Bret Harte American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2162

Harte, a writer who featured local color and depictions of the California Gold Rush in his short stories, created stock characters who were villains externally and saints internally. Many of his protagonists are estranged from their own culture, such as the outcasts in “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” Harte’s writing has been praised for its fresh humor, good prose (rarely was it inflated and self-conscious), and command of dialect. Wallace Stegner, in his introduction to The Outcasts of Poker Flat, and Other Tales, summarizes why Harte, despite his critics, has lasted:Humor, economy, mastery of a prose instrument and a compact fictional form, a trick of paradox and color, a chosen (later compulsive) subject matter full of romantic glamor, a faculty for creating types that have become the stock in trade of a whole entertainment industry—these are surely enough to account for Harte’s lasting. But there is something more. He made a world. . . . It was at once recognizable as plausible, cohesive, self-contained.

Much has been said of Harte’s narrative strategy. He constantly uses a third-person narrator, creating a distance between himself and his characters. Also contributing to the distance between the author and the characters is that Harte used almost no autobiographical incidents in his stories, though he claimed in an interview that all the characters existed in real life even if he may not have been able to label each specifically. This distancing is, in part, what allowed him to leave profanity and a prostitute in “The Luck of Roaring Camp”; however, such distance makes his characters types more than individuals.

Harte also paints vivid California settings in his stories. Oddly enough, as many readers have observed, the settings are not identifiable with real locations in California. Somewhat ironically, Harte, primarily a city dweller, was not intimately acquainted with the area now called Bret Harte country; he created a mythic landscape that was nevertheless appealing to the audiences of American realism.

One of Harte’s recurrent themes is antiracism. Throughout his life, Harte was contemptuous of racial hypocrisy. In 1860, he was forced out of Union, California, as a result of his journalistic attack on the white men who massacred the Indians at Mad River. During the Civil War, he helped the Reverend Thomas Starr King work for the abolitionists. Antiracist themes run through many of Harte’s short stories, plays, and poems. Another theme Harte explored is the influence of civilization on the West. Harte’s characters, those who “civilized” the West, show that there is good in the worst people. In his private life, however, Harte had a low opinion of his audiences. Perhaps because Harte so carefully distanced himself from the protagonists and other characters of his stories, his paradoxical views seem not to create a deep ambivalence in the stories.

Harte, by all accounts, was fundamentally an easterner who wrote about the California of Gold Rush days. Criticism of his work lacks variety, with most critics concurring that his best work was that done before 1872, primarily the short stories and a series of seventeen parodies. Some attention is given to his poetry, especially a dialect poem, “Plain Language from Truthful James,” better known as “The Heathen Chinee.” Harte rose to sudden popularity after his publication of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” but only after the story received praise from the East. His fall from popularity was also fairly sudden.

Some critics argue that the stories that Harte wrote during the last twenty years of his life were of comparable quality to the early work but that those stories, written in England, were less popular because the audience changed during Harte’s literary career, while his formula did not. In 1885, Harte wrote in a letter that his popularity, though strong in England, had fallen off in the United States. During the last years of his life, he lost touch with main currents in American and world literature.

Nevertheless, Harte developed the stock Western characters that are found in hundreds of Western stories and motion pictures. He created a mythic West that has endured far beyond the Gold Rush.

“The Luck of Roaring Camp”

First published: 1868 (collected in The Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Sketches, 1870)

Type of work: Short story

This story follows the transformation of a male mining community that ends up caring for an orphaned infant until the baby’s death in a spring flood.

“The Luck of Roaring Camp,” written in Harte’s characteristic narrative style, begins with a depiction of approximately a hundred men standing outside a shack in which “Cherokee Sal” is giving birth unattended. Because there are no other women in the mining community, Kentuck, “a prominent citizen,” sends Stumpy, a bigamist seeking refuge in the lawless Roaring Camp, in to help Sal. Stumpy has “had experience in them things.”

While Stumpy tries to help Sal, the other men of Roaring Camp wait outside, smoking pipes and wagering on the survival of Sal and the infant and on the gender of the child. Characteristic of Harte’s Gold Rush tales, the sketch of the opening scene is vivid, showing the men on the hill facing the cabin illuminated by the moon and their campfire. This scene draws readers into the suspense of the action.

The cry of the infant breaks the suspense, causing celebration among the men, but their enthusiasm is dampened by Cherokee Sal’s death within the hour. Stumpy takes up a collection for the infant as the men file through the cabin, pay their last respects to Sal, and look at the infant. Kentuck is delighted, and cusses to show it, when the baby clutches his finger. Kentuck turns to Sandy Tipton, another of the men, and says, “He rastled with my finger, . . . the damned little cuss!” It was this opening scene with Sal, a prostitute, and the cussing Kentuck that caused the conflict between Bret Harte and the proofreader of the Overland Monthly.

Fittingly, the men of Roaring Camp become, as one, father to the orphan, though Stumpy becomes the main caregiver. The men of Roaring Camp soon hold a rowdy christening for the child and name him Thomas Luck, the luck of Roaring Camp. The final pages of the story sketch the men of Roaring Camp becoming attached to the infant Tommy Luck. As their attachment grows, the men become more proper and keep the camp and themselves cleaner. The expressman tells stories in other camps of the transformation of Roaring Camp. He concludes, “They’ve got vines and flowers round their houses, and they wash themselves twice a day. But they’re mighty rough on strangers, and they worship an Ingin baby.”

The washing becomes a sort of gruesome irony when the spring thaws flood the riverbanks and wash away Stumpy’s cabin, drowning Stumpy and setting Kentuck and the child adrift in the river. When Kentuck and the child are found, Kentuck, clutching Tommy Luck, is told that the child is dead and that he, too, is dying. Kentuck, still clutching the “frail babe,” takes “The Luck” with him and drifts away into the “shadowy river” of death.

Such is the story that created the turmoil in the second issue of the Overland Monthly. In an interview in 1894, Harte said of the conflict that the publisher feared that the story might imperil the magazine’s future. Harte, however, concluded that if the story were not suitable, then he was not the suitable editor for the magazine; Harte prevailed. When the story appeared, Harte said, public reaction was strong:The religious papers were unanimous in declaring it immoral, and they published columns in its disfavor. The local press, reflecting the pride of a young and new community, could not see why stories should be printed by their representative magazine which put the community into such unfavorable contrast with the effete civilization of the East. They would have none of it!

Harte concludes, however, that a month later, when Fields & Osgood, Boston publishers, sent him a letter offering to publish future works of the author of “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” the tide of criticism turned. Once Boston endorsed the story, Harte said, “San Francisco was properly proud of it.”

“The Outcasts of Poker Flat”

First published: 1869 (collected in The Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Sketches, 1870)

Type of work: Short story

The story follows the fate of four outcasts and a young couple eloping when the group is caught in a snowstorm.

“The Outcasts of Poker Flat” opens as John Oakhurst, a gambler (and a minor character from Harte’s earlier “The Luck of Roaring Camp”), steps onto the main street of Poker Flat on November 23, 1850. He realizes that the citizens of Poker Flat are continuing their purge of undesirable elements and that he may be among the next lynched or driven out of town. He observes, ironically, their vigilante tactics and concludes that the town is “experiencing a spasm of virtuous reaction, quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that had provoked it.”

Oakhurst, a stock character in later Westerns, is correct in his observations and faces the judgment calmly. He is the prototype of the philosophical gambler found in Westerns and in country and western music. Oakhurst, along with a young woman known as The Duchess, another older woman called Mother Shipton, and a robber and drunkard called Uncle Billy, is escorted to the edge of Poker Flat and forbidden to return. With no provisions except liquor and with winter approaching, the outcasts leave Poker Flat and travel toward another mining camp, Sandy Bar, that is “distant a day’s severe travel.” Though Oakhurst, always the gentleman, exchanges his riding horse with the Duchess’s mule, she grows tired by midday and insists that she will go no further. Despite Oakhurst’s better judgment, the group stops.

After the two women and Uncle Billy drink themselves into oblivion, Oakhurst, who does not drink, contemplates the little group. It is a moment of awareness: “As he gazed at his recumbent fellow exiles, the loneliness begotten of his pariah trade, his habits of life, his very vices, for the first time seriously oppressed him.” Still, it does not occur to Oakhurst to desert “his weaker and more pitiable companions.”

As Oakhurst contemplates, he is interrupted by the arrival of Tom Simson, “The Innocent,” who recognizes Oakhurst as the gambler who returned Tom’s forty dollars and steered him away from gambling. Tom is with Piney Woods, “a stout, comely damsel of fifteen.” They plan to marry in Poker Flat.

Tom and Piney (the “virgin”), unaware of the nature of the group of outcasts, decide to stop for the night. They are carrying provisions that they unload into a nearby dilapidated shack in preparation for the night’s stay. The couple provides a contrast to the outcasts and, later, they are the vehicle for revealing better sides of Oakhurst, Mother Shipton, and The Duchess.

During the night, a snowstorm moves in, and Uncle Billy slips out of the camp with the provisions mule. Early the next morning, Oakhurst discovers the theft, but to protect the innocents, he says that Uncle Billy has gone for provisions. The Duchess and Mother Shipton, fully aware of what has happened, go along with Oakhurst’s story. Harte sketches the following days, during which the group is snowed in, with compassion and humor. Tom calls the Duchess “Mrs. Oakhurst,” Mother Shipton sneaks off to curse the smoke rising from the distant Poker Flat, Piney’s chatter makes the Duchess blush through her heavy makeup, and, finally, Tom retells Homer’s Iliad (c. 725 b.c.e.) in vernacular to entertain the group.

The deaths of the outcasts are clearly foreshadowed, but the dignity of their last actions reflects Harte’s recurrent theme that there is good in the worst of people, Uncle Billy appearing to be an exception. Mother Shipton starves herself to save her provisions for Piney. Oakhurst builds snowshoes so Tom can go for help and then accompanies Tom on the first part of the journey. After Tom has gone on, Oakhurst shoots himself, presumably so he will not take the provisions the others need to survive. The Duchess, who remains behind with Piney, finally realizes that death is approaching. The way they are found tells the story of their deaths: “And so reclining, the younger and purer pillowing the head of her soiled sister upon her virgin breast, they fell asleep.” Hart includes a final theme of redemption by adding that “an equal peace . . . dwelt upon them.”

Oakhurst, a gambler to the end, had “settled himself coolly to the losing game before him.” The final image is of him. He has pinned the deuce of clubs with his epitaph written on it to a tree with his bowie knife. Harte’s narrator concludes of John Oakhurst that he was “at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.”

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