THE BOHEMIANS IN FOG CITY: ben tarnoff at city lights

THE BOHEMIANS IN FOG CITY: ben tarnoff at city lights

“The finest poetry is not ashamed of the plainest fact.” (William Dean Howells)

Back in the ’60’s, there was a war on that was tearing the country apart and helping to foment a cultural revolution where the older generation was left in the dust. A number of writers and poets moved to San Francisco during that time. It had a reputation as a loose town, and included people from all over the world. The writers were intent on modernizing U.S. literature, using more in the ways of irony and slang.

click to read an excerpt of The Bohemians

click to read an excerpt of The Bohemians

Four of those writers and poets are featured in a book by Ben Tarnoff, who was at City Lights on April 1, 2014: Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Ina Coolbrith. I’m talking about the 1860‘s, and the book is The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (The Penguin Press, 2014). The war was the Civil War (1861-1865), which didn’t come here, except in the form of low walled fortifications and cannon which can still be found a few blocks from my apartment, as well as on Angel Island.

It was a relatively peaceful time in this part of the country. San Francisco was the largest city west of St. Louis, with over 100,000 people. It was prosperous in the years following the gold rush of 1849. The financial district took root in order to finance the gold diggers, most of whom were young men who helped to drive up the champagne ratio. They were downing seven bottles to every one in Boston, but then they were under a lot of pressure to make something of themselves (besides alcoholics). Manifest destiny had taken them to the ends of the earth, where they found the streets were not paved with gold, and most were not paved at all.

As Tarnoff noted, a certain isolation is good for a literary scene, and San Francisco had both. It also had a variety of newspapers which paid writers for content (hard to believe in our more advanced era). But then, the medium of print had little to compete with: no radio, television, movies, much less telephones or the internet. It wasn’t Samuel Clemens’ intention to become an “ink-stained wretch.” He was interested in avoiding the war and not avoiding silver mines. I want to say something here about silver bullets, but I won’t. He left Missouri (the “Show-Me State”), where he was born in 1835, and moved to Nevada in 1861, where his brother was secretary to the territorial governor.

He felt the magnetic pull of a city on the coast. When he visited, he loved the town so much he didn’t want to leave. He was staying at the Lick House, which was not one of the many brothels in town. (It was located on the site currently occupied by the Transamerica Pyramid.) He told his conservative mother he was “going to the dickens,” which didn’t mean he was reading Great Expectations. He was staying out late and carousing in this “refuge from the over-civilized East” (as Tarnoff put it).

He finally moved here in 1864, with his finances becoming more cloud than silver lining, and he was forced to become a reporter. He covered “lokulitems,” everything from “police court stories to opera reviews.” In the process, he was developing a style and turning from Samuel Clemens into Mark Twain (a phrase which refers to the depth of a river). It would appear that San Francisco molded him as a writer, even though much of his material in his later work is from his time on the Mississippi River. He had to go far from home in order to put it into perspective.

Tarnoff said that Twain was an angry young man, ambitious, anxious about money, and competitive. Twain spoke in a laconic manner and people couldn’t tell if he was being serious or satirical. He was both, from one minute to the next. Later he did well on the lecture circuit.

Samuel Clemens

click for more background on Clemens as a young man

This is only a brief outline and does not do justice to a book which is lively and informative, with closely-observed accounts of how the writers lived and worked and got along in a frontier town which seemed to be reinventing civilization with a California touch. The author did 70 percent of his research at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, with additional material from the Mark Twain Project. “Tarnoff [is] the genuine article. I welcome his voice to that tiny chorus of writers who can make American history come alive without dumbing it down.” (Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers and American Sphinx on Tarnoff’s first book, A Counterfeiter’s Paradise.)

While in San Francisco, the “Washoe wild man” (the Washoe were a tribe in Nevada) was meeting other writers, including a shy dandy named Bret Harte (1836 – 1902). Harte was well-connected with powerful friends, but rather distant. “San Francisco journalist Bret Harte first wrote as “The Bohemian” in The Golden Era in 1861, with this persona taking part in many satirical doings, the lot published in his book Bohemian Papers in 1867… Mark Twain included himself and Charles Warren Stoddard in the Bohemian category in 1867.”

The term Bohemianism emerged in France in the early nineteenth century when artists and creators began to concentrate in the lower-rent, lower class, gypsy neighborhoods. Bohémien was a common term for the Romani people of France , who had reached Western Europe via Bohemia.

The Bohemian Club was formed in 1872, and it did not allow businessmen. The motto was “Weaving spiders come not here” (The Bohemians, p.251). However, the creative types couldn’t pay the bills. “Bankers and industrialists and entrepreneurs trickled in. By the time Oscar Wilde stopped by in 1882, the transformation was complete. ‘I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed, business-looking Bohemians in my life,’ he remarked” (The Bohemians, p. 252).

When Bret Harte moved back east in 1871 he was one of the most popular writers in the country. Unfortunately, he choked. His career went into a decline, while managing to alienate his old friend Twain. This was during a time when “Politicians bought elections, stole taxpayer dollars, and cut backroom deals with plutocrats” (The Bohemians, p. 228). Some things never change.

Another writer in San Francisco at the time was Charles Warren Stoddard (1843 – 1909), who published poems when he was 20. He had a reputation for being vulnerable and charming and close to people. He was “The Love Man” according to Jack London (1876-1916), who grew up in Oakland and was closer to a sea-wolf man. (Actually, he was an oyster pirate for a while, and an avid socialist. George Orwell thought he detected a fascist strain in his work, and Mark Twain said: “It would serve this man London right to have the working class get control of things. He would have to call out the militia to collect his royalties.”)

Stoddard was a slender good-looking fellow, and one of the first homosexuals to practice his poetic license in this town. As Tarnoff said in the Q and A which followed his reading from the book, Stoddard’s sexual orientation wasn’t well-defined in those days. He wrote letters to Walt Whitman, referring to his Calamus poems which addressed “the manly love of comrades,” but Whitman didn’t respond (he did later). Another code phrase for homosexuality was “adhesive temperament,” referring to men who want to stick together.

Albatross, by Charles Warren Stoddard

TIME cannot age thy sinews, nor the gale

Batter the network of thy feathered mail,

    Lone sentry of the deep!

Among the crashing caverns of the storm,

With wing unfettered, lo! thy frigid form

    Is whirled in dreamless sleep!

Where shall thy wing find rest for all its might?

Where shall thy lidless eye, that scours the night,

    Grow blank in utter death?

When shall thy thousand years have stripped thee bare,

Invulnerable spirit of the air,

    And sealed thy giant-breath?

Not till thy bosom hugs the icy wave—

Not till thy palsied limbs sink in that grave,

    Caught by the shrieking blast,

And hurled upon the sea with broad wings locked,

On an eternity of waters rocked,

    Defiant to the last!

The poet George Sterling (1869 – 1926) was a generation younger than the others.
He was a member of the Bohemian Club, had Ambrose Bierce as a mentor and Jack London as a friend, and later mentored Robinson Jeffers. For better or worse, he made Carmel famous, carried around a vial of cyanide, and bought a large amount of opium from his brother (according to his wife). That might explain lines like “a brow caressed by poppy bloom,” from “A Wine of Wizardry.” He wrote a poem for Stoddard, which is found in Poems of Charles Warren Stoddard (1917) collected by Ina Coolbrith.

When asked about the cyanide he said, “A prison becomes a home if you have the key.” He finally took it at the age of 57. “When George Sterling’s corpse was discovered in his room at the Bohemian Club… the golden age of San Francisco’s bohemia had definitely come to a miserable end.” Maybe so, but the following year Kenneth Rexroth was in town.

click to read about a recent Rexroth tribute

click to read about a recent Rexroth tribute

Sterling wrote a famous poem to San Francisco, referring to it as “the cool, grey city of love!” A stanza of the poem can be found on a plaque on Russian Hill a few blocks from my home. Having climbed a lot of steps to get there, one is confronted by his lines in a rarified state of oxygen deficiency.

The last writer mentioned was the poet Ina Coolbrith (1841 – 1928). By the time she was 21 she had a dead child and was divorced from an abusive husband. Her uncle was Joseph Smith, the founder of a strange religious sect (called Mormons) which went into the wilderness (now Utah) because people thought they were so weird. The Book of Mormon was “chloroform in print” according to Mark Twain.

She moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and wrote poems in The Golden Era, a newspaper with a literary bent. She became lifelong friends with Stoddard. Years later, she met Jack London. “In 1886, he went to the Oakland Public Library and found a sympathetic librarian, Ina Coolbrith, who encouraged his learning. (She later became California’s first poet laureate and an important figure in the San Francisco literary community)” (from Wiki on Jack London).

For Eden’s life within me stirs,
And scorns the shackles that I wear;
The man-life grand – pure soul, strong hand,
The limb of steel, the heart of air!

And I could kiss, with longing wild,
Earth’s dear brown bosom, loved so much,
A grass-blade fanned across my hand,
Would thrill me like a lover’s touch.

(From “Longing” by Ina Coolbrith)

During the Q and A, a boom mike hovered over the head of anyone with a question. The event was being filmed by CNN. There was some mention of the rough and tumble Barbary Coast. There were vigilantes in the 1850’s who were lynching criminals now and then, but that eventually subsided. Twain wrote an article about men throwing rocks at a Chinese man while a policeman did nothing. He thought it was shameful, but the editors wouldn’t print it. They told him their readers were poor working men who didn’t like the Chinese, who were seen as undermining wages.


Market Street, as seen from Montgomery Street. “The city had been a refuge in the 1860s,” Tarnoff writes, but by the mid-1870s, “it looked more like a dumping ground. People from other parts of the country washed up on its shores looking for work, swelling the ranks of the poor. By 1877, San Francisco’s unemployment rate was as high as 25 percent. … ‘Bankruptcy, suicide, and murder and robberies were the order of the day,’ recalled one workingman. The city’s literary fortunes had undergone an equally steep decline. The last remnants of the Bohemian scene had vanished.” (Courtesy the Society of California Pioneers)

I asked Tarnoff why there was no mention of Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914), who came here as a veteran of the Civil War and stayed for a long time. He wrote The Devil’s Dictionary, and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek,” among many other works, being a little cynical after a war that left 750,000 dead. That was during a time when religion had more influence than it does now.

Tarnoff said he would have loved to include Bierce, who would have been his fifth choice, but there was no room. I said “Another book,” and he nodded. He saw Bierce as “the bridge to a later scene” in this town.

Steven Gray

Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).