Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Few authors ever achieve the astonishing literary success that Bret Harte did during his lifetime. His enormously popular stories of California life were in great demand by magazine editors all over the country, and The Atlantic Monthly offered the unprecedented amount of ten thousand dollars for the sole rights to one year of Harte’s literary production. Such enormous popularity is seldom consistent with a lasting literary reputation, however. Harte reached his artistic maturity at the age of thirty-one, and the quality of his work began to decline five years later. During the few years when he was at his peak, Harte produced some stories of genuine literary value, most of which are collected in The Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Sketches. It is therefore mainly on this volume that Harte’s literary reputation rests.
Harte’s vision of life goes far to explain the meteoric popularity of his stories. The local color and picturesque characters he chose and the trick endings he devised added to the attraction, but these were surface features. The heart of his success lay in his ability to convey his particular vision of life to his readers. Harte was, essentially, an optimist and an uplifter. This does not mean that he believed in a shallow doctrine of social or moral reform. Rather, he believed in the potential goodness of human beings and in the possibility of redemption for every sinner. Harte saw life as a purgatory for the human soul, a test, the ultimate goal of which is salvation. He also thought that salvation could be achieved in this life, although, paradoxically, frequently at the cost of death. Rather than being an end of the trial, in Harte’s view, death is the final consummation of the trial. Redemption for Harte is an act of selfless heroism, love, and devotion. Such an act can lift individuals above the petty world of grasping self-interest and redeem them from the sin of self-involvement. This is the spirit that pervades Harte’s most memorable stories.
This spirit raises Harte’s best characters from local stereotypes and picturesque caricatures to people of real feeling and semiheroic stature. Mark Twain explained that “Bret Harte got his California and his Californians by unconscious absorption, and put both of them into his tales alive.” Harte wove the experiences of his people into his private theme of redemption and thereby gave them life. The people in Harte’s stories are seeking salvation from themselves; they are people who long to wipe their pasts clean, people who have come to the American West to lose their identities, as indicated by the fact that very few of his characters retain their given names—instead they have names such as Cherokee Sal, Kentuck, Yuba Bill, Tennessee’s Partner, and the Duchess.
These people are ripe for redemption by virtue of their self-dissatisfaction. To be saved, one must first have sinned. This theme is at the core of Harte’s most successful stories. In the title story of the collection, “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” which first appeared in the Overland Monthly in 1868, a dissolute prostitute works out her salvation by giving birth to a baby and dying. The miners in the camp work out their salvation by giving the baby love and generous gifts to make up for the absence of a mother. One miner, Kentuck, works out his salvation by giving his life in a futile attempt to save the baby. The baby, of course, is incidental...
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte, Literary Critic. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1979. Emphasizes Harte’s strong technical control and craftsmanship in his short stories. Discusses the way he fashioned stories with local color out of tall tales and barroom ballads.
Nissen, Axel. Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. Comprehensive, detailed biography covers the events of Harte’s life and their influence on his writing. Asserts that Harte “reinvented” the American short story and laid the foundations of Western literature and discusses why Harte was famous in his day but virtually ignored by later generations.
Pattee, Fred Lewis. The Development of the American Short Story: An Historical Survey. 1923. Reprint. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1975. Classic work offers good discussion of Harte’s contributions to the short story: a sense of humor, use of paradox and antithesis, and creation of local atmosphere and individualized character types.
Rhode, Robert D. Setting in the American Short Story of Local Color, 1865-1900. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton, 1975. Argues that in Harte’s best stories, setting is related to character as a stimulus to create new attitudes, a contrast to affect moral nature, and a sign of providence or symbol of a character’s life.
Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000. Biography focuses on how Harte’s work as both writer and lecturer played a key role in popularizing Western drama and fiction during the late nineteenth century.
Stegner, Wallace. Introduction to The Outcasts of Poker Flat, and Other Tales, by Bret Harte. New York: New American Library, 1961. Notes that Harte’s characters do not strike the reader as lifelike but are, rather, clearly defined. Points out that Harte learned from Dickens how to combine apparently incompatible qualities to create a striking paradox.
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): 571-593. Argues that what critics have labeled sentimental excess in Harte’s fiction is in fact his method of exploring certain hegemonic cultural paradigms taken for granted in other Western narratives. Discusses Harte’s stories that deal with the structure of the family and how they critique gender roles.