Bret Harte 1836?-1902
(Full name Francis Brett Harte) American short story writer, novelist, poet, critic, journalist, editor, and playwright.
The following entry presents criticism of Harte's short fiction works from 1991 to 2000. For criticism of Harte's short fiction career published prior to 1991, see SSC, Volume 8.
One of the most influential and popular writers of the nineteenth century, Harte achieved fame and success for his works about the American western frontier. In his short fiction, he employed realistic description, stock characters, and local dialect and humor to nostalgically portray life in the California mining camps of the 1840s and 1850s. Although Harte lost much of his popularity later in his career, elements of his work—especially its regional flavor and use of such stereotyped characters as the ornery prospector, the cynical gambler, and the kind-hearted prostitute—influenced his contemporaries and later writers of popular Westerns.
Harte was born in Albany, New York. Although his education was disrupted by his family's frequent relocations, he was an avid reader whose favorite authors included Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and Washington Irving. As a young adult, Harte moved to San Francisco. There he worked at various times as a school teacher, a miner, and an express messenger for the Wells Fargo stagecoach lines before accepting a staff writing position at the Northern Californian weekly in Union, California. Returning to San Francisco in 1860, Harte worked as a printer for the Golden Era and published several sketches in that paper over the next few years. In 1864 he began contributing to the newly established Californian, later serving as its editor. In 1868 Harte became the first editor of The Overland Monthly, where he published several of his most famous short stories. These pieces met with great success and established him as a prominent literary figure and a unique voice of the American West. In 1871 he left California for Boston to work for the Atlantic Monthly. A year later, when his contract with the periodical was not renewed, he attempted lecturing and writing plays (including a collaboration with Mark Twain), but both of these endeavors proved unsuccessful. Discouraged by a decline in his popularity among American readers, Harte accepted a consul position in Krefeld, Germany, in 1878, and in Glasgow, Scotland, two years later. In 1885 he moved to London, where he remained until his death in 1902.
Major Works of Short Fiction
In his stories Harte offered romanticized depictions of the California gold-rush era, featuring grotesque or idealized characters, detailed descriptions of regional settings, and a strong appeal to sentiment. Harte invented such stock frontier characters as the seedy prospector and the hard-bitten gambler—individuals whose depraved exterior is essential to Harte's most common plot formula: to expose the “heart of gold” beneath the most coarse appearance. Thus, the cynical Jack Hamlin reveals an underlying concern for others in “An Heiress of Red Dog” and “Mr. Jack Hamlin's Meditation,” a group of criminals place the welfare of a young couple above their own in “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” and the callous miners in “The Luck of Roaring Camp” become the sensitive and self-sacrificing guardians of a child born to a prostitute. In addition to characterization, Harte emphasized in his stories the local color of Californian landscape and culture. His realistic descriptions are often compared to the backdrops of a stage, reflecting the mood of the action and characters. In “Tennessee's Partner,” for example, Harte presents an idealized view of friendship between two miners, while casting an aura of foreboding over Tennessee's trial for theft through his presentation of setting.
Early in his career, Harte received virtually undisputed acclaim as a short story writer. During the 1870s, however, reviewers began to fault Harte's fiction for its reliance on coincidence, romantic situations, and melodrama. As a result his literary standing in the United States plummeted, and by the 1940s, the view of Harte as a Victorian sentimentalist was widely held, even though his works continued to please European audiences, particularly in England. Since the 1960s, however, some critics have reassessed the strengths of Harte's fiction, arguing that he is a romanticist whose works should be interpreted in terms of symbolism rather than realism. For example, some critics have noted the presence of Christian symbolism within “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” viewing the adopted baby as a redeeming Christ figure. Commentators have also noted that as a regionalist writer and creator of standard American character types, Harte helped further the evolution of an independent American literature.