In 1864, a young American journalist named Mark Twain told a lie. It wasn't his first, and it certainly wouldn't be his last, but the fib initiated a chain of events that helped him become the most celebrated author of his time.
Writing for a paper in Nevada called the Territorial Enterprise, Twain reported that a charity raising money for wounded Union soldiers would divert its funds "to aid a Miscegenation Society somewhere in the East." This was wholesale fabrication, but the deception exposed an uncomfortable truth: Most people in Nevada supported the Union in the Civil War, but they balked at the idea of interracial marriage. Liberal tolerance only went so far.
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Within a week, Twain was feuding with the publisher of a rival paper, calling the man "an unmitigated liar" and "an abject coward." Just when a duel seemed imminent, Twain boarded a stagecoach bound for California.
The flourishing culture he discovered in 1860s San Francisco is the subject of Ben Tarnoff's engrossing new book, "The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature."
Newspapers on the American frontier contained a baffling range of material. Feuds, gossip and satire shared space with fiction, poetry, gardening tips and pirated novel excerpts. Journalism also tended to attract colorful personalities: Twain once arrived for his first day of work at a newspaper with a revolver in his belt.
The rough-and-tumble culture of the frontier supported a thriving literary scene. By 1870, California had one of the highest literacy rates in America, and San Francisco boasted more newspapers per capita than any other city. (It also excelled at consuming champagne: For every bottle drunk in Boston, seven were downed in San Francisco, Tarnoff writes.)
This booming newspaper industry discovered many gifted young writers. One was a poet named Ina Coolbrith who didn't see why her creative impulses should be confined to "puddings rather than poetry." Another was Charles Warren Stoddard, a gay writer who loved San Francisco's tendency "to overdress, over-decorate, to overdo almost everything." Bret Harte was a columnist and fiction writer who sometimes signed his pieces "the Bohemian"; he edited both Coolbrith and Stoddard for a new magazine called the Californian.
Twain befriended these three young San Francisco writers, and soon he was contributing to many of the city's publications. By skillfully tracking the friendships and fortunes of this unusual quartet, Tarnoff narrates the awakening of a powerful new sensibility in American literature.
A revealing section of the book shows Twain as a financially insecure freelancer in his late 20s scouring the city for good stories. He still mingled fact and fiction, but now the facts caused him more trouble. When he saw a gang of Irish thugs lobbing stones at a Chinese laundryman, he reported indignantly on the racially motivated attack. But an editor refused to run the story. The Irish were loyal readers, and the paper couldn't afford to challenge the prejudices of its customers.
Twain felt so discouraged he considered quitting writing. Eventually he found more success with fiction. When a friend skipped town on a $500 bail Twain had guaranteed, he, too, left San Francisco for a few months. He hid out in a dusty old mining town and absorbed the rhythm and humor of the stories swapped by locals.
When he returned to San Francisco, he told his friend Harte a funny story. Later published as "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog," it would make him a household name. The tale was one of the first in America to use a humorous vernacular style and frontier characters without condescension. He was discovering, in Tarnoff's words, "the unsung sublimities of the continent's language, geography, and myths." The piece was reprinted by papers around the country, and East Coast tastemakers began to notice the writing of the San Francisco Bohemians.
Many intellectuals still considered Twain and other Western writers hopelessly primitive: Although they were good for a laugh, serious authors emulated European models. But over the course of the 1860s, Twain and the other Bohemians were discovering that local materials could be the stuff of a national literature.
When Twain managed to get his first book published, it flopped. Even "The Innocents Abroad," which reached a wide readership, did so by means of a subscription model in which salesmen went door to door hawking the book to readers. Respected authors tended to scorn the subscription model; its reputation was similar to that of self-publishing today.
Tarnoff powerfully evokes the western landscapes, local cultures and youthful friendships that helped shape Twain. He has a talent for selecting details that animate the past. We smell the "sharp odor of sagebrush" and taste Twain's "lager beer and Limburger cheese" in Nevada.
The members of the San Francisco Bohemian circle gradually drifted apart, and Twain was the only one to achieve lasting fame. But without the exuberant atmosphere of the city in its early days, we might not remember him at all.
Nick Romeo has written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and many other publications; his most recent book is "Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys."
By Ben Tarnoff, Penguin, 319 pages, $27.95