up from provincial Virginia City, Nevada.”
“But the author spotlights their mutual conviction that the West’s grand vulgarities and follies were fertile territory for writers. Harte and Twain’s close, competitive friendship altered the course of American literature, as they developed a prose and an attitude very different from those of the cultural authorities on the Atlantic coast: “ironic and irreverent [embracing] the devilish sense of humor that flourished in the communities of the frontier.”
The Bohemian lifestyle would not last through the spread of the railroad to San Francisco unfortunately, as both Twain and Harte eventually moved towards the east coast with one gaining national acclaim with stories of his boyhood in Missouri and the other not gaining very much recognition until the story of his time with and influence on one of America’s most beloved writers was brought to print today, close to 150 years later.
Mark Twain’s legend and that of those around him continues to grow with every year that passes.