The BohemiansMy new book is out!

You can watch the trailer, read an excerpt, or buy it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, IndieBound, or iTunes.

You can also read my piece about Twain’s humor for Lapham’s Quarterly, get my take on Twain’s stand-up comedy career for Salon, explore the sordid history of anti-Chinese racism in California over at Politico, marinate in my musings for The Daily Beast on Twain as a role model for writers, or peruse my Reddit AMA.

I’ll be doing events in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, Reno, Washington DC, and Boston. Take a look at the speaking calendar below for the dates.

Here’s what people have said about the book so far:

San Francisco Chronicle:

“Tarnoff breathes fresh life into his narrative with vivid details from the archives… giving us a rich portrait of a lost world overflowing with new wealth and new talent… [A] stylish and fast-paced literary history.”

The Oregonian:

“Deftly written, wholly absorbing.”

Chicago Tribune:

“Engrossing… By skillfully tracking the friendships and fortunes of this unusual quartet, Tarnoff narrates the awakening of a powerful new sensibility in American literature… Tarnoff powerfully evokes the western landscapes, local cultures and youthful friendships that helped shape Twain. He has a talent for selecting details that animate the past.”

Wall Street Journal:

“Rich hauls of historical research, deeply excavated but lightly borne… Mr. Tarnoff’s ultimate thesis is a strong one, strongly expressed: that together these writers ‘helped pry American literature away from its provincial origins in New England and push it into a broader current.’”

Boston Globe:

“Delightful… Adeptly wrapping a wonderful story around these young writers, Tarnoff glides smoothly along, never dwelling too long and never claiming too much. He stacks fifty pages of endnotes at the back of the book but such archival sweat doesn’t show in the prose.”

Washington Post:

“Tarnoff is a good storyteller and character-portraitist, with a deep knowledge of the West Coast.”

The New Yorker:

“Tarnoff’s book sings with the humor and expansiveness of his subjects’ prose, capturing the intoxicating atmosphere of possibility that defined, for a time, America’s frontier.”

Minneapolis Star Tribune:

“Meticulously researched and exhilarating… Twain may be the main draw of Tarnoff’s book, but Tarnoff’s writing about a few of Twain’s contemporaries — Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, Ina Coolbrith — is just as engaging. ”

Kansas City Star:

“Tarnoff successfully contributes to the compendium [of Twain scholarship] with a fresh take on Twain’s San Francisco circle, which was akin to the Algonquin Roundtable in Manhattan or ‘Lost Generation’ of writers in Paris.”

The Daily Beast:

“Lively… Tarnoff draws a vivid contrast between sardonic, sophisticated, and sartorially dapper [Bret] Harte, San Francisco’s literary star, and the unkempt, uncouth Mark Twain who rolled into town in 1863, a scuffling newspaperman looking to move on and up from provincial Virginia City, Nevada.”

Publishers Weekly:

“Tarnoff’s glimmering prose lends grandeur to this account of four writers (Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Ina Coolbrith) who built ‘an extraordinary literary scene’ in the frontier boom town of 1860s San Francisco….The lively historical detail and loving tone of the interwoven biographies make a highly readable story of this formative time in American letters, starring San Francisco as the city that lifted ‘Twain to literary greatness.’”


“Tarnoff energetically portrays this irresistible quartet within a vital historical setting, tracking the controversies they sparked and the struggles they endured, bringing forward an underappreciated facet of American literature. We see Twain in a revealing new light, but most affecting are Tarnoff’s insights into Harte’s ‘downward spiral,’ Stoddard’s faltering, and persevering Coolbrith’s triumph as California’s first poet laureate.”

Speaking Calendar

April 1, 7pm. City Lights Books. 261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, California.
April 2, 6pm. Commonwealth Club of California. 595 Market Street, Second Floor, San Francisco, California. Note: this is a ticketed event.
April 3, 7pm. Book Passage. 51 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera, California.
April 8, 7pm. Books Inc. 1760 4th Street, Berkeley, California.
April 10, 7pm. Politics & Prose. 5015 Connecticut Ave, NW, Washington, DC.
April 16, 7pm. Harvard Bookstore. 1256 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
April 23, 7pm. Time Tested Books. 1114 21st Street, Sacramento, California.
April 24, 6:30pm. Sundance Books. 121 California Ave, Reno, Nevada.
May 6, noon. Boston Athenaeum. 10 1/2 Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts.


At first glance, Ambrose Bierce didn’t look like a coldblooded verbal killer. He was tall and handsome and scrupulously groomed. He had babyishly smooth cheeks, and a cherubic mop of golden hair. He excelled as a conversationalist, drinking buddy, and womanizer. Beneath this charismatic façade, however, was nineteenth-century America’s greatest insult artist, a writer who produced some of the most vicious prose in the history of the English language.

Read the rest at Lapham Quarterly’s Roundtable blog.


The latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly is on Comedy, and it includes an essay I wrote about the short story that made Mark Twain famous: a bizarre yarn about a jumping frog.

On November 18, 1865, the New York Saturday Press published a short sketch called “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” about a frog-jumping contest in rural California. It “set all New York in a roar,” reported one journalist, and soon went viral, reprinted in papers from San Francisco to Memphis. The story’s author was Mark Twain, the pseudonym of a twenty-nine-year-old writer born Samuel Clemens. At the time, Twain was living in California, enjoying provincial renown as a Western humorist. The success of “Jim Smiley” made him nationally famous. “No reputation was ever more rapidly won,” observed the New York Tribune.

Twain’s stature quickly grew. Within a decade, he would publish his bestselling book The Innocents Abroad, perform to sold-out audiences at home and overseas, and build a mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, staffed with servants and outfitted with indulgences like a telephone, a billiard table, and a battery-powered burglar alarm. By the time of his death in 1910, he had become a legend—“the Lincoln of our literature,” in the words of Twain’s friend the author and critic William Dean Howells—and in the century since, he has been hailed by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Norman Mailer as the father of modern American fiction.

Read the rest at Lapham’s Quarterly.