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

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For our 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 book by Ben Tarnoff, published by The Penguin Press.


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.

By 1863, he had been writing for more than a decade. He was a typesetter by trade, having begun his apprenticeship at age eleven. A “very wild and mischievous” boy, his mother remembered, he hated school and, on the rare occasions he attended, tormented his teachers. So she let him drop out to become a printer’s devil, as apprentices were called, and he fulfilled the phrase to the letter. He smoked a large cigar or a small pipe while arranging movable type, and sang off-color songs. The shop became his schoolroom. He put other people’s lines into print and composed a few of his own. He learned to think of words as things, as slivers of ink-stained metal that, if strung in the right sequence, could make more mischief than any schoolboy prank. At fifteen he began typesetting for his brother Orion’s newspaper, the Western Union, and wrote the occasional sketch. When Orion left on a business trip and put his sibling in charge, the teenager lost no time in testing the incendiary potential of the medium. He ignited a feud with the editor of a rival newspaper, scorching the poor man so thoroughly that when Orion returned, he was forced to run an apology.

Twain’s irreverence didn’t just drive his comic wit; it also adapted him to an era of tectonic change, when technology was disrupting tradition on an unprecedented scale. The Industrial Revolution gathered fresh momentum at midcentury, just as Twain came of age. He watched steamboats make the Mississippi into a bustling commercial highway, and his hometown of Hannibal into a concourse for a lively cross section of humanity. Steam accelerated trade and travel. It annihilated distance. It built new networks along rivers and railroads and, crucially, sped the diffusion of the printed word.

By the time Twain became a typesetter, America’s love affair with newsprint was growing fast. In 1776, the country had 37 newspapers. By 1830, it counted 715. By 1840, that number had doubled. Steam-powered machines made printing cheaper and faster; rising literacy fueled demand. A complex ecology emerged, with high-circulation city papers at the top, one-editor sheets at the bottom, and a diverse spectrum of typographical wildlife in between. Gardening tips shared space with sensationalized crime reports; serialized romances appeared alongside partisan hack jobs. “Story papers” delivered cheap thrills in the form of adventure tales; illustrated weeklies used detailed engravings to visualize the news.

The newspaper revolution created America’s first popular culture. Twain belonged wholly to this revolution, and the world he discovered in the Far West was its most fertile staging ground. Newspapers helped colonize the Pacific coast. They stoked the gold rush by publishing letters from the mines and endorsements from powerful editors like Horace Greeley, and they carried ads for California-bound ships and stagecoaches. Since the price of a ticket was prohibitive to the very poor, the emigrants mostly came from literate backgrounds, and they began printing newspapers and books when they reached the Far West. By 1870, California had one of the highest literacy rates in the nation: only 7. 3 percent of its residents over the age of ten couldn’t write, compared with 20 percent nationwide. The region’s wealth financed a range of publications and gave people the leisure to read them. As Twain observed, there was no surer sign of “flush times” in a Far Western boomtown than the founding of a “literary paper.” Poetry and fiction mattered to miners and farmers, merchants and bankers. For them the printed word wasn’t a luxury—it was a lifeline. It fostered a sense of place, a feeling of community, in a frontier far from home.

Twain arrived in Nevada in the summer of 1861. The ostensible reason was to accompany his brother Orion, who had been appointed secretary to the territorial governor. With the Civil War roiling his home state, however, Twain had another motive: to avoid the Northern and Southern recruiters drafting Missourians of eligible age into military service. Missouri would be a battleground, split between Union and Confederate sympathies, and Twain had no desire to stay until the real bloodshed began.

So he climbed into a stagecoach and embarked on one of the greatest adventures of his life. In the prairies he saw coyotes and jackrabbits. In Nevada he found a desert full of enterprising young men angling for instant riches—and a social panorama that rivaled the Mississippi in its variety. “The country is fabulously rich,” he wrote his mother soon after he arrived, “in gold, silver, copper, lead, coal, iron, quicksilver, marble, granite, chalk, plaster of Paris (gypsum), thieves, murderers, desperadoes, ladies, children, lawyers, Christians, Indians, Chinamen, Spaniards, gamblers, sharpers, cuyotès (pronounced kiyo- ties), poets, preachers, and jackass rabbits.” It also boasted one of the wildest newspapers in the West, a far-flung outpost of America’s print empire: the Territorial Enterprise.

After a failed stint at silver mining, Twain joined its staff. He arrived for his first day of work in September 1862 looking like a cross between a hobo and an outlaw: coatless, bearded, with a bedroll on his shoulder and a Navy Revolver in his belt. Fortunately, the Enterprise didn’t scare easily. Its editor, a taciturn twenty-three-year-old named Joe Goodman, presided over a crew of hard-drinking hell-raisers that made Twain’s Hannibal pranksters look like choir- boys. Their offices were the epicenter of the human earthquake known as Virginia City, a Nevada settlement of no fewer than fifty-one saloons cut into the side of a mountain that held in its seams the richest stockpile of precious metals ever discovered: the Comstock Lode. “Virginny” lived at a perpetual tilt from reality. It swayed under the wind of frequent sandstorms; it shook with the constant blasting that burrowed mine shafts into the sloping earth. Its foundations were as fragile as the mental states of its inhabitants, who shot one another over the slightest insult, and squandered their lives on fantasies of wealth that rarely paid dividends.

Virginia City’s lawlessness enabled the usual western vices. Young men at a certain distance from civilization tended to lose sight of Victorian values, and indulge urges they might’ve been better able to suppress farther east. The same freedom that facilitated a brisk trade in sex and booze also emboldened the Enterprise to take an especially far-out approach to frontier journalism. Goodman’s writers didn’t simply report the facts. They improved upon them. They sketched their extravagant surroundings with the fidelity of a funhouse mirror, creating a ruthlessly funny caricature. Their aim was to scandalize, to satirize, to sell papers, to settle vendettas, to boost their personal celebrity. One obligation that didn’t weigh heavily on the herd of young heretics at the Enterprise was to the truth, which in the West had a tendency to mix freely with fable.

Virginia City taught Twain how to be a working journalist. He prowled the city in search of anything that might make for a column or two of entertaining copy, from the steps of the courthouse to the stock exchange. He became a sponge for rumor and hearsay. Despite his gift for observation, he discovered that dry facts bored him. He preferred to embroider and enlarge the truth, or ignore it altogether. Less than a week after joining the Enterprise, Twain published a hoax—“an unmitigated lie, made from whole cloth,” he confessed in a letter—called “Petrified Man.” It claimed that a “stony mummy” had been found in the mountains of eastern Nevada, perfectly preserved. Delivered in pure deadpan, the sketch combined Twain’s absurdist sense of humor with his venomous taste for revenge. He wrote it to punish someone who had slighted him, a judge named G. T. Sewall, who appears in “Petrified Man” as a dim-witted magistrate who holds an inquest on the body.

Newspapers throughout Nevada and California reprinted the hoax. Some got the joke; others took it seriously. Twain recalled that he collected the clippings and mailed them spitefully to Sewall: “I could not have gotten more real comfort out of him without killing him.” But the greater comfort doubtlessly came from his growing fame. With the Enterprise as his springboard, Twain became a Washoe personality. Goodman, recognizing the young Missourian’s talent, gave him room to roam. Mining companies courted him, hoping for favorable notices. The legislators in Carson City paid tribute to his political dispatches with a resolution of thanks. “I am the most conceited ass in the Territory,” he crowed to his mother and sister.

Yet his swagger disguised a deeper anxiety. As his prominence rose, so did his expectations. Excessive in most things, he always wanted more. Virginia City may have been an exhilarating introduction to the Far West, but it stood in the long shadow of imperial San Francisco. “Not a settler in all the Pacific States and Territories but must pay San Francisco tribute,” wrote Henry George, the economist and reformer, “not an ounce of gold dug, a pound of ore smelted, a field gleaned, or a tree felled” without increasing its wealth.

The Comstock was no exception. The mining shafts that ran hundreds of feet into the Nevada earth were built by San Francisco barons; the gold and silver extracted lined their pockets. Virginia City wasn’t a competitor. Like many outposts of the sparsely settled Far West, it was a colony. San Francisco’s banks and docks and dry-goods houses ruled the region. The city was an unlikely monarch, built on dunes and declivities and other disincentives to human habitation, yet it compensated for its ludicrous terrain with an excellent location. Like Constantinople, it straddled East and West: linked by sea to the Atlantic states and to Asia, and by land to the boundless Pacific interior. It made gold into coins, trees into timber. It gave form to the raw material of the Far West, and reaped the considerable rewards. Its newspapers commanded a readership far beyond that of the Enterprise, circulating throughout the Pacific coast and sent on steamers back East. In a nation obsessed with newsprint, San Francisco outdid them all, boasting more newspapers per capita than any other American city. Twain could rise only so far in Nevada. So in May 1863, when he came to San Francisco for two months of high living, in a sober moment among several wobbly ones, he performed a small but significant piece of business. He arranged to become a correspondent for the San Francisco Morning Call.

By the 1860s, San Francisco reigned over a flourishing economic empire. The gold rush had faded, its diggings largely exhausted by hordes of prospectors, but the Comstock boomed. Then came the Civil War. The conflict that ravaged the rest of the country made California richer. The disruption of trade with the eastern states sheltered the state’s industries from competition. Manufacturers produced mining machinery like pumps and drills, and a range of consumer goods to meet demand from the region’s growing population. Agriculture also expanded, as wheat became a major export. New mines in Nevada and elsewhere kept bullion flowing into San Francisco’s banks—$185 million of which would be sent to Northern coffers to help finance the Union war effort. Aside from this hefty contribution, however, California’s role in the conflict was limited. No serious fighting reached the coast, and Lincoln never applied the draft west of Iowa and Kansas, partly in a bid to keep the Far West loyal.

The Civil War would be a boon to California: not only by increasing its wealth but by bringing the dream of a transcontinental railroad closer to reality. Although a railway to the Pacific had been debated for decades, Congress didn’t lay the legislative foundations until the war made it possible to sell the idea as a matter of military necessity. The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 took the first step, chartering two private companies to build the tracks, and subsidizing the venture with land grants and federal bonds. The construction would go slowly at first. Californians followed its progress closely. They awaited the approaching triumph with an intensity verging on the messianic. The railroad was more than a twisting trellis of iron and wood: it represented the consummation of a spiritual tradition as old as Columbus. It would unite East and West, and link the Atlantic trade with the Pacific. California’s current riches paled in comparison with its estimate of its future fortunes. While the East descended into hell, the West strode confidently in the direction of its dreams.

Any citizen of San Francisco asleep at daybreak on July 4, 1863, might’ve thought, in a haze of half-broken slumber, that the war had come to California. The cannon at Fort Point and Alcatraz pounded the sky. Warships at anchor opened fire. Little boys lit firecrackers in the street. The city celebrated the eighty-seventh anniversary of American independence with an expenditure of gunpowder that couldn’t fail to evoke the smoky, sulfurous battlefields thousands of miles to the east.

Elsewhere, Americans spent the holiday differently. On July 4, Confederate general Robert E. Lee began his retreat from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The battle had killed or injured more than forty thousand men of both armies, and broken Lee’s momentum by ending his invasion of the North. The same day, the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg, Mississippi, surrendered to Union forces commanded by Ulysses S. Grant, a victory that helped restore the Mississippi River to Northern control. By the time San Francisco awoke to the celebratory sounds of gunfire, the tide had shifted ever so subtly against the South. The Civil War would grind on for another two years, and claim many more lives, but in hindsight, the summer of 1863 would be decisive: the moment when, two years after vowing to save the Union, Lincoln finally began to reverse the Confederacy’s gains.

The news from the front wouldn’t reach San Francisco for another few days. If it had come sooner, it might have lent some enthusiasm to the Independence Day parade, which lacked the numbers of previous years. People could be forgiven for not feeling particularly festive. Even Californians, who had been spared the Civil War’s worst suffering, had begun to tire of the conflict. Their appetite for alcohol and entertainment remained intact, however, and they used the holiday as a pretext to indulge in both. The alcohol came by way of brewery wagons, which dispensed enough beer on July 4 to put thirty-five people in jail for public drunkenness. The entertainment took place at the Metropolitan Theater on Montgomery, where a Unitarian minister named Thomas Starr King delivered the day’s oration.

King knew how to draw a crowd. Within five minutes of the doors’ opening, the Metropolitan had filled to bursting. Men, women, children, even Copperheads—those who sympathized with the South—turned out to see California’s most popular preacher take the stage. Five feet tall and 120 pounds, King didn’t look like much of a performer. Yet when he spoke, the sounds that flowed from his dainty frame were so robust, so heady with aphorism and humor, that they commanded rapt attention and thunderous applause. For the last two years King had crusaded tirelessly for the Northern cause, touring the state to proclaim the indivisibility of the Union. From the start of the war, a vocal minority had supported Southern secession, and even discussed turning California into an independent republic. That danger had passed, but pockets of pro-Southern sentiment persisted, along with a certain indifference to national politics that came naturally to westerners. Californians found it easy to forget they belonged to the United States, and King endeavored to remind them in the most emphatic terms.

Before speaking that day, King read a poem written by a local poet. Like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address four months later, it spoke of the current convulsions as another American Revolution: “these throes that shake the Earth / Are but the pangs that usher in the Nation’s newer birth!” The house received the verses warmly. Strangely, their author was nowhere to be found. He was ill, the papers reported. A sturdier soul might’ve rallied for the rare opportunity to stand before such an audience. But anyone who knew the poet personally might suspect this was precisely the reason for his absence: that shyness, not sickness, had kept him away.

Not that he wasn’t fond of being noticed. On the contrary: Bret Harte liked to be looked at. That season, as summer fog cooled the city, he might be seen in a stylish overcoat sporting a lamb collar, brightened by a felicitous flash of color—a crimson necktie, perhaps—that set him apart from the rabble. Every fold, every fabric of the young man’s outfit would be as carefully arranged as those stanzas delivered at the Metropolitan. On Montgomery Street, he flitted through the human foliage like a brilliantly plumed bird. If your eyes happened to meet his, he would smile; if he spoke a few words in greeting, his voice would be agreeable. But there would be no yarn spinning or rib splitting—nothing to remind one of that Washoe wild man Mark Twain. He preferred to be admired from afar.

And there was much to admire. At twenty-six, Harte had become the leading literary light of the Pacific coast—no small feat in a state where even the shaggiest miner aspired to bardhood, and poets were pop stars, declaiming verses to cheering crowds at public gatherings. Harte had powerful friends, a rising reputation, a wife, and an infant son. Since 1861, he had worked as a clerk for the surveyor general of California, then for a US marshal. In the summer of 1863, he became the secretary to the superintendent of the US Mint in San Francisco. His evenings didn’t involve drunken romps of the Virginia City variety. They centered on more domestic concerns, like how to keep baby Griswold from disturbing his study, or his wife from dragooning him into household chores, so that he might have a couple of quiet hours to write.

This shy, soft-spoken dandy must’ve seemed like an odd choice for the Far West’s literary spokesman. He didn’t wield an ax or a revolver. He ridiculed the region’s most cherished myths, especially the cult of the pioneer. He hated philistines, sentimentalists, and hypocrites, and felt that California had all three in abundance. Where others saw progress, he saw decline. The sea trade that made San Francisco rich? The “vagrant keels of prying Commerce.” The stately City Hall of white Australian sandstone? A “district poorhouse.”

Few things escaped “the corrosive touch of his subtle irreverence,” as his friend William Dean Howells later observed. But Harte wasn’t just a destroyer. If he often felt disillusioned with California, this was because he saw its true potential: as an infinitely original civilization with its own unique history and habits—a “singular fraternity” of Spaniards, Mexicans, Chinese, Europeans, Australians, Indians, and Americans living “free from the trammels of precedent” on the far edge of the world. Here was the “real genuine America” trumpeted by Walt Whitman, a world of raw literary possibility beyond the wildest imaginings of the country’s reigning custodians of high culture—and, just possibly, the seeds of a new national literature.

Harte had always wanted to write. Nothing in his early life suggested he would succeed. His first literary effort, at age eleven, ended in a trauma that nearly derailed him. He wrote a poem, which he submitted to a Sunday newspaper. All week he anxiously awaited the outcome. When the fateful day finally came, and he raced to the nearby newsstand and discovered his poem printed on the newspaper’s first page, his heart leaped. He bought a copy to take home—only to learn, to his horror, that his family didn’t share his enthusiasm. “It was unanimously conceded that I was lost,” he recalled many years later. His father had been a schoolteacher, but aspired to literature. He had died two years earlier, leaving his wife destitute. The thought that the young Harte would take a similarly impecunious path prompted a harsh response from his family. In their New York home was a book of Hogarth illustrations, and one of the pictures, The Distrest Poet, summarized their fears: it showed a pathetic figure in a dingy garret, hounded by a milkmaid demanding payment of an overdue bill. “It was a terrible experience,” Harte remembered. “I sometimes wonder that I ever wrote another line of verse.”

But he did, even as he left school at age thirteen to go to work. The antagonism between art and commerce, between the Muse and Mammon, seems to have imprinted itself early on. Also the cruelty of other people: his fellow schoolboys teased him for the “girlish pink-and-whiteness” of his complexion, he later remembered, calling him “Fanny.” Like many sensitive, misunderstood youth then and since, he developed a protective layer of irony to shield himself from the world’s meanness. He wrote a tragedy in which, by his account, “Gilded Vice was triumphant and Simple Virtue and Decent Respectability suffered through five acts.” For himself, he reserved the role of “Gorgeous Villainy.”

It was a part he would play his whole life, in one guise or another. Less flamboyantly than Twain, perhaps, but with a defiance just as deep and a wit just as savage. In 1854, the seventeen-year-old Harte and his younger sister boarded a ship from New York for California, to join their mother in Oakland. She had gone West the previous year, and married a rich lawyer named Andrew Williams, who later became the mayor of Oakland. The young Harte came to California for no particular purpose, and with “no better equipment,” he recalled, than an imagination fed by large quantities of books—an appetite he indulged by holing up in a small, sky lighted garret on the top floor of his stepfather’s house and reading voraciously. Like any self-respecting teenager, he refused to let anyone enter. Charles Dickens was his favorite.

He also loved Don Quixote. Like Quixote, he lived mostly in his mind. When he left Oakland to wander through northern California in the mid-1850s, he might as well have been riding through La Mancha in full regalia. He stood out. By then his fair skin had been badly scarred by smallpox, but his foppish dress and aristocratic airs were more than enough to make him a curiosity in backcountry California. A “somewhat pathetic figure,” an eyewitness reported, “a gentleman of refined tastes with no means of support.” He tutored, taught school, and, possibly, mined gold. Mostly he struggled. “He was simply untrained for doing anything that needed doing.”

He always felt his outsiderness acutely. One New Year’s Eve, while the rest of the country celebrated the coming of 1858—a year distinguished chiefly by the hardening of the political standoff that would eventually trigger the Civil War—he stayed in his room, submerged in somber reflection. He was living near Uniontown, a hamlet on Humboldt Bay a few hundred miles north of San Francisco. Here, in this unremarkable place, Harte made the most important decision of his young life. Writing in his diary, he reflected on his past and reached a firm conclusion about his future. He decided he had no choice but to “seek distinction and fortune in literature.” “I am fit for nothing else,” he wrote.

This declaration would be decisive. A decade after his humiliating first encounter, he pledged himself to the writer’s life. If he ended up like Hogarth’s poet, dead broke in a dilapidated attic, so be it: “Perhaps I may succeed—if not I at least make a trial.” He had the desire and the discipline. All he needed now was the opportunity—and it came in December 1858, when the citizens of Uniontown started a newspaper called the Northern Californian. Harte joined its staff as a printer’s apprentice. This was the same job once held by Twain; other distinguished alumni included Benjamin Franklin and Walt Whitman. The “poor boy’s college,” Franklin called it—a place where young men toiled at the dirty, tedious work of typesetting, sleeping on the shop floor, suffering the abuse of tyrannical editors, all for the opportunity to see their writing in print every so often. At twenty-two Harte had published poetry and prose in California papers, and even placed verses in a New York magazine. But the Northern Californian opened a new horizon. In its offices he learned how to build sentences the way Twain did: from the ground up, with nimbler rhythms than those taught in the classrooms of the eastern colleges. Harte’s diligence endeared him to the editor, who let him contribute odds and ends to fill the columns. And he might’ve continued doing so for years, if tragedy hadn’t intervened.

On the morning of Sunday, February 26, 1860, canoes filled with dead Indians began appearing in Uniontown. The victims numbered at least sixty and as many as two hundred. They had been hideously mutilated. They were mostly women, children, and the elderly. Some were still alive, and from the testimony of the survivors, Harte stitched together the story of what had happened. The night before, a band of white men had paddled to Indian Island, a marshy lump of land in Humboldt Bay where the peaceable Wiyots lived. Another tribe, thought to be allied with the Wiyots, had recently killed cattle belonging to white ranchers. In retaliation, the attackers murdered the Wiyots with axes and knives.

The massacre shocked Harte, and inspired his most powerful piece of writing to date. With his editor away on business, he sharpened his pen to its finest point. Uniontown preferred to shut its eyes to the slaughter. Harte’s editorial would violently pry them open:

[A] more shocking and revolting spectacle was never exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people. Old women, wrinkled and decrepit, lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbled with their long gray hair. Infants scarce a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds.

Here was the nightmarish underside of the Jeffersonian dream. America’s westward march may have invigorated its democracy, but only at the price of provoking bloody collisions with the land’s native inhabitants. In California, as elsewhere, these collisions came to be known as the “Indian Wars,” a misleading term for what was essentially an extermination campaign waged with overwhelming force. State militia and local vigilantes annihilated whole villages on daybreak raids, forced survivors onto reservations, and enslaved the children as indentured servants—a practice sanctioned under California law, despite a clause in the state constitution prohibiting slavery. Americans had often extolled the virtue of freedom while depriving other people of it, and on the Far Western frontier, this tendency was especially stark. The hypocrisy disgusted Harte. He took the unpopular view that the “white civilizer” bore responsibility for the bloodshed, and condemned the “barbarity” of “white civilization.” His moral convictions drew in part from a personal source: as the grandson of an Orthodox Jew—a fact he didn’t advertise—he felt a special affinity for members of persecuted races. And when his conscience rebelled, those who knew him only as a wallflowerish young man would witness an extraordinary transformation. In print, the lamb became a lion.

Harte’s impassioned broadside in the Northern Californian didn’t exactly delight his neighbors. The young editor’s life was “seriously threatened and in no little danger,” one friend remembered. Within the month, he fled Uniontown. The butchers of Indian Island would never be held accountable for their crimes. They were businessmen and landowners, men of standing who enjoyed the support of their community. For Harte to challenge them in so public a venue, and with such implacable prose, took backbone. People had been calling him useless his whole life. Later, they would call him worse: insincere, arrogant, cowardly—“too much of a gentleman to quarrel and too much of a lady to fight.” But the events of February 1860 proved that, under his refined exterior, Harte had as much courage as any leather-footed frontiersman.

The Indian Island massacre had one happy result: it brought Harte to San Francisco, where he ended his half decade of wandering. He arrived in the spring of 1860, and used his newly acquired typesetting skills to find a job at a newspaper. Fortunately, the city had at least fifty, and Harte landed at one of the best: the Golden Era, the most popular literary weekly on the Pacific coast. “Literary” was loosely defined: its editor, a universally beloved Long Islander named Joe Lawrence, printed everything from pulp fiction to farming intelligence. What he couldn’t harvest locally he imported from abroad, poaching large portions from eastern periodicals and pirating European novelists like Dickens—turning the absence of international copyright laws to his advantage. The Era enjoyed an immense readership, especially among miners and farmers. Their favorite section was the “Correspondents’ Column,” which published verse written by readers. Within its densely printed lines, amateurs could play at being a Browning or a Burns—a sort of literary karaoke for people whose days were spent in the least literary ways imaginable, sifting for gold in freezing rivers or tilling soil under the hot sun. Often the Era couldn’t resist poking fun at a particularly dreadful piece of work, and one suspects the column’s readers loved these snickering asides as much as the uneven efforts that occasioned them. To frontier Californians, the Era was a cherished institution. “Many times the Era has gladdened my heart amid the rude mountains of the Sierra,” wrote one rural reader, “when the whoop of the Digger-Indian, the growl of the fierce grizzly, or the screams of our emblem bird, the Eagle, were more frequent and familiar sounds than those of church bells.”

The Era could count on the rural market. But its editor wanted more urban readers—the better-heeled sort who reflected the city’s rising stature. By 1860, San Francisco had outgrown the gold rush. The makeshift houses of clapboard and canvas had given way to sturdier ones of stone and brick. The plush hotels Twain would patronize were about to be built, and in the ultrafashionable neighborhood of South Park, the wives of powerful men were serving seventeen-course dinners on teakwood tables to their corseted and crinolined guests.

Joe Lawrence hoped to capture a greater slice of this lucrative city market. To succeed, he would need new talent. Fortunately, he didn’t have to look farther than the second floor of the Era’s offices, where the young fugitive from Uniontown had recently started setting type. The twenty-three-year-old may not have been brilliant at the type case—he set too slowly—but he could certainly write. He had already contributed to the Era while living up north; now he became a regular. Lawrence, whose grandfatherly warmth endeared him to all his writers, gave Harte every encouragement. Soon he was supplying poems, stories, and sketches—within the month he even had his own weekly column. His prose grew more playful, more propulsive. It revealed a mind nourished on long rambles through the city and an omnivorous delight in its peculiar customs and characters. What made the deepest impression were the trade winds, those whistling ocean zephyrs that kept San Francisco in perpetual motion. A legend grew up that Harte set his Era pieces into type directly, without first writing them down. Regardless, Harte conquered the Era. He struck “a new and fresh and spirited note,” Twain recalled, “that rose above that orchestra’s mumbling confusion and was recognizable as music.” Before long, that music would find the ear of the most powerful woman in California, the matriarch who would pave the way for San Francisco’s literary rise.

If California were a kingdom, Jessie Benton Frémont would have been its queen. From her Gothic cottage on Black Point, a steep prominence overlooking the city’s north coast, she beheld the glittering breadth of San Francisco Bay like a sovereign surveying her realm. She loved the sea and the sky. And the sounds: the crashing surf, the fluttering sails, the plaintive warble of the fog bells. It was like living in the bow of a ship, she wrote. When she tired of the view, she took her carriage into the city—a “true city,” she remarked to a friend, with “very good opera” and “lots of private parties.” Beautiful, brilliant, and tremendously self-confident, she would’ve cut a conspicuous figure anywhere in the country. But in California she commanded special respect, on account of the two legendary men whose names she bore: Benton and Frémont.

Her father, Thomas Hart Benton, was one of the eminences of antebellum Washington, a five-term senator from Twain’s home state of Missouri. A disciple of Thomas Jefferson, Benton thundered early and often in Congress on behalf of western expansion. He acquired such an outsized reputation that the hero of Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, after seeing the statesman in the flesh for the first time, comes away disappointed that he isn’t twenty-five feet tall—“nor even anywhere in the neighborhood of it.” During his three decades in the Senate, Benton urged the construction of an overland route to the Pacific. Cutting a path across the continent would “realize the grand idea of Columbus” by opening a western passage to India, Benton believed, enriching America with the Asia trade. But he saw more than the West’s material advantages: he grasped its cultural potential as well. “The nations of Europe hold us in contempt because we are their servile copyists and imitators,” he declared, “because too many among us can see no merit in anything American but as it approaches the perfection of something European.” In the West, America could cast off the lingering influence of the Old World and blossom into a truly original civilization.

His daughter would carry this idea with her to California. Jessie inherited her father’s grit and his undying faith in the future of the Pacific coast. She also absorbed his stubbornness, a fact starkly demonstrated by her decision, at age seventeen, to elope with a handsome army officer eleven years her senior named John Charles Frémont. Once the senator’s anger subsided, and he reconciled himself to the match, he found an excellent partner in Frémont. An intrepid explorer, Frémont shared his father‑in‑law’s enthusiasm for the West. With Benton’s help, he embarked on several expeditions to the far side of the continent. He collaborated with his wife on the published reports of these journeys, crafting rip-roaring adventure stories that became hallmarks of American popular literature.

Furnished with thrilling vignettes and gorgeous scenery, Frémont’s tales created the founding myths of the Far West. They also provided a wealth of practical information for westward emigrants in the 1840s, and became an indispensable guide to those traveling overland during the gold rush. Frémont himself was hailed as a national hero, known to Americans everywhere as the Pathfinder, after James Fenimore Cooper’s frontier novel of the same name. A consummate self-promoter, Frémont won many symbolic victories, but relatively few real ones. On the eve of the Mexican-American War in 1846, he waved the Stars and Stripes within sight of the Mexican garrison at Monterey before retreating. A decade later, he ran for president as the Republican Party’s first candidate, and lost. He never made much of a scientist, soldier, or politician; but as a storyteller, as a forger of useful fictions, he went a long way toward fulfilling Benton’s fantasy of a peopled, prosperous West.

One can imagine Harte’s reaction when, one day in 1860, he heard that the Pathfinder’s wife wanted to meet him. He hadn’t been in the city a year and was already rocketing into the upper reaches of California society. She had enjoyed his Era pieces, and requested his presence at her parlor at Black Point. He swallowed his social anxiety and accepted. He came on a Sunday, his only free day, and on many Sundays after that, with his manuscripts under his arm. “I have taken a young author to pet,” Jessie confided in a letter. A gardener, she liked watching things grow. Now she had something new to nurture: a writer who, with the proper pruning, might redeem the promise of her father’s beloved West.

As 1860 ground on to its catastrophic conclusion, with the election of Abraham Lincoln in November and the secession of South Carolina the following month, the mood at Black Point turned grim. For the Frémonts and their Republican abolitionist friends, the coming crisis marked the final breaking point after decades of deadlock over slavery. They feared for the Union’s future, yet welcomed a struggle that would purify it of its founding sin. In the chaos of early 1861, as one Southern state after another seceded, Jessie mobilized to ensure California would remain steadfast. She enlisted another of her protégés to lead the crusade: Thomas Starr King, the Unitarian minister. In places like Missouri, the struggle over secession would be fought with guns. In California, it would be fought with words: in the pages of its newspapers and in the populist theater of its streets and saloons and tree stumps. “I do not measure enough inches around the chest to go for a soldier,” King told Jessie, “but I see the way to make this fight.” At her urging, he transformed himself from a slight, sickly preacher into a fiery evangelist for the Union cause. He gave Californians what they wanted: rhetorical fusillades to inflame them, bursts of wit to buoy them, and a vision of divine righteousness every bit as riveting as their favorite entertainments.

Harte, too, answered the call. The moral clarity of the moment exhilarated him. He made an American flag out of flannel, which he flew proudly from his house. He wrote patriotic poems, which King read aloud at pro-Union speeches throughout the state: stirring songs of battle feverish with “patriot pride” and “clashing steel.” Together the two men made a good team. King understood poetry. At the height of the Civil War, he gave lectures on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and other living legends of American letters. A product of New England, King knew many of these luminaries personally, and persuaded them to contribute original verses, which he then delivered to crowds of enraptured Californians. To be honored by these distinguished men, whose volumes graced their shelves, whose poems they memorized and recited as solemnly as Scripture, made westerners swell with pride. It served King’s purposes brilliantly. “The state must be Northernized thoroughly, by schools, Atlantic Monthlies, lectures, N. E. preachers,” he wrote James T. Fields, the editor of the nation’s most powerful literary periodical, the Atlantic Monthly. These would build an unshakable foundation for national unity, King believed, and help realize the region’s potential. In his sermons he praised the natural beauty of the Far West, and urged Californians to create inner landscapes as majestic as the ones outside. He exhorted them to build “Yosemites in the soul.” Like Benton before him, he prophesied not merely a prosperous future but a transcendent one. When King told Californians they belonged to America, they listened. When he told them that they, too, could create great literature, they believed.

This revelation struck one young girl more literally than most. On her way home from school, she crept into a shaded street to escape the Los Angeles sun. It was midsummer, and the heat made the pepper trees sink toward the ground. A gust of wind brought a torn scrap of newsprint fluttering to her feet. On the paper she found lines of poetry, and far more powerful than the verses themselves was the staggering realization that they had been written by a Californian: Edward Pollock, a popular poet of the pioneer days. The girl adored poetry, but always considered it something “wonderful and apart.” She never imagined it could be created in California.

In later life, Ina Coolbrith would date her literary awakening to this moment. Rhyme came naturally to her, she discovered. Her face breathed poetry through every pore, from the melancholy eyes to the teasing mouth, an expression too enigmatic to unscramble but inexhaustibly interesting. “Her whole life has been a poem,” a fellow poet said. Sometimes it strode with epic strokes; other times it skipped lightly along like a limerick. But its dominant key was what Sappho, the ancient Greek poet, called glukupikron: “sweet-bitter,” the intermingling of love and loss—in Coolbrith’s words, “half rapture and half pain.”

Her first memories were those of mourning. She was too young to remember the funeral for her father, who died five months after she was born in 1841. But she remembered that of her sister, held when Ina was two. Death pervaded her childhood—not only in the form of illnesses and accidents but through violence of the most vicious kind. Her uncle was Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. Fourteen years before Ina’s birth, he claimed to have found a set of golden plates engraved with the writings of ancient Israelites who had sailed to America centuries before Christ. Translated and transcribed, this text became the Book of Mormon—“chloroform in print,” Twain yawned, ridiculing its cumbersome prose. Mormonism faced more than just mockery, however. Smith’s disciples suffered brutal persecution, driven from one town after another. When Ina was three, her uncle died in an Illinois jail, murdered by a mob. Ina’s father had embraced his brother’s teachings but her mother’s faith faltered as the anti-Mormon atrocities grew worse. In 1846, she married a non-Mormon named William Pickett and left the church. She promised her husband to conceal her past and instructed her children to do the same.

A dark secret: for Ina, now in her fifth year, it would be the first of several. In 1851, her stepfather led the family West. He had read reports of gold in California and, after waiting for the spring grass to grow tall enough for the oxen to eat, piled his wife and children into a covered wagon and wheeled off across the plains. The young girl loved the colors of the landscape: what Twain, who made the trip a decade later, called the “world-wide carpet” of the plains, blooming in all directions. She hated fording rivers. The wagons crossed by raft, while the oxen swam. The weaker animals didn’t have the strength to struggle through the current and, swept downstream, they drowned while Ina watched helplessly from the shore. The memory tormented her forever.

At the foot of the Sierra Nevada came the most picturesque portion of the journey. The family met Jim Beckwourth, a freed slave turned Crow chieftain and a renowned mountain man. Ina remembered him in dazzlingly romantic hues: “one of the most beautiful creatures that ever lived,” she wrote. He wore his hair in two long braids, tied with colored string, and rode without a saddle. He had recently discovered a path through the Sierras—the Beckwourth Pass, a popular early trail—and wanted Ina and her sisters to be the first white children to cross it. “Here is California, little girls,” he said when they came within sight of the other side, “here is your kingdom.”

Or so Ina remembered almost eighty years later. In memory, her life acquired a more poetic coloring. But it was an adventurous childhood by any measure. The family settled in Los Angeles in 1855. A town of about two thousand, its adobe-lined streets had changed little since its pueblo days. A wondrous and terrifying place, it boasted beautiful orange orchards and one of the worst murder rates in the country. Cowboys, crooks, and gamblers staged frequent shoot-outs. Racial animosity between Mexicans and Americans ran high. Lynchings were common. A minister from Massachusetts who arrived the same year as Ina tallied ten murders in his first two weeks. In his diary he recorded the sounds of an average Sabbath: children crying, dogs barking, men fighting and betting and blaspheming. “[T]his is nominally a christian town,” he wrote, “but in reality heathen.”

Yet there was another Los Angeles, to which Ina belonged. The old Californio families of Spanish Mexican descent who once ruled the region—the Sepulvedas, the Figueroas, the Picos—held glorious fiestas. The girl who crossed the continent in a covered wagon had grown into a glamorous woman, and she became a radiant fixture of local society. She also found fame as a poet, after publishing her first verses at fifteen in the Los Angeles Star. Her poetry oozed with trite sentiment—“a sorrow dwells in my young heart,” read a typical line—but it made her a cherished figure in Los Angeles’ tiny literary scene. Fortunately, the poet was nowhere near as gloomy as her verse. Her neighbors recalled a “warm, rich personality gladdening all about her.” She sang, danced, and flirted. At seventeen, she fell in love.

In 1858, a Californian named Robert Carsley scored the crowning victory of an otherwise undistinguished life by persuading the pretty, popular poet—already hailed in newsprint as “a young girl of genius” with “an enviable reputation”—to marry him. He earned a living as an ironworker, and occasionally blacked his face with burnt cork to play in minstrel shows. On October 12, 1861, he returned from one such performance in San Francisco suffering from a murderous fit of paranoia. He accused his wife of imagined infidelities and called her a whore. Deranged with jealousy, he tried to kill her and her mother, and nearly succeeded. Luckily Ina’s stepfather intervened, shooting Carsley in the hand, which had to be amputated. The divorce trial that followed only added to Ina’s humiliation. Once the darling of Los Angeles, she had become another victim of its violence. Once an object of admiration, she now inspired pity.

Worse, she suffered another tragedy, one too painful for her to reveal. The details are obscure, but her relatives would divulge the secret long after her death: she gave birth to a child who died. A poem she published in 1865 called “The Mother’s Grief” comes closest to expressing her anguish at the loss. She sees her “pretty babe” playing in an open door, trying to grab a beam of sunlight lying on the sill. Then she faces the shattering fact of his absence:

Today no shafts of golden flame

Across the sill are lying

Today I call my baby’s name,

And hear no lisped replying.

Tragedy changed her. It bred a depressive streak that tempered the wilder impulses of her girlhood, made her reticent, yet also unusually solicitous toward people in pain. She loved Lord Byron, and her ordeal made her more Byronic: an outcast with a secret past. “Only twenty, and my world turned to dust,” she later wrote. Like Byron, she went into exile, embarking for San Francisco in 1862. Her family decided to join her.

She became Ina Donna Coolbrith, taking her mother’s maiden name. She buried her history and started over. Californians often reinvented themselves. “Some of the best men had the worst antecedents,” Harte observed, “some of the worst rejoiced in a spotless puritan pedigree.” Still, her past lingered. She made friends slowly and returned to verse only haltingly. She found work as an English teacher and helped her mother around the house. The change of scenery couldn’t heal her grief, yet San Francisco supplied an endless stream of distractions. She read the Golden Era every week. She plundered the shelves of the Mercantile Library. On November 4, 1862, she saw Thomas Starr King speak for the first time, at a benefit for families of Union army volunteers. The occasion wasn’t exactly somber: it featured fortune-tellers and “gipsy tents” and tableaux vivants. During his opening address, King read the poetry of his friend Bret Harte, as he often did—a writer Coolbrith had been hearing about since her arrival. Harte’s pleas for national renewal couldn’t fail to connect. America was being reborn: Coolbrith was ripe for a similar renaissance.

That fall, the Unitarian minister could be seen all over town. Thomas Starr King was in perpetual motion, this erudite Bostonian who skewered Copperheads and quoted Seneca and spoke of California as the new Canaan. Jessie Benton Frémont had departed the previous year, after Lincoln summoned her husband to St. Louis to take command of the army’s Department of the West. Now the burden of waging the propaganda war dreamed up in her parlor at Black Point rested on King’s narrow shoulders—and his exertions had begun to take their toll. “I have worked the last eighteen months, within an inch of my life, in speaking, preaching, orationizing, travelling, organizing,” he wrote in October 1862. Yet somehow he still found time to read the Golden Era closely enough to notice a new contributor whose poetry pleased him—Pip Pepperpod, the pixieish pen name of a nineteen-year-old bookstore clerk named Charles Warren Stoddard.

Chileon Beach’s shop on Montgomery Street sold mostly religious books and Bibles. Inside, its clerk was constantly dusting. Not because he cared much for cleanliness, but because the monotony of the motion made it easier for his mind to wander. As he sank deeper into his daydream, the feather duster in his hands became a palm tree. He longed for the tropics. He had fallen in love with them eight years earlier, while crossing Nicaragua on his way to California. He remembered the syrupy taste of the oranges and the mist that sprayed when he broke their skin. He remembered the bright plumage of the birds, flickering against the relentless green of the jungle. Most of all he remembered the natives, who adorned their nearly naked bodies with necklaces and wreaths.

One day, California’s most famous preacher appeared in the doorway, cutting Stoddard’s reveries short. Celebrities had been in the shop before, but never one whom Stoddard held in such high esteem. “In my youth I was a hero worshipper,” he later wrote, “and Thomas Starr King seemed to me the most heroic of them all.” After a probing glance at the trembling clerk, King drew a scrap of newspaper from his pocket. “Did you write those lines?” he asked, pointing to his “Pip Pepperpod” poems. Stoddard said he did. The minister responded by reading them aloud—a voice perfect for poetry, rendering the verses as artfully as he did Harte’s. He added words of encouragement to his favorite lines, and invited Stoddard to visit him with more work. He also presented tickets to his upcoming lecture series on American poetry, where he would be discussing those distinguished New Englanders whom Stoddard had read as a schoolboy. Then he vanished. “I was left speechless with wonder and delight,” Stoddard recalled.

At first glance, the young poet might’ve reminded King of Harte. Both were slender and delicately built; both had large, expressive eyes—not unlike King himself. But Harte wrote painstakingly, while Stoddard’s penmanship spilled merrily down the page, often illegible, the spelling atrocious. Harte kept most people at a distance; Stoddard held on to them for dear life. Stoddard was deeply lovable; Harte was not.

What people loved best about Stoddard was his vulnerability. His yearning for success, his dread of failure, the pain he felt when criticized and the pleasure he felt when praised—these are the emotional undertow of any writer’s life, and he experienced them more openly than most. Twain concealed his insecurities with bravado and wit. Harte hid behind a fastidious exterior and a hermetic home life. Coolbrith remained guarded after her recent trauma. Yet Stoddard aired his passions in public—and they all loved him for it. This was the true source of what Coolbrith would call his “invincible charm,” the all-conquering warmth that made people lower their defenses. They saw their struggles reflected in Stoddard’s childlike face.

There would always be one part of his personality they couldn’t possibly understand, however: his homosexuality. Like Harte, he endured abuse from schoolyard bullies because he looked too feminine. Unlike Harte, he pursued close relationships with certain boys for whom he felt an especially deep devotion. These “chums” and “pals” rarely reciprocated his affections, and as a child he came to expect their rejection, even to take a kind of pleasure in it. He loved being in love—“The Love Man,” Jack London christened him many years later. Yet for someone who found solace in the written word, he lived in a world with no words for what he was, where gay love was not only forbidden but invisible—enciphered in metaphor, perhaps, but never plainly discussed. The term “homosexual” didn’t appear in print until 1869, in a pair of anonymous pamphlets written by an Austro-Hungarian journalist. Later, Stoddard would be relieved to discover Walt Whitman, whose “Calamus” poems in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass offered a thinly veiled celebration of same-sex love. When Whitman wrote of “the pensive aching to be together,” Stoddard knew precisely what he meant.

Stoddard first came to San Francisco in 1855, at age eleven. His father had found a job at a merchant firm, and the rest of the family went West to join him. Stoddard loved the city’s extravagance: “a natural tendency to overdress, to over-decorate, to overdo almost everything,” he wrote. The gambling houses beckoned: in their lush interiors he discovered “enchanting music” and “beautiful women in bewildering attire.” Sin surrounded him. Just a few blocks from his family’s home had been the city’s most notorious district, Sydney-Town, where many enterprising Australians lived, peddling sex and liquor. In May 1856, the murder of a newspaper editor triggered a vigilante uprising that came down hard on the neighborhood. The vigilantes lynched the killer, James Casey, along with another infamous character named Charles Cora, who had murdered a US marshal. Stoddard remembered seeing a pair of black-hooded figures with nooses around their necks, swinging into space.

A year later Stoddard’s brother Ned fell ill, and a doctor recommended a long sea voyage. So Ned took a clipper ship around Cape Horn, and Stoddard tagged along to keep him company. On arriving in the East, they stayed at their grandfather’s farm in western New York. Ned soon returned to San Francisco, leaving Stoddard at the mercy of their grandfather, a man whose infinite capacity for cruelty was rooted in a particularly grim Presbyterianism. He terrified his grandson with visions of God’s vengeance and, on one grisly occasion, took him to a funeral for a boy his age, in the belief that seeing the corpse would cause him to find religion.

In California, the world had looked brighter. Stoddard couldn’t wait to get back. Finally, his father sent money for his fare and he fled New York, returning to San Francisco in 1859. The city had grown in his absence. Thirteen thousand people arrived in that year alone. The gamblers and prostitutes were still there, but the new civic mood had forced them to become more discreet. Commerce, not vice, now reigned supreme. There were fourteen gristmills, eighteen breweries, nineteen foundries, eighty-four restaurants, seventeen banks, and one sugar refinery. New neighborhoods had sprung up on land once occupied by sand hills.

The fast-growing city kindled Stoddard’s imagination. Its many newspapers offered a way to put his mind-pictures into print. The Golden Era was “the cradle and the grave of many a high hope,” he wrote: not only for those backcountry bards scrambling to break into the “Correspondents’ Column” but for the young urban aspirants who increasingly filled its pages. Stoddard didn’t start contributing until September 1862. “No member of my family suspected that I was so bold as to dream of entering the circle of the elect who wrote regularly every week for the chief literary organ west of the Rocky Mountains,” he recalled. He came up with a pseudonym to conceal his identity—“ Pip” for the hero of Dickens’s Great Expectations, “Pepperpod” for its alliterative sound—and set off for the Era’s offices on Clay Street. His heart beat frantically. He passed the mailbox at the door of the Era several times without pausing. He waited until he couldn’t see a single pedestrian on either side of the street. Then he sprinted to the box, slipped his envelope through the slot, and ran away in a cold sweat.

After this harrowing initiation, he became an Era regular. Under King’s guidance, his style improved. “It is because you have strong powers and good capacities that I speak of blemishes more than excellences,” the minister wrote his protege. He used his pencil like a scalpel, trying to toughen the timid young dream-builder into a more mature poet like Harte. He even encouraged Stoddard to return to school. The discipline would do him good, King insisted. So Stoddard submitted, entering City College in early 1863. An indifferent student, he had trouble concentrating. He fell victim to a range of extracurricular temptations, and soon found that “city life in combination with City College” didn’t suit him. When the semester ended in May, he dropped out.

If Stoddard proved especially prone to distraction, San Francisco in the spring and summer of 1863 was an especially distracting place. On the Montgomery Street promenade, Mark Twain could be seen visiting from Washoe, shaking alkali dust from the folds of his flannel, telling meandering stories in his signature drawl. In the dining hall of the Lick House, directly across from Stoddard’s old bookshop, he guzzled champagne. One evening he attended a party at the hotel, and penned a report for the Territorial Enterprise on the ladies’ outfits. “Miss A. H.” wore a scarf “garnished with ruches, and radishes and things,” her hair held together by a “wreath of sardines on a string.” Another lady’s coiffure featured greenbacks. “The effect was very rich, partly owing to the market value of the material.”

While Twain thumbed his nose at the intricacies of urban couture, another high-profile personality embraced them. Bret Harte presented a very different silhouette to the spectators on Montgomery. He dressed as formidably as might be expected of the city’s fastest-rising literary star: a friend to King and the now-gone Mrs. Frémont, and a featured contributor to the Era. He could be seen shuttling between his office at the US Mint and the Era’s editorial sanctum one block away, where Joe Lawrence presided over a growing stable of brilliant young talent.

Lawrence’s hopes for a more metropolitan Era were succeeding beyond his wildest dreams. In his sumptuously furnished offices—“simply palatial,” in one visitor’s memory—he oversaw the most varied gathering of writers the city had ever seen. Seated cross-legged in his chair, he looked a bit like Santa Claus, with his flowing beard and meerschaum pipe. His cheerful disposition aided the resemblance, as did his openhanded generosity, plying potential contributors with kindness and cocktails at the Lick House bar.

By the summer of 1863, Lawrence had built the Era into the flagship of the city’s flowering literary scene. Harte and Stoddard both wrote regularly. Twain, who had just become the Morning Call’s Washoe correspondent, would soon join them. On June 7, the paper added another young writer to its roster: “Ina.” More than a year since leaving Los Angeles, Coolbrith had mustered the courage to make her Era debut. Her poem “June” sang of a sun-soaked summer landscape alive with birds and squirrels and flowers.

No matter that a San Francisco summer brought mostly fog—the seasons of the heart were Coolbrith’s true subject. After a long winter, she was ready to bloom. The same could be said of California. Bolstered by a steady stream of silver from the Comstock Lode in Nevada and the invigorating economic effects of the Civil War, the Pacific coast soared. Only a decade and a half earlier, the gold rush pioneers had imported everything. They lit their lamps with gas produced from Australian coal and chilled their liquor with Alaskan ice. They bought their flour from abroad, despite living near some of the country’s most fertile valleys. They were in a rush to get rich, and couldn’t be bothered with posterity. By the 1860s, however, California had learned to grow its own crops, and was busy building its own industries. Now, in the pages of the Era, it had begun creating its own culture.

Harte led the charge. He didn’t swing a hatchet like Whitman’s “tan-faced” pioneer, yet he staked out a literary region as rich as any riverbed. For his Era columns, which he started writing in 1860, he created a new personality for himself called “the Bohemian.” Just as “Mark Twain” enabled Samuel Clemens to scrap his impulses toward respectability and cultivate a bad-boy image, the Bohemian enabled a mild-mannered clerk to moonlight as a literary vagrant. The Bohemian drifted through the city, visiting fairs, balls, theaters, hotels—anywhere the “street music” played at a lusty pitch. In unsparingly ironic prose, he showed Californians to be sillier, stupider, and generally more human than they considered themselves. He cracked a few memorable quips: “There are moments when quiet, timid, inoffensive young men like myself are led to feel acute regret that they have not at some period of their existence dipped their hands in human gore.”

Harte made an unlikely Bohemian. The word referred to a tribe of penniless artists seen around the seedier districts of Paris and New York. They drank to excess, contracted venereal diseases. They shivered to death in drafty garrets, toiling over masterpieces that would never be printed. But in Harte’s hands, “Bohemia” became more than just a byword for wild living. It came to represent a creative alternative to the mundane and the mercenary in American life, a way to overcome California’s crude materialism and fulfill Thomas Starr King’s call to build Yosemites in the soul. “Bohemia has never been located geographically,” Harte wrote, “but any clear day when the sun is going down, if you mount Telegraph Hill, you shall see its pleasant valleys and cloud-capped hills glittering in the West like the Spanish castles of Titbottom.”

To the young writers of the Era, Bohemia offered a home, albeit an imaginary one. Harte, Twain, Coolbrith, and Stoddard differed widely in lifestyle and literary technique. In 1863, their paths were about to intersect. Under the banner of Bohemia, these four writers competed, collaborated, traded counsel and criticism. Some remained friends their entire lives. Others became bitter enemies. What connected them was their contempt for custom, their restlessness with received wisdom. They belonged to Bohemia because they didn’t belong anywhere else.

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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.