Bret Harte Essay - Critical Essays

Bret Harte American Literature Analysis

Harte, a writer who featured local color and depictions of the California Gold Rush in his short stories, created stock characters who were villains externally and saints internally. Many of his protagonists are estranged from their own culture, such as the outcasts in “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” Harte’s writing has been praised for its fresh humor, good prose (rarely was it inflated and self-conscious), and command of dialect. Wallace Stegner, in his introduction to The Outcasts of Poker Flat, and Other Tales, summarizes why Harte, despite his critics, has lasted:Humor, economy, mastery of a prose instrument and a compact fictional form, a trick of paradox and color, a chosen (later compulsive) subject matter full of romantic glamor, a faculty for creating types that have become the stock in trade of a whole entertainment industry—these are surely enough to account for Harte’s lasting. But there is something more. He made a world. . . . It was at once recognizable as plausible, cohesive, self-contained.

Much has been said of Harte’s narrative strategy. He constantly uses a third-person narrator, creating a distance between himself and his characters. Also contributing to the distance between the author and the characters is that Harte used almost no autobiographical incidents in his stories, though he claimed in an interview that all the characters existed in real life even if he may not have been able to label each specifically. This distancing is, in part, what allowed him to leave profanity and a prostitute in “The Luck of Roaring Camp”; however, such distance makes his characters types more than individuals.

Harte also paints vivid California settings in his stories. Oddly enough, as many readers have observed, the settings are not identifiable with real locations in California. Somewhat ironically, Harte, primarily a city dweller, was not intimately acquainted with the area now called Bret Harte country; he created a mythic landscape that was nevertheless appealing to the audiences of American realism.

One of Harte’s recurrent themes is antiracism. Throughout his life, Harte was contemptuous of racial hypocrisy. In 1860, he was forced out of Union, California, as a result of his journalistic attack on the white men who massacred the Indians at Mad River. During the Civil War, he helped the Reverend Thomas Starr King work for the abolitionists. Antiracist themes run through many of Harte’s short stories, plays, and poems. Another theme Harte explored is the influence of civilization on the West. Harte’s characters, those who “civilized” the West, show that there is good in the worst people. In his private life, however, Harte had a low opinion of his audiences. Perhaps because Harte so carefully distanced himself from the protagonists and other characters of his stories, his paradoxical views seem not to create a deep ambivalence in the stories.

Harte, by all accounts, was fundamentally an easterner who wrote about the California of Gold Rush days. Criticism of his work lacks variety, with most critics concurring that his best work was that done before 1872, primarily the short stories and a series of seventeen parodies. Some attention is given to his poetry, especially a dialect poem, “Plain Language from Truthful James,” better known as “The Heathen Chinee.” Harte rose to sudden popularity after his publication of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” but only after the story received praise from the East. His fall from popularity was also fairly sudden.

Some critics argue that the stories that Harte wrote during the last twenty years of his life were of comparable quality to the early work but that those stories, written in England, were less popular because the audience changed during Harte’s literary career, while his formula did not. In 1885, Harte wrote in a letter that his popularity, though strong in England, had fallen off in the United States. During the last years of his life, he lost touch with main currents in American and world literature.

Nevertheless, Harte developed the stock Western characters that are found in hundreds of Western stories and motion pictures. He created a mythic West that has endured far beyond the Gold Rush.

“The Luck of Roaring Camp”

First published: 1868 (collected in The Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Sketches, 1870)

Type of work: Short story

This story follows the transformation of a male mining community that ends up caring for an orphaned infant until the baby’s death in a spring flood.

“The Luck of Roaring Camp,” written in Harte’s characteristic narrative style, begins with a depiction of approximately a hundred men standing outside a shack in which “Cherokee Sal” is giving birth unattended. Because there are no other women in the mining community, Kentuck, “a prominent citizen,” sends Stumpy, a bigamist seeking refuge in the lawless Roaring Camp, in to help Sal. Stumpy has “had experience in them things.”

While Stumpy tries to help Sal, the other men of Roaring Camp wait outside, smoking pipes and wagering on the survival of Sal and the infant and on the gender of the child. Characteristic of Harte’s Gold Rush...

(The entire section is 2162 words.)