Thursday, March 20, 2014

What is Ben Tarnoff reading?

Featured at Writers Read: Ben Tarnoff, author of The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature.

His entry begins:
Writing a book destroys your life. It consumes all the time allotted for it, and everything else besides. All those hours you had hoped to spend doing normal human things like socializing and cooking and exercising must be sacrificed to the hungry monster that lives inside every manuscript. And if you manage to pry yourself away from your desk and actually do something recreational, your ability to enjoy it will always run up against one recurring thought: I should be working on my book.

Under these conditions, the idea of reading for pleasure is absurd. A writer reading a book while also trying to write one is either doing research or procrastinating or looking for inspiration or sizing up competitors. Pleasure rarely enters the picture. Writing has made me a terrible reader: distractible, impatient, nit-picky, guilt-ridden. But every now and then, I stumble on a book that's so perfectly keyed to what I need at that particular moment that everything else falls away.

Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians is...[read on]
About the book, from the publisher:
The unforgettable story of the birth of modern America and the western writers who gave voice to its emerging identity

The Bohemians begins in 1860s San Francisco. The Gold Rush has ended; the Civil War threatens to tear apart the country. Far from the front lines, the city at the western edge roars. A global seaport, home to immigrants from five continents, San Francisco has become a complex urban society virtually overnight. The bards of the moment are the Bohemians: a young Mark Twain, fleeing the draft and seeking adventure; literary golden boy Bret Harte; struggling gay poet Charles Warren Stoddard; and beautiful, haunted Ina Coolbrith, poet and protectorate of the group. Ben Tarnoff’s elegant, atmospheric history reveals how these four pioneering western writers would together create a new American literature, unfettered by the heavy European influence that dominated the East.

Twain arrives by stagecoach in San Francisco in 1863 and is fast drunk on champagne, oysters, and the city’s intoxicating energy. He finds that the war has only made California richer: the economy booms, newspapers and magazines thrive, and the dream of transcontinental train travel promises to soon become a reality. Twain and the Bohemians find inspiration in their surroundings: the dark ironies of frontier humor, the extravagant tales told around the campfires, and the youthful irreverence of the new world being formed in the west. The star of the moment is Bret Harte, a rising figure on the national scene and mentor to both Stoddard and Coolbrith. Young and ambitious, Twain and Harte form the Bohemian core. But as Harte’s star ascends—drawing attention from eastern taste makers such as the Atlantic Monthly—Twain flounders, questioning whether he should be a writer at all.

The Bohemian moment would continue in Boston, New York, and London, and would achieve immortality in the writings of Mark Twain. San Francisco gave him his education as a writer and helped inspire the astonishing innovations that radically reimagined American literature. At once an intimate portrait of an eclectic, unforgettable group of writers and a history of a cultural revolution in America, The Bohemians reveals how a brief moment on the western frontier changed our country forever.
View the trailer for The Bohemians, and visit Ben Tarnoff's website.

Writers Read: Ben Tarnoff.

--Marshal Zeringue