Friday, May 30, 2014

Going West

Twain, Harte, Stoddard, Coolbirth - Ben Tarnoff's The Bohemians (Penguin, 2014)
Excuse the absence - I've been on a long voyage to the West and points thereabouts. With some inevitably, I finally ended up in San Francisco in the 1860s and 1870s, and got stuck there for a while. I've been working on what will be one of the first chapters of my book about Mark Twain and the Mississippi, which means I've finally been getting to grips with his time in California and the rich literary world of which he was a part. At the same time, I've also been chasing the ghost of Ralph Keeler - remember him? - which meant uncovering his early career in the Alta California and other San Francisco publications. And then, with some uncanny timing, I got asked to do some filming about the Gold Rush, which left me westering for a little while longer. How lucky, then, that these occidental travels coincided with the publication of Ben Tarnoff's The Bohemians (Penguin, 2014), one of the most engaging and readable books ever written on this pivotal and underexamined moment in literary and cultural history.

The Bohemians has already had some great write ups (here's one in The New Yorker, "How America Learned to Hear Itself Talk") and if you want a flavour there's an excerpt available in Hazlitt magazine, and the whole first chapter's on Longreads. Here's the opening paragraph:
What people remembered best about him, aside from his brambly red brows and rambling gait, was his strange way of speaking: a drawl that spun syllables slowly, like fallen branches on the surface of a stream. Printers transcribed it with hyphens and dashes, trying to render rhythms so complex they could’ve been scored as sheet music. He rasped and droned, lapsed into long silences, soared in the swaying tenor inherited from the slave songs of his childhood. He made people laugh while remaining dreadfully, imperially serious. He mixed the sincere and the satiric, the factual and the fictitious, in proportions too obscure for even his closest friends to decipher. He was prickly, irreverent, ambitious, vindictive—a personality as impenetrably vast as the American West, and as prone to seismic outbursts. He was Samuel Clemens before he became Mark Twain, and in the spring of 1863, he made a decision that brought him one step closer to the fame he craved.
As that taste suggests, Twain is in many ways the star of this show - but those not familiar with his western years may be in for a shock, since the Twain that's on display here is a different creature than the iconic quotation-machine of the white suit years. It's not just that there's a darkness to him, since there's always that. But to see him again as simply one Bohemian amongst a whole host of Bohemians of one stripe or another, and, in particular, to reimagine him back to a moment when he most definitely wasn't the star of any show is enormously valuable. Twain was pushing thirty in his San Francisco years, hadn't achieved much in the way of worldly success, and was a prickly and tormented ball of ambition, envy and spite. It's a wonderful spectacle to behold, and Tarnoff does a great job of drawing out his contradictions and difficulties.

The sections on Stoddard and Coolbirth are also illuminating. As it happens, my research into the life and friendships of Keeler had led me to some earlier Stoddard scholarship (John Crowley and Roger Austen's Genteel Pagan, for example, and Crowley's fascinating account of Stoddard's friendship with William Dean Howells) but this is an equally compelling portrait that should go some way to putting him back on the literary map. Coolbirth I knew least about and, in some ways, still do, since this feels like a tantalising glimpse of a lost life that may remain, in some ways, unrecoverable.

But the real star of the show - and this judgement may well reflect a developing obsession of my own at this point - is Bret Harte. And that's only right and proper, since, however briefly, there was no one more starry in 1870. Here's Tarnoff's introduction to the man of the moment, just before his moment came and went in quick succession:
Harte, momentary matinée idol  
At twenty-six, Harte had become 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, declaiming verses to cheering crowds at public gatherings. Harte had powerful friends, a rising reputation, a wife, and an infant son. Since 1861, he had worked as a clerk for the surveyor general of California, then for a US marshal. In the summer of 1864, he became the secretary to the superintendent of the San Francisco Mint. His evenings didn't involve drunken romps of the Virginia City variety. They centered on more domestic concerns, like how to keep baby Griswold from disturbing his study, or his wife from dragooning him into household chores, so that he might have a couple of quiet hours to write.
Throughout, Harte remains totally fascinating as a man and as a writer. And ultimately, he feels unknowable in a different way than Coolbirth. One of the appealing things about Twain, I think, is that, faults and all (perhaps particularly faults), he lays himself bare. His jealousy of Harte, for example, remains immediately palpable. But Harte's motivations, from boom to bust, seem unfathomable, inscrutable. To mis-borrow from Poe, "er lässt sich nicht lesen." I dare say that Harte might appear again on here before too long (depending on your definition of long) and he's certainly going to be part of my teaching next year. Whatever your thoughts on Harte, pick up a copy of The Bohemians - I'd wager it will shift your thoughts about both Twain and the literary moment that made him. Oh, and Jessie Fremont features too. Can't get enough of her either at the moment...

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