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Mark Twain in San Francisco and the Reinvention of American Literature

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Mark Twain in the lab of Nikola Tesla, spring of 1894. Mark Twain in the lab of Nikola Tesla, spring of 1894. (Courtesy of Wikipedia/Wikipedia Commons)

Mark Twain arrived in San Francisco in 1863, fleeing the draft and seeking adventure. In California he found that the economy booming, newspapers and magazines thriving, and promise of the transcontinental railroad soon to become a reality. Ben Tarnoff tells how Twain connected with the city’s Bohemian writers. But as these San Francisco writers were drawing attention from eastern taste makers such as the Atlantic Monthly, Twain was floundering, questioning whether he should be a writer at all. Tarnoff is the author of The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature.

 

Guests:

Ben Tarnoff

Comments [3]

Peter R. Talbot from Harrison, NJ

Ward, Harte and Twain were distinguished from their east coast humorist peers in one major way: they made more money (and more impact) as speakers on the newly minted Lyceum circuits (theatre opens at 7:30, trouble beings at 8:00), where they (a) didn't have to cut their encomiums to three paragraphs as space filler and (b) got to take a much larger portion of the gate than any modern entertainer. If willing to work the mining camp circuits (as they all did), and if not pressed to pay for too much after-hours rotgut for their audiences, they could and did make respectable livings for a while. Additionally, they got to talk about "Americans" as opposed to immigrants (which made such admirable fodder for Dunne/Mr. Dooley), and could speak (however elliptically) with Southern sympathy without necessarily insulting the bloody shirted GOP stalwarts that still ruled their venues. Interestingly, when they wrote about the Chinese (as Harte and Twain both tried to do), strong censorship and public antagonism quieted them in a fearful hurry. Only the much later "dark" Twain would dare defy public opinion, long after his productive writing days were a memory. As "Americans" (lauded by publishers with an ideological agenda like Howells and Reid), they gave a written exemplar of intelligent "taste" (if not moral refinement) that was welcome to the nouveau riche and self aggrandizing money in New York (where taste was always bought and sold most dearly). By reflecting a false and sometimes cloying innocence back to a people who loved humbug better than anything, they provided a great emotional cover to the rapacity that swept young men up in the less than Gilded Age. Interestingly, other humorists (notably, Petroleum V. Nasby) that concentrated their satire on the new capitalists are not as well remembered now despite that they were as much or more "in vogue" at the time.

Aug. 13 2014 01:29 PM
Peter R. Talbot from Harrison, NJ

Ward, Harte and Twain were distinguished from their east coast humorist peers in one major way: they made more money (and more impact) as speakers on the newly minted Lyceum circuits (theatre opens at 7:30, trouble beings at 8:00), where they (a) didn't have to cut their encomiums to three paragraphs as space filler and (b) got to take a much larger portion of the gate than any modern entertainer. If willing to work the mining camp circuits (as they all did), and if not pressed to pay for too much after-hours rotgut for their audiences, they could and did make respectable livings for a while. Additionally, they got to talk about "Americans" as opposed to immigrants (which made such admirable fodder for Dunne/Mr. Dooley), and could speak (however elliptically) with Southern sympathy without necessarily insulting the bloody shirted GOP stalwarts that still ruled their venues. Interestingly, when they wrote about the Chinese (as Harte and Twain both tried to do), strong censorship and public antagonism quieted them in a fearful hurry. Only the much later "dark" Twain would dare defy public opinion, long after his productive writing days were a memory. As "Americans" (lauded by publishers with an ideological agenda like Howells and Reid), they gave a written exemplar of intelligent "taste" (if not moral refinement) that was welcome to the nouveau riche and self aggrandizing money in New York (where taste was always bought and sold most dearly). By reflecting a false and sometimes cloying innocence back to a people who loved humbug better than anything, they provided a great emotional cover to the rapacity that swept young men up in the less than Gilded Age. Interestingly, other humorists (notably, Petroleum V. Nasby) that concentrated their satire on the new capitalists are not as well remembered now despite that they were as much or more "in vogue" at the time.

Aug. 13 2014 01:27 PM
Peter R. Talbot from Harrison, NJ

Ward, Harte and Twain were distinguished from their east coast humorist peers in one major way: they made more money (and more impact) as speakers on the newly minted Lyceum circuits (theatre opens at 7:30, trouble beings at 8:00), where they (a) didn't have to cut their encomiums to three paragraphs as space filler and (b) got to take a much larger portion of the gate than any modern entertainer. If willing to work the mining camp circuits (as they all did), and if not pressed to pay for too much after-hours rotgut for their audiences, they could and did make respectable livings for a while. Additionally, they got to talk about "Americans" as opposed to immigrants (which made such admirable fodder for Dunne/Mr. Dooley), and could speak (however elliptically) with Southern sympathy without necessarily insulting the bloody shirted GOP stalwarts that still ruled their venues. Interestingly, when they wrote about the Chinese (as Harte and Twain both tried to do), strong censorship and public antagonism quieted them in a fearful hurry. Only the much later "dark" Twain would dare defy public opinion, long after his productive writing days were a memory. As "Americans" (lauded by publishers with an ideological agenda like Howells and Reid), they gave a written exemplar of intelligent "taste" (if not moral refinement) that was welcome to the nouveau riche and self aggrandizing money in New York (where taste was always bought and sold most dearly). By reflecting a false and sometimes cloying innocence back to a people who loved humbug better than anything, they provided a great emotional cover to the rapacity that swept young men up in the less than Gilded Age. Interestingly, other humorists (notably, Petroleum V. Nasby) that concentrated their satire on the new capitalists are not as well remembered now despite that they were as much or more "in vogue" at the time.

Aug. 13 2014 01:27 PM

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