The Last Frontier: On Ben Tarnoff’s “The Bohemians”

History, Nonfiction No Comments »

thebohemiansBy June Sawyers

When Mark Twain arrived during the waning days of the Gold Rush, San Francisco may have been a frontier city on the rough edge of American life, but it was also fast becoming a literary town with a strong bohemian flavor.

For Twain, it was love at first sight: the Missourian was smitten by the city as soon as he set eyes on it. He loved its rowdy atmosphere, its unpredictability, the feeling that anything could happen here. Twain (still using his given name Samuel Clemens) arrived in San Francisco in 1863, while the Civil War was still raging. Although only twenty-seven, he had already lived a life full of adventure, from piloting steamboats on the mighty Mississippi to wandering through Missouri with Confederate guerrillas.

Twain is one of the four Bohemians in this compelling group portrait by writer Ben Tarnoff. Twain is the best known member by far, but the true leader of the faction, the true literary spokesman of bohemian San Francisco, was Bret Harte, a shy, soft-spoken dandy originally from Albany, New York. The other Bohemians were two now largely obscure figures, author and editor Charles Warren Stoddard and poet Ina Coolbrith. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams” by Mark Dery

Book Reviews, Essays, Nonfiction No Comments »


In the classic TV series “The Honeymooners, ” sewer worker Norton (Art Carney) has taken up bird watching and, with binoculars around his neck, shares a park bench with his friend, the bus driver Kramden (Jackie Gleason). Kramden wants to know why anyone would take up bird watching.

“Why shouldn’t we watch birds?” Norton responds. “They watch us, don’t they?”

Norton spots—“by Jove!”—a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and remarks they’ve never been seen in New York. He starts making a note for the birding society. Kramden asks sneeringly, What makes you think they’re going to believe you?

Hmmm. Norton writes and recites: “Bird seen: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker,” then with a wink, “Place seen:..” (pause) “Albuquerque, New Mexico”! Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Grant’s Final Victory” by Charles Bracelen Flood

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Ulysses S. Grant earned applause in the North for his generalship during the Civil War, and even the deep respect of former enemies because of his generosity at the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his hard-fighting, haggard veterans at Appomattox, Virginia.

But the great military hero had no head for business, as he had proven in civilian life between the Mexican and Civil Wars, and again as U.S. President from 1869-1877, in an administration rent by corruption in which he had no hand but which occurred on his watch.

Nonetheless, after years of post-presidential financial uncertainty, he had every reason to believe that he had finally secured a large, comfortable nest egg for his retirement with his beloved wife, Julia. Partner in the apparently successful investment firm Grant & Ward, he went to bed one night in May 1884 thinking himself a near-millionaire only to awaken to find his accounts gutted and himself penniless. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Lincoln in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates” Edited by Harold K. Bush, Jr.

Biography, Essays, History, Nonfiction No Comments »


Harold K. Bush, Jr.’s “Lincoln in His Own Time” is a graceful, worthy addition to the already-massive wealth of Lincolniana. It brings a valuable perspective and literary flavor to a table already yawning with historical fare. At a well-organized just-under-300-pages, it is an accessible ying to the yang of Michael Burlingame’s recent exhaustive, 2000-page “Abraham Lincoln: A Life.”

Bush is an English professor at Saint Louis University, and his particular strength is in identifying and reproducing selections that, in addition to humanizing Lincoln, have literary interest. The collection includes several pieces almost lost to modern readers that are enhanced by the editor’s extensive introduction and knowledgeable prefatory notes. Read the rest of this entry »

Twain Town: Samuel Clemens in Chicago

Author Profiles, Biography, History No Comments »

Illustration: Donovan Foote

By Martin Northway

A confluence of anniversaries has brought Mark Twain into public consciousness this year, an apt time to recall that America’s greatest author—born and reared in neighboring Missouri—was a pretty frequent visitor to Chicago.

Further, one of the best-traveled Americans of his time—perhaps our nation’s first international celebrity—spent one of the most important evenings of his life here.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was welcomed by his Virginia- and Kentucky-native parents in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835. Born during the transit of Halley’s Comet, he died 74 years later upon its return. Thus 2010 marks not just the 175th anniversary of his birth but the 100th anniversary of his death.

Coinciding with these events, the University of California Press is releasing the first of three volumes of his long-awaited autobiography; a previous version appeared long ago under the editorship of Charles Neider, but that much-shorter edition is not just incomplete but too “sanitized” to shine a bright light on its author. The book has become this season’s literary sensation, returning Twain to the bestseller lists, with six printings and more than 275,000 copies in circulation. Read the rest of this entry »

Old Man River: Chicago author Lee Sandlin’s colorful rewriting of the history of the Mississippi

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, History No Comments »

By Brian Hieggelke

Mark Twain is a mythic figure in American history, but in his time, much of his reputation sprang from the authenticity of his tales of the Mississippi River, the then-mysterious western landmark of this still-young nation. Twain had grown up in a river town and worked in his twenties as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi; his best works reflect a knowing communion with those waters.

Like so many of us, Chicago writer Lee Sandlin’s strongest literary memories as a child grew out of Twain’s world, and he uses this to frame his riveting new book, “Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild.” What Sandlin quickly realized was that Twain was not a chronicler of his contemporary Mississippi, but rather the river of his youth; Sandlin calls the Mississippi books “works of memory, even of archeology.”

When Sandlin set out to explore, through the vast paper trail of writings about the Mississippi River in those formative years for Twain—the early nineteenth century up to the Civil War—he discovered anything but the bucolic, romantic vista of hazy memory. Instead, it was a raucous, rapacious anything-goes frontier, full of gamblers, whores and all manner of hustlers. Sandlin’s book is a feast of color, a revisionist history (or perhaps revivalist?) in the spirit of other recent histories of our not-so-gentle Midwestern past, like “Devil in the White City” and “Sin in the Second City.” Sandlin recounts the story of the voyageurs, who risked, and often lost, their lives in the downriver pursuit of a quick buck in commerce. He tells of the collective insanity (with unstated contemporary resonance) of the witch hunt for the Mystic Clan, a purported vast conspiracy to incite a slave rebellion for the purpose of systematic looting. And many other long-forgotten stories that unfold with cinematic vividness. Like the author from Hannibal whose shadow looms large over any work contemplating the mighty Mississippi, Sandlin deploys a gift for rollicking narrative and crafty prose that makes this one of the best nonfiction books of the year. Read the rest of this entry »

Head Case: Andrew Levy crafts a literary migraine memoir, “A Brain Wider Than the Sky”

Book Reviews, Memoir 4 Comments »

andrew_levyBy Brian Hieggelke

I forgot to ask if he had a headache.

I’d been fairly circumspect so far, rather than inviting Andrew Levy to grab a beer, or arbitrarily assuming that a coffeehouse was appropriate for our meeting—migraine triggers come in many forms, as his book, “A Brain Wider Than the Sky,” makes exceedingly clear. But somehow, I forgot to ask him if he had a headache, right now. So too, curiously, had the moderator of the discussion he’d just had at the Printers Row Lit Fest, Paula Kamen. But Kamen, herself author of a related memoir, “All in My Head,” always has a headache—a constant presence—unlike the chronic “nerve storms” that foment Levy’s migraines, so perhaps she just considers such queries redundant. In any case, I forgot to ask.

Levy’s such an easygoing presence—calm, articulate, friendly if not effusive—that it’s easy to forget the tempests that rage inside his brain. But boy do they rage. It was late summer, 2006, as he started a sabbatical from his job—he’s chair of the English department and director of the Writer’s Studio at Butler University in Indianapolis—to work on a book about Mark Twain, that the colossus set in. Four straight months, he suffered a daily migraine, dawn to dusk. “That’s why I wrote the book,” he said very matter-of-factly at the Lit Fest, about the migraine memoir that replaced the indefinitely shelved Twain tome. And it’s a book with the potential to connect to a lot of lives since, as Levy points out, twenty-three percent of all families have a least one member who suffers migraines. Read the rest of this entry »