Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2168
In any discussion of Bret Harte, one must begin by making a clear distinction between importance and quality, that is, between the influence of an author’s work and its intrinsic value. That Harte was an extremely important writer, no one will deny. Almost entire credit should be given to him for the refinement of the gold fields of California into rich literary ore. More than a mere poet of “the ’49,” he firmly established many of the stock character types of later Western fiction: the gentleman gambler, the tarnished lady, the simple though often lovably cantankerous prospector, all invariably possessed of hearts of gold. These prototypes, so beloved of later Western writers both of fiction and film, seemed to spring, like rustic Athenas, full-grown from his fertile brain. Yet with all his admitted importance there have been doubts from the very beginning about the intrinsic quality of his work. After publication of The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches and the overwhelming success of his famous comic poem “Plain Language from Truthful James” in the same year, the set of brilliant tomorrows confidently predicted for him developed instead into rediscovery only of a series of remembered yesterdays. What, the critic should initially ask, is the reason behind Harte’s meteoric rise and his equally precipitous fall?
Perhaps a partial answer may be found by examination of a term often applied to Harte’s work: It is, critics are fond of saying, “Dickensian.” There is much truth to this critical commonplace, for the influence of Charles Dickens is everywhere to be found in Harte’s writing, from the often brilliantly visualized characters, through the sentimental description, to the too-commonly contrived plot. Perhaps the first of these influences is the most important, for, like Dickens, when Harte is mentioned one immediately thinks of memorable characters rather than memorable stories. What would Dickens be without his Bob Cratchit, Mister Micawber, and Little Nell? Similarly, what would Harte be without his gambler John Oakhurst or his lovable but eccentric lawyer, Colonel Starbottle? The answer to these rhetorical questions, however, conceals a major limitation in Harte’s literary artistry which the often too-facile comparison to Dickens easily overlooks. For in Dickens’s case, in addition to the characters mentioned above, equally powerful negative or evil ones may be added who are completely lacking in Harte’s own work. Where are the Gradgrinds and Fagins and Uriah Heeps in Harte’s writing? The answer, to the detriment of Harte’s stories, is that they are nowhere to be found. The result, equally unfortunate, is that Harte’s stories lack almost completely any tragic vision of the world or of human beings’ place in it. Misfortune in Harte’s stories is uniformly pathetic rather than tragic, and the unfortunate result is that too often these stories settle for a “good cry” on the part of the reader rather than attempting any analysis of humanity’s destiny or its place in an unknown and often hostile universe.
“The Outcasts of Poker Flat”
A brief glance at one of Harte’s best-known stories, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” may serve at once to indicate both the strengths and the limitations of his work. This story tells of the fortunes of four “outcasts” from the California gold camp of Poker Flat, who have been escorted to the city limits by a vigilance committee, operating in the flush of civic pride, and told never to return on peril of their lives. The four outcasts are Mr. John Oakhurst, a professional gambler; “the Duchess” and “Mother Shipton,” two prostitutes; and “Uncle Billy,” a “confirmed drunkard,” suspected as well of the more serious crime of robbing sluices. The four outcasts hope to find shelter in the neighboring settlement of Sandy Bar, a long day’s journey away over a steep mountain range; but at noon the saddle-weary Duchess calls a halt to the expedition, saying she will “go no further.” Accordingly, the party goes into camp, despite Oakhurst’s pointing out that they are only half way to Sandy Bar and that they have neither equipment nor provisions. They do, however, have liquor, and the present joys of alcohol soon replace the will to proceed toward Sandy Bar where, in all fairness to the outcasts, their reception may not be overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Oakhurst does not drink, but out of a feeling of loyalty stays with his companions.
Some time later during the afternoon, the party is joined by two refugees from Sandy Bar, Tom Simson and his betrothed, Piney Woods. They have eloped from Sandy Bar because of the objections of Piney’s father to their forthcoming marriage and are planning to be wed in Poker Flat. It transpires that Simson, referred to throughout the story as “the Innocent,” had once lost to Oakhurst his “entire fortune—amounting to some forty dollars”—and that after the game was over Oakhurst had taken the young man aside and given his money back, saying simply “you’re a good little man, but you can’t gamble worth a cent. Don’t try it over again.” This had made a friend-for-life of the Innocent and also serves to show that Poker Flat’s view of Oakhurst as a monster of iniquity is not to be taken totally at face value. Since it is now too late to travel on, both the outcasts and the young lovers decide to encamp in a ruined house near the trial.
During the night Uncle Billy abandons the group, taking all the animals with him. It also begins to snow. The party, predictably, is snowed in, although the situation does not appear too grave since the extra provisions which the Innocent has brought with him and which Uncle Billy did not take in his departure are enough, with careful husbandry, to last the party for ten days. All begin to make the cabin habitable, and they spend the first few days listening to the accordion the Innocent has brought and to a paraphrase of the Iliad which the Innocent has recently read and with which, much to Oakhurst’s delight, he regales the company.
The situation, however, deteriorates. Another snowstorm totally isolates the camp, although the castaways are able to see, far below them, the smoke of Poker Flat. On the tenth day, Mother Shipton, “once the strongest of the party,” who had mysteriously been growing weaker, dies. Her serious decline, it turns out, is a result of the fact that she had not eaten any of her carefully husbanded rations, which she had selflessly saved for her companions. Oakhurst then makes a pair of snowshoes out of a pack saddle and gives them to the Innocent, whom he sends off to Poker Flat in a last attempt to bring aid. If the Innocent reaches Poker Flat within two days, Oakhurst says, all will be well. He follows the Innocent part way on his journey toward Poker Flat, but does not return.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, the situation goes from bad to worse. Only the Duchess and Piney are left, and—although they discover and are properly grateful for the pile of wood which Oakhurst has secretly gathered and left for them—the rigors of a cruel world prove too strong. They die of starvation in the snow, and a rescue party arriving too late is properly edified by their moral courage—and, the reader trusts, properly chastened by recognition of Poker Flat’s own despicable conduct. Oakhurst, we discover at the end of the story, in the best tradition of noblesse oblige, has committed suicide. The story concludes with a rehearsal of his epitaph, written by himself on a deuce of clubs and pinned to a pine tree with a bowie knife: “Beneath this tree lies the body of John Oakhurst, who struck a streak of bad luck on the 23d of November 1850, and handed in his checks on the 7th of December, 1850.”
It is pointless to pretend that “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” does not have a certain power; indeed, the evidence of its continuing popularity, as shown through inclusion in countless anthologies of every persuasion, clearly indicates that the story is not a totally negligible effort. Yet after the thoughtful reader has finished the story, he or she is conscious of a certain dissatisfaction. The question to be asked is, “Why?”
The obvious answer seems to be that the story has little new to say. In European literature, prostitutes with hearts of gold were scarcely novel figures by the 1860’s; furthermore, the fact that holier-than-thou individuals, who are likely not only to cast the first stone but also to be sorry when it hits, can scarcely have been new to any reasonably perceptive reader. What Harte no doubt intended was to evoke an emotion on the part of the reader, an emotion of sorrow and pity for the poor victims of the social ingratitude (one hates to say injustice) of Poker Flat. The argument, from one perspective, is the oldest in the world—the tiresome tu quoque statement that the holier-than-thou are little better than the lowlier-than-them. Yet this easy answer will not entirely work. As has been pointed out many times, considered purely from the perspective of “ideas,” most literature is commonplace.
Perhaps a better question is to ask how Harte approached his parable and whether his fictional method works. To this the answer must be “No,” for if the reader considers the story carefully, he or she must agree that it simply is not successful, even in its own terms. We have, as Harte’s friend and sometime collaborator Mark Twain would have said, been “sold.”
Let us examine the story closely. A group of outcasts is sent up a long day’s journey to another place. They stop only halfway—that is, half a day’s journey—there. The place they left, in fact, is clearly visible behind them. Four in number, they are joined by two others; when Uncle Billy deserts, their number is five. Harte tells us that with careful management they have ten days’ food, even though they have no animals. (What Uncle Billy could possibly have wanted with the seven animals he stole, particularly since he had no provisions to put on them, is never clarified, nor is the bothersome detail of how he could have managed the theft in the first place, considering he had to remove them single-handedly from under the noses of his companions, one of whom, John Oakhurst, is, Harte specifically tells us, “a light sleeper.” The animals do not simply wander off; Harte calls our attention to the fact that they had been “tethered.” Uncle Billy must therefore have released them on purpose.) In any event, the unfortunate castaways survive on meager rations for a week until Oakhurst suddenly remembers how to make snowshoes. Why he could not remember this skill on the second day or perhaps the third, is never clarified, but no matter. The reason is obvious, at least from Harte’s point of view of the logic of the story. It is necessary for Harte to place his characters in a situation of romantic peril in order that their sterling qualities be thrown into high relief; to place his characters in extremis, however, Harte totally sacrifices whatever logic the story may have in its own terms.
When Uncle Billy leaves, then, the group discovers that it has sufficient supplies for ten days—that is, fifty man days’ worth of food. Mother Shipton eats none of hers, dying of starvation at the end of a week. This means that the party now has some twenty-two man days of food left, with at the most only three people to eat it, since Mother Shipton is already dead and Oakhurst is about to commit suicide. This is, according to the data Harte has previously given, an easy week’s rations. Why, then, do the two surviving ladies die of starvation before the rescue party arrives some four days later?
The answer has nothing to do with the story, which is designed, rather, for the moral Harte wishes to impale upon it. For in his single-minded pursuit of the commonplace notion that appearances may be deceiving and that there is a spark of goodness in all of us, Harte has totally sacrificed all fictional probabilities. Any potential tragic effect the story might presumably possess evaporates in the pale warmth of sentimental nostalgia.
This inability to allow his stories to speak for themselves is Harte’s besetting fictional weakness. Rather than allowing his tales to develop their own meaning, he obsessively applies a meaning to them, a meaning which, in far too many cases, cheapens the fictional material at his disposal. Perhaps the fault is that Harte, in his relentless search for this new California literary ore, did not really know where to find it. The mother lode consistently escaped him, and whatever flakes his search discovered were too often small and heavily alloyed.
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