Bret Harte Short Fiction Analysis
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...
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