Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Bret Harte is usually labeled a local colorist. The local-color, or regional-realism, movement hit its peak in American literature between 1870 and 1890. It was fiction that emphasized the speech, dress, mannerisms, and values of a particular region. Literature of this type was usually more concerned with surface presentation of the characters than with probing their psychological motivations. The characters are more likely to be representatives of a specific place than clearly defined individuals, and the stories often descend to the facile conventions of hack writing. Harte never quite transcended this genre, but he became one of the most famous practitioners of local color, along with the early Mark Twain, Hamlin Garland, Kate Chopin, Sarah Orne Jewett, George Washington Cable, and Joel Chandler Harris.
Two aspects of local color that help illustrate the attributes of a locale and its people are humor and hyperbole. Harte uses comic scenes, dialogue, and descriptions to offset the tragedy of the story and to keep it from turning into melodrama. Much of the humor is based on hyperbole—language that is exaggerated or overstated for the situation. Sometimes this is reversed to understatement, in which the words seem too insignificant for the occasion. The language is often a parody of romantic or sentimental fiction. Also involved in balancing the tragedy is the gambler’s stoical approach to life. Outwardly impervious to pain or anger, Oakhurst faces...
(The entire section is 755 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
The Outcasts of Poker Flat (Magill Book Reviews)
The simplicity of the story is a result of the too-easy transformation of such characters as “the Duchess,” a prostitute who reveals a “heart of gold,” and “Mother Shipton,” an old reprobate who gives up her food, and thus her life, so that the innocent Piney Woods can live. The unlikely combination of the innocence of the young couple and the “sin” of the outcasts forms a sympathetic human community.
The story’s sentimentality reaches its climax when Piney and the Duchess are found frozen to death and all “human stain, all trace of earthly travail, was hidden beneath the spotless mantle mercifully flung from above.” One cannot tell which is the innocent virgin and which is the sinful prostitute.
The gambler, John Oakhurst, is the most interesting and complex character in the story, even though he too, in his philosophic attitude toward reality, is more a cliche than a fully embodied person. Although he stoically accepts his fate throughout the story and reveals his basically noble nature, at the tale’s conclusion he takes his own life rather than await death by freezing and starvation. Thus he is called the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.
Oakhurst approaches life as his profession dictates, basing his actions on his awareness of luck; knowing when it will change is what makes a man, he says. His suicide at the end can thus be attributed to his knowledge that he has “hit a...
(The entire section is 262 words.)
Gold Fever and the Manifest Destiny
During the late 1860s, Harte's tales of the California Gold Rush elevated him to a position of national fame. For the remainder of his career, he utilized the West as the setting for his stories and the inspiration for his lectures on life in the gold mines. Americans throughout the country were fascinated by the expansion of the country and tales of the wild West became part of the national consciousness. At the time of their publication, Harte's stones were primarily an idealized vision of an era that had recently passed. By the 1870s, the West was becoming more and more settled, and the vigilante justice of the frontier days was fast fading. While the settlement of the West remained an important topic for books and magazines, it is important to note that "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" appeared less than four years after the end of the Civil War. For a nation exhausted by war, Harte's story of heroics and tolerance recalled a happier period of innocence and opportunity.
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Gold Rush as a historical event; within two years, the sparsely settled territory of California had become the fastest growing state in the union. As aspiring miners arrived from Europe, Asia, South America, and virtually every American state, the population of San Francisco leaped from approximately 800 people in 1848 to over 40,000 in 1850. Although the frenzy for prospecting subsided by...
(The entire section is 639 words.)
The setting of” The Outcasts of Poker Flat'' is of major importance. The story occurs in November, 1850, during the heyday of the California Gold Rush. At that time, law and order on the mining frontier was often synonymous with vigilante justice, in which townspeople took matters into their own hands. Communities such as Poker Flat generally operated outside the reach of established judicial systems, and the type of vigilante activity Harte depicts was an accepted part of everyday life.
The story is set in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a remote area in eastern California where the sudden occurrence of a winter storm could easily result in death for travelers. The most famous example of such a misfortune is the ill-fated Donner Party of 1846, in which twelve travelers starved to death and the remaining members resorted to cannibalism. This tragedy was highly publicized for years afterwards and was undoubtedly familiar to the original readers of this story. In an era before automobiles, or extensive railways, the fear of being stranded while traveling was real and vivid.
Genre is the term used to denote a category of literature. "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" is above all, a Western story. Other types of genre literature are science fiction, horror, and romance. Genre works can be identified by then conventions; some of the conventions of Westerns are that they take...
(The entire section is 395 words.)
Compare and Contrast
1850s: The United States embraces the concept of "Manifest Destiny," a phrase coined in an article in the July-August, 1845, issue of United States Magazine and Democratic Review. The phrase imparts the view that it is God's will that the young nation expand across the continent. In the resulting expansion, settlers race west to California in search of gold in 1849.
1997: Although no longer claiming that expansionism is God's will, the United States continues to explore new frontiers. U.S. astronauts work side-by-side with their Russian counterparts aboard the Russian space station Mir in an effort to investigate the prospects of long-term cooperation in space.
1850s: American society at large perceives gambling at cards and other games of chance, in which money changes hands, as the domain of drifters, con-men, and prostitutes.
1997: Casino gambling is no longer confined to Las Vegas or Atlantic City, having come to be seen as a route to financial reinvigoration in large American cities. Candidates for municipal office often stake their political prospects on their success in bringing casino' 'gaming'' to town, while political figures who oppose casinos are publicly vilified as out-of-touch prigs and Puritans.
(The entire section is 189 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Harte explains that the outcasts are expelled from Poker Flat by a "secret committee." Research the prevalence of vigilante justice in the American West and attempt to determine the extent to which such activities were viewed as a necessary element of the settlement process.
Although Harte is often described as a "frontier humorist," this story reads as a tragedy. Discuss how a writer may appeal to conflicting emotions, and identify other authors who embrace a similar contradiction in style.
Considering the historical events of the 1860s, what messages in Harte's story would have been considered controversial to readers in that era?
Read "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" by Harte's protégé, Mark Twain. Discuss possible influences of Harte's writing on Twain's. Which story do you like better, and why?
Think of some recent Western movies, television shows, or books. Do any of the characters in them remind you of the characters in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat?” Write an essay comparing and contrasting characters in contemporary Western stories to those in stories from the nineteenth century.
(The entire section is 178 words.)
Several film versions of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" have been made. The earliest adaptation was a 1919 silent film produced by Universal Studios. In 1937, RKO-Radio Pictures remade the picture with Van Heflin portraying John Oakhurst. In 1952, Twentieth Century-Fox produced a version starring Dale Robertson, Anne Baxter, and Cameron Mitchell.
"The Outcasts of Poker Flat" became an opera in 1959, with music by Jonathan Elkus and libretto by Robert Gene Bander. Perry Edwards created a one-act play based on the story published by Dramatic Publishing in 1968.
A one-act play written by Perry Edwards and based on "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" was published by Dramatic Publishing m 1968.
Several filmstrip versions of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" are available. A 1973 version by Brunswick Productions utilizes captions, while a 1977 filmstrip from Listening Library includes a cassette recording.
Listening Library released an audiocassette in 1973, The Best of Bret Harte: "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," "The Luck of Roaring Camp,'' in which the stories are read by Ralph Bell.
(The entire section is 164 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
The Best of Bret Harte, edited by Wilhelmina Harper in 1947, contains the author's most famous short stories, including "The Luck of Roaring Camp."
Franklin Walker's 1939 study San Francisco's Literary Frontier details the development of American writers in the West and evaluates Harte within the context of his peers.
Roughing It, Mark Twain's 1872 memoir, is an account of life hi Virginia City, Nevada, during the silver mining boom of the 1860s. At one time Twain and Harte were close friends and both men worked as journalists on the mining frontier. Stylistically, they shared an ability to utilize local color and vernacular to create works of enduring fiction based on fact.
Kevin Starr's 1973 history, Americans and the California Dream 1850-1915, is an excellent study of nineteenth-century California and the role it has played in defining the American dream.
The Shirley Letters From the California Mines 1851-1852 is a collection of writings by Louise Clappe. Using the pseudonym Dame Shirley, Clappe authored a series of letters to her sister in the East about life during the Gold Rush. An important book as a historical source and an interesting companion to the fiction of Bret Harte.
(The entire section is 192 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Brooks, Cleanth, Jr. and Robert Penn Warren. "Tennessee's Partner,'' In Understanding Fiction, pp. 219-20. New York-F S Croft, 1943.
Polsom, James K "Bret Harte,'' in Critical Survey of Short Fiction, edited by Frank N Magill, Salem Press, 1981, pp. 1129-35.
Glover, Donald E. " A Reconsideration of Bret Harte's Later Works," in Western American Literature, Vol. 8, Fall, 1973, pp 143-51.
Kolb, Harold H, Jr. "The Outcasts of Literary Flat Bret Harte as Humorist,'' in American Literary Realism, Vol. 23, Winter, 1991, pp. 52-63.
Morrow, Patrick. "The Predicament of Bret Harte," in American Literary Realism, Vol. 5, Summer, 1972, pp. 181-88.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. In American Fiction- An Historical and Critical Survey, New York. D. Appleton-Century Co., 1936.
Starr, Kevin Americans and the California Dream: 1850-1915, New York. Oxford University Press, 1973.
Gardner, Joseph H "Bret Harte and the Dickensian Mode in America," in Canadian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 2, Fall, 1971, pp. S9-101.
Primarily a comparison between Bret Harte and Charles Dickens which also summarizes many reviews of Harte's writing from 1870 to 1902.
May, Ernest R "Bret Harte and the Overland Monthly,'' in American Literature, Vol 22, November, 1950, pp. 260-71.
(The entire section is 219 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Barnett, Linda D. Bret Harte: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.
Duckett, Margaret. Mark Twain and Bret Harte. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.
Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte. Boise, Idaho: Boise State College Press, 1972.
Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte, Literary Critic. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1979.
Nissen, Axel. Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
O’Connor, Richard. Bret Harte: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966.
Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: A Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995.
Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.
Stewart, George R. Bret Harte, Argonaut and Exile. 1931. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1979.
(The entire section is 115 words.)