“All modern American literature,” proclaimed Ernest Hemingway, “comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ ” Ben Tarnoff believes otherwise.

In “The Bohemians,” Tarnoff sticks with Twain but locates the turning point for American literature two decades before the 1885 publication of “Huck Finn” — back in 1865, when Twain published his hit story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” while fresh from associating with a group of San Francisco writers who were willing to take chances: Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard and Ina Coolbrith — the “Bohemians” of Tarnoff’s title.

In arguing for his thesis, Tarnoff has gone to the minor-writer trunk and taken two of the Bohemians, Harte and Stoddard, out for an airing. (Coolbrith hardly rates even “minor” status and, in any case, Tarnoff acknowledges that she and Twain “never became close”: She glides into the book on the coattails of her friends Harte and Stoddard.)

The story begins in 1861, when Sam Clemens traveled west from his native Missouri as the sidekick to his older brother Orion, whose efforts on behalf of presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln had landed him a political job in Nevada Territory. On arriving, Sam tried his luck at prospecting. After failing to make a lucky strike, he styled himself Mark Twain and caught on as a writer with the Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper published in the Comstock Lode boomtown of Virginia City, where distractions from the drudgery of mining and milling ore were much sought after.

Most biographers cite Twain’s two-plus years in Virginia City, working under the tutelage of a brilliant editor named Joe Goodman and a gaggle of iconoclastic reporters, as the formative period of his literary development. Goodman allowed Twain and his colleagues to experiment with subject matter, tell tall tales and record an American English close to the way it was spoken, rather than gussying it up for proper consumption. Twain made the most of this freedom, and “The Jumping Frog” is an outgrowth (with an infusion of genius) of the kind of thing that regularly appeared in the Territorial Enterprise.

Nonetheless, Tarnoff zeroes in on the phase of Twain’s life between Virginia City and the appearance of “The Jumping Frog”: a period when he mostly lived in San Francisco, to which he moved in May of 1864 to avoid fighting a duel provoked by one of his articles. There he met Harte, who signed him up to write for the literary weekly Harte edited, The Californian, and also befriended Stoddard, a budding travel writer.

Tarnoff has a good feel for poor Harte, a man once lionized as the voice of the West for his short stories “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and his poem “Plain Language from Truthful James.” Unfortunately, these three slender pieces — all published within a two-year period — along with some parodies, make up the sum total of the author’s worthy work. Harte’s barrenness embittered him. After moving to Boston in 1871, he dropped Stoddard and Coolbrith; eventually, he betrayed his principles, too. In “Plain Language from Truthful James,” he had satirized anti-Chinese prejudice. In 1877, he co-wrote (with Twain) a play in which, Tarnoff explains, “The hero of that poem — Ah Sin — was . . . reincarnated as a cretinous coolie played for cheap laughs.”

Besides publishing Twain in The Californian, Harte edited what became Twain’s first book, “The Innocents Abroad.” Tarnoff uses the word “mentored” to describe Harte’s influence on Twain. But editing is not the same as mentoring, and Twain may have learned more during the 10 days he spent with Artemus Ward when Ward visited Virginia City in 1863 than from anything Harte could teach him. Ward was not only a spellbinding comic lecturer (and here, Twain was to follow in his footsteps); in print, he used phonetic spelling to mimic demotic speech. Ward’s riposte to Brigham Young after the Mormon prophet bragged of having 80 wives strikes the note of vernacular impudence that Twain was to perfect in “Huckleberry Finn”: “How do you like it, as far as you hev got?”

Twain came to look upon Harte as a rival and devised strategies to surpass him. “I must & will keep shady & quiet till Bret Harte simmers down a little,” Twain wrote his brother Orion in 1871. In truth, Twain had nothing to worry about. He became what William Dean Howells, who knew both writers, called “the Lincoln of our Literature.” Harte was the Millard Fillmore of our Literature.

Twain soon left the West, never to return. Born a Midwesterner, groomed as a writer in the West, he aspired to be an Eastern grandee, a dream never fully realized (he had money troubles until the last decade or so of his life).

Tarnoff is a good storyteller and character-portraitist, with a deep knowledge of the West Coast. He points out, for example, that today’s Bohemian Club traces its lineage back not just to San Francisco’s Bohemian scene generally, but to a friend of Harte’s specifically. Then, acidly, Tarnoff recapitulates the club’s evolution in the century and a half since its founding. “In the twentieth century, the club [welcomed] William Randolph Hearst and Richard Nixon. It became an enclave of elite men, the ultimate insider institution — and a grotesque parody of the original Bohemia that inspired its name.”

But as to which work by Mark Twain is the one that all American literature comes from — the Frog or the Finn — I think Papa knows best.

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.


Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented
American Literature

By Ben Tarnoff

Penguin Press. 319 pp. $27.95