The Bohemians: The San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature

Ben Tarnoff | The Bohemians, Penguin Press | March 2014 | 46 minutes (11,380 words)


For this week’s Longreads Member Pick, we’re thrilled to share the opening chapter of The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature, the forthcoming book by Ben Tarnoff, published by The Penguin Press.

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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.

On May 2, 1863, Mark Twain boarded a stagecoach bound for San Francisco. The trip from Virginia City, Nevada, to the California coast promised more than two hundred miles of jolting terrain: sleepless nights spent corkscrewing through the Sierras, and alkali dust so thick it caked the skin. These discomforts didn’t deter the young Twain, who, at twenty-seven, already had more interesting memories than most men twice his age. He had piloted steamboats on the Mississippi, roamed his native Missouri with a band of Confederate guerrillas, and as the Civil War began in earnest, taken the overland route to the Territory of Nevada—or Washoe, as westerners called it, after a local Indian tribe.

Now he fell in love with the first and only metropolis of the Far West. “After the sagebrush and alkali deserts of Washoe,” he later wrote, “San Francisco was Paradise to me.” Its grandeur and festivity exhilarated him, and he gorged himself with abandon. He drank champagne in the dining room of the Lick House, a palatial haunt of high society modeled on the banquet hall at Versailles. He toured the pleasure gardens on the outskirts of town. He met a pretty girl named Jeannie, who snubbed him when he said hello and said hello when he snubbed her. He rode to the beach and listened to the roaring surf and put his toes in the Pacific. On the far side of the continent, he felt the country’s vastness.

He hadn’t planned to stay long, but a nonstop itinerary of eating, drinking, sailing, and socializing kept him too busy to bear the thought of leaving. In mid-May, he wrote his mother and sister to say he would remain for another ten days, two weeks at the most. By early June, another letter announced he was still in San Francisco, had switched lodgings to a fancier hotel, and showed no signs of slowing his demonic pace. “I am going to the Dickens mighty fast,” he wrote, a taunt aimed squarely at his devoutly Calvinist mother. The city offered many after-dark amusements— high-toned saloons and divey dance halls, gambling dens and girlie shows—and Twain rarely returned home before midnight. He was never at a loss for companionship: he reckoned he knew at least a thousand of the city’s 115,000 residents, mostly friends from Nevada. The city’s main thoroughfare, Montgomery Street, where crowds and carriages swarmed under gleaming Italianate facades, reminded him of his hometown. “[W]hen I go down Montgomery street, shaking hands with Tom, Dick & Harry,” he wrote his family, “it is just like being in Main street in Hannibal & meeting the old familiar faces.”

Spring turned to summer, and still Twain hadn’t left. Dreading the inevitable, he clung on as long as he could. “It seems like going back to prison to go back to the snows & the deserts of Washoe,” he complained. In July, he finally said farewell. He had been away from Nevada for two months. Even after he had settled back into the sagebrush on the dry side of the Sierras, the city lingered in his mind. Over the course of the next year he would find many reasons to return: first to visit, then to live. He would chronicle its quirks, and hurt the feelings of not a few of its citizens. In exchange, San Francisco would mold him to literary maturity. It would inspire his evolution from a provincial scribbler into a great American writer, from Hannibal’s Samuel Clemens into America’s Mark Twain.

On February 3, 1863, three months before the carrot-haired rambler roared into California, the residents of Virginia City, Nevada, awoke to find an unfamiliar name in their newspaper. That day’s Territorial Enterprise ran a letter from Carson City, the nearby capital, about a lavish party hosted by the former governor of California. The reporter arrived in the company of a bumptious, ill-bred friend—“the Unreliable”—and proceeded to drain the punch bowl and sing and dance drunkenly until two in the morning. Several famous citizens made cartoonish cameos. Affixed to the bottom of this waggish sketch of Washoe society was a new name: “Mark Twain.”

This debut didn’t attract much notice at the time. Clemens had written under a number of pseudonyms; it occurred to no one that his latest, Mark Twain, would someday be the most famous alias in America. The writing was clever, but only faintly colored by the brilliance that would later revolutionize American literature. He was always a late bloomer; his gifts took time to develop, and to be understood. He entered the world on November 30, 1835, a pale and premature child. “When I first saw him I could see no promise in him,” his mother said.

The origins of his pen name remain a mystery. In one disputed account, Twain claimed to have stolen the pseudonym from a famous steamboat captain named Isaiah Sellers. On the Mississippi, the leadsman would mark the depth on the sounding line and call it out to the pilot; “mark twain” meant “two fathoms,” a phrase that could signal safety or danger depending on the ship’s location. To a pilot in shallow water, it meant the river was getting deeper, reducing the risk of running aground; to a pilot in deep water, it meant the river was losing depth, a cause for alarm. “Mark Twain” marked a boundary in the writer’s life no less critical: the year his prose gradually began to find its true channel.

From The Bohemians, reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Ben Tarnoff, 2014.

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