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At the height of his career, Bret Harte was one of the best-known American writers of the nineteenth century. In such classic short stories as ”The Luck of Roaring Camp,” ”The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” and ”Tennessee’s Partner,” he nostalgically portrayed the mining camps and ethnic groups of California during the gold rush of 1849. Although Harte’s fiction received less recognition later in his career, elements of his work—especially its regional flavor and his creation of such stock characters as the seedy prospector, the cynical gambler, and the frontier prostitute—greatly influenced his contemporaries and later writers of popular Westerns.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up on the East Coast
Harte was born by the name Francis Brett Hart o August 25, 1836, in Albany, New York, to a schoolteacher and his wife. An unhealthy child, he was tutored at home, where he read such authors as Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and Washington Irving. When Harte was nine years old his father died, and his family moved to New York City. When Harte was eighteen, his mother remarried, and the family moved to San Francisco. Shortly thereafter Harte left home. Over the next decade he held several jobs, most significantly that of apprentice printer for the journal Northern Californian, where he was eventually given editorial responsibilities.
After his marriage in 1862, Harte supplemented his journalist’s income by serving as a government clerk at the San Francisco Mint. In 1865, Harte became editor of the Californian, where he commissioned Mark Twain, who was then a relatively unknown author, to write a weekly story for the journal. Regarding Harte’s editorial influence, Twain later remarked that it was Harte who ”trimmed and schooled me patiently until he changed me from an awkward uttered of coarse grotesqueness to a writer of paragraphs and chapters.” Harte became editor of the Overland Monthly in 1868, and during his tenure with the journal his poem ”Plain Language from Truthful James” (1870, also called ”Heathen Chinee”), as well as such stories as ”The Luck of Roaring Camp,” (1868) appeared in its pages and inspired what his biographer George Stewart termed a ”literary epidemic” of imitations.
Life on the Western Frontier Harte drew upon his observations of the California gold rush for some of his most famous fiction. In 1848, gold was discovered in California, and it attracted a rush of settlers, called forty-niners, who hoped to make their fortune out west. Although few became rich, many people stayed, and eventually turned what had been tiny towns like San Francisco into large, metropolitan hubs. Other industries like agriculture were developed alongside mining efforts, as were new methods of transportation, most especially transcontinental rail lines, accompanying the rush out west. The expansion of the rail lines involved the importation of ”Coolie labor”—large numbers of Chinese workers. While settlers were pushing their way west, many Native Americans were forced off of their land, usually violently. Shortly after the beginning of the rush, in 1850, California was admitted as a state to the United States.
Monetary Success and Financial Mismanagement
After the success of the Overland, Harte received offers of editorial positions from across the country. In 1871 he signed a one-year contract for the unheard-of sum of $10,000 with the Atlantic Monthly, which gave the magazine exclusive rights to a minimum of twelve stories and poems and made Harte the highest-paid American writer of the time. However, he was careless about fulfilling his contract, and it was not renewed. In need of a new source of income, he went on a lecture tour from 1872 to 1875, but the proceeds barely covered his expenses and the demands of creditors became an increasing problem. He had fallen steeply from the heights of literary fortune.
Revived Popularity Late in His Career
In a further attempt to recover his financial solvency, Harte collaborated with Twain on a stage adaptation of ”Heathen Chinee,” entitled Ah Sin. Performed in 1877, the drama was a failure. Later that year, Harte called on contacts in political circles that helped him obtain a consulate in Crefeld, Germany, and, two years later, in Glasgow, Scotland. He remained a prolific writer for the last twenty-two years of his life, publishing a volume of short stories almost yearly. Supported by a wealthy patron named Mrs. Van de Velde, Harte moved to London in 1885 and became a favorite in literary and social circles.
Harte died of throat cancer at Madame Van de Velde’s home in Surrey on May 5, 1902.
Works in Literary Context
As founding editor of the Overland Monthly in 1868, Harte was instrumental in promoting the careers of an entire generation of Western writers. A pioneering Western local-colorist, he burst upon the national scene with the publication of a series of popular tales and poems set in the California mining camps and boomtowns of the Gold Rush that crystallized his reputation as a rising literary star. Lured east by offers of wealth and prestige, he signed in 1871 what was then the most lucrative contract in the history of American letters. A prototype of the man of letters as a man of business, he was able to make a successful living through his writing. Although he never fully realized the promise of his early Overland Monthly tales, he was for the rest of his life a steady writer of Western fiction that enjoyed wider popularity in England and Europe than in the United States.
Stories of Frontier Life: An Appeal to Sentiment
In his stories Harte offered a sentimental depiction of the gold-rush era of 1849, and he found favor with the reading public through sensationalistic fiction that featured grotesque or idealized characters and a strong appeal to sentiment. These qualities earned him the title of the ”Dickens among the pines.” Just as Charles Dickens had created larger-than-life characters who became standard representations of English personalities, Harte invented such frontier types as the seedy prospector Kentuck, the hard-bitten gambler Jack Hamlin, and the dance-hall girl. These characters’ outward churlishness is essential to Harte’s most familiar plot formula: to expose the ”heart of gold” beneath a coarse or depraved exterior. Thus, the callous miners in ”The Luck of Roaring Camp” become the sensitive and self-sacrificing guardians of a child born to a prostitute, and the cynical Jack Hamlin reveals a concern for others in ”An Heiress of Red Dog” (1879) and ”Mr. Jack Hamlin’s Meditation” (1899). Reversing the formula, Harte portrayed corruption disguised as innocence in M’liss (1873), a novella in which a pubescent schoolgirl becomes a seductress, and juxtaposed outward respectability with underlying viciousness in ”Heathen Chinee,” a ballad relating how two Anglo-Saxon Americans scheme to cheat, but are instead outwitted by, a Chinese immigrant.
Perhaps the most outstanding example of the typical Harte story is ”Tennessee’s Partner” (1869). Presenting an idealized view of friendship between two miners, the story contrasts the uncouth and untutored appearance of Tennessee’s partner with his extremely virtuous magnanimity toward Tennessee. Not only does the partner forgive Tennessee for seducing his wife, but he also tries to save Tennessee from execution during a trial for robbery. Loyalty is further celebrated by the story’s sentimental ending, in which the two men are pictured embracing after death as they meet at heaven’s gate. Although Harte occasionally experimented with different characters and settings, his stories of American frontier life in the mid-nineteenth century are considered his most typical and important works.
Though the Spectator averred in its obituary that he had ”probably exerted a greater influence on English literature than any other American author,” the succeeding years have not been kind to Harte’s reputation. At best, Harte is now regarded as a preeminent satirist, an astute critic of sham sentiment, and an elegant stylist. His gradual disappearance from American literature anthologies may be attributed to the shifting winds of literary fashion rather than the intrinsic qualities of his best writing.
Works in Critical Context
Early in his career, Harte received virtually undisputed acclaim as a short story writer, with critics offering similar praise for his skill as a humorist. After 1880, however, reviewers began to criticize Harte’s fiction for its reliance on coincidence and melodramatic prose. Mark Twain, whose talent Harte had discovered and fostered, was one of the earliest and most outspoken detractors of Harte’s fiction. Applying the criteria of realism, with its demand for a faithful rendering of details, Twain noted grave flaws in Harte’s work, including inaccurate representations of frontier vernacular, faulty observation, and subservience of fact to sentiment. Other critics concurred with Twain’s judgments, emphasizing the maudlin emotional responses Harte solicited in even his best stories. In spite of the decline of his critical standing in the United States, Harte continued to please audiences abroad and became especially popular in England, where his fiction was favorably compared with that of Charles Dickens. Nevertheless by 1943, when the prominent critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren wrote a derisive appraisal of ”Tennessee’s Partner,” the view of Harte as a Victorian sentimentalist was widely held.
East Coast Praises ”The Luck of Roaring Camp”
Although ”The Luck of Roaring Camp” was hardly mentioned in the local press, the story was hailed in the East. The September 30,1868 Springfield Republican declared it ”the best magazine story of the year,” and James T. Fields invited the author to contribute similar tales to the pages of the Atlantic. Author Kate Chopin later wrote in the December 9,1900 St. Louis Republic that the story ”reached across the continent and startled the academics on the Atlantic Coast.” The story helped attract a national audience to the Overland Monthly. In July 1870 the magazine sold as many copies in the East as in the states of California, Nevada, and Oregon, and according to Bayard Taylor in the August 5,1870 New York Tribune, it was ”more extensively and appreciatively noticed” in the eastern press than in California.
Recent Reassessments of Harte
In recent decades, some critics have begun to reassess the strengths and modernity of Harte’s fiction. J. R. Boggan, for instance, contends that the sentimentality of the narrator of ”The Luck of Roaring Camp” is intended to be ironic rather than sincere. Others note that Harte’s influence as a preeminent regionalist writer and creator of standard American character types helped further the evolution of an American literature independent of European tradition. In describing Harte’s influence, Granville Hicks wrote: ”Harte, though he may not have been in any strict sense the founder of American regionalism, was the first writer to gain popularity after the Civil War by the exploitation of sectional peculiarities, and there is little doubt that his example directly inspired many of the writers of the seventies, eighties, and nineties.” For this achievement Harte remains an important figure in the development of American literature.
- Barnett, Linda Diz. Bret Harte: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.
- Duckett, Margaret. Mark Twain and Bret Harte. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.
- Merwin, Henry Childs. The Life of Bret Harte. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1911.
- Morrow, Patrick D. Bret Harte: Literary Critic. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1979.
- Pemberton, T. Edgar. The Life of Bret Harte. London: Pearson, 1903.
- Stewart Jr., George R. Bret Harte: Argonaut and Exile. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.
- Boggan, J. R. ”The Regeneration of Roaring Camp.” Nineteenth Century Fiction 22 (December 1967): 271-280.
- Conner, William F. ”The Euchring of Tennessee: A Reexamination of Bret Harte’s ‘Tennessee’s Partner.”’ Studies in Short Fiction 17 (Spring 1980): 113-120.
- Dam, Henry J. W. ”A Morning with Bret Harte.” McClure’s4 (December 1894): 38-50.
- Duckett, Margaret. ”Plain Language from Bret Harte.” Nineteenth Century Fiction 11 (March 1957): 241-260.
- May, Ernest R. ”Bret Harte and the Overland Monthly.” American Literature 22 (November 1950): 260-271.
- Morrow, Patrick D. ”The Predicament of Bret Harte.” American Literary Realism 5 (Summer 1972): 181-188.
- Scherting, Jack. ”Bret Harte’s Civil War Poems: Voice of the Majority.” Western American Literature 8 (Fall 1973): 133-142.
- Thomas, Jeffrey F. ”Bret Harte and the Power of Sex.” Western American Literature 8 (Fall 1973): 91-109.
- Timpe, Eugene F. ”Bret Harte’s German Public.” Jahrbuch fur Amerikastudien 10 (1965): 215-220.
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