Bret Harte 1836?-1902
(Full name Francis Brett Harte) American short story writer, novelist, poet, critic, journalist, editor, and playwright.
The following entry presents criticism of Harte's short fiction works from 1991 to 2000. For criticism of Harte's short fiction career published prior to 1991, see SSC, Volume 8.
One of the most influential and popular writers of the nineteenth century, Harte achieved fame and success for his works about the American western frontier. In his short fiction, he employed realistic description, stock characters, and local dialect and humor to nostalgically portray life in the California mining camps of the 1840s and 1850s. Although Harte lost much of his popularity later in his career, elements of his work—especially its regional flavor and use of such stereotyped characters as the ornery prospector, the cynical gambler, and the kind-hearted prostitute—influenced his contemporaries and later writers of popular Westerns.
Harte was born in Albany, New York. Although his education was disrupted by his family's frequent relocations, he was an avid reader whose favorite authors included Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and Washington Irving. As a young adult, Harte moved to San Francisco. There he worked at various times as a school teacher, a miner, and an express messenger for the Wells Fargo stagecoach lines before accepting a staff writing position at the Northern Californian weekly in Union, California. Returning to San Francisco in 1860, Harte worked as a printer for the Golden Era and published several sketches in that paper over the next few years. In 1864 he began contributing to the newly established Californian, later serving as its editor. In 1868 Harte became the first editor of The Overland Monthly, where he published several of his most famous short stories. These pieces met with great success and established him as a prominent literary figure and a unique voice of the American West. In 1871 he left California for Boston to work for the Atlantic Monthly. A year later, when his contract with the periodical was not renewed, he attempted lecturing and writing plays (including a collaboration with Mark Twain), but both of these endeavors proved unsuccessful. Discouraged by a decline in his popularity among American readers, Harte accepted a consul position in Krefeld, Germany, in 1878, and in Glasgow, Scotland, two years later. In 1885 he moved to London, where he remained until his death in 1902.
Major Works of Short Fiction
In his stories Harte offered romanticized depictions of the California gold-rush era, featuring grotesque or idealized characters, detailed descriptions of regional settings, and a strong appeal to sentiment. Harte invented such stock frontier characters as the seedy prospector and the hard-bitten gambler—individuals whose depraved exterior is essential to Harte's most common plot formula: to expose the “heart of gold” beneath the most coarse appearance. Thus, the cynical Jack Hamlin reveals an underlying concern for others in “An Heiress of Red Dog” and “Mr. Jack Hamlin's Meditation,” a group of criminals place the welfare of a young couple above their own in “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” and the callous miners in “The Luck of Roaring Camp” become the sensitive and self-sacrificing guardians of a child born to a prostitute. In addition to characterization, Harte emphasized in his stories the local color of Californian landscape and culture. His realistic descriptions are often compared to the backdrops of a stage, reflecting the mood of the action and characters. In “Tennessee's Partner,” for example, Harte presents an idealized view of friendship between two miners, while casting an aura of foreboding over Tennessee's trial for theft through his presentation of setting.
Early in his career, Harte received virtually undisputed acclaim as a short story writer. During the 1870s, however, reviewers began to fault Harte's fiction for its reliance on coincidence, romantic situations, and melodrama. As a result his literary standing in the United States plummeted, and by the 1940s, the view of Harte as a Victorian sentimentalist was widely held, even though his works continued to please European audiences, particularly in England. Since the 1960s, however, some critics have reassessed the strengths of Harte's fiction, arguing that he is a romanticist whose works should be interpreted in terms of symbolism rather than realism. For example, some critics have noted the presence of Christian symbolism within “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” viewing the adopted baby as a redeeming Christ figure. Commentators have also noted that as a regionalist writer and creator of standard American character types, Harte helped further the evolution of an independent American literature.
Condensed Novels and Other Papers 1867
The Lost Galleon and Other Tales (short stories and poetry) 1867
The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches 1870
Mrs. Skaggs's Husbands and Other Sketches 1872
An Episode of Fiddletown and Other Sketches 1873
M'liss: An Idyl of Red Mountain 1873
Tales of the Argonauts and Other Sketches 1875
The Twins of Table Mountain and Other Stories 1879
Flip and Other Stories 1882
The Heritage of Dedlow Marsh and Other Tales 1889
A Sappho of Green Springs and Other Stories 1891
Sally Dows, Etc. 1893
The Bell-Ringer of Angel's and Other Stories 1894
A Protegee of Jack Hamlin's and Other Stories 1894
Barker's Luck and Other Stories 1896
Stories in Light and Shadow 1898
Tales of Trail and Town 1898
Mr. Jack Hamlin's Meditation and Other Stories 1899
Condensed Novels, Second Series: New Burlesques 1902
Trent's Trust and Other Stories 1903
Her Letter, His Answer, and Her Last Letter 1905...
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SOURCE: Kolb, Harold H., Jr. “The Outcast of Literary Flat: Bret Harte as Humorist.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 23, no. 2 (winter 1991): 52-63.
[In the following essay, Kolb regards Harte as a humorist and local colorist.]
In that corner of American literary history reserved for half-true maxims—Dreiser lacked everything but genius, Henry James chewed more than he bit off, Poe was a jingle man—we might add a statement about Bret Harte: it is generally agreed that Harte lacks everything but readers. He has not been taken seriously by critics since the demise of the Overland Monthly a half century ago, yet somehow his name and his tales endure. Thirty-eight Harte titles are currently in print, along with his letters, a reprint of the twenty-volume 1903 edition of his works, and eight different paperbound collections of his best-known tales. Harte's letters and manuscripts bring extravagant prices—＄1750 recently for five letters to his wife complaining about debts. Even a facsimile edition of “The Heathen Chinee,” which Harte himself called “possibly the worst [poem] anybody ever wrote,” sells for ＄75. “Bret Harte Country” is familiar to many Americans who never heard of Melville country, Americans who might identify the James boys, Will and Harry, as desperadoes.
In 1943, Bret Harte was presumably buried for all time in Brooks and Warren's...
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SOURCE: Scharnhorst, Gary. “Whatever Happened to Bret Harte?” In American Realism and the Canon, edited by Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst, pp. 201-11. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Scharnhorst explores the reasons for Harte's virtual disappearance from modern critical studies.]
In the midst of a literary reformation whose most radical protestants decry the very notion of a canon, something rather curious has occurred: Bret Harte's works have disappeared from the textual landscape like books banned in Boston. Neither the Heath nor the Harper—the most inclusive and unabashedly decentered of the new college anthologies of American literature—contains a single word by Harte, and he receives scant attention in the new Columbia Literary History of the United States. The Signet paperback edition of The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Tales, the collection of Harte's stories best-suited for classroom adoption, has recently lapsed from print. At this writing, no volume on Harte has appeared among the six hundred studies in Twayne's United States Authors Series, one of the most ambitious critical projects of the past thirty years, which includes monographs on such otherwise obscure figures as Will Harben, Sherwood Bonner, and Adelaide Crapsey. That is, the recanonization of American literature in recent years has led to a virtual...
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SOURCE: Mitchell, Lee. “Bierstadt's Settings, Harte's Plots.” In Reading the West: New Essays on the Literature of the American West, edited by Michael Kowalewski, pp. 99-124. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Mitchell finds parallels between the careers of Harte and the painter Albert Bierstadt.]
In the mid-1860s, a painter and a writer burst into fame as the premier artists of America's Far West. Unlike anyone before, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) and Bret Harte (1836-1902) took the nation by storm, and yet in less than a decade, few Americans glanced at Bierstadt's grandiose landscapes or leafed through Harte's sentimental stories. Images that had recently captivated the imagination had come to seem either grossly inflated or baldly inaccurate, cloyingly mawkish, or simply banal. The fact that both painter and writer experienced such a meteoric rise and fall in reputation, at nearly the same time, raises the question of what contributed to such brief fame—especially given the notable influence both men continued to have on other artists of the Far West. Across the boundaries that separate painting from writing, is there a shared technique, or theme, or perspective that might explain their appeal to contemporaries? And what might that evanescent appeal reveal about the 1860s, about the people who responded so fully to such similarly extravagant visions?...
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SOURCE: Nissen, Axel. “Lord of Romance: Bret Harte's Later Career Reconsidered.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 29, no. 3 (spring 1997): 64-81.
[In the following excerpt, Nissen reevaluates the later stages of Harte's literary career.]
I see no limit to the future in art of a country which has already given us Emerson, that master of moods, and those two lords of romance, Poe and Bret Harte.
—Oscar Wilde to A. P. T. Elder, 1885
Nothing is more indicative of the condescending attitude taken by most biographers and critics toward the last quarter century of Bret Harte's writing career than the titles of the chapters dealing with these years. George R. Stewart entitles one of the later chapters of his biography “Grub Street De Luxe.” In the popular biography written by Richard O'Conner in 1966, two of the chapters dealing with Harte's years in England are headed “A New Resident in Grub Street” and “The Drudge of Lancaster Gate.” Even Patrick Morrow in his scholarly monograph from 1979 on Harte as a literary critic calls the chapter devoted to Harte's European years “A Passe [sic] Man of Letters.”1
The most persistent misconceptions about Harte's later literary career are incarnated in the image of the drudge, someone who does hard uninteresting work...
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SOURCE: Nissen, Axel. “The Feminization of Roaring Camp: Bret Harte and The American Woman's Home.” Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 3 (summer 1997): 379-88.
[In the following essay, Nissen determines the influence of Catherine E. Beecher's The American Woman's Home on Harte's “The Luck of Roaring Camp.”]
More than any other author, Bret Harte was responsible for literary representation of the Gold Rush and for putting California on the world's literary map. The challenge he faced was how to represent a lawless and uncivilized phase of American history in a way that would not only capture the imagination of the middle-class, magazine-buying public, but also be socially acceptable. His solution was to import romantic situations and plot structures into a hitherto unmapped fictional landscape. His Californian mythology was founded on symbols and emplotments taken from the Bible, from Greek legend, from Cervantes, Washington Irving, Walter Scott, Cooper, Dumas, and Dickens. The combination was one of enormous rhetorical power.
From the very first, then, Harte was writing historical romance. We see this most clearly when we contrast his short stories with contemporary documents, such as Dame Shirley's “Letters from the California Mines,” which also functioned as source material for Harte the local historian. Although there would continue...
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SOURCE: Stevens, J. David. “‘She War a Woman’: Family Roles, Gender, and Sexuality in Bret Harte's Western Fiction.” American Literature 69, no. 3 (September 1997): 571-93.
[In the following essay, Stevens traces the development of Harte's treatment of gender and sexuality in his short fiction.]
By almost all accounts, Bret Harte must be considered a progenitor of the popular Western in America. Although he eschewed the displays of violence central to other frontier texts, his renditions of town and mining camp life constructed the principal backdrop against which the struggle of the Western hero would later take place; and though his characters are not as stereotypical as some critics maintain, they are for the most part representative figures in the “universal” battle of good and evil that later Westerns underscore.1 In Harte's fiction, ethical questions are settled by a contest of souls rather than a showdown in the street, but he ultimately arrives at the same place as other Western writers, extolling the absolute triumph of good over evil and maintaining a Manichean moral vision of the people he describes. Thus, while differences surely exist between his stories and those of Cooper or Wister, Harte's contributions to the development of “some of our most venerable literary stereotypes” cannot be overstated.2 And his name, as one critic dramatically affirms,...
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SOURCE: Floyd, Janet. “Mining the West: Bret Harte and Mary Hallock Foote.” In Soft Canons: American Women Writers and Masculine Tradition, edited by Karen L. Kilcup, pp. 202-18. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Floyd considers the position of Harte and Mary Hallock Foote within the literary tradition of the American West.]
The category “Western writing” is a slippery one, and the exercise of forming and reforming a Western canon has become relatively obscure in the larger context of recent critical considerations of regionalism. Yet, even against a background where Western writers' status is liable to shift, Bret Harte occupies a peculiarly insecure position not only in relation to the tradition of frontier narratives traced from Cooper but even within literary histories of Western literature, where his work is rarely described. Mary Hallock Foote has disappeared in a more complex way from “Western writing,” in a manner predictable to the feminist literary historian, only to reappear as a quite distinct figure within the various spheres of 1970s historical writing. Here she is constructed as a writer who is, in some absolute sense, in the wrong place. This is certainly the assumption of Rodman W. Paul, whose edition of Foote's unpublished reminiscences, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West (1972), has played a major part, along with Caroll...
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SOURCE: Scharnhorst, Gary. “The Overland Monthly: From ‘The Luck’ to ‘The Prodigal.’” In Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West, pp. 37-69. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Scharnhorst surveys the stories by Harte that were published in The Overland Monthly.]
From the start, Harte and Roman had very different ideas about what the magazine should be. The publisher wanted the Overland Monthly to promote “the material development of this Coast,” and according to its subtitle the magazine was “devoted to the development of the country.” He feared with good reason that Harte—who basked in the esteem of the San Francisco literary coterie—“would be likely to lean too much toward the purely literary articles.” On his part, as Roman reminisced thirty years later, Harte “entertained serious doubts of the success of such an enterprise,” much as he had questioned the commercial viability of the anthology of California verse Roman had commissioned two years earlier. “He didn't enthuse and threw cold water on the project. He said it couldn't be done,” Roman remembered. Harte feared that there would be neither enough contributions “of a proper character to interest magazine readers” nor a subscriber base sufficient to support the magazine over the long term. “The Overland marches steadily along to meet its...
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Hall, Roger. “Annie Pixley, Kate Mayhew, and Bret Harte's ‘M'Liss.’” ATQ: American Transcendental Quarterly 11, no. 4 (December 1997): 267-83.
Discusses theatrical adaptations of Harte's “M'Liss.”
Additional coverage of Harte's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865-1917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 140; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 80; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 12, 64, 74, 79, 186; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 3; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 8; Something about the Author, Vol. 26; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 25; and World Literature Criticism.
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