How does "The Luck of Roaring Camp" by Bret Harte demonstrate the use of local color?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator


The local color writer paints a picture of a particular area or period by using picturesque characteristics or peculiarities. Its purpose is to capture a feeling and evoke that feeling in the reader.  The subject of the stories usually conveyed a theme of universality through their characters and plot lines.

Bret Harte was a California local colorist. His stories came from his firsthand knowledge of living around the mining camps while working on newspaper articles.  He saw the life styles of the miners and the women that were on the fringes of their lives.

Self-educated, Harte drew from literary sources including the Bible and the great English writers to serve as a guide and influence on his writing. His writing brought the Gold Rush to the other half of the United States and possible enticed more than his share of men searching for Eldorado.

“The Luck of Roaring Camp” performs as a perfect example of local color.  The men are caricatures of stereotypical men.  The one woman in the story serves as the local prostitute who has given birth to a baby. 

Every one of the men in the mining camp feels a responsibility for the baby. In the story, the local prostitute who is also an Indian woman named Cherokee Sal gives birth but is not going to make it beyond the birth. His portrayal of the mother is harsh yet the men feel bad for the pain and suffering that she endures giving birth. 

 Harte describes the beauty of the surrounding woods, but also the harshness of the men and the camp where the birth takes place.  There were many deaths in Roaring Camp but this was the first birth. 

The story sets out to describe the impact of the baby to an all-men camp.  The major part of the story involves the description of how to raise the child, whose father is unknown.   Harte seemed to take even the lowest of creations and show the good that might come from it.  If it was a true event, it was worthy of the written word. 

The men are described by a physical or character trait or a location from which they came to the “rush.” The major players in the story are also seen in other Harte stories---Kentuck, John Oakhurst, French Pete, and Stumpy.  These are the men who will help to raise the baby and attempt to save its life when the rains cause the river to flood. The men decide to name the baby Tommy Luck; however, they call the baby Luck.  The old African Proverb is appropriate here: It takes a village to raise a child.  That is what the Luck had.

Everything that could possibly be done for the child was done.  The infant had his own cabin, white-washed and clean. After the birth, the name of God was used only in prayer,  and it seemed that a regeneration of manners and former good behaviors came over the camp. 

The local colorist purpose was to feature an event or aspect of life to illustrate sometimes in a comedic or sentimental style.  Harte’s stories usually ended with the death of a major character.  In this case, both Kentuck and the baby do not survive. 

Kentuck opened his eyes.  “Dead?” he repeated feebly.

“Yes, my man, and you are dying too.  A smile lit the eyes of the expiring Kentuck.

“Dying,” he repeated, “he’s a taking me with him---tell the boys I’ve got the Luck with me now.”

Harte portrays the major characters in his stories with some redeeming qualities.  Kentuck tries to save the child and gives his life doing it.