Francis Bret Harte was born in Albany, New York, on August 25, 1836, to Henry Philip (a schoolteacher) and Elizabeth Rebecca Ostrander Hart; their last name was changed to Harte in 1844. Bret, the third born of the Hartes’ four children, was in ill health from ages six to ten, during which time he read avidly. He was particularly influenced by the writing of British author Charles Dickens. Harte’s first poem to be published, “Autumnal Musings,” was printed in the New York Sunday Atlas when he was eleven. Bret attended eight different schools before he ended his formal schooling at the age of thirteen for financial reasons.
In 1845, after the death of Bret’s father, the family moved to Brooklyn. After becoming engaged to Andrew Williams, Elizabeth Harte moved to Oakland, California, in 1853, where the two were married. A year later, Bret and his younger sister Margaret joined their mother in California. Bret stayed there until 1870.
Bret Harte began working at odd jobs when he was thirteen and was self-supporting by the time he was fifteen or sixteen. In 1857, when he moved to Union (now Arcata), California, Harte began his career in journalism. He worked for the newspaper in Union from 1858 to 1860. He was forced out of town after the February 26, 1860, issue of the newspaper The Northern Californian, in which Harte, in the editor’s absence, published an account of the Mad River Indian massacre of 1860, the slaughter by local whites of all the Indians attending a three-day religious festival. Harte, outraged at the “cowardice” and “cruelty” of the attack, intimated that another local editor and Eureka’s sheriff were behind the attack. Some sources say Harte had to leave town instantly, barely escaping with his life; others say he was forced to leave within the month.
On August 11, 1862, Harte married Anna Griswold, an older woman who was well established in her musical career. Neither family approved of the marriage. Bret and Anna had four children: Griswold (1863), Francis (1865), Jessamy (1873), and Ethel (1875). In 1871, the Hartes left San Francisco for Chicago. Harte never returned to California,...
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“The Luck of Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” are among the best of the colorful Gold Rush tales for which Harte is most remembered. The stories, sometimes regarded more as parables or myths than short stories, demonstrate the strong narrative and descriptive style and the stock characters that Harte contributed to later Western stories and films.
The stories that capture the California Gold Rush years as they never occurred were written by a writer who never experienced them; in that sense, Harte created the Gold Rush. His work endures. Even today, he has an international audience that enjoys his mythic California Gold Rush.
Born in Albany, New York, as Francis Brett Harte (he would later drop the “Francis” and change the spelling of his middle name to Bret), Harte went to California in 1854, where for a while he lived many of the lives he was later to re-create imaginatively in the biographies of his fictional characters. Among other occupations, he worked an unsuccessful mining claim on the Stanislaus River; he may have been a guard for the Wells Fargo stagecoach lines; and he was employed in various capacities at the San Francisco mint before drifting into journalism. He was associated with the founding (1864) of C. H. Webb’s journal the Californian, in which some of his own early work was published. Subsequently he became editor of the Overland Monthly (1868-1870), in which many of his most famous works first saw print. Notable among these are the short story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and the comic poem “Plain Language from Truthful James,” which led to an offer from The Atlantic Monthly of a ten-thousand-dollar yearly contract, annually renewable, for exclusive rights to his material. On the strength of this contract Harte moved to Boston, but the contract was never renewed after the first year. Indeed, Harte’s later work never came up to the standard of his earlier, and although he was a tireless writer his production rapidly degenerated into hack work. He moved to Europe, serving for a brief time as American consul in Krefeld, Germany, and in Glasgow, Scotland, before finally settling in London, where he lived the rest of his life. He was happy in London, where people viewed his work more charitably than in the United States and where he was respected as an authentic voice of “the ’49.”
Francis Brett Harte, who attained fame with two short stories and a humorous poem, is best known in literary history for his short stories of the West. Of Jewish, Dutch, and English descent, Bret Harte was born in Albany, New York, in 1836. His indigent parents moved from city to city in the East until, after the death of the father, his mother remarried and moved to California; Harte and his sisters followed her, and during the next few years he was engaged in school teaching, typesetting, mining, politics, and finally journalism.
In 1857, Harte became a typesetter on the Golden Era in San Francisco. Though serving in a nonliterary capacity, he wrote poems and local-color sketches on the side, and in 1865 he edited a book of Western verse, Outcropping. In 1868, he was made editor of the newly founded Overland Monthly in San Francisco. The second issue contained his story “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” and in January, 1869, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” appeared in the same magazine. Though both caught the approving attention of readers in the East, the accidental publication of his poem “Plain Language from Truthful James” (familiarly known as “The Heathen Chinee”) produced his greatest popularity. It resulted in an offer, which he accepted, of $10,000 to write for The Atlantic Monthly for a year, and in 1871 he left for the East. The volume East and West Poems appeared that same year. However,...
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