Four ambitious writers star in this literary history.
Journalist Tarnoff (A Counterfeiter’s Paradise: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Early American Moneymakers, 2011) tells a lively story of mid-19th-century San Francisco, focused on champagne-swilling Mark Twain, foppish Bret Harte, poet and essayist Charles Warren Stoddard, and little-remembered poet Ina Coolbrith. Despite the book’s hyperbolic subtitle, Tarnoff does not make a case for these writers’ revolutionary impact on American literature; nor, in fact, that Stoddard and Coolbrith had any impact at all. In the 1860s, Harte was well-known for humorous short stories about California life, but by 1871, when he came East for a speaking tour, his career was over. “It was the corpse of that Bret Harte that swept in splendor across the continent,” Mark Twain announced. Although Twain had by then reconciled with his one-time rival, he did not mourn Harte’s literary downfall. His star was rising, partly due to his recognition by William Dean Howells, the influential editor of the Atlantic Monthly; partly due to his status as a brilliant performer who attracted huge audiences to his one-man shows; partly due to the fact that readers east of the Mississippi were enthralled by fiction set on the raunchy frontier. Exuberant stories gave the young nation new myths, establishing the West as “a place of paradox and incongruity, where conventional rules of sentiment and syntax broke down, and humor overlaid everything.” Twain proved to be a master of this new genre. In such works as Innocents Abroad, a best-seller in 1869, Twain’s characters were ordinary middle Americans, honest, open and free of an old-world veneer of sophistication: “They belonged to a country of the future: an innovative, economically ascendant nation with a style all its own.”
It may be, as Tarnoff asserts, that these writers spent the best years of their lives in California, but only Twain, living in New York and Connecticut, left a lasting literary legacy.