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Bret Harte 1836?-1902

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(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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Condensed Novels and Other Papers 1867

The Lost Galleon and Other Tales (short stories and poetry) 1867

The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches 1870

Mrs. Skaggs's Husbands and Other Sketches 1872

An Episode of Fiddletown and Other Sketches 1873

M'liss: An Idyl of Red Mountain 1873

Tales of the Argonauts and Other Sketches 1875

The Twins of Table Mountain and Other Stories 1879

Flip and Other Stories 1882

Cressy 1889

The Heritage of Dedlow Marsh and Other Tales 1889

A Sappho of Green Springs and Other Stories 1891

Sally Dows, Etc. 1893

The Bell-Ringer of Angel's and Other Stories 1894

A Protegee of Jack Hamlin's and Other Stories 1894

Barker's Luck and Other Stories 1896

Stories in Light and Shadow 1898

Tales of Trail and Town 1898

Mr. Jack Hamlin's Meditation and Other Stories 1899

Condensed Novels, Second Series: New Burlesques 1902

Trent's Trust and Other Stories 1903

Her Letter, His Answer, and Her Last Letter 1905

Tennessee's Partner 1907

Salomy Jane 1910

Poems and Stories 1912

Stories and Poems 1915

The Story of Enriquez: Chu Chu, The Devotion of Enriquez, The Passing of Enriquez 1924

Sketches of the Sixties [with Mark Twain] 1926

The Luck of Roaring Camp 1928

Selected Stories and Poems 1928

Outcasts of Poker Flat, Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Stories 1954

The Luck of Roaring Camp and Three Other Stories 1968

California Stories 1984

Sixteen Stories 1985

California Sketches [with Mark Twain] 1991

Tales of the West 1991

The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Short Stories 1992

Three Partners 1994

Selected Short Stories and Sketches 1995

East and West Poems (poetry) 1871

Poems (poetry) 1871

Gabriel Conroy (novel) 1876

Two Men of Sandy Bar: A Drama (play) 1876

Ah Sin [with Mark Twain] (play) 1877

Sue: A Play in Three Acts (play) 1902

Harte's Complete Works. 10 vols. 1929

Selected Letters of Bret Harte (letters) 1997

Harold H. Kolb, Jr. (essay date winter 1991)

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SOURCE: Kolb, Harold H., Jr. “The Outcast of Literary Flat: Bret Harte as Humorist.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 23, no. 2 (winter 1991): 52-63.

[In the following essay, Kolb regards Harte as a humorist and local colorist.]

In that corner of American literary history reserved for half-true maxims—Dreiser lacked everything but genius, Henry James chewed more than he bit off, Poe was a jingle man—we might add a statement about Bret Harte: it is generally agreed that Harte lacks everything but readers. He has not been taken seriously by critics since the demise of the Overland Monthly a half century ago, yet somehow his name and his tales endure. Thirty-eight Harte titles are currently in print, along with his letters, a reprint of the twenty-volume 1903 edition of his works, and eight different paperbound collections of his best-known tales. Harte's letters and manuscripts bring extravagant prices—$1750 recently for five letters to his wife complaining about debts. Even a facsimile edition of “The Heathen Chinee,” which Harte himself called “possibly the worst [poem] anybody ever wrote,” sells for $75. “Bret Harte Country” is familiar to many Americans who never heard of Melville country, Americans who might identify the James boys, Will and Harry, as desperadoes.

In 1943, Bret Harte was presumably buried for all time in Brooks and Warren's Understanding Fiction, a volume designed to teach its generation how to read stories and nouvelles, just as the earlier Understanding Poetry (1938) had taught them how to read verse. One of the strategies of Understanding Fiction was the surgical dismemberment of a bad story, and for this key paradigm the editors chose “Tennessee's Partner.” Harte is faulted on every ground: his plot is inconclusive, his language is unrealistic, his psychology unsound, his symbolism is illegitimate. The story is “sentimental,” “strain[ed],” “false,” and probably not even original:

Has not Bret Harte taken a theme which, perhaps, he had seen successfully employed for pathetic effects in other fiction, and attempted to trick it out with a new romantic setting, touches of local color (such as descriptions of the community and bits of dialect), and poeticized writing, without ever grounding the story in a presentation of the real psychological issues involved?1

Three decades later Brooks and Warren, along with their colleague R. W. B. Lewis, published American Literature, the Makers and the Making (1973) which they described as the fruit of many years of reading and discussion, of attempting “to divest ourselves of preconceptions.” Bret Harte is included in volume II, with an introduction gently pointing out that “after the glorious dawn of Harte's reputation, his promise was never quite fulfilled.” And then in this anthology, remarkable for its astute and voluminous criticism, “Tennessee's Partner” is reprinted without comment. Somehow, even in their own terms, even in their own anthology, Bret Harte has weathered the critics' storm.

His survival will not be a surprise to teachers of American literature, who often try the Understanding Fiction trick only to have it explode in their faces. Students perversely seem to find the obligatory Harte tale or two among the most memorable selections in a survey course; and if asked to choose between Bret Harte and Henry James—but no matter, that's a box canyon an experienced instructor avoids.

Why is this? Why do we continue to have Bret Harte T-shirts, Bret Harte tours, Bret Harte editions, Bret Harte selections in every anthology? No one seems concerned about Harte's paradoxical relationship to the West, an uncongenial environment he abandoned at the first opportunity. No one bothers about his exile, the most complete in American letters. No one seems to care about the gaping flaws in his character—profligacy, irresponsibility, superficiality. No one seems able to resolve Harte's peculiar fictional mélange of freshness and cliché, of cynicism and sentimentality. His tales and his reputation as a literary founding father sail on through clear blue skies over mining camps that never existed. What is the source of Bret Harte's staying power?

A century of commentary provides little help. Presumably some of Harte's first readers were seduced by his combination of new subjects and sentimental effects—compassionate whores, altruistic gamblers, rejuvenated Western towns, the great bleeding heart that pulses under a rough exterior. Yet other nineteenth-century American sentimentalists have been buried so long that time has effaced their tombstones. Some readers, located in the East, thought at first that Bret Harte was a realist—a term that was just coming into literary discussions when Harte assumed the editorship of the Overland Monthly in 1868.2 But in the face of increasing information about the West, and increasingly sophisticated writing from the Howells-Henry James-Mark Twain generation that raised the flag of realism over American literature, readers and critics began to agree on a more modest niche for Harte as a local colorist. Eventually he came to be seen as the originator of what was called the local color movement. Here is where the critical writing on Harte converges:

“a major initiator of the local-color movement in American Literature,”

—Joseph Harrison

“‘The Luck of Roaring Camp’ is the father of all Western local color stories,”

—Wallace Stegner

“a seminal example of local color and regionalism,”

—Brooks, Warren, and Lewis

“a major initiator of the local color or regional movement in American literature.”

—Patrick Morrow3

This list could be extended relentlessly, and one suspects that anthologists and writers of surveys, who have their hands full with Hawthorne, Melville, James, and Faulkner, have been content to pass on what has, through repetition, become the standard wisdom. Harte added his own voice to this chorus when he published “The Rise of the ‘Short Story’” in Cornhill Magazine in 1899. Not wanting to claim too much, Harte denies that he invented the short story. His contribution was merely to gather up the tentative and imitative rudiments of a provincial tradition, give them form, vitality, economy, a firm location in the American experience, and thus pass on to the world a newly refurbished genre. As Harte describes it, his work “sought to honestly describe … life.” His secret

was the treatment of characteristic American life, with absolute knowledge of its peculiarities and sympathy with its methods; with no fastidious ignoring of its habitual expression … with no moral determination except that which may be the legitimate outcome of the story itself; with … never … the fear of the “fetish” of conventionalism.4

This claim has more snags than a sluice box. Bret Harte was, one might say, a bastard father of regionalism, and his example and his success encouraged others, but a serious case cannot be made for Harte as a local colorist, as an honest describer of American life. “Local color” is a painting term, first used in the eighteenth century to describe “the color which is natural to each object or part of a picture independently of the general colour-scheme or the distribution of light and shade” (OED). Gradually the term was applied to literary works, coming to mean, by the 1880s, “the representation in vivid detail of the characteristic features of a particular period or country (e.g., manners, dress, scenery, etc.) in order to produce an impression of actuality.” A century of hindsight enables us to make this definition more precise. The local colorist's impression of actuality depends on the rendering of a specific place at a specific moment in history. Identified with that place, helping to define it just as they are defined by it, are one or two or a handful of local characters, and they in turn are defined by the peculiarities of their local speech, the language, as Wordsworth put it, “really used by men.” We think immediately of Sarah Orne Jewett's fishermen, Hamlin Garland's farmers, George Washington Cable's Creoles. Some local colorists work in the traditional forms of the tale or the novel, but often the term sketch is appropriate, for the triple alliance of place, character, and language becomes both plot and theme in the writings of many successful local colorists—Longstreet, Stowe, Eggleston, Cooke, G. W. Harris, Freeman, Murfree, J. C. Harris, Woolson.5

Bret Harte's tales demonstrate no comparable impression of actuality. His scenes are copy-book productions, often grotesquely bent to accommodate exigencies of the story:

The way [for the cart bearing Tennessee's corpse] led through Grizzly Canyon, by this time clothed in funereal drapery and shadows. The redwoods, burying their moccasined feet in the red soil, stood in Indian file along the track, trailing an uncouth benediction from their bending boughs upon the passing bier.

—“Tennessee's Partner”6

His characters are cardboard mannequins, propped up in front of the scenery:

Miss Mary was an orphan [who had] come to California for the sake of health and independence. … Jack Hamlin, a gambler having once silently ridden with her in the same coach, afterward threw a decanter at the head of a confederate for mentioning her name in a barrom.

—“The Idyl of Red Gulch”

Harte's energies are devoted to manipulating his characters for effects, not to realizing them as human beings. Thus the questions of Understanding Fiction—“Why does Tennessee's Partner forgive Tennessee so easily for the wife-stealing?”—are irrelevant; and Brooks and Warren, usually among our most astute critics, seem on this ground like chiding schoolmasters at a frolic. Bret Harte is less interested in dialogue than most local colorists, saving his best lines for the narrator. When he does present dialogue, it seems to be not the language really used by men, but that really used by actors in nineteenth-century melodramas:

“I'm going,” she said, in a voice of querulous weakness, “but don't say anything about it. Don't waken the kids. Take the bundle from under my head, and open it.” Mr. Oakhurst did so. It contained Mother Shipton's rations for the last week, untouched. “Give 'em to the child,” she said, pointing to the sleeping Piney. “You've starved yourself,” said the gambler. “That's what they call it,” said the woman. …

—“The Outcasts of Poker Flat”

A significant argument for Bret Harte as a local colorist cannot be made, for his scenes, characters, and speech are not persuasively local, and his colors are predominantly purple. Harte is not concerned with an impression of actuality. His interests lie elsewhere.

Readers in recent decades, nourished on irony and ambiguity and unable to believe that either Harte or his readers could have taken the tales seriously, have sometimes wondered if his fiction might be more complex than it first appears. Could “Tennessee's Partner” be seen as a subtle contest in which the Partner gets even with Tennessee for wife-stealing by deliberately attempting to bribe the jury, knowing that the attempt will misfire and seal the verdict against Tennessee? Is the death of the baby in “The Luck of Roaring Camp” a wry condemnation of a racist, chauvinistic society that exploits and then discards half-breed prostitutes? Does the slam of the coach door that ends “The Idyl of Red Gulch” serve to condemn the nominal heroine, Miss Mary, for being—like the Occidental's heroine in Roughing It—“virtuous to the verge of eccentricity”? The answer to these interesting questions must be no, but they suggest a further dimension in Harte's work, felt but not discussed, that lies at the center of his power to attract readers for over a century.

This power, which is indeed ironic, subtle, and wry, is created by the voice of the narrator, and by the astonishing gap that exists between that porcelain voice and the common clay of Harte's subjects. His crude and sentimental characters are surrounded by narrative commentary that is refined, cynical, and aloof. Like the outside narrators in the frame tales of the early Southwestern humorists, the narrator in Harte's writings separates himself from the characters, and in that separation lies the distance, the duality, the juxtaposition required for humor.7

Harte's gifts as a writer were limited, but he is a master of juxtaposition—a technique he developed as a parodist at the beginning of his career, and one he continued to mine for three decades. Sometimes these contrasts are merely stated:

The young girl reached out her arms [and] caught the sinful woman to her own pure breast for one brief moment.

—“The Idyl of Red Gulch”

The strongest man had but three fingers on his right hand; the best shot had but one eye.

—“The Luck of Roaring Camp”

There was a Sabbath lull in the air, which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influence, looked ominous.

Beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.

—“The Outcasts of Poker Flat”

At other times Harte, in the tradition of nineteenth-century humorists, will oppose crude vernacular usages to the genteel restatement and interpretation of the narrator:

A temporary tombstone [had been placed at drunk] Sandy's head, bearing the inscription, “Effects of McCorkle's whiskey—kills at forty rods.” … But this … was a reflection upon the unfairness of the process rather than a commentary upon the impropriety of the result.

—“The Idyl of Red Gulch”

In these instances Harte tends not to oppose one character to another, as does Mark Twain with, for example, Scotty Briggs and the minister in Roughing It. Harte's rough miners have to play against the refined narrator, and they invariably lose.

Juxtaposition is everywhere in Harte's tales, but its most common and characteristic employment is to describe an event or scene in terms that so euphemistically transcend the intelligence and the sensibility of the characters that the latter seem ludicrous. The bigamy of a crude miner is described with a mincing delicacy:

Stumpy, in other climes, had been the putative head of two families; in fact, it was owing to some legal informality in these proceedings that Roaring Camp—a city of refuge—was indebted to his company.

—“The Luck of Roaring Camp”

When the whores are run out of Poker Flat, the narrator is a miracle of chivalric restraint:

A secret committee had determined to rid the town of all improper persons. This was done permanently in regard of two men who were then hanging from the boughs of a sycamore in the gulch, and temporarily in the banishment of certain other objectionable characters. I regret to say that some of these were ladies. It is but due to the sex, however, to state that their impropriety was professional, and it was only in such easily established standards of evil that Poker Flat ventured to sit in judgment.

—“The Outcasts of Poker Flat”

The narrator provides an elaborate apology for Kentuck, who is so filthy that he is a hazard to the public health of even so casual a community as Roaring Camp:

Kentuck—who, in the carelessness of a large nature and the habits of frontier life, had begun to regard all garments as a second cuticle, which, like a snake's, only sloughed off through decay.

—“The Luck of Roaring Camp”

The narrator's gallantry, pretended sympathy, and elaborate apologetics are largely mockery, and they reduce the characters to fools, even—like Kentuck, to animals.

Yet these reductions are not troublesome, and neither the narrator nor the reader feels guilty about the laughter. In this respect Harte is assisted by his exaggerated contrasts and sometimes violent juxtapositions, as well as by his wooden characterizations. We are not concerned about the meaning of Harte's narrative events because we don't believe in his characters.

The endings of Harte's tales climax the game of elegant euphemism, though they complicate it by adding sentimentality.

“He is dead,” said one. Kentuck opened his eyes. “Dead?” he repeated feebly. “Yes, my man, and you are dying too.” A smile lit the eyes of the expiring Kentuck. “Dying!” he repeated; “he's a-taking me with him. Tell the boys I've got The Luck with me now;” and the strong man, clinging to the frail babe as a drowning man is said to cling to a straw, drifted away into the shadowy river that flows forever to the unknown sea.

—“The Luck of Roaring Camp”8

These lilting conclusions, the flourish of Harte's authorial signature, attempt in their excesses to evoke the differing responses of humor and sentimentality. Harte tries to have it both ways in these passages, an effort that has conventionally led to comparisons with Dickens. There is, however, a crucial difference. Dickens aligns the two responses, creating laughter that measures his sympathy, his compassion, his involvement with the human comedy. Harte's laughter is as disdainful as the gestures of Miss Mary, who, when confronted by a scarlet woman of Red Gulch, “half unconsciously settled her white cuffs and collar, and gathered closer her own chaste skirts.”

Harte's conclusions highlight how his narratives have been misread. A reader who is carried along by the overwash of sentiment has to suspend not only his own disbelief, but also that of the narrators, who subvert the stories all along. “How Santa Claus Came to Simpson's Bar” provides a characteristic illustration. Published in 1872, as part of Harte's gaudy $10,000-a-year contract with Fields, Osgood & Co., publishers of the Atlantic Monthly, “Simpson's Bar” summarizes the eighteen tales that preceded it and predicts the scores that follow.

The tale begins on Christmas Eve in the tiny community of Simpson's Bar, which rain and flood have turned into a desolate island. A group of loungers at Thompson's store decide to celebrate the holiday by having “a sort of tear around” at the cabin of a miner known as the Old Man. When they arrive, they discover that the Old Man's young boy, Johnny, is sick. Fueled by the melancholy sight of the suffering youngster, and a demijohn of whiskey, one of the miners takes up a collection, mounts a horse, plunges into the swollen tide of Rattlesnake Creek, and rides to the distant town of Tuttlesville to buy some Christmas toys for Johnny. Riding all night, he survives the rising currents, a vicious horse, a highwayman and a seductive señorita, and returns just at dawn:

And even so, bedraggled, ragged, unshaven, and unshorn, with one arm hanging helplessly at his side, Santa Claus came to Simpson's Bar and fell fainting on the first threshold. The Christmas dawn came slowly after, touching the remoter peaks with the rosy warmth of ineffable love. And it looked so tenderly on Simpson's Bar that the whole mountain, as if caught in a generous action, blushed to the skies.

“This is the very Bret Harte,” said Mark Twain, “whose pathetics … used to be a godsend to the farmers of two hemispheres on account of the freshlets of tears they compelled. He said to me once with a cynical chuckle that he thought he had mastered the art of pumping up the tear of sensibility.”9 “How Santa Claus came to Simpson's Bar” ends with a tear of sensibility, but the story is told with a succession of cynical chuckles. It is difficult for the reader to worry much about Johnny's toys when the boy is described as having a face “darkened by evil knowledge from within, and dirt and hard experience from without.” His illness provides no occasion for the reader's sympathy, once the boy's character is revealed:

Dick Bullen … took his pipe from his lips. “Old Man, how's that yer Johnny gettin' on? Seems to me he didn't look so peart last time I seed him on the bluff heavin' rocks at Chinamen. Didn't seem to take much interest in it. Thar was a gang of 'em by yar yesterday—drownded out up the river—and I kinder thought o' Johnny, and how he'd miss 'em!”

If we were to take the story seriously, Harte would have to present something of the tenderness of the Old Man's domestic relations. Instead, in one of his most carefully chiseled satiric paragraphs, Harte presents us with a joke:

The Old Man's … first wife, a delicate, pretty little woman, had suffered keenly and secretly from the jealous suspicions of her husband, until one day he invited the whole Bar to his house to expose her infidelity. On arriving, the party found the shy, petite creature quietly engaged in her household duties, and retired abashed and discomfited. But the sensitive woman did not easily recover from the shock of this extraordinary outrage. It was with difficulty she regained her equanimity sufficiently to release her lover from the closet in which he was concealed, and escape with him. She left a boy of three years to comfort her bereaved husband.

The climax of the story is presumably Dick Bullen's night ride for Johnny's toys, but Harte raises the ante of credibility so high that the reader has to fold, in laughter. Bullen has his right arm shattered by a highwayman's bullet and is waylaid by a voluptuous Mexican señorita. His horse is a “half-blind but wholly vicious” monster that throws him twice. Rattlesnake Creek has become “a swift and resistless river. … Man and horse … were swept away amidst uprooted trees and whirling driftwood.” What happens to the horse and how Bullen finally manages to get to Simpson's Bar with his sack of presents are never explained. Not content with these narrative excesses and inconsistencies, the narrator ridicules his own story, first with a Fieldingesque invocation to the muse—

Sing, O Muse, the ride of Richard Bullen! Sing, O Muse, of chivalrous men! the sacred quest, the doughty deeds, the battery of low churls, the fearsome ride and gruesome perils of the Flower of Simpson's Bar! Alack! she is dainty, this Muse! She will have none of this bucking brute and swaggering, ragged rider, and I must fain follow him in prose, afoot!

and then with a joke on a poem by Longfellow—

But here he was waylaid by Beauty—Beauty opulent in charms, affluent in dress, persuasive in speech, and Spanish in accent! In vain she repeated the invitation in “Excelsior,” happily scorned by all Alpine-climbing youth, and rejected by this child of the Sierras—a rejection softened in this instance by a laugh and his last gold coin.

Thus the strongest element in the story is not the heroic dash of an unlikely hero to bring Christmas to a sick youngster, but the mocking voice of the narrator telling us what fools these miners be.

The idea that Bret Harte is essentially a humorist could be supported in additional ways, both outside and inside the fiction. The biographers, largely hagiographic, stress Harte's wit and charm, but lurking behind that portrait is a man, as Howells phrased it, “mostly ironical [that] you never could be sure of.”10 It is tempting to relate Bret Harte the man to the character in his fiction who is treated most sympathetically—the gambler Jack Hamlin. Both were delicate, well-dressed, articulate dandies, who indulged themselves in condescendingly witty remarks as the human comedy paraded by. Harte's essays turn explicitly to discussions of humor, and embedded in the tales are frequent comments that help us understand how the author interpreted his work. “Tennessee's Partner” is filled with such comments. The narrator tells us that even Tennessee's holdups are characterized by the thief's comic disposition that “no business preoccupation could wholly subdue,” a disposition that is appropriate to “gulches and barrooms where all sentiment was modified by a strong sense of humor.” At the trial, the judge senses that a “sympathy of humor was beginning to humanize the court,” though it does not prevent Tennessee from being hanged. The joke ends only at the burial, when

Jack Folinsbee, who had at the outset played a funeral march in dumb show upon an imaginary trombone, desisted from a lack of [the onlookers'] sympathy and appreciation—not having, perhaps, your true humorist's capacity to be content with the enjoyment of his own fun.

Unlike Jack Folinsbee, Harte is a true humorist. The irony of his ironic style is that, for a century, he has had to be content with the enjoyment of his own fun.


  1. Cleanth Brooks, Jr., and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Fiction (New York: F. S. Crofts, 1943), pp. 219-220.

  2. In the Fortnightly Review for November 1868, H. C. Merivale suggested that we should “look a little more closely and ‘realistically,’ as the phrase now runs, at the features of New World landscape” (OED).

  3. Joseph B. Harrison, Bret Harte: Representative Selections (New York: American Book Co., 1941), p. v. Wallace Stegner, “Western Record and Romance,” in Literary History of the United States, ed. Robert E. Spiller et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1948), p. 867. (LHUS lists twenty-five separate entries for Harte.) Cleanth Brooks, R. W. B. Lewis, Robert Penn Warren, American Literature: The Makers and the Making (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973), p. 1252. Patrick Morrow, Bret Harte (Boise, ID: Boise State College, 1972), p. 7. Other critics present a more tempered version of the same general point. Constance Rourke is representative: “Bret Harte has been credited with having loosed a sea of local color. … Yet with all the local picturing that followed, some of it plainly modeled upon effects which he had created, it cannot strictly be said that Harte was a primary influence in this direction.” American Humor (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1953 [orig. pub. in 1931]), p. 179.

  4. Cornhill Magazine, July 1899, p. 8.

  5. A discussion of local color must face, at some point, the vaguely perjorative sense implied by the term. Somehow local color writings are lighter in weight than other forms, sketches rather than full-bodied productions. They seem appropriate to the off-duty hours of lawyers and housewives, rather than the central efforts of established authors, which perhaps explains why local color writing served as the back door to authorship for many American women. Brooks, Warren, and Lewis, in American Literature: The Makers and the Making, note that although The Scarlet Letter, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the Yoknapatawpha cycle are intensely local, they are not local color:

    The point seems to be that when a work engages fundamental moral or psychological issues at a deep level, the other elements are subordinated, and no matter how deeply rooted it may be in place and time, its interest no longer depends on quaintness, charm, the report of curious manners and customs, or nostalgia.

    (p. 1255)

    This criticism appropriately describes many second-rate works included in local color collections, but it is inadequate as a definition of local color itself. One need only mention The Country of the Pointed Firs.

  6. The quotations from Harte's fiction are taken from The Writings of Bret Harte, 20 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1896-1914).

  7. Humor is mentioned in previous discussions of Bret Harte, though the references are fragmentary and unilluminating, often limited to a single sentence or phrase: “He had humor, a good ear, a style that was disciplined and clean” (Stegner); “‘The Luck of Roaring Camp’ mixed humor and pathos” (Walker); “He has Dickens's human weakness for absurd detail, audacious humor, outrageous dialogue and dialect” (Colombo); “the celebrated American humorist” (Stewart); “play of humour and sentiment” (Brooks). Other works on Harte tend to neglect humor entirely (Pemberton, O'Connor) or mention it in relation to poems and parodies: “His satirical impulse found two modes of expression: in humourous verse and in prose parody” (Boynton): “An outstanding comic writer [in Condensed Novels]” (Morrow). Some nineteenth-century comments on Harte's humor seem to use the word in its earlier sense of idiosyncrasy, disposition, caprice. Thus when Harte was introduced at the annual dinner of the British Royal Academy in 1880 as the “great American humorist,” the phrase may at least partially have pointed toward Harte's talents as a literary caricaturist.

    One exception to these nominal references to humor is G. K. Chesterton's celebratory article written on the occasion of Bret Harte's death in 1902. Chesterton makes perceptive remarks about American humor, parody, characterization, and San Francisco, and he deserves credit for recognizing Harte as a humorist. His theory of Harte's humor, however, is precisely the opposite of what this essay attempts to prove. Chesterton maintains that

    With … distinctively American humour Bret Harte had little or nothing in common. The wild, sky-breaking humour of America has its fine qualities, but it must in the nature of things be deficient in two qualities, not only of supreme importance to life and letters, but of supreme importance to humour—reverence and sympathy. And these two qualities were knit into the closest texture of Bret Harte's humour.

    (See Wallace Stegner, “Western Record and Romance,” in Literary History of the United States, rev. ed., 1953. Stegner also states in his “Introduction” to The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Tales [1961], that “there is humor—pervasive, unprudish, often still fresh and natural.” Franklin Walker, San Francisco's Literary Frontier, 1939. John Robert Colombo, “Introduction” to The Outcasts of Poker Flat … and Other Stories, 1964. George R. Stewart, Bret Harte, Argonaut and Exile, 1931. Van Wyck Brooks, “San Francisco: Bret Harte,” in The Times of Melville and Whitman, 1947. T. Edgar Pemberton, The Life of Bret Harte, 1903. Richard O'Connor, Bret Harte: A Biography, 1966. Henry W. Boynton, Bret Harte, 1903. Patrick Morrow, Bret Harte, 1972. G. K. Chesterton, “The Way of the World: Bret Harte,” Pall Mall Magazine, 1902.)

  8. Harte apparently liked that ending so much that he used it again in “Mrs. Skaggs's Husbands”: “His head sank, and the rushing river, invisible to all eyes save his, leaped toward him out of the darkness, and bore him away, no longer to the darkness, but through it to the distant, peaceful, shining sea.”

  9. Mark Twain in Eruption, ed. Bernard DeVoto (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940), p. 265. Mark Twain's fulminations against his former friend have many sources, including authorial competition, personal disputes, and failed collaboration. Among them, perhaps, was Twain's increasing recognition that the premises of Harte's arrogant humor were opposed to his own more sympathetic variety.

  10. W. D. Howells, Literary Friends and Acquaintance (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1968; orig. pub. 1900, though the Harte section, “A Belated Guest,” was added to the 1910 ed.), pp. 247-248.

Gary Scharnhorst (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Scharnhorst, Gary. “Whatever Happened to Bret Harte?” In American Realism and the Canon, edited by Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst, pp. 201-11. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Scharnhorst explores the reasons for Harte's virtual disappearance from modern critical studies.]

In the midst of a literary reformation whose most radical protestants decry the very notion of a canon, something rather curious has occurred: Bret Harte's works have disappeared from the textual landscape like books banned in Boston. Neither the Heath nor the Harper—the most inclusive and unabashedly decentered of the new college anthologies of American literature—contains a single word by Harte, and he receives scant attention in the new Columbia Literary History of the United States. The Signet paperback edition of The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Tales, the collection of Harte's stories best-suited for classroom adoption, has recently lapsed from print. At this writing, no volume on Harte has appeared among the six hundred studies in Twayne's United States Authors Series, one of the most ambitious critical projects of the past thirty years, which includes monographs on such otherwise obscure figures as Will Harben, Sherwood Bonner, and Adelaide Crapsey. That is, the recanonization of American literature in recent years has led to a virtual decanonization of Harte for reasons that are problematic at best in the present climate of literary studies.

It was not ever thus. Harte's story “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” published without signature in the July 1868 issue of an upstart California magazine, “startled the Academists on the Atlantic Coast,” as Kate Chopin remembered later.1 From the first, his work, so different in tone and texture from the genteel tradition of Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Fireside Poets, challenged the established canon. Mark Twain thought him at the time “the finest writer” in the West2 and turned to him for help and advice as he was revising The Innocents Abroad. Harte, he allowed, “trimmed and trained and schooled me patiently until he changed me from an awkward utterer of coarse grotesquenesses to a writer of paragraphs and chapters that have found a certain favor.”3 In 1871, after earning a national reputation with a half-dozen or so memorable stories and poems in the Overland Monthly—e.g., “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” “Tennessee's Partner,” “The Idyl of Red Gulch,” “Miggles,” “Plain Language from Truthful James”—Harte was lured east by the promise of wealth and literary success. W. D. Howells later compared his journey across the continent to “the progress of a prince” in the “universal attention and interest” it received in the daily press.4 According to Twain, Harte “crossed the continent through such a prodigious blaze of national interest and excitement that one might have supposed he was the Viceroy of India on a progress, or Halley's comet come again after seventy-five years of lamented absence.”5 In Boston, Harte signed the most lucrative contract that had ever been offered an American writer—ten thousand dollars—by the firm of James R. Osgood & Co., the publisher of the Atlantic Monthly (whose stable included Emerson, Thoreau, Stowe, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier, Holmes, and Howells) for all the poems and sketches he might produce over the next twelve months. For that one year, it may be fairly said, Harte was both the highest-paid and the best-known writer in America.

He was not, however, the most widely read writer in America that year, largely because he published very little under the terms of the contract. He “was in the midst of new and alien conditions,” Howells explained, “and he had always his temperament against him, as well as the reluctant if not the niggard nature of his muse.”6 Harte's career went into a tailspin that lasted most of a decade, but it is simply not true that, as Eric Sundquist remarks in the Columbia Literary History, his career was “brief.”7 In fact, Harte published at least one new book of fiction each year, fully two-thirds of his collected works, between 1883 and his death in 1902. By 1893, moreover, he was earning a reported fifteen thousand dollars annually, more than he had received while under contract to Osgood in 1871-1872.8 To be sure, late in his career Harte was especially popular in England and Germany. In 1890, Havelock Ellis ranked him with Hawthorne, Poe, and Mark Twain among American “imaginative writers … of worldwide significance,”9 and at his death the London Spectator claimed he had “probably exerted a greater influence on English literature than any other American author.”10 No less a luminary than Henry Adams regarded Harte as one of “the most brilliant men of my time,”11 and as late as 1914 his books had appeared in more German editions than had Twain's.12

His standing in the canonical pecking order may be inferred from the comments about his work in high school and college textbooks and the frequency with which it has been anthologized over the years. Julian Hawthorne and Leonard Lemmon in American Literature: An Elementary Text-book (1891)—issued, ironically, by the D. C. Heath Co.—hailed Harte as “a brilliant innovator” who spoke in “a new voice.” His “first half-dozen stories were his best”—such has been the critical consensus since the 1870s—but it “would be difficult to praise these half-dozen stories too highly. It is difficult to see how they would have been done better.”13 Fred Lewis Pattee echoed the point in his History of American Literature (1903): Harte's early stories for the Overland “were works of literary art worthy to be compared with the rarest products of American genius.”14 Similarly, Eva March Tappan contended in 1906 that, while Harte reached his peak in those first tales, “no one can help seeing that within his own limits he is a master.”15 Brander Matthews asserted the next year that Harte “had a finer sense of form” than Dickens,16 and John Erskine argued in 1910 that Harte was one of six American writers of fiction whom “time has sifted … for special remembrance.”17 Charles Swain Thomas edited a selection of Harte's Poems and Stories published expressly for schools and colleges by Houghton Mifflin—the successor firm to Osgood & Co.—in 1912,18 and William MacDonald edited a collection of Harte's Stories and Poems published by the Oxford University Press three years later.19 Mary E. Calhoun and Emma L. MacAlarney reprinted one of Harte's poems in their Readings from American Literature: A Textbook for Schools and Colleges and lamented that space prevented them from excerpting more of his work.20 Meanwhile, “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” became staples in anthologies of short fiction.21

Harte was clearly at the height of his modern popularity during the second quarter of this century. Though never in the first rank of American writers, he was a major minor figure, certainly more canonical than marginal. His grandson compiled a collection of his letters for publication by Houghton Mifflin in 1926, and the scholar George Stewart both edited The Luck of Roaring Camp and Selected Stories and Poems for Macmillan in 1928 and wrote the standard biography, Bret Harte: Argonaut and Exile, issued in 1931. Meanwhile, the gold regions of central California had begun to be known as “Bret Harte country” in deference to the writer's role in romanticizing the exploits of the redshirted miners. “Of all the Californias that men have invented for their delight or their profit, Bret Harte's is the most charming,” or so the travel writer Mildred Adams claimed in 1930.22 Not even Joseph Stalin was immune to Harte's appeal: In 1927, the Soviet leader inaugurated a policy to encourage mass migration to Siberia “after reading Bret Harte's novels about the California Gold Rush”—or so he claimed.23 Moreover, every American literature anthology published in the thirties, forties, and fifties included at least one story by Harte. More typically, they contained generous selections from his writings. Both American Poetry and Prose (Houghton Mifflin, 1939), edited by Norman Foerster, and A College Book of American Literature (American Book Co., 1939), edited by Milton Ellis, Louise Pound, and George W. Spohn, reprinted “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” “Plain Language from Truthful James,” and one or two other Harte texts. The Oxford Anthology of American Literature (1939), edited by William Rose Benét and Norman Holmes Pearson, contained “Outcasts” and four of Harte's poems, including “Plain Language.” Two major postwar anthologies—The Literature of the United States (Scott, Foresman, 1947), edited by Walter Blair, Theodore Hornberger, and Randall Stewart, and American Heritage (Heath, 1955), edited by Leon Howard, Louis B. Wright, and Carl Bode—reprinted “The Luck,” “Tennessee's Partner,” and “Plain Language”; and The Rise of Realism (Macmillan, 1949), edited by Louis Wann, featured both “The Luck” and “Outcasts,” one of Harte's parodic “condensed novels,” and eight of his poems. The American Tradition in Literature (Norton, 1956), the most popular college anthology of all, edited by Sculley Bradley, R. C. Beatty, and E. Hudson Long, included “Outcasts” and four of Harte's poems. Even the immediate predecessor to the Heath anthology, the survey-text American Literature (Heath, 1969), edited by Harrison T. Meserole, Walter Sutton, and Brom Weber, contained another of the “condensed novels,” Harte's story “The Idyl of Red Gulch,” and his comic poem “Miss Judge Jenkins.” Less than a generation ago, Harte was still a standard, if not a vital, figure in the canon, his stories and poems a part of the established curriculum in American literature.

So what happened? Why has Harte in recent years suffered a sort of critical eclipse? First, he seemed to represent for the New Critics all that was wrong with American fiction. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren excoriated “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and especially “Tennessee's Partner” in Understanding Fiction (1943; rev. ed. 1959), one of the most influential of all New Critical texts. According to Brooks and Warren, Harte was “straining for a highly emotional effect,” one of the “surest symptoms that one is dealing with a case of sentimentality.” In the latter story, he was “so thoroughly obsessed with the pathos of the partner's loyalty that he has devoted no thought to the precise nature of the basis of that loyalty.”24 Never mind that Harte subtly mocks the popular-sentimental conception of friendship Brooks and Warren believe the story affirms; despite their vaunted critical acumen and the very title of their book Brooks and Warren oversimplify and misread the text.25 Never mind that they would reprint “Tennessee's Partner” in their own anthology American Literature: The Makers and the Making (St. Martin's, 1974). The damage to Harte's critical reputation was irreparable, however misdirected their attack may have been. Brooks and Warren made it possible, even fashionable, for academic formalists to denigrate Harte. Roy R. Male, for example, complained in Types of Short Fiction that Harte “strains for effect,” that his fiction exhibits an “uneven, insecure, and facile tone.”26 Bradley, Beatty, and Long excerpted Harte's work in the Norton anthology notwithstanding their lament it “was often sentimental, melodramatic and mawkish.”27 And Jay Gurian charged in the Colorado Quarterly that Harte's verse was marred by “trite rhyming, intrusive rhythm, topical reference, and lack of idea.”28

Harte has also suffered in recent years from a number of invidious comparisons with Mark Twain. As in a zero-sum game, Twain's star has risen as Harte's has fallen, the success of one coming at the expense of the other. Their rivalry has historical roots, of course: Despite their early friendship, despite Harte's early patronage, despite their collaboration on the play Ah Sin, the two men were estranged in 1877 and never spoke again. Harte believed that Twain had conspired with Elisha Bliss of the American Publishing Company of Hartford to cheat him out of royalties he had earned on sales of his novel Gabriel Conroy. On his part, Twain thought Harte had insulted his wife. As early as January 1878, at any rate, Twain publicly but anonymously alleged that “Harte was absolutely devoid of a conscience. If his washerwoman had saved $500 by long years of careful industry, he would borrow it without the slightest intention of repaying it.”29 When he learned a few months later that Harte was angling for a diplomatic appointment, Twain vilified him in a letter to Howells as “a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward” and asked “what German town he is to filthify with his presence” so that he could “write the authorities there.”30 In Australia in 1895, he declared Harte “sham and shoddy,” with “no pathos of the real, true kind.”31 He fulminated about Harte again in 1906, in autobiographical dictations Bernard De Voto edited and published in 1940 in Mark Twain in Eruption. Harte “was an incorrigible borrower of money” who “deserted his family” and “never sent them a dollar” all the years he was abroad. Harte walked with a “mincing” gait, Twain recalled, thus insinuating he was homosexual. In all, he was

one of the unpleasantest men I have ever known. … He hadn't a sincere fiber in him. I think he was incapable of emotion, for I think he had nothing to feel with. I think his heart was merely a pump and had no other function. … He was bad, distinctly bad; he had no feeling, and he had no conscience.32

Never mind that none of these allegations is strictly true: for example, by his own estimate, Harte sent his wife a total of sixty thousand dollars over a period of twenty-four years.33 The labels stuck nevertheless. Ever loyal to his master, De Voto dismissed Harte in Mark Twain's America as “a literary charlatan whose tales have greatly pleased the second rate.”34 Twain scholars, who can scarcely be accused of dispassionate objectivity in this matter, have without exception rallied to the side of the greater writer. Dixon Wecter claimed that “Harte burned himself out early” and “left a wake of personal unpopularity such as few other American writers have ever achieved.”35 According to Edward Weeks and Emily Flint, Harte “became jealous and vindictive” when Twain succeeded him.36 Twain's blast was “about the bitterest denunciation one American writer ever made of another,” Edward Wagenknecht observed, though it was tempered by Twain's generous “estimate of Harte's work.”37 Ironically, in the most thorough review of the extant evidence, Margaret Duckett revised the jaundiced assessment of Harte's star-crossed relations with Twain. The only scholar of note to specialize in Harte's writings since Stewart published his biography in the early 1930s, Duckett readily conceded her “belief that for too long a time the scales have been heavily weighted on the side of Harte's damnation.” Far from “jealous and vindictive,” Harte simply “remained silent” on the subject of Twain during the last twenty-five years of his life “in the face of considerable provocation.”38 Unfortunately, Duckett's Mark Twain and Bret Harte (1964) was received with unvarnished hostility by most critics, especially those employed in the Twain industry. Wilson O. Clough toed the orthodox line in American Literature, asserting that “Twain had some ground for impatience” with Harte,39 and G. A. Cardwell carped that Duckett “gives Harte the benefit of the doubt but not Mark Twain.”40 Hamlin Hill, a Twain biographer, detected “the strong odor of whitewash” about the book,41 as if Duckett were merely imitating one of Tom Sawyer's boyish pranks. Twain, it seems, will always be the plaintiff, Harte the defendant whose guilt is presumed.

Ironically, Harte has been marginalized—or, more accurately, simply ignored—during a canon debate that has served to rehabilitate the reputations of literally dozens of nineteenth-century American minority and women writers. Like the gatekeepers at a trendy night-club, the editorial board of the Heath Anthology of American Literature admitted to its pages only those writers who fit a certain profile in dress and appearance. As general editor Paul Lauter explains, the board reviewed the hundreds of texts recommended for inclusion by the profession at large, “made an initial cut, and then in a series of meetings over three years narrowed the selections to what could fit within the covers of two large volumes.” Like brands of house paint or car wax that have been test-marketed (text-marketed?), the reprinted works ostensibly reflect the “new scholarship developed by leading specialists in the fields.”42 Harte was omitted from the anthology not because he lacks merit but because he lacked sponsors. What the New Critics began in the 1940s the anthologists-by-committee finished in the 1980s. Or are we to assume that such figures as Sui Sin Far, Mary Antin, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson are included because each of them really was a more significant writer than Harte? The same forces that have rehabilitated the reputations of minority and women writers have not touched Harte: they have produced what is, in effect, a conspiracy of silence to exclude him. The editorial board of the Heath now proposes to delete The Scarlet Letter, Huck Finn, and Daisy Miller—texts that are “inexpensively available in paperback” and which were included in the first place, as one of the editors confided to me, only at the insistence of the publisher—to make room “for additions to the Second Edition” of the anthology, a process that may be likened to replacing the chestnuts with the Chesnut(t)s, Mary and Charles.

Even more ironically, the case against Harte (i.e., that his fiction is marred by excessive sentimentality) mirrors exactly the old argument for excluding such women writers as Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and Harriet Beecher Stowe from the canon. As Herbert Ross Brown opined half a century ago, the sentimental novelists “were escapists, artfully evading the experiences of their own day. … They fed the national complacency by shrouding the actualities of American life in the flattering mists of sentimental optimism.”43 De Voto summarizes the consensus view of Harte's tales in remarkably similar terms: “The syrupy tales that he spun out … drifted opportunely before a public relieved of war and facing westward. They were prettily written, between laughter and kind tears. They informed readers enamored of sentiment that even in the Sierras the simpler virtues were imperishable and that humanity remained capable of sweetness on the Pacific slope.”44 To their credit, Jane Tompkins and others have recently attempted to redress the charge that sentimental fiction “presents a picture of life so oversimplified and improbable” that “only the most naive and self-deceiving reader could believe it.”45 They contend, with good reason, that the formalist bias against sentimentality was often invoked merely to exclude popular fiction from the canon and from serious critical discussion. Unfortunately, the argument has never been made in defense of Harte's fiction. Lora Romero, while conceding that women's novels are not “necessarily different from men's novels,” nevertheless argues that because “women novelists have been excluded” from the canon “as a class, feminist literary histories must include them as a class.46 That is, works by men writers may encode an ideology as subversive as those by women writers, but Harte's tales—and, for that matter, the novels of Sinclair Lewis or James Branch Cabell or Richard Harding Davis (who is now known, if at all, as the son of Rebecca Harding Davis)—may be ignored precisely because as “dead white males” they fall outside the parameters of gender. A recent collection of Harte's early California essays was panned by reviewers who groused that it appealed only to “San Franciscans and buffs of California memorabilia,”47 that “interested readers (as opposed to scholars)” will have “to wade through soporific passages about politics and religion in order to get to nuggets of interest.”48 I daresay the book would have escaped such cavils had the essays been written, say, by Jessie Benton Fremont or Ina Coolbrith. Harte had published one of these essays earlier in the weekly paper the Golden Era and he would collect it in the first edition of The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches as well as in his collected works. Are we now to conclude that its appeal is slighter because he also published it during his literary apprenticeship in the pages of the Boston Christian Register?49

By any reasonable criteria, whether aesthetic or historical, let alone ideological, Harte deserves to be resurrected from the footnote. Not only did he write some fine and influential tales and poems, he was remarkably liberal on issues of race, class, and gender; that is, he was/is “politically correct,” a point in his defense that is, regrettably, germane to the ongoing debate on the canon.50 As a young journalist in Humboldt County, California, in 1859, Harte risked life and limb by editorially condemning a massacre of Native Americans, and in 1866 he publicly defended the right of African Americans to march in a Fourth of July parade through San Francisco. In addition, his story “Miggles,” published in the Overland in 1869, is an exploration of gender-role reversal comparable to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “If I Were a Man.” Much as he satirized racial chauvinism and the stereotype of the inscrutable Oriental in “Plain Language from Truthful James,” his 1874 story “Wan Lee, the Pagan,” based on the murder of a Chinese child in San Francisco in 1867, was a powerful indictment of racial hatred. In such late allegorical tales as “The Crusade of the Excelsior” and “Three Vagabonds of Trinidad” he condemned American imperialism in Latin America and the Caribbean and the doctrine of manifest destiny that sanctioned military adventurism. Throughout his career, in short, Harte made repeated and sustained attacks on ignorance and prejudice and discrimination.51 'Tis a pity on every count that he was so long misunderstood and then forgotten.


  1. Kate Chopin, “Development of the Literary West,” St. Louis Republic, Sunday magazine (9 December 1900): 1; rpt. in American Literary Realism 22 (Winter 1990): 70-73.

  2. Mark Twain's Letters, ed. Harriet Elinor Smith and Richard Bucci (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 2: 359.

  3. Mark Twain's Letters, ed. A. B. Paine (New York and London: Harper & Bros., 1917), 1:182-83.

  4. W. D. Howells, Literary Friends and Acquaintance (New York: Harper & Bros., 1900), 290.

  5. Mark Twain in Eruption, ed. Bernard De Voto (New York and London: Harper & Bros., 1940), 265.

  6. Howells, Literary Friends, 301-302.

  7. Eric Sundquist, “Realism and Regionalism,” in the Columbia Literary History of the United States, ed. Emory Elliott et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 516.

  8. Mabel Percy Haskell, “Bret Harte in London,” San Francisco Examiner (12 February 1893) 17:4-5.

  9. Havelock Ellis, The New Spirit (London: George Bell & Sons, 1890), 86.

  10. “News of the Week,” Spectator (10 May 1902): 715.

  11. Letters of Henry Adams 1892-1918, ed. Worthington Chauncey Ford (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1938), 391.

  12. Grace Isabel Colbron, “The American Novel in Germany,” Bookman 39 (March 1914): 47-48.

  13. Julian Hawthorne and Leonard Lemmon, American Literature: An Elementary Text-book (Heath, 1891), 244, 247.

  14. Fred Lewis Pattee, A History of American Literature (New York, Boston, Chicago: Silver, Burdett and Co., 1903), 398.

  15. Eva March Tappan, A Short History of America's Literature (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1906), 115.

  16. Brander Matthews, The Short Story (New York: American Book Co., 1907), 253.

  17. John Erskine, “Bret Harte,” in Leading American Novelists (New York: Henry Holt, 1910), 325-69.

  18. Poems and Stories by Bret Harte, ed. Charles Swain Thomas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912).

  19. Stories and Poems by Bret Harte, ed. William MacDonald (London: Oxford University Press, 1915).

  20. Readings from American Literature: A Textbook for Schools and Colleges, ed. Mary Edwards Calhoun and Emma Leonora MacAlarney (Boston and New York: Ginn and Co., 1915), iv.

  21. Short Stories, ed. C. Alphonso Smith (Boston: Ginn and Co., 1916); The Great Modern Short Stories, ed. W. D. Howells (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920); Representative American Short Stories, ed. Alexander Jessup (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1923).

  22. Mildred Adams, “Glamour Clings to Bret Harte's Hills,” New York Times Magazine (31 August 1930): 12-13. See also “Gold Rush in Reverse,” Time (31 August 1992): 15-16, which mentions the “scenic small towns” in central California which were “once made famous by Mark Twain and Bret Harte.”

  23. “That Russian Gold,” Time (15 May 1964): 108.

  24. Understanding Fiction, ed. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1943), 214-20, 230; rev. ed. 1959, 181-84. Brooks and his fellow editors, including Warren, reiterated the critique of “The Luck” in An Approach to Literature (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1952), 86-87.

  25. Charles F. May, “Bret Harte's ‘Tennessee's Partner’: The Reader Euchred,” South Dakota Review 15 (Spring 1977): 109-17; William F. Connor, “The Euchring of Tennessee: A Reexamination of Bret Harte's ‘Tennessee's Partner,’” Studies in Short Fiction 17 (Spring 1980): 113-20.

  26. Roy R. Male, Types of Short Fiction (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1962), 304.

  27. The American Tradition in Literature, ed. Sculley Bradley, R. C. Beatty, and E. Hudson Long (New York: Norton, 1956), 2:483.

  28. Jay Gurian, “The Possibility of a Western Poetics,” Colorado Quarterly 15 (Summer 1966): 71.

  29. Cincinnati Gazette (10 January 1878), 5:4.

  30. Mark Twain-Howells Letters, ed. Henry Nash Smith and William M. Gibson (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1960), 1:235-36.

  31. Sydney Morning Herald (17 September 1895).

  32. De Voto, ed., Mark Twain in Eruption, 254-92.

  33. Bret Harte to Anna Harte, 15 September 1901, Alderman Library, University of Virginia.

  34. Bernard De Voto, Mark Twain's America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1932), 164.

  35. Dixon Wecter, “Mark Twain and the West,” Huntington Library Quarterly 8 (August 1945): 373.

  36. Jubilee: One Hundred Years of the Atlantic, ed. Edward Weeks and Emily Flint (Boston: Little, Brown, 1957), 88.

  37. Edward Wagenknecht, Mark Twain: The Man and His Work (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961), 89.

  38. Margaret Duckett, Mark Twain and Bret Harte (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964), 333, viii.

  39. Wilson O. Clough, “Book Reviews,” American Literature 37 (January 1966): 491.

  40. G. A. Cardwell, “Book Reviews and Book Notes,” Social Studies 57 (January 1966): 36.

  41. Hamlin Hill, “Mark Twain and His Enemies,” Southern Review ns 4 (Spring 1968): 521-22.

  42. Paul Lauter, “To the Reader,” Heath Anthology of American Literature (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1990), 2:xxxiv.

  43. Herbert Ross Brown, The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1940), 360.

  44. De Voto, America, 162. See also Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream 1850-1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 49: Harte “fixed the Gold Rush into formula and made it serve as California's mythic history. Harte depicted the Gold Rush as quaint comedy and sentimental melodrama.”

  45. Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Works of American Fiction 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 152.

  46. Lora Romero, “Domesticity and Fiction,” The Columbia History of the American Novel: New Views, ed. Emory Elliott et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 111.

  47. P. J. Perroza, Choice 28 (April 1991): 1308.

  48. Joe Boe, “When Harte & Twain Went Mining for Literary Gold,” San Francisco Review of Books 15 (Fall 1990): 21.

  49. Bret Harte's California (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990), 155.

  50. I know of no more explicit rationalization for the politicization of the canon debate than Tompkins's (201): “The struggle now being waged in the professoriate over which writers deserve canonical status is not just a struggle over the relative merits of literary geniuses; it is a struggle among contending factions for the right to be represented in the picture America draws of itself.”

  51. See Margaret Duckett's essays “Plain Language from Bret Harte,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 11 (March 1957): 241-60; “Bret Harte's Portrayal of Half-Breeds,” American Literature 25 (May 1953): 193-212; “Bret Harte and the Indians of Northern California,” Huntington Library Quarterly 18 (November 1954): 59-83; and “The ‘Crusade’ of a Nineteenth-Century Liberal,” Tennessee Studies in Literature 4 (1956): 109-20.

Lee Mitchell (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8469

SOURCE: Mitchell, Lee. “Bierstadt's Settings, Harte's Plots.” In Reading the West: New Essays on the Literature of the American West, edited by Michael Kowalewski, pp. 99-124. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Mitchell finds parallels between the careers of Harte and the painter Albert Bierstadt.]

In the mid-1860s, a painter and a writer burst into fame as the premier artists of America's Far West. Unlike anyone before, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) and Bret Harte (1836-1902) took the nation by storm, and yet in less than a decade, few Americans glanced at Bierstadt's grandiose landscapes or leafed through Harte's sentimental stories. Images that had recently captivated the imagination had come to seem either grossly inflated or baldly inaccurate, cloyingly mawkish, or simply banal. The fact that both painter and writer experienced such a meteoric rise and fall in reputation, at nearly the same time, raises the question of what contributed to such brief fame—especially given the notable influence both men continued to have on other artists of the Far West. Across the boundaries that separate painting from writing, is there a shared technique, or theme, or perspective that might explain their appeal to contemporaries? And what might that evanescent appeal reveal about the 1860s, about the people who responded so fully to such similarly extravagant visions?

One answer to this conundrum of lost popularity yet abiding effect may lie in the peculiar treatment both artists give to the West as a “direction of thought” rather than as a definite geographical region. They envision, whether in paint or in words, a psychological terrain far less local or specific than the Sierra Nevadas or Rocky Mountains. And in doing so, they first mapped a realm that subsequent artists could likewise transform into distinct emotional regions and yet nonetheless label “western.” Moreover, the closer one looks at each man's career in terms of the other's, the easier it is to grasp how overnight fame and nearly instant neglect may in each case have stemmed from an inability to match the other artist's central vision: Bierstadt at his best created paradoxical landscapes that demanded strong narrative plots; Harte created paradoxical characters who emerge from overly vague landscapes. Each artist aroused expectations for a West that neither alone could satisfy.


When Albert Bierstadt returned from America to his birthplace in Germany in 1853, it was a self-confident teenage painter, eager to master techniques at the famous Düsseldorf academy. By the time he returned across the Atlantic at the age of twenty-seven, he had become a well-respected artist, with career ambitions as grand as his new painterly style. Realizing the West would offer “my subject,” he accompanied General Frederick W. Lander's 1859 survey to the Rocky Mountains, and excitedly began to paint what he found. Returning the following year, he won almost immediate acclaim in New York with his landscapes. And only three years later, he garnered international fame with The Rocky Mountains (1863), the wall-sized canvas that sold for an unprecedented $25,000 and secured his reputation as the heir to Turner. “On this American more than any other,” London's Art Journal solemnly averred, “does the mantle of our greatest painter appear to have fallen.” Within the decade, however, Bierstadt found the mantle slipping, and by 1885, he had fallen so far in esteem as to be rejected for an international show. Long before he died in New York, in 1902, he had grown accustomed to being ignored by his contemporaries.

If less convinced of his own artistic talent at so early an age, Bret Harte's career nonetheless offers parallels to Bierstadt's. Born in New York, the son of a schoolteacher, Harte moved to California at eighteen, where he took a number of odd jobs and began in a desultory way to write. By his late twenties, his poems and parodies had made him well-known on the San Francisco literary scene, but no one could have anticipated the response to his first story, “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1868), which made his name a household word across the country. Two years later, riding a wave of popular acclaim, he signed a one-year contract to supply The Atlantic Monthly with a story per month for the unheard-of sum of $10,000. Within two years, however, his star had fallen; his contract was not renewed, his works were neglected, and by 1878 he had sailed to Europe, having accepted the position of consul in Rhenish Prussia. Reversing Bierstadt's move, Harte stayed abroad for the rest of his life, vainly attempting to attract the writing public that had turned so abruptly away from him. Long forgotten in America, he finally died in London the very year of Bierstadt's death.

Accounts of Bierstadt's and Harte's careers tend to devolve into either reductive or overdetermined interpretations. Too often, popular enthusiasm for their work is simply equated with the images themselves, as if viewers' and readers' complex responses could be measured in terms of the simple appeal of western scenes, characters, and icons. More strictly historical explanations tend to reduce delight in odd stories and extravagant paintings to a diffuse public fascination with the unknown. An alleged national ignorance about details of landscape and life in the Far West was largely rectified by the early 1870s, with the appearance of government reports and the photographs of J. C. Hillers, Timothy O'Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson. According to this explanation, the turn away from Bierstadt and Harte is more or less directly attributable to an increasing familiarity with their actual subject. Western facts, that is, finally caught up with their extravagant visions.

More distinctly formalist critics tend to attribute the sudden popularity of Bierstadt and Harte to a momentary lapse in public taste. It is easy, in both cases, to itemize assorted flaws in artistic technique that contribute to an overall effect of excess, confusion, or simple incompetence. Bierstadt's obvious problem in maintaining a consistent point of view is reflected in incompatible centers of interest, while the mixed influence of photography on his art, his awkward representation of figures, and his generally poor use of painterly formulas all are adduced to explain why the viewing public finally turned away. Likewise, Harte's indulgence of the pathetic fallacy, his resort to purple prose, his sentimental plot turns, and his patronizing narrative tone all wore thin very rapidly, and readers simply found his later stories lacking in interest.

Biographers unable to account for either artist's sudden acclaim often interpret their equally sudden loss of popularity to the sheer weight of each man's reputation, which collapsed from nothing more than being overinflated in the first place. Cultural analysts identify the way both painter and writer fortuitously put their finger on the pulse of the nation, citing Bierstadt's enthusiasm for the West as consumable empire, a grand spectacle for Americans newly enabled by developing railroads to visit a region still exotic and dangerous. That danger is, of course, never presented as either actual or imminent, and in its overaestheticization suggests a theatricalizing of experience, transforming the West into a safe stage set, and thereby assuaging the viewer's potential uneasiness about the unknown. Somewhat more economically, a similar end is achieved by Harte through fictional evocations of a distant mining frontier represented as a region already essentially civilized. Familiar civic virtues appear in exotic circumstances, and strange wilderness garb only serves to mask a conservative social order.

Apparently, a nation caught in the painful process of Civil War, then Reconstruction, was eager to embrace the pastoral and utopian fantasies purveyed by Bierstadt and Harte. But not for long, as each of these interpretive perspectives helps to explain. Before pressing such perspectives further in order to address the altering relationship between artist and public, popular art and reception, we might simply ask what it was that each man thought he was doing. More specifically, beginning with Bierstadt, to what effect does he seem to aspire in his painting, and what did he actually succeed in producing?


Perhaps the best place to begin is with Bierstadt's most celebrated canvas, the painting that first made him famous: The Rocky Mountains. Exhibited in 1864, the six- by ten-foot canvas overwhelmed all but one of six hundred-odd other canvases at New York's Sanitary Fair (a government-sponsored exhibition to raise money for Civil War wounded). And not even Frederick Edwin Church's equally grand, equally grandiose Heart of the Andes (which hung directly opposite) could vie with the tableau vivant arranged by Bierstadt in front of his canvas: nineteen Indians mutely standing among an array of a hundred-odd artifacts. Stripped of this dramatic “frame,” the painting still overpowers the viewer through a deft combination of vast scale and exacting detail—the way it celebrates the panoramic sweep of mountain peaks and peaceful valley even as it renders exact features of rocks and trees, animals and humans. The painting, in fact, compels attention not despite its contradictory demands but because of them, by deliberately not resolving pictorial elements into a balanced whole. The starkness of the lighting itself compounds this effect by cleaving sunlight from shade, while the luminous peaks hanging over dark trees are accentuated through their central repetition in the mirroring lake below.

Indeed, the contrast of Alpine majesty with the domestic scenes in the valley points to a larger division between the painting's separate modes—of landscape description and genre detail that divide its top from bottom halves. Partially alleviating this disjunction are the mountainous shape of the tepees that appear at the border of these regions. Even so, the perspective is foreshortened to such a radical degree that peaks appear to loom somehow on top of the valley rather than in the distance behind. More generally, the painting's topography is broken into discrete mise en scènes, each with a physical integrity that seems convincing only in terms of itself. Attempts to coordinate them are stymied, most obviously in the case of the ominous band of shadows broken by light on the waterfall, which are rendered unaccountable by the delicate cumulus clouds that Bierstadt depicts.

Far from a liability, however, these contrasts attest to the painting's achievement, as multiple centers of interest compete for the attention they never quite command. The group of Bannock Indians spread among the shadows of an evening encampment serves in muted tones merely to lend perspective to the scene, to humanize a landscape that is the site of such disparate efforts. The preparation of the mountain goat to the right; the white dog bounding across the valley floor; the tripod erected to keep food safe, depicted at lower left; the inquisitive prairie dog watching the whole even further to the left: among a series of other activities, each of these fosters a separate perspective that threatens but never succeeds in disrupting the overall scene. The artful conjunctions of the painting succeed by effecting a set of visual tensions, deliberately compelling the eye through a disparate mix of realistic detail, unfolding narrative enactments, and a powerfully melodramatic sweep of landscape.

As early as 1864, one of the most prominent critics of the period was provoked by just this artful conjunction, and offered a trenchant observation about Bierstadt's and Church's paintings at the Sanitary Fair: “With singular inconsistency of mind,” so James Jackson Jarves wrote, “they idealize in composition and materialize in execution, so that, although the details of the scenery are substantially correct, the scene as a whole often is false.” Accurate as this seems at first glance, the question that lingers is what it might mean for “the scene as whole” to be “false”—and false, in particular, when its details are said to be “substantially correct”? It is this sense of the false that lies at the heart of so much of the criticism directed at Bierstadt—of someone whose larger vision is unconvincing even though his realistic detail is unimpeachable.

This sense of “falseness” depends, of course, on viewers' expectations, expectations always hard on their own to identify, once removed from painterly contexts. But consider a shrewd insight expressed only seven years before Jarves wrote, about the kind of audience soon to be drawn to Bierstadt's art. “There is another class” of reader, so Herman Melville observed:

who sit down to a work of amusement tolerantly as they sit at a play, and with much the same expectations and feelings. They look that fancy shall invoke scenes different from those of the same old crowd round the customhouse counter. … They look not only for more entertainment, but, at bottom, even for more reality than real life itself can show. Thus, though they want novelty, they want nature, too; but nature unfettered, exhilarated, in effect transformed. … It is with fiction as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.

Part of what critics have persistently thought of as the “problem” of Bierstadt derives from this curiously transgressive, otherwise transcendental yearning—the unappeased craving “for more reality than real life itself can show.” Like the fiction Melville describes, Bierstadt's paintings represent “another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.”

Bierstadt does this in part through the very profusion of authentic details in his paintings—the surfeit of realistic tableaux that makes the eye pan for so long, over so many things rendered with such extraordinary care. Like a documentary film, they force the viewer to linger over every detail, every crag, tree, and windover, in the effort to reveal how much more the painterly perspective (or camera eye) can encompass than any actual eye could ever register. That comprehensiveness is itself a sign of the surreal in Bierstadt's imagination, of the “more reality than real life itself can show” that prevails throughout his paintings. Yet he succeeded not only because he perfected such stylistic tricks as a crowded visual field, but because of a more general enthusiasm developing in the postbellum period for what was termed the “secular sublime.” Bierstadt appeared at the right moment, displaying a series of non-sacred, self-transforming aesthetic tableaux that redefined the West in terms that religion was no longer capable of doing.

This possibility of “nature unfettered, exhilarated, in effect transformed” is exemplified as clearly as anywhere in A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mount Rosalie, completed in 1866. It is an extravagant painting, complex and crowded, with dark, towering mountains on the right sliding us into the frame, into the foreground pool, then into a series of further pools that lead to the larger lakes in the middle and far distance. Over it all hang Bierstadt's signature clouds that just miss hiding the gleaming peak of the title. Half a dozen centers of interest compete for the viewer's attention, as if in a kind of cinematic competition (before the fact) for the plot: from the startled ptarmigans winging into flight; to a dead deer abandoned near the foreground pool; to Indians chasing a frightened horse; to the encampment of tepees near the river that flows through the left middle distance—a river in which mounted Indians ride three horses; on to deer quietly grazing beyond the chasing Indians; and so on, depending on how closely one looks. The point is that there is a surplus of stories, unrelated, unconflicting, randomly disposed, with figures afar as clear as the birds nearby. Unrealistic as such a foreshortening of perspective may be, it has the effect of allowing potential narratives to emanate from many points. And that effect is reinforced by our slight confusion over the source of the picture's light—confusion fostered by the rococo shadows, the darkened pines, and the distant thunderstorm.

One of the first viewers of the painting, in fact, angrily indicted it for doing just that—for flagrantly violating what he assumed was the “truth of nature.” “The whole science of geology cries out against him,” this critic charged:

The law of gravitation leagues itself with geological law against the artist. Away up, above the clouds, near the top of the picture, the observer will perceive two pyramidal shapes. By further consultation of the index-sheet, the observer will ascertain that these things are the two “spurs” of Mount Rosalie. Now, let him work out a problem in arithmetic: The hills over which he looks, as we are told, are 3000 feet high; right over the hills tower huge masses of cloud which certainly carry the eye up to 10 or 12,000 feet higher; above these … the two “spurs”; what is the height of Mt. Rosalie? Answer: approximately, 10,000 miles or so. Impossible.

Clearly, Bierstadt has met his match, even if the attack reminds us of the Devil's mirror of rationality in Hans Christian Andersen's story, “The Snow Queen”: science once again reducing art to a handful of preposterous images.

But in fact, if Melville is right in describing “nature unfettered, exhilarated, in effect transformed,” then it was science itself that Bierstadt meant to oppose, as if he were actually leaguing himself against geological law. Repeatedly, even when paintings are named for actual sites, they seem fictitious, “wondrous inventions” that depend upon mélanges of topographical features—organized far more for theatrical effect than referential accuracy. He altered actual sites as he wished, working (as suggested above) much like a stage designer assembling some fantastic set. Moreover, the dramatic excess indulged in his paintings extended notoriously to their public display: the Indians posed in front of The Rocky Mountains clearly testify to this intended effect, leading one viewer supposedly to wonder when “the thing was going to move.” Likewise, the draped, darkened, gas-lit chambers in which Storm in the Rocky Mountains was hung resembled a theatrical backdrop, compelling the viewer to imagine him- or herself walking into the landscape. “Seen as a whole,” Nancy Anderson has observed, “the composition pulls the viewer into the landscape through dueling passages of bright sunlight and deep shadow. … For even without a darkened room and orchestrated lights, stepping close to the canvas was akin to stepping into the scene.”

What is “false,” then, is also a certain lawless world that evokes too much emotional fervor, too much astonishment at the “sensational,” or the “lurid,” or the otherwise extravagant. The alleged “falseness” of Bierstadt's West lies in its bleaching out of science and history, which is precisely the point: His finest, most compelling landscapes reflect not a coherent world, but a crowding together of contextual fragments, a melding of scenic materials whose very excess generates a sense of psychic and moral drama. More to the point, that excess challenges the viewer into a kind of scenic unpacking, an unfolding of the paintings' mixed descriptive moments into more or less straightforward temporal sequences that resemble nothing so much as the unreeling of film. Scenes that appear simultaneous on canvas are altered by their unusual perspective and conjunction, almost as if transformed into a cinematic succession that suggests the temporality of narrative.

Bierstadt, in short, imagines less a particular place than a singular process—or rather, a place waiting for the process of personal transformation. The Far West he memorialized was a region of psychological transfiguration that itself remains strangely untransformed—a frontier dividing emotional states, a liminal zone invented long before Frederick Jackson Turner described how the American wilderness “masters the colonist.” And although countless other painters and illustrators ventured interpretations of America's Far West long before Bierstadt transferred his monumental images onto canvas, it was his striking vision of landscape that caught the nation's attention.


Bierstadt's landscapes resonate with a powerful semantic excess, and even though frequently unpeopled, they embody a strangely dramatic character. Indeed, the very absence of human figures in so many of his canvases has the curious effect of investing his settings as settings with a disproportionate significance. His canvases seem to beg for the characters and plots that would later emerge in the paintings of Frederick Remington and Charles Russell, and in the stories of Harte and of Owen Wister. This sense of a setting somehow waiting for plot has been described by the historian, Ray Allen Billington, in terms not of visual arts but of popular literature of the nineteenth century:

Something more than a monotonous landscape was needed by the novelists; they must have oases where adventurers could find haven from desert heat, caves to shelter them from marauding Apaches, towering cliffs where hero and villain could battle with bowie knives, raging rivers where bad men could be swept to their deaths. Hence writers performed feats of geographic legerdemain remarkable to behold as they transformed the Southwest to suit their needs.

Bierstadt helped to invent this expectant terrain in a purely visual mode, by revealing the ways in which water, rock, trees, clouds, sunlight itself could create a cosmic drama always on the verge of becoming both moral and social.

Of course, despite certain apt analogies between the arts of painting and fiction, each remains a distinct medium, with different means of rendering setting and depicting the natural world. What lends to Bierstadt's paintings such an original power is precisely their conflicting perspectives, requiring a viewer's moving eye, creating a prototemporal sensation in the process of having their surfaces nervously scanned. In that sense, Bierstadt's landscapes seem to aspire not just to the condition of film, but to the condition of novelistic description itself, where only one thing can be read at a time with an effect achieved through the gradual accumulation of natural details. And if painting is finally not to be confused with either film or literature, it is nonetheless true that Bierstadt comes as close to the cinematic and novelistic as the painterly ever can.

More than any painter before, Bierstadt revealed those generative narrative possibilities that emerged from seeing the American landscape in a particular way. This angle of vision involved a peculiar psychologizing of the landscape, confirmed as early as 1869 by Ambrose Bierce (if unintentionally) when he denounced Bierstadt's influence on countless imitators. “We have had Yosemite in oils,” he thundered, “in watercolor, in crayon, in chalk and charcoal until in our very dreams we imagine ourselves falling from the summit of El Capitan or descending in spray from the Bridal Veil cataract.” Thus, the unpeopled vistas of Bierstadt's California were magically transformed by viewers themselves—vistas now no longer unpeopled, but become the setting for selves in motion, for nefarious plots and hot pursuits, if only “in our dreams.”

At this point, it comes as less of a surprise that Bret Harte should have emerged at this historical moment to accomplish for the Far West in literature something like what Bierstadt was attempting in paint, and in a style equally extravagant. Compare, for instance, a landscape description from “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” with Sunset in the Yosemite Valley, painted in 1868, only a year before the story appeared:

The spot was singularly wild and impressive. A wooded amphitheatre, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs of naked granite, sloped gently toward the crest of another precipice that overlooked the valley. It was, undoubtedly, the most suitable spot for a camp, had camping been advisable. … [John Oakhurst] looked at the gloomy walls that rose a thousand feet sheer above the circling pines around him, at the sky ominously clouded, at the valley below, already deepening into shadow; and doing so, suddenly he heard his own name called.

Harte might almost be said to have had Bierstadt's landscape in mind—or rather, Harte seems to be describing a scene that is already an acknowledged visual fiction, a representation that needs re-presenting through blindingly golden clouds, bright cliffs, and gleaming water surfaces fused in a moment that (like so many of Bierstadt's) announces itself as one of dramatic, expectant transition. In addition, Harte creates the landscape as a scene of surprised self-identification, transforming description into the narrative of one's name emerging from the scene, a self elicited from the setting much as Bierstadt's spectacular landscapes do more generally in the guise of psychic dramas.

Other writers would later recreate the landscape in their own mental image—an emotional identification as old as landscape description itself (whether in paint or in words). But it was given a peculiarly western twist in the 1860s by Harte, whose descriptive prose seems to overtake narrative enactment itself by coming mysteriously alive. Even in his earliest stories, Harte toyed with this descriptive technique, as in the curiously ironic passage of murder from “M'Liss: An Idyl of Red Mountain” (1863):

For some hours after a darkness thick and heavy brooded over the settlement. The somber pines encompassing the village seemed to close threateningly about it as if to reclaim the wilderness that had been wrested from them. A low rustling as of dead leaves, and the damp breath of forest odors filled the lonely street. Emboldened by the darkness other shadows slipped by, leaving strange footprints in the moist ditches for people to point at next day, until the moon, round and full, was lifted above the crest of the opposite hill, and all was magically changed.

The shadows shrank away, leaving the straggling street sleeping in a beauty it never knew by day. All that was unlovely, harsh, and repulsive in its jagged outlines was subdued and softened by that uncertain light. It smoothed the rough furrows and unsightly chasms of the mountain with an ineffable love and tenderness. It fell upon the face of the sleeping M'liss, and left a tear glittering on her black lashes and a smile on her lip, which would have been rare to her at any other time; and fell also on the white upturned face of “Old Smith,” with a pistol in his hand and a bullet in his heart, lying dead beside the empty pocket.

The corpse—a father shot by his daughter in this conclusion to the story's first chapter—is at once the central figure in a strangely articulated Memento Mori, and at the same time the most easily dispensable. Meanwhile, the landscape is strangely animated in the conditional tense of the narrative, “as if” the death of M'Liss's father “magically changed” the very environment in which she could exist. Or rather, the brooding, threatening, “emboldened,” shrinking, slipping milieu has itself become the transformative agent, now revealed as the emotional cause of the human drama in its midst. The narrative inverts the usual placement of active figure and descriptive ground, making the landscape come alive against the passive forms of her and her victim, both with “white upturned face[s].” Character is revealed as an animistic force, transcribed from a supposedly intentional (adolescent) subject onto a magical western terrain.

Harte's recurrent indulgence of the pathetic fallacy only confirms how fully the natural world is for him not simply animate or active, but an actual vital character in whatever drama he narrates. This helps explain why silence in this natural world is never simply silence alone, but a revelation of the landscape's emotional constraint, indeed, of its psychological arrest—as in the “miraculous” birth that inspires the drama of “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1868): “The pines stopped moaning, the river ceased to rush, and the fire to crackle. It seemed as if Nature had stopped to listen too.” The same occurs in the precisely converse situation, when the last two outcasts of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” finally succumb to the snowstorm: “The wind lulled as if it feared to waken them. Feathery drifts of snow, shaken from the long pine boughs, flew like white winged birds, and settled about them as they slept. The moon through the rifted clouds looked down upon what had been the camp.” The apparent restraint of the natural world suggests an even more fully configured emotional power recumbent in the landscape.

What critics usually have in mind when they disparage Harte's “purple prose” is the seemingly casual ubiquitousness of the pathetic fallacy throughout his stories. Yet simply to identify Harte's anthropomorphizing as a regrettable stylistic tic overlooks the special resonances of the relationship otherwise everywhere identified between individuals and the western landscape. In “The Idyl of Red Gulch” (1869), the evening light “flickered, and faded, and went out” just as Miss Mary's defiant will also finally expires. “A momentary shadow” crosses the hero's path in “A Protégée of Jack Hamlin's” (1893) at the very moment a dark thought of murder happens to occur to him. “Mrs. Skaggs's Husbands” (1872) opens with “a dissipated looking hanging lamp, which was evidently the worse for having been up all night,” that lights “a faded reveler of Angel's, who even then sputtered and flickered in his socket in an armchair below it.” In each of these as well as many other passages, a symbiosis emerges between the human and the inanimate—a symbiosis that Harte significantly locates in the West.

For earlier writers, landscape had been a basic test of character, a touchstone by which individuals can be readily distinguished as moral agents: men from women, Indians from whites, good men from bad, and humans more generally from “the lower orders.” Harte transformed this logic of landscape by erasing such invidious distinctions, establishing all characters as essentially the same, fundamentally good, living in a natural world revealed as likewise radically egalitarian. His identification of drunkenness as a form of sleep, for instance, becomes less a psychological observation than a metaphysical one, since sleep is also elsewhere identified as a kind of death (and vice versa). Harte's Far West everywhere elides the customary distinctions of person and place (and not only those, but distinctions as well between good and bad persons, good and bad places), with a strangely disorienting effect on the reader unaccustomed to his melodramatic style.

This readerly disorientation results from a flattening of moral distinctions that had earlier been reflected in terms of the landscape. For not only are all of Harte's landscapes rendered more or less equivalent, each of the elements within a given view likewise appears to be valued alike. The best analogy to this striking moral monochromaticism in Harte lies, strange as it seems, in Bierstadt's equally melodramatic, equally disorienting landscapes. The deft combinations of light and shadow in his paintings prevent the viewer from readily locating the sources of light, compelling the eye to flit back and forth indiscriminately across the canvas. The general effect is akin, in other words, to Harte's lack of moral distinctions.

In Sunset in the Yosemite Valley (1868) light emerges from the center of the painting, hot enough to be molten lava, burning an apparent hole through the cosmos as well as the canvas. And yet without the title, the time of day could seem almost indeterminate, anticipating the kind of day-for-night shots produced through filters by modern cinematographers. The sun, that is, appears too high and bright for actual sunset, or for the valley to be so dark, even with the low-lying wisps of clouds. The granite mountains rise out of the blinding brightness to tower, once again, over the sides of the canvas in what would be Bierstadt's signature mode. The oxbowing river has been transformed from any realistic association with Thomas Cole in its intensely melodramatic reflection of a western sky. All told, the painting's stunning effect derives from its capacity to at once solicit yet evade our gaze, compelling us thereby into “another world,” unreal, excessive, overdone. Like Harte's equally surreal landscapes, Bierstadt's gives the impression that it is more a depiction of another representation than of an actual site itself—as if he were likewise borrowing from a tradition of aesthetic conventions worn thin before he began. And like Harte as well, he repeatedly invests his scenes with a certain magical power, indulging in similar animistic fantasies that make his unpeopled landscapes seem to come preternaturally alive.


The extraordinary popularity of Bierstadt and Harte, unlike anything before it in American art, defies either a strictly verbal or a painterly explanation. Instead, it was the compound of phantasmagoria, emotional heightening, narrative indirection, and a mixing of descriptive materials that defines their appeal—elements suggestive of melodrama, at least as Peter Brooks defines the mode:

Melodrama handles its feelings and ideas virtually as plastic entities, visual and tactile models held out for all to see and to handle. Emotions are given a full acting-out, a full representation before our eyes. … Nothing is understood, all is overstated. Such moments provide us with the joy of a full emotional indulgence, the pleasures of an unadulterated exploitation of what we recognize from our psychic lives as one possible way to be, the victory of one integral inner force.

If this seems too inflated a description for Harte, it may be even less apparent how a painter might fit such a seemingly “narrative” mode, even when emphasis is placed so heavily on the “visual and tactile.” But a glance at Bierstadt's Storm in the Mountains (c. 1866) suggests a number of answers. The painting, highly praised at the time, offers an apparently western scene that functions much as do so many of Bierstadt's more heroic landscapes. Once again, the magnitude of the panorama requires a distance in order to comprehend the whole, even as it draws the viewer closer to the canvas to discern the carefully arranged details. Tiny red farm buildings are posed against an overwhelming confluence of natural forces, while swirling clouds highlight the mountain peak hanging down over the valley. The entire painting forces us to shift our focus between mountain and fields beneath, defined respectively as bands of white and yellow paired in a kind of painterly tension. If this confluence of elements seems once again like something of a “false” combination, it is only because everything seems to be put on the table for us to “handle,” and then invested with almost a surfeit of individual presence that creates the melodrama defined by Brooks.

The larger question of why some types of “overstatement” and “emotional indulgence” succeeded when they did, and specifically in terms of the Far West, is hardly apparent on the historical surface. Both Bierstadt and Harte caught the same public's attention, and their loss of popularity was similarly swift, which makes their “melodramatic” treatments of the Far West more than a matter of simple interest. It is almost as if their postbellum American audience craved the fantastic images they offered, and—soon embarrassed by that craving—repressed its expression as quickly as it could. That should not be too surprising, since repression is usually the fate of melodrama, a mode that arouses critical resistance precisely by its refusal to be moderate, restrained, commonsensical.

The melodrama in Harte can hardly be denied, even if it was repressed: Few major writers are more embarrassingly excessive, or rely less in their plots on narrative indirection and emotional restraint. Indeed, at the level of diction and style, he might well be said to exemplify the concept of “purple prose,” which derives from a visual analogy with the idea of regal excess, of costumed brilliance, ornateness, a gorgeous, lurid show. Sharing with Bierstadt a propensity to grand overstatement, Harte constantly strains to dress up familiar clichés, draining them in the process of whatever life they have left. Cherokee Sal, in “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” is only among the first victims of his overstated prose: “Dissolute, abandoned, and irreclaimable, she was yet suffering a martyrdom hard enough to bear even when veiled by sympathizing womanhood, but now terrible in her loneliness. The primal curse had come to her in that original isolation which must have made the punishment of the first transgression so dreadful.” Tightening descriptive adjectives and plot circumstances to a dramatic pitch, the narrator succeeds at last in getting all Nature to succumb:

Above the swaying and moaning of the pines, the swift rush of the river, and the crackling of the fire rose a sharp, querulous cry—a cry unlike anything heard before in the camp. The pines stopped moaning, the river ceased to rush, and the fire to crackle. It seemed as if Nature had stopped to listen too.

Harte operates much as Bierstadt does, welding local particulars to grandiose claims, alternating perspectives in what otherwise seems like a series of stark oppositions. And here, his imperturbable impulse to overstate—to find the most extreme expression of local, subjective knowledge—results in a scene of unsurpassed bathos.

Elsewhere, Harte inverts the process, building on vaguely sentimental expectations that are punctured by an explosion of immediate action. The very title of “How Santa Claus Came to Simpson's Bar” belies the possibility of a realistic plot, and the story's opening scenes increase the emotional pressure for a soothing conclusion to a boy's Christmas expectations. Yet Harte strikes through grandly inflated abstractions with a moment of visual extravagance.

There was a leap, a scrambling struggle, a bound, a wild retreat of the crowd, a circle of flying hoofs, two springless leaps that jarred the earth, a rapid play and jingle of spurs, a plunge, and then the voice of Dick somewhere in the darkness. “All right.”

And so, Santa Claus appears in a melodramatic swirl, with (in Brooks' words) “a full representation before our eyes” of expectant emotion.

One of the advantages of the melodramatic mode, for painter as well as for writer, is that it consists of a kind of “sign language” by which values are supposedly arrayed outside an immediate social context. In Bierstadt, this is achieved through a nervously floating eye that can never establish a priority of perspectives; in Harte, through plots that collapse moral distinctions as simply effects of equal distinction, like colorful beads on a string. “In a universe of such pure signs,” Brooks adds, “we are freed of a concern with their reference … and enabled to attend to their interrelationship and hierarchy.” Brooks might almost be speaking of music, with its interplay of pure structure. Yet the individual “signs” agglomerated in Harte's stories or Bierstadt's canvases are also “pure”—their “purity” as signs guaranteed by their very extravagance, their flagrancy, their dramatic élan, their “falseness.” For Brooks, this is the meaning of melodrama, which he calls the “mode of excess.” Whether a verbal realm, in which events are represented sententiously, or a visual sphere in which depictions are cosmically inflated, the effect of melodrama is always the same: to press against realistic conventions in order to evoke that other fancifully charged “world … to which we feel the tie.”

This melodramatic logic is at work in much of Bierstadt, but achieves a special clarity in Night at Valley View, completed in 1884. The cliffs interrupt each other, breaking through their respective picture planes; the moonlit surface of water and mountains compete with the bright reflection of the campfire. Obviously indebted to the pictorial Gothic, the scene focuses on blasted trees, shaggy cliffs, distant mountains enveloped in glowing mist, and even a rushing cataract—all in the apparent effort to isolate them as pure painterly “signs.” Bierstadt confirms this isolation through a self-conscious representation of space, in his sharply perpendicular cliffs and powerful vertical shifts of paint. Normal topographical expectations are once again subverted, as a middle distance evaporates in the overall flattening of perspective. And light itself is obscured, emerging mysteriously from lake, sky, campfire, even from the mountains themselves.

Yet the result of this semiotic self-consciousness—of painterly gestures, flourishes, conventions, and habits that seem somehow greater than themselves, and thereby draw attention to their inadequacy as signifiers—is rarely in Bierstadt allowed to remain merely at the level of conventional painterly reference. Rather, the viewer comes to recognize something beyond the everyday, in which (Brooks again) “the ordinary and humble and quotidian [reveals] itself full of excitement, suspense, and peripety, conferred by the play of cosmic moral relations and forces.” This effect is achieved in Harte through the use of narrative voice itself, which consistently transgresses against the conventional muted voice of third-person consciousness. “And here I must pause,” the narrator claims, or interrupts himself with “I stay my hand with difficulty,” or hurries on with “I shall not stop to inquire.” Interjecting anxiety, he often adds “I regret to say” or “grieve to say” or “fear”: all a part of the obsessively recurrent self-consciousness of these narratives that draws our attention to their actively fictive power. Indeed, Harte's stories (much like Bierstadt's paintings) actively embrace the very qualities that so alarm critics, for whom both artists have so often been scorned as victims of the “mode of excess.”

Harte's stories and Bierstadt's landscapes revealed as nothing more than melodrama: the observation is a commonplace in the mouths of angry critics, even if the term need hardly be denigratory. Indeed, their most successful works appeal not as coherent depictions of actual scenes, but as self-conscious occasions for the exhibition of people and settings—of gamblers, prostitutes, stage-coach drivers, or of clouds, mountains, pools, and trees—regardless in either case of actual or historical referents. While critics predictably dismiss such treatments as realistic liabilities, they can in fact be seen conversely as assets. Indeed, the energy with which both artists mix their “signs,” compelling oppositions that seem exaggerated or simply confused, attests to imaginative possibilities in which melodramatic surfaces are asked to bear a fuller weight of meaning, of either significant settings or relevant plots. In the case of Bierstadt, we are put in the presence of stark abysses, brilliant ascents, gigantic trees, blazing reflections, impassable (and impossible) terrains that remind us of nothing so much as our dreams—even if dreams with us as the dreamers removed, and therefore with narratives yet to be plotted. In the case of Harte, we are put in the presence of kind-hearted prostitutes, noble gamblers, ruthless housewives, and amiably drunken stage drivers who supply our dreams with figures somehow larger than life, waiting for plotted landscapes to be drawn. In both cases, the “plot” that is called for can only be supplied by the reader/viewer.


Parallels in the careers of Bierstadt and Harte may seem at first like a coincidence in the post-Civil War period—intriguing, but in the end an historical by-blow. Both men maintained surprisingly similar styles and standards; both achieved the artistic fame they aspired to early and easily; and both were drawn as if magnetically to lives of affluence and high social standing, enough so that critics accused them both of selling out their art to line their purses. The widespread esteem that each enjoyed from the mid-1860s through the early 1870s, and the wholly unprecedented sums they received for their separate efforts, attests to the enthusiasm with which their striking visions of the Far West were received. By the same token, their sudden fall from the limelight into frustrating years of neglect—of diminished fees, mounting critical attacks, and letters of flat rejection—attests to an abrupt transition in popular opinion. Certainly, the fault was not theirs, as even a brief formal review of their art confirms; they altered little in either subject matter or technique, from early years of acclaim to long, productive years of neglect. As Bret Harte confessed, somewhat forlornly, in an 1879 letter: “I grind out the old tunes on the old organ and gather up the coppers, but I never know whether my audience behind the window blinds are wishing me to ‘move on’ or not.” In fact, both artists' audiences simply melted away, unwilling in the 1870s to countenance what, a bare decade before, could hardly satisfy demand.

The issue of artistic reception is invariably a difficult one to resolve, so overdetermined is it by considerations far from the realm of formal aesthetics that no simple answer could emerge to explain the careers of Bierstadt and Harte. Their closely parallel experiences in the period following the Civil War, however, prompt us to speculate about what it was that audiences required of them. Both artists were such singular beneficiaries—then such prominent victims—of public appeal, and their treatments were so similarly melodramatic in a period of sharply changing views of the West, that they seem to offer a key into American popular psychology at the time.

An explanation adumbrated all along lies in the considerable expectations both men aroused—expectations both for their own art, and for each other's. Each was perceived upon his debut as something of a genius, the best practitioner of his chosen medium and someone promising greater things to come. Bierstadt was named the successor of Turner, while Harte was praised as a possible rival of both Dickens and Cooper. That very overinflation of reputations led in turn (by the predictable process of self-correction) to their collapse. Neither artist, in short, was able to live up to admirers' expectations, and the fact that Harte's stories and Bierstadt's paintings remained essentially the same only proved that neither was the great American artist so many had anticipated.

Yet as well, the expectations both men aroused may have contributed to a corresponding dissatisfaction with the other's art. That is, Bierstadt's grand landscapes and Harte's distinctive characters represent two halves of a larger imaginative enterprise, and their very success independently entailed some growing disappointment in the absence of that larger whole. Bierstadt's canvases, in other words, were waiting for Harte's characters to people them, while Harte's narratives needed a more distinctively western setting. The expectation left so clearly unfulfilled in Bierstadt's paintings is the promise of dramatic renewal, of personal transformation, of transcendence beyond the physical facts of topography itself. He presents a series of dramatic scenarios that offer the assurance of individual redemption—unnatural landscapes that celebrate the prospect of personal transformation, self-conscious backdrops imbued with a power both melodramatic and morally resurgent. Yet that promise cannot be redeemed until the western narrative itself is invented. Bierstadt, in other words, excites a melodramatic imagination that he cannot possibly fulfill, although the recognition of that impossibility took some years for his public to realize. His spectacular paintings first captured the popular imagination, therefore, in a way that, say, the more subdued, more straightforwardly realistic achievements of Thomas Moran never did. And unlike Frederick Edwin Church's equally spectacular monuments to the South American Andes, Bierstadt claims a transformative power for a distinctly national landscape identified with the Far West.

Harte, conversely, proclaims that a set of rough-hewn western characters need no such personal transformation to become upright, middle-class Americans. They already are what they have yet supposedly to become, essentially civilized beings under the wild and wooly costumes, morally abiding citizens hidden by the exotic customs and outlandish behavior. In the largely unpeopled California frontier—a landscape, as Harte presented it, frequently hard to distinguish from parts of New England, the Midwest, the South, or (for that matter) even England's Lake Country—Americans were playing out a national drama of acculturation, self-sacrifice, and moral regeneration that matched sentimental dramas closer to home. The new cast of characters that Harte introduced caught the public's imagination, but only long enough to make readers realize how their fantasies needed more elaborate, more detailed, firmer placement in a Far Western landscape.

We need to remind ourselves how resistant we are to the lures of melodrama, whose hold on our imaginations remains nonetheless quite powerful. Its stark oppositions and aesthetic incoherence invariably seem excessive, which explains why we so regularly resist it in either verbal or visual forms. No better evidence of this resistance exists than the persistent attacks on Bierstadt and Harte, which testify as well to the continuing power that makes both artists seem so worth attacking. The scenes that Bierstadt fixed in paint, and that Harte memorably set in prose, established how convincingly the Far West could be seen as a magical land that was also America writ small—a place where deeply troubling issues of justice, manhood, and social control might be safely and surely resolved. Turning to Peter Brooks a last time:

For melodrama has the distinct value of being about recognition and clarification, about how to be clear what the stakes are and what their representative signs mean, and how to face them. Melodrama substitutes for the rite of sacrifice an urging toward combat in life, an active, lucid confrontation of evil. It works to steel man for resistance, it keeps him going in the face of threat. Even if we cannot believe in the easier forms of reward that melodrama traditionally offers, there is virtue in clarity of recognition of what is being fought for and against.

Bierstadt and Harte established the kinds of scenes (whether in California's Sierra Nevadas or Colorado's high Rockies) where this stark, combative recognition might be expected to occur and then obsessively reoccur in response to our deepest desires. By mapping out the regional plots of ground wherein narrative plot can unfold, Bierstadt figuratively cleared the ground for Harte's distinctive set of characters, enabling their reinvention by hundreds of writers over the next century. No longer would conventional claims of either geology or sociology stand warrant against the collective challenge separately mounted by both men, who reshaped both the landscape and American history into a logic conducive to our most powerful dreams.

Works Cited

Anderson, Nancy K. “‘Wondrously Full of Invention’: The Western Landscapes of Albert Bierstadt.” In Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise. Eds. Nancy K. Anderson and Linda S. Ferber. New York: The Brooklyn Museum, 1990, 69-106.

Anonymous Critic. The Art Journal (London), October 1859. Qtd. in Gordon Hendricks: Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1972.

Anonymous Critic [on Bierstadt's A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mount Rosalie]. Watson's Weekly Art Journal, 3 March 1866. Qtd. in Hendricks:

Bierce, Ambrose. San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser, 4 September 1869. Qtd. in Anderson.

Billington, Ray Allen. Land of Savagery, Land of Promise: The European Image of the American Frontier in the Nineteenth Century. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.

Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.

Harte, Bret. Letter (1879). Qtd. in Wallace Stegner, “Introduction.” The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Stories. Ed. Wallace Stegner. New York: New American Library, 1961, vii-xvi.

———. “How Santa Claus Came to Simpson's Bar.” In The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Stories, 165-81.

———. “The Idyl of Red Gulch.” In The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Stories, 134-43.

———. “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” In The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Stories, 100-11.

———. “M'Liss: An Idyl of Red Mountain.” In The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Stories, 25-100.

———. “Mrs. Skagg's Husbands.” In The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Stories, 182-213.

———. “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” In The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Stories, 112-23.

———. “A Protégée of Jack Hamlin's.” In The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Stories, 270-99.

Jarves, James Jackson. The Art Idea. New York: Hurd & Houghton, 1864. Qtd. in Hendricks.

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man. 1857. Rpt. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1971.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” 1893. Rpt. in The Frontier in American History. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1940, 1-38.

Axel Nissen (essay date spring 1997)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6657

SOURCE: Nissen, Axel. “Lord of Romance: Bret Harte's Later Career Reconsidered.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 29, no. 3 (spring 1997): 64-81.

[In the following excerpt, Nissen reevaluates the later stages of Harte's literary career.]

I see no limit to the future in art of a country which has already given us Emerson, that master of moods, and those two lords of romance, Poe and Bret Harte.

—Oscar Wilde to A. P. T. Elder, 1885


Nothing is more indicative of the condescending attitude taken by most biographers and critics toward the last quarter century of Bret Harte's writing career than the titles of the chapters dealing with these years. George R. Stewart entitles one of the later chapters of his biography “Grub Street De Luxe.” In the popular biography written by Richard O'Conner in 1966, two of the chapters dealing with Harte's years in England are headed “A New Resident in Grub Street” and “The Drudge of Lancaster Gate.” Even Patrick Morrow in his scholarly monograph from 1979 on Harte as a literary critic calls the chapter devoted to Harte's European years “A Passe [sic] Man of Letters.”1

The most persistent misconceptions about Harte's later literary career are incarnated in the image of the drudge, someone who does hard uninteresting work for little money. In the chapter mentioned above, Stewart speaks of Harte as “the overworked factory-slave, wearily pushing the instrument of his servitude, a pen.” Margaret Duckett refers with uncharacteristic imprecision to Harte's “thirty years of drudgery.” Morrow perpetuates the myth by writing that “Harte lived out the rest of his days in a kind of velvet-lined prison” and referring to his “impoverished but genteel existence” in England.2

My argument is basically twofold: 1) That Bret Harte's later literary career must be considered on the basis of Victorian standards of success, and 2) that if we are unable to make informed aesthetic judgements about Harte's later works, his stories must first be placed in their proper generic and historical context. A closer examination of the actual material and historical circumstances of Harte's later life and writing will show that he by no stretch of fact or fancy can be termed a drudge, a resident of Grub Street or passé. The many new sources that have come to light since George Stewart wrote his biography in the late 1920s show that there is no factual basis for representing Harte's later literary career as a period of failure and frustration. …

In proposing that we consider Harte's later career on the basis of Victorian standards of success, that is in terms of fame, popularity and income, I differ from previous biographers and literary historians who have assessed Harte's later career on the basis of modern aesthetic criteria. These analysts of the work of Harte's last quarter-century make the same error. In an anachronistic move, they conclude that because Harte's later stories are no longer read and do not conform to the academy's ruling ideal of what makes a text interesting, Harte's later life becomes a story of declining powers, an ever decreasing readership and economic hardship. George Stewart, author of the only full-length scholarly biography of Harte to date, must carry the major responsibility for this ahistorical mixture of biography and criticism. He writes of Harte: “He was a Grub-Street hack. It was Grub Street de luxe, perhaps; it generously allowed him evening clothes, a club or two, and some amenities of life. But well as [A. P.] Watt [Harte's agent] might conceal the fact, Harte had no illusions; he knew himself the slave of his pen.”3 There is ample evidence that Harte thought himself the slave of his pen, but as my discussion will show, for nearly a quarter of a century he was in fact paid very much for writing very little. Stewart's biography is marred by too heavy a dependence on the point of view of its subject (particularly as expressed in Harte's letters to his wife in America). Stewart reasons along the lines that if Harte says he feels like a drudge, then he is in fact a drudge.

One need do no more than to read George Gissing's New Grub Street (1891) or Nigel Cross's The Common Writer (1988)—a fictional and historical approach to the same literary landscape—to realize how arduous and unrewarding it could be to be a writer in the late nineteenth century. It is blatantly unhistorical, not to say a mockery of the men and women literally starving in garrets, to call Harte a drudge. To the minds of the thousands of writers trying to scrape together a meager living by the efforts of their pens, Bret Harte lived in a world about as far removed from Grub Street as Lapland is from Papua, New Guinea. It would be much closer to the truth to say that his later literary career was an unmitigated success: he was more popular than ever, his stories continued to be well received and the financial rewards of his writing were greater than they had ever been before.


In his widely circulated guide to aspiring authors, The Pen and the Book (1899), Walter Besant estimated that there were only sixty to seventy authors on both sides of the Atlantic “whose incomes reach the four figures” (that is, of course, in pounds).4 The census of 1891 showed 5,800 authors, editors and journalists resident in England and Wales alone and Besant estimated that when the part-timers were included the real number of people writing one thing or another was closer to twenty thousand.5 During his years abroad, Harte's income places him squarely in the select company of the four-digit earners. As the tables at the end of the essay indicate, during the twenty years when Harte was fully active as an author in England, he earned at least $175,000.6 This sum averages out to $8,750 or £1,750 a year. In England, a literary journalist was fortunate if he earned $1,500 a year during this period.7

In the spring of 1882, as he was about to embark on the twenty most productive and remunerative years of his literary career, Bret Harte wrote to his wife:

I am only too thankful to be able to still keep the ear of the public in my old way. For, in spite of all the envious sneers and wicked prophecies that follow me, I find I still hold my old audience and that the publishers are quite ready for me when I have anything ready for them. It is quite wonderful also what a large and growing audience I have all over the Continent; anything I write is instantly translated. I should be, indeed, content if it were not that play-writing is so vastly more profitable, and that, with all my popularity as a romancier, I fear I could not more than make a scanty living.8

Had he written the letter at the end of the year, his dire predictions about the “scanty living” of a popular romancer might have been somewhat different. He sold the short romance “Flip” for a total of $2,350 or $152/1000 words. In addition, he got $1,025 for the volume rights.9 Together with the two other romances of similar length he wrote in 1882, his total income from his literary labors that year was $6,210. At his regular rate of six hundred words per day, these three stories were the work of a little over two months.

The run of Harte's career during the twenty years from 1882 to 1902 was very smooth. In 1885, while he was busy writing his Spanish-Californian romance “Maruja,” Harte wrote to his wife that he did not know how long his popularity would last and he had to make the most of it.10 Yet by this time, he had found his niche in the literary marketplace and for the next dozen years the demand for his California romances would be remarkably steady. The spring of 1886 was the first time in six years in which he was working on a story which was not pre-sold and he was convinced that if he could hold out the buyers would eventually come to his terms.11 He finally sold the story “Devil's Ford” to a newspaper syndicate for $1,850 or nearly $80/1000 words.12

During his first nine years in Europe, Harte published 23 stories of between 3,800 and 40,000 words. Then in 1887, he wrote the longest story of his later career, the 70,000-word “Crusade of the Excelsior.” This lengthy and involved romance inaugurated a ten-year period when he wrote more or less one romance of 45,000 words or more a year, in addition to briefer romances and short stories. His total output during the period 1887-97 was sixty-five stories, nearly half between five and fifteen thousand words. In 1888, he had some trouble obtaining his usual prices,13 so he wrote a little less than usual that year (about 60,000 words) and yet he still managed to earn more than $8,000 from the sale of three stories. Harte worked on resolutely until he experienced another slight slump in 1897. That year he wrote some poems and an essay and restricted his fiction-writing to seven short stories of between four and eleven thousand words. His income was undiminished, amounting to $10,000. “Alas!” he wrote to Anna, “it would not be strange if, after these years, people should not be quite as keen to buy or read Bret Harte's stuff as ten or twenty years ago!”14

1897, the year he published his last long romance “Three Partners,” marked a period of transition from writing romances to concentrating on the short story. If both public (and author) had tired of Bret Harte's romances, they were quite as keen to read his short stories as ten or twenty years before. Short stories—under 10,000 words and always published in one installment in magazines if not in newspapers—had become an increasingly dominant part of Harte's oeuvre from 1891 onward. From 1898 to 1902, due to increasing ill health which made the strain of more sustained efforts too great and a gradual decline in the popularity of the romance, he published practically no stories of more than 15,000 words. Instead, he published no less than forty-three short stories out of a total of fifty-two stories. To maintain the same level of income during the last four years of his long career, he increased the number of stories he wrote each year. While until 1890, he had published on average only three stories a year, afterwards he published an average of eight stories a year, reaching a peak with fifteen published stories in 1901. The average length of his stories declined steadily from 26,000 words in 1885, to 7,000 words in 1901.


At the close of 1885, Harte wrote to a German friend, Clara Schneider, that he was making more money than ever.15 He had written about 103,000 words that year, which was nearly four times as many as in 1884. At a rate of about 600 words per day, it still meant he was only writing 172 days out of the year. In 1886, the year he began “The Crusade of the Excelsior,” his total output was about 90,000 words and he claimed for the first time in his life to be writing nearly 1,000 words a day.16 That makes for only ninety days spent writing—three months of the year. In 1892, when Harte was working on the 50,000-word romance “Susy,” he complained to Clara Schneider that he was “chained to the oar” like a galley slave. Yet he wrote about 100,000 words in 1892, which averages out to five-and-a-half months work writing 600 words per day. We know from another letter to Clara Schneider that to Harte's way of thinking, spending six hours a day at work was excessive.17

Harte wrote one hundred and forty stories during his European years, that is two thirds of the two hundred and five stories he wrote during his life. In mass of wordage, he wrote in the vicinity of 1.75 million words between 1878 and his death, that is four-fifths of his total output. If we divide the number of words he wrote during each of the twenty fully active years he spent writing, we find that on average he wrote about 80,000 words a year. At a rate of 600 words per day, that means that in an average year Bret Harte was tied to his pen and paper only about four-and-a-half months of the year; if he wrote 1,000 words a day he could fill his quota in only eighty days, or two-and-a-half months. In comparison, Mark Twain averaged 1,800 words per day when he was living in London in 1897 and 1,400 words per day in Florence in 1904.18

Harte's stories were usually published on both sides of the Atlantic simultaneously and in several European languages. Most of them were sold before he even put pen to paper and at the prices he named. For every word he wrote between 1878 and 1902, Harte could expect to earn eleven cents on average, or sixty-six dollars for the six hundred words he wrote on an average day. By 1895, as Harte's agent A. P. Watt wrote to the editor of Scribner's Magazine, his average rate for the serial rights to a story was $50/1000 words in England, $25/1000 words in the United States and $70/1000 words for both serial rights combined.19 This was at a time when the regular rate paid by the better American magazines was between half a cent and little over one cent per word, or five to 12 dollars per 1000 words. During the 1880s, one cent per word was standard even for highly valued contributors and two cents was rare. Harper's Weekly paid their regular contributors $10/1000 words; they paid Bret Harte $26/1000 words for “Maruja” (1885), $18/1000 words for “The Crusade of the Excelsior” (1887), $20/1000 words for “The Heritage of Dedlow Marsh” (1889) and $25/1000 words for “The Bell-Ringer of Angels (1893). Cosmopolitan wrote to Theodore Dreiser in 1898 that their rate was one cent per word, yet they paid Harte 2.4 cents per word for one of his last short stories, “Mr. MacGlowrie's Widow” (1902).20

Bret Harte's short stories would ultimately be read all over the world. By 1873, they had been translated into German, French, Swedish and Danish. The first Italian translation appeared in 1877. In the late 1870s, six of his tales were translated into Serbian. His works were translated into Spanish in 1883. By the late 1870s many of his stories were being simultaneously translated and published in German periodicals, such as the Deutsche Rundschau and the Berlin edition of Puck. In addition, stories by Bret Harte would regularly appear in the Paris Figaro and the Vienna Neue Freie Presse and in newspapers as far away as India and Australia. Baron Tauchnitz continued to publish a “Continental edition” of most of Harte's works throughout the century, making a total of thirty-six Harte titles between 1874 and 1903 in his “Collection of British Authors.”21

Anyone desiring an exact measure of Harte's renown during his own lifetime can turn to an interesting article by Karl Erik Rosengren entitled “Time and Literary Fame” (1985). Using the “mentions technique,” in which he counts the number of mentions of authors' names in newspaper reviews over a certain period, Rosengren is able to uncover the “‘lexicon’ of authors and writers available to critics and reviewers.” This lexicon, according to Rosengren, is so central to the literary frame of reference that it “can be used as a proxy for the literary frame of reference.”22 What Rosengren found when he studied the cohort of writers born between 1825 and 1849 and their place in the frame of reference of the period 1876-92 was that Bret Harte was one of the twenty authors on a world basis with the highest rank on the scale, that is to say, with the most mentions. The only other American was Mark Twain. This discovery becomes even more revealing in relation to Harte's international renown when we take into account that Rosengren based his study on newspapers in Sweden(!).23

With regard to his continuing popularity in America in the 1880s and ‘90s, we have the evidence of two polls from this period. On 12 April 1884, the Critic announced the result of a plebiscite held among its readers to determine who were the most esteemed living American authors. Bret Harte came in eighth place after Oliver Wendell Holmes, Lowell, Whittier, George Bancroft, Howells, George William Curtis, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich. His friend and foe Mark Twain came in fourteenth place. Fifteen years later, the magazine Literature held a poll among its readers to name the best candidates for an American Academy of Letters. Here Harte came in a joint seventh place with S. Weir Mitchell, after Howells, John Fiske, Twain, Aldrich, Frank Stockton and Henry James.24


It has been received opinion that Harte never wrote anything to compare with his short stories for the Overland Monthly. Despite Donald E. Glover's attempts to reassess Harte's later work,25 there can be no question that from the point of view of originality and stylistic sophistication, Harte never equaled his stories of the late 1860s. But before we dismiss this large body of later texts as a set of inferior, diluted copies of the Overland tales, we need to realize that they represent a distinctive phase of Harte's career in which his goals were different from the period from 1868 to 1871, when he was editor of a literary magazine, when he was exclusively a short story writer, and when he was not yet world famous.

During the last quarter of a century of his long writing career, Harte became a leading exponent of one of the two major types of prose fiction in the late nineteenth century: the romance. Of the one hundred and forty stories Harte wrote in 1878-1902, about a third of the titles and two thirds of the words he wrote come under this generic rubric. Bret Harte was not a novelist and after Gabriel Conroy (1876) he never wrote another novel by Victorian standards. What he wrote were romances of varying lengths and short stories, often with shocking, grotesque, or humorous surprise-endings. He also sometimes combined the two genres, adding a strong dose of romance to his short stories, as in “The Chatelaine of Burnt Ridge” (1889), “An Episode of West Woodlands” (1893), and “The Indiscretion of Elsbeth” (1896).

The genre in defining opposition to the romance was the novel, both in the minds of late-Victorian authors and readers and in the generic system of a theorist such as Northrop Frye, who writes: “The essential difference between novel and romance lies in the conception of characterization. The romance does not attempt to create real people so much as stylized figures which expand into psychological archetypes.”26 Other distinguishing features of the genre have been pointed out by Gillian Beer, who wrote: “The romance, however lofty its literary and moral qualities, is written primarily to entertain. … It absorbs the reader into experience which is otherwise unattainable. … It oversteps the limits by which life is normally bounded.” Beer writes further that the romance “is usually acutely fashionable, cast in the exact mould of an age's sensibility. Although it draws on basic human impulses, it often registers with extraordinary refinement the peculiar forms and vacillations of a period. As a result it is frequently as ephemeral as fashion and, though completely beguiling to its own time, unreadable to later generations.”27

When we consider these characteristics of the romance, we begin to understand both why Harte's romances were so popular with his contemporaries and why they have found so little favor with modern readers, academic or otherwise. What we see as the shortcomings of Harte's later fiction turns out to be exactly those features that make his stories good romances: shallow, archetypal characterization; an emphasis on the entertainment value of the story; “a serene intermingling of the unexpected and the everyday” and “a complex and prolonged succession of incidents usually without a single climax”28 The work of Frye and Beer also acts as a useful reminder of the futility of judging the romance by the standards of the realistic novel, as has so often been done in the criticism of Harte's works.

In addition to this generic perspective, an historical perspective will bring Harte's later writing career even more sharply into focus. In English Criticism of the Novel 1865-1900, Kenneth Graham gives us a thorough and illuminating account of the warfare between the new school of realism and the rival school of romance during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. “The challenge of the new realists in the early eighties,” Graham writes, “brought the romance quite dramatically into the foreground of the controversy, almost as a rediscovered genre.”29

Among the more voluble voices ranged on the side of romance were Robert Louis Stevenson, the author and critic Andrew Lang, and Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon's Mines (1886). In 1882, Stevenson wrote an early manifesto on behalf of romance in the first issue of Longman's Magazine, which was to publish several of his own and Harte's romances. Stevenson wrote candidly that “It is one thing to write about the inn at Barford, or to describe scenery with the word-painters; it is quite another to seize on the heart of the suggestion and make a country famous with a legend.”30 To “make a country famous with a legend” was of course what Harte had done and would continue to do all his life. 1887, the year Harte published “The Crusade of the Excelsior,” became a “year of recognition for the new romance”31 with manifestos by George Saintsbury, Rider Haggard, and Andrew Lang. Lang published his essay “Realism and Romance” in the Contemporary Review and described the current debate as “the old dispute about the two sides of the shield”:

Fiction is a shield with two sides, the silver and the golden: the study of manners and of character, on one hand; on the other, the description of adventure, the delight of romantic narrative. Now, these two aspects blend with each other so subtly and so constantly, that it really seems the extreme of perversity to shout for nothing but romance on one side, or for nothing but analysis of character and motive on the other. Yet for such abstractions and divisions people are clamouring and quarrelling. On one side, we are told that accurate minute descriptions of life as it is lived, with all its most sordid forms carefully elaborated, is the essence of literature; on the other, we find people maintaining that analysis is ausgespielt (as Mr. Bret Harte's critical shoeblack says), and that the great heart of the people demands tales of swashing blows, of distressed maidens rescued, of “murders grim and great,” of magicians and princesses, and wanderings in fairy lands forlorn. Why should we not have all sorts, and why should the friends of one kind of diversion quarrel with the lovers of another kind?32

Yet Lang concluded that “if there is to be no modus vivendi, if the battle between the crocodile of Realism and the catawampus of Romance is to be fought out to the bitter end—why, in that Ragnarôk, I am on the side of the catawampus.”33

The revival of romance, according to Graham, was largely based on a yearning for escape from the harsh realities of Victorian life. “As I live,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in a letter, “I feel more and more that literature should be cheerful and brave-spirited, even if it cannot be made beautiful and pious and heroic. We wish it to be a green place.”34 Harte echoed this feeling from a reader's point of view in 1890, when he asked a friend to recommend something for him to read. “It must be amusing,” he wrote, “I am getting too old to find any pleasure in being made sad.”35 But it was not just older readers and writers who found the romance a welcome refuge from the pressures of their quotidian existence. Hall Caine, author of The Manxman (1894) and various other popular romances, was only thirty-seven when he became the romancers' new standard-bearer through his essay for the Contemporary Review, “The New Watchwords of Fiction” (1890). In this “high-water mark of romance theory,” Caine pronounced that fact was “only an aid towards the display of passion”: “true concern must be with the mysteries of human nature in its highest development—that is, in the regions of heroism.”36

Despite the reference in Lang's article to his “critical shoeblack,” Harte kept a low profile in the ongoing debate. With the exception of an appreciation of Longfellow and of Lowell on their deaths in 1882 and 1891 respectively, his critical faculty had been lying dormant more or less since his days as editor of the Overland Monthly. Then in 1897, he was induced to write an essay for Munsey's Magazine called “My Favorite Novelist and His Best Book.” In 1888 he had expressed his “private doubts as to the relevancy … of such information to literature”37; nearly ten years later he may have felt it was time to stand up and be counted. His essay was a glowing appraisal of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, a book Harte had loved since he was a child. It is interesting that Harte chose for his defense of the romance the exact same book that Stevenson had chosen in his essay fifteen years before. In contrast, by 1897 the new romance was on the wane and Harte's defensive attitude becomes increasingly clear toward the end of his essay. After detailed analysis of the particular strengths and weaknesses of Dumas' book, Harte suddenly interjects in the final paragraph:

But “Monte Cristo” is romance, and, as I am told, of a very antiquated type. I am informed by writers (not readers) that this is all wrong; that the world wants to know itself in all its sordid, material aspects … that “the proper study of mankind is man” as he is, and not as he might be; and that it is very reprehensible to deceive him with fairy-tales, or to satisfy a longing that was in him when the first bard sang to him, or, in the gloom of his cave dwelling, when the first story-teller interested him in accounts of improbable beasts and men—with illustrations on bone.38

Harte concludes:

But I venture to believe that when Jones comes home from the city and takes up a book, he does not greatly care to read a faithful chronicle of his own doings; nor has Mrs. Jones freshened herself for his coming by seeking a transcript of her own uneventful day in the pages of her favorite novel. But if they have been lifted temporarily out of their commonplace surroundings and limited horizon by some specious tale of heroism, endeavour, wrongs redressed, and faith rewarded, and are inclined to look a little more hopefully to Jones's chance of promotion, or to Mrs. Jones's aunt's prospective legacy—why blame them or their novelist?39

It seems ironic that Harte published his defense of the genre in the year he abandoned the longer romance altogether. In the struggle between the romance and the realistic novel, it was of course the latter that emerged victorious. The voice of the future was heard in an essay entitled “The Decline of Romance” published in the Westminster Review in 1894, in which D. F. Hannigan wrote:

A marked feature of contemporary literature is the growing antipathy to the unreal, and the desire to depict life as it is, without illusion and without exaggeration. Romance is, so to speak, at its last gasp. The attempts made by certain writers to revive it are characterised by a kind of ghastly grotesqueness. … The day is gone by when the novelist can be regarded as a mere caterer for the amusement of sentimental old maids or indolent fogeys. We are sick of lying and cant and platitude. We want facts, not romantic dreams.40

With an understanding of the polarization of taste in the 1880s and 1890s, it becomes easier to understand the contemporary critical response to Harte's writings. Reviews of Harte's books during his last two decades were largely positive, varying from the benign to the adulatory. In the London Academy's regular column “New Novels” for 18 July 1885, E. Purcell reviewed Harte's latest volume By Shore and Sedge: “We keep Mr. Bret Harte's book to the last, for true genius should not be confounded among Grub Street incompetence. We need say little about what everyone will read.” William Morton Payne of the Chicago Dial wrote of the same book, which contained “The Ship of '49,” “An Apostle of the Tules” and “Sarah Walker”: “These stories are further gleanings in the romantic field of western life which the author so assiduously cultivated, and whose resources seem to be still unlimited, for Mr. Harte does not repeat himself, although he writes so much upon the same general subject, and these stories are quite up to the level of his many earlier ones.” Payne, ever a staunch supporter of Harte's work, found it “a relief” in 1888 “to turn from the lay figures so ingeniously devised by Mr. Howells and other popular novelists, to the men and women of Mr. Harte's far West—far, but familiar to us through the mediation of his genial observation and description.” Eighteen years later, when Harte was dead, Payne wrote about his last collection of stories: “We could say nothing of these stories that has not been said many times before. They are like their countless predecessors, and yet their charm is unfailing, and they may be read with a zest from which the edge is hardly worn, however familiar we may be with the scores, if not hundreds, that have delighted us in earlier years.” The Times Literary Supplement made the comment on the seven stories contained in Trent's Trust and Other Stories (1903) that “One might almost range them in order of merit according to their brevity, for in these shorter tales Bret Harte knew exactly what to say, how to say it, and when to stop.” As in the 1870s, it is characteristic that his reviewers were most inclined to be munificent when Harte stayed within the “romantic field of western life.” When he attempted a different type of story in “The Indiscretion of Elsbeth” (1896), the London Athenaeum found him to be “a not very successful imitator of ‘Anthony Hope’” and added the comment that “in his stories of the wild West he is on ground where he has not been beaten.”41 Bret Harte became, in a sense, a victim of his own success. He became typecast, like some highly successful actors the audience only wants to see and believes in one role.


Though Harte initially published everything he wrote in periodicals of one kind or another, he continued to collect his stories and publish them in volume form at regular intervals. As the Dial noted in 1885: “When Mr. Bret Harte has completed three of his short stories, he puts them into a dainty little volume.”42 The number of stories in each volume would vary, but the regularity of their appearance did not. In August 1897, the trade journal The Book Buyer announced that a new novel by Bret Harte called Three Partners was about to appear. The announcement of a new book by Harte was familiar reading, they wrote, but less generally known was the fact “that his popularity, as manifested in sales, remains unbroken. For each new book that he writes there is the same sure demand as for the last.”43 This statement is supported by the production ledgers of Chatto & Windus, the company that published most of Harte's books in England between 1878 and 1902. Though the ledgers give the number of books printed and not the exact number sold, they give us a good indication of how many books Harte was selling in England in the latter part of his career. The Heiress of Red Dog and Other Tales, the first volume published by Chatto & Windus, containing stories and poems written during the last years of the 1870s, sold 3,200 copies between its appearance in mid-March and 4 July 1879. By 8 August that year, the initial print run of 4,000 copies had been sold out and the publisher printed 2,000 more copies. The book was reprinted in 2,000 copies again in 1882 and in 1,500 copies exactly ten years later. Harte appears to have had a fifteen-percent royalty on the book and received a total of $365 for it.44 His next book, The Twins of Table Mountain (1879), a thin volume containing only the title story, had an initial print run of 5,500 copies. This time Harte sold the English volume rights for a lump sum of $375, and that appears to be the way he continued to dispose of the volume rights to his books.45 Despite the publishers' assertion that the book “is not selling nearly so well as we expected,”46 they printed a further 3,000 copies of it only a month after its initial release. Jeff Briggs's Love Story (1880) was equally successful. Flip and Other Stories (1882) sold upward of 13,500 copies during its first year; Maruja (1885)—which was not very well received by the reviewers—nearly 6,000 copies. The figures for the remainder of Harte's works published by Chatto & Windus are as follows (further printings in the second column):47

A Phyllis of the Sierras and A Drift from Redwood Camp (1888) 6,000
A Ward of the Golden Gate (1890) 8,000 4,000
A Waif of the Plains (1890) 10,000 7,000
A Sappho of Green Springs and Other Tales (1891) 6,000
Col. Starbottle's Client and Some Other People (1892) 5,000
Sally Dows (1893) 5,000
Susy (1893) 5,000
A Protégée of Jack Hamlins and Other Stories (1894) 5,000
The Bell-Ringer of Angel's and Other Stories (1894) 4,000
Clarence (1895) 6,000
Three Partners (1897) 4,000
Tales of Trail and Town (1898) 3,000
Condensed Novels, Second Series (1902) 5,000

As these numbers show, the sale of Harte's books in England was steady and high. Nigel Cross tells us that the print run of the average novel rarely exceeded 2,000 copies and more often than not it was set at 1,000 copies or less.48 Walter Besant estimated that if a novel sold six hundred copies, it would in fact have paid its expenses with a small margin left over.49

The sale of Harte's books both in England and America was clearly high enough to earn his publishers the required profit, but it seems fairly certain that none of his many later volumes gained the circulation of The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches (1870). This is not to say that he was getting fewer readers. As a story-writer rather than a novelist, Harte's main readership was a magazine and newspaper readership. The public grew spectacularly toward the end of the century with an increase in literacy and leisure and a corresponding increase in the number of periodicals and their affordability. “Think!” Walter Besant exclaimed in 1899, “One-hundred-and-twenty millions of possible readers at the present day, against 50,000 in the year 1830—only sixty years ago!”50

It is difficult to find an American writer during this period who reached more readers than Bret Harte. I have already indicated something of his international reputation. In America, where according to some witnesses he was “played out,” he probably reached more readers than ever with his story “The Indiscretion of Elsbeth” (1896) for the Ladies' Home Journal, which was one of four circulation leaders from 1890 and had reached a record 600,000 readers by 1891. Harte would reach between 250,000 and 300,000 readers with a story of the Saturday Evening Post in the late 1890s and close to half a million readers in 1902. More than half a million buyers could read his “How I Went to the Mines” in the Youth's Companion in 1899.51 By comparison, Harte's stories for the Atlantic in the early 1870s would have reached 35,000 readers at most.52 By contrast, each of the several stories Harte published in the New York World in 1891 had 375,000 potential readers.53 In England, an issue of the Strand containing one of his stories might sell half a million copies.54

In the size of his audience and the prices he could obtain for his stories, Bret Harte had come a long way since the late 1860s. For the 3,400 words of “Tennessee's Partner” he was paid $23 in 186955—a little over half a cent per word—and the story reached no more than a few thousand readers through the pages of the Overland Monthly.56 Thirty-two years later, “The Adventures of John Longbowe,” a story of exactly the same length, would have brought in at least $210—more than six cents per word—and reached the more than 300,000 readers of Cosmopolitan.57


  1. George R. Stewart, Bret Harte: Argonaut and Exile (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931); Richard O'Connor, Bret Harte: A Biography (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, 1966); Patrick Morrow, Bret Harte: Literary Critic (Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 1979).

  2. Stewart, p. 298; Margaret Duckett, Mark Twain and Bret Harte (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1964), p. 254; Morrow, pp. 109,120.

  3. Stewart, p. 296.

  4. Walter Besant, The Pen and the Book (London: Thomas Burleigh, 1899), p. 143.

  5. Besant, p. 2.

  6. That is not taking into account his consular salary from 1878 to 1885 (ca. $20,000) and income from his one produced play, Sue (1896/98). For the basis for this sum, see tables 1 and 2 and note 60. In present-day dollars this would be about $2,500,000.

  7. Nigel Cross, The Common Writer: Life in Nineteenth-Century Grub Street (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), p. 227.

  8. Bret Harte, The Letters of Bret Harte, ed. Geoffrey Bret Harte (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1926), p. 207.

  9. Bret Harte's diary, “Things that happened, 1881-88,” entry for 2 May 1882, in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library (henceforth cited as Diary).

  10. Harte, Letters, p. 268.

  11. Bradford A. Booth, “Unpublished Letters of Bret Harte,” American Literature, 16 (May 1994), 138.

  12. Diary, entry for 18 April 1886.

  13. Harte to Anna Harte, 7 October 1888, Alderman Library, University of Virginia.

  14. Ibid., 30 March 1897.

  15. Harte to Clara Schneider, 6 January 1886, Alderman Library, University of Virginia.

  16. Harte, Letters, p. 313.

  17. Harte to Clara Schneider, 20 December 1892 and 30 August 1894, Alderman Library, University of Virginia.

  18. Samuel L. Clemens, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, ed. Charles Neider (New York: Harper, 1959), p. 1490.

  19. A. P. Watt to E. L. Burlingame, 31 May 1895, in the A. P. Watt Papers [microfilm], Alderman Library, University of Virginia (henceforth cited as APWP).

  20. Information on regular magazine rates from Franklin Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957), IV, 39-40. Information on prices paid Harte from Diary, entries for 12 May 1885 and 5 June 1887; letters of 20 November 1888 and 2 November 1893 in APWP. “Mr. MacGlowrie's Widow” was commissioned by McClure's syndicate, who sold it to Cosmopolitan. The syndicate paid Harte $25/1000 words at this time.

  21. Many thanks to Professor Gary Scharnhorst for sharing the manuscript of his forthcoming Harte bibliography with me.

  22. Karl Erik Rosengren, “Time and Literary Fame,” Poetics, 14 (1985), 159.

  23. Rosengren, p. 165. Not surprisingly, Rosengren found that by the postwar period (1953-1976) Harte had all but disappeared from the Swedish literary frame of reference. Twain's rank remained high.

  24. Critic poll results quoted in Mott, III, 238; Literature poll results quoted in “An American Academy,” Dial, 26 (1899), 359-60.

  25. See Donald E. Glover, “The Later Literary Career of Bret Harte, 1880-1902”: (Doctoral dissertation, University of Virginia, 1966) and Glover, “A Reconsideration of Bret Harte's Later Work,” Western American Literature, 8 (1973), 143-51.

  26. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), p. 304.

  27. Gillian Beer, The Romance (London: Methuen, 1970), pp. 3, 12.

  28. Beer, p. 10.

  29. Kenneth Graham, English Criticism of the Novel 1865-1900 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), pp. 19, 64.

  30. Robert Louis Stevenson, “Gossip on Romance,” Longman's Magazine, 1 (1882-83), 73.

  31. Graham, p. 66.

  32. Andrew Lang, “Realism and Romance,” Contemporary Review, 52 (1887), 684-85.

  33. Ibid., p. 693.

  34. Graham, p. 66.

  35. Harte, Letters, p. 358.

  36. Graham, p. 68.

  37. Harte to unknown recipient, 19 January 1888, Alderman Library, University of Virginia.

  38. Bret Harte, Stories and Poems and Other Uncollected Writings by Bret Harte, compiled by Charles Meeker Kozlay (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), p. 275.

  39. Ibid.

  40. D. F. Hannigan, “The Decline of Romance,” Westminster Review, 141 (1894), 33, 35.

  41. E. Purcell, “New Novels,” Academy, 28 (1885), 40; William Morton Payne, “Recent Fiction,” Dial, 6 (1885), 124; Payne, “Recent Fiction,” Dial, 8 (1888), 269; Payne, “Recent Fiction,” Dial, 34 (1903), 372; “Trent's Trust,” Times Literary Supplement, 8 May 1903, p. 144; Athenaeum, 26 December 1896, p. 901.

  42. William Morton Payne, “Recent Fiction,” Dial, 6 (1885), 124.

  43. The Book Buyer, 15 (1897), 11.

  44. Chatto & Windus to Harte, 4 July 1879, Chatto & Windus Papers, University of Reading Library.

  45. Ibid., 11 July 1879.

  46. Ibid., 3 October 1879.

  47. All figures above and below on the numbers of copies printed are taken from Chatto & Windus's production ledgers, University of Reading Library.

  48. Cross, p. 206.

  49. Besant, p. 138.

  50. Besant, p. 29.

  51. Mott, American Magazines, IV, 16, 689-90.

  52. Mott, American Magazines, II, 505.

  53. Franklin Luther Mott, American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States through 250 Years, 1690 to 1940 (New York: Macmillan, 1947), p. 435.

  54. British Literary Magazines: The Victorian and Edwardian Age, 1837-1913, ed. Alvin Sullivan (Westport, Conn. and London: Greenwood Press, 1984), p. 399.

  55. “Overland Monthly Papers,” Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley.

  56. Mott, American Magazines, III, 405.

  57. Mott, American Magazines, IV, 484.

Axel Nissen (essay date summer 1997)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4369

SOURCE: Nissen, Axel. “The Feminization of Roaring Camp: Bret Harte and The American Woman's Home.Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 3 (summer 1997): 379-88.

[In the following essay, Nissen determines the influence of Catherine E. Beecher's The American Woman's Home on Harte's “The Luck of Roaring Camp.”]


More than any other author, Bret Harte was responsible for literary representation of the Gold Rush and for putting California on the world's literary map. The challenge he faced was how to represent a lawless and uncivilized phase of American history in a way that would not only capture the imagination of the middle-class, magazine-buying public, but also be socially acceptable. His solution was to import romantic situations and plot structures into a hitherto unmapped fictional landscape. His Californian mythology was founded on symbols and emplotments taken from the Bible, from Greek legend, from Cervantes, Washington Irving, Walter Scott, Cooper, Dumas, and Dickens. The combination was one of enormous rhetorical power.

From the very first, then, Harte was writing historical romance. We see this most clearly when we contrast his short stories with contemporary documents, such as Dame Shirley's “Letters from the California Mines,” which also functioned as source material for Harte the local historian. Although there would continue to be goldminers and mining camps, the Gold Rush was over when Harte first arrived in California in 1854, and the days of the “Argonauts of '49” were numbered when he began to write stories for the Overland Monthly in 1868. Of this Harte was acutely conscious, writing in the preface to his landmark collection The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches (1870), that he fears he “cannot claim … any higher motive than to illustrate an era of which Californian history has preserved the incidents more often than the character of the actors. …”

The first of Harte's Californian short stories to achieve nationwide and worldwide circulation was “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” published in August 1868 in the newly started Overland Monthly, of which Harte was the editor. One modern reader has described the story as “a parable where Christ-like Tommy Luck converts several picturesque miners to a facsimile of Victorian civilization—before raw, savage, anarchistic wilderness wipes them all out” (Morrow 128). As Patrick Morrow correctly observes, in “The Luck of Roaring Camp” Harte incorporates elements from one of the most familiar and beloved stories in Western culture—and birth of Christ. With this starting point, the story sets out to describe the effect of the introduction of a child in to an all-male community. The major part of the narrative is taken up with the relation of how the men raise this child, son of an Indian prostitute and an unknown father.

The modern reader may wonder at how the author dared to confront a postbellum audience with both prostitution and miscegenation. Harte, of course, ran a calculated risk. Yet in the early years of the Gilded Age, no author would prove more adept at walking the tightrope between novelty and convention, between piquancy and propriety, than Bret Harte. As it turned out, the time was ripe for an expansion of American fiction's field imaginary. Even the Iron Madonna might under certain conditions press a fictive fallen sister to her chilly bosom, not to mention her sister's child. The success of Harte's experiment can be no better demonstrated than by quotations from two representative reviews of Harte's first collection of short stories, which included “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and others equally bold. A Chicago Times reviewer wrote on 4 May 4 1870 that Harte “has taken even the lowest phases of this life, and, with a human sympathy and artistic directness that do him equal credit, he has proved that the best of poetry can be made of rude slang, and that the purest human motives and affectations can be found in the most repulsive exteriors” (“The First Appearance”). On the other side of the Atlantic, a Spectator commentary stated on 31 December of that same year: “No reader, however innocent, however sensitive, need fear any harm from this book” (“Sketches” 1587).

The timing was right and Harte's textual strategy was even righter. One of Harte's brilliant sleights of hand was to link his metaphorical acquisition of the story of Christ's birth with a strikingly exact simulation of the child-rearing practices of middle class, white women of his day. These practices were epitomized and largely influenced by Catharine E. Beecher's Treatise on Domestic Economy—which was first published in 1841 and republished nearly every year until 1856—and by the expanded version, The American Woman's Home, which Beecher wrote with her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe and published in 1869. It too went into many printings and was published as a “text-book for the use of young ladies in schools, seminaries, and colleges” in 1870, under the title Principles of Domestic Science.


By 1870, Catharine Beecher had spent a large part of her life and numerous pages of print trying to prove that “the family state … is the aptest earthly illustration of the heavenly kingdom, and in it woman is its chief minister” (19). In August 1868, a little short story of some 3,000 words made the diametrically opposed, provocative and evocative claim that a mining camp—the most male-dominated, coarse, inveterately sinful and unchristian environment in America—could be the aptest earthly illustration of the heavenly kingdom, and an illegitimate child of mixed race its chief minister. For as the expressman in the story notes with wonder: “‘They've a street up there in ‘Roaring,’ that would lay over any street in Red Dog. 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.’”1

In one sense, what is literally “up for grabs” in “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and subtextually in The American Woman's Home is the child, the contested practice is child rearing. On a broader level, both Harte's short story and Beecher's treatise are expressions of a battle between the sexes, a battle for control over the home, for the power to define what a “home” is and what is the proper definition of gender roles. In this context, Harte's story can only be seen as a counter move to the attempt to establish a female hegemony in the home. Writing at a time fraught with tensions between the sexes, Harte engaged the cult of domesticity on its own terms and showed that its rhetoric might be made to accommodate a diametrically different picture of the American home and the American family.

The American Woman's Home was Catharine Beecher's final and most detailed attempt to define the woman's sphere and to professionalize American housekeeping. In the opening chapter she writes:

Woman's profession embraces the care and nursing of the body in the critical periods of infancy and sickness, the training of the human mind in the most impressible period of childhood, the instruction and control of servants, and most of the government and economies of the family state.


Of the role of men, she writes:

To man is appointed out-door labor—to till the earth, dig the mines, toil in the foundries, traverse the ocean, transport merchandise, labor in the manufactories, construct houses, conduct civil, municipal, and state affairs, and all the heavy work.

Furthermore, “the great stimulus to all these toils, implanted in the heart of every true man, is the desire for a home of his own, and the hopes of paternity” (19). Harte's story illustrates Beecher's points about men's labor and desires to the full, but what the story claims with even greater eloquence is that these labors do not make men unfit to take an active part in raising children.

Bret Harte's miners are such good “mothers” that we might suspect them of reading up on Beecher's Treatise on Domestic Economy on the sly. The point for point parallels between Harte's text and Beecher's are so exact that it would be difficult to imagine a closer homology between the “theory” of the treatise and the “practice” of fictional representation. We do not know if Harte ever read any of Beecher's works, nor does it matter. The extent to which the question he addresses must have been “in the air,” so to speak, is no more dramatically illustrated than by the fact that The American Woman's Home was published a year after Harte's short story. In that sense, the fictive text was the “background” of the factual one as much as vice versa. Although large parts of Beecher's 1869 text are taken from The Treatise on Domestic Economy, there are important revisions in the final version particularly relating to gender roles. “The Luck of Roaring Camp” reveals the remarkable extent to which Harte has absorbed the language of domesticity, from whatever source, and as my discussion will show, the extent to which he was able to manipulate it to his own ends.

Harte begins his story by conjuring up the womanly ideal. He speaks of the dying “Cherokee Sal” being sadly bereft of “the ministration of her own sex,” “sympathizing womanhood,” and “her sex's intuitive tenderness and care.” The assumption, soon to be undermined, is that it is woman's work to care for the sick and the dying: only the female of the species has the innate sympathies that this type of work requires. Even at this early point, though, the picture is not black and white. Despite “the half-contemptuous faces of her masculine associates, …” notes the narrator, “a few of the spectators were, I think, touched by her sufferings.” Stumpy, “the putative head of two families,” who has had “experience in them things,” goes in to see what he can do, and manages to save the child but not the mother.

Having deftly done away with the only woman in the community, Harte has the miners replace her with the only other female inhabitant of Roaring Camp: an ass. The implication is that even as a provider of nourishment for the baby, the mother is not strictly speaking necessary. As Catharine Beecher also notes, milk from a new-milch cow mixed with one third water and a little white sugar would do as well (268). She does not comment on the suitability of ass's milk. When it is suggested that the child be sent to Red Dog, which represents civilization in the story and where “female attention could be procured,” this “unlucky suggestion” meets with “fierce and unanimous opposition.” Nor will the miners suffer the introduction of a female nurse in their midst. It is decided that Stumpy and the ass will rear the child. “There was something original, independent, and heroic about the plan that pleased the camp.”

The child thrives. The narrator hypothesizes that “Perhaps the invigorating climate of the mountain camp was compensation for material deficiencies” and waxes eloquently:

Nature took the foundling to her broader breast. In that rare atmosphere of the Sierra foot-hills,—that air pungent with balsamic odor, that ethereal cordial at once bracing and exhilarating,—he may have found food and nourishment, or a subtle chemistry that transmuted ass's milk to lime and phosphorus.

Stumpy inclines to the belief that the baby's well-being is due to plenty of fresh air and good nursing; “‘Me and that ass,’ he would say, ‘has been father and mother to him!’”

In The American Woman's Home no less than two chapters are devoted to the need for fresh air and how to get it. “The first and most indispensable requisite for health is pure air, both by day and night” (43), Beecher writes, also informing her readers that “[t]he human race in its infancy was placed in a mild and genial clime, where each separate family dwelt in tents, and breathed, both day and night, the pure air of heaven” (49). Her rhetoric here is strikingly like that of the narrator of “Luck” [“The Luck of Roaring Camp”]; her “mild and genial clime” could very well be “that rare atmosphere of the Sierra foot-hills.”

The child thrives and the regeneration of the camp begins. The first necessity is to make Stumpy's cabin into a proper “Christian house.” The cabin is kept scrupulously clean and whitewashed, and it is boarded, clothed, and papered. In their collective parenthood, the miners become good consumers, sparing no expense on “‘lace, you know, and filigree-work and frills,—d—m the cost!’” A rosewood cradle is imported, which “kills” the rest of the furniture, necessitating a complete refurbishment. To compete as a social center, “Tuttle's grocery” acquires a carpet and mirrors. The mirrors show the miners how dirty they are and “produce[s] stricter habits of personal cleanliness.” Stumpy imposes “a kind of quarantine upon those who aspired to the honor and privilege of holding ‘The Luck.’” It is a cruel mortification to one of the miners, Kentuck, when he is debarred from holding the baby because he is not clean enough. Stumpy is nevertheless adamant in following Beecher's admonition that “Both the health and comfort of a family depend, to a great extent, on cleanliness of the person and the family surroundings” (150). Kentuck cleans up, appearing regularly every afternoon “in a clean shirt, and face still shining from his ablutions.” He and the other miners clearly demonstrate Beecher's point that “If men will give as much care to their skin as they give to currying a horse, they will gain both health and wealth” (157). As the narrator observes: “They were ‘flush times,’—and the Luck was with them.”

“Nor were moral and social sanitary laws neglected,” writes the narrator further. “‘Tommy,’ who was supposed to spend his whole existence in a persistent attempt to repose, must not be disturbed by noise” and Roaring Camp roars no more. Profanity is given up, as “There is no more important duty devolving upon a mother, than the cultivation of habits of modesty and propriety in young children. All indecorous words or deportment should be carefully restrained; and delicacy and reserve studiously cherished” (Beecher 285). Music is still allowed, “Being supposed to have a soothing, tranquilizing quality,” and being known to be a “very elevating and delightful recreation for the young” (Beecher 296). The baby gets plenty of fresh air and exercise in his open-air nursery, where “Nature was his nurse and playfellow. For him she would let slip between the leaves golden shafts of sunlight that fell just within his grasp; she would send wandering breezes to visit him with the balm of bay and resinous gums.” The baby is placed in the shade of a tree, as direct sunlight would endanger his eyes (Beecher 269). Spending most of the day on his blanket spread over pine-boughs, little Tommy is “always tractable and quiet.” The child has clearly not been allowed “to form such habits that it will not be quiet unless tended and amused. A healthy child should be accustomed to lie or sit in its cradle much of the time” (Beecher 271). It is even recorded that “once, having crept beyond his ‘corral,’ … he dropped over the bank on his head in the soft earth, and remained with his mottled legs in the air in that position for at least five minutes with unflinching gravity. He was extricated without a murmur.” All in all, Tommy appears to be “securely happy,” in perfect accord with Beecher's observation that “A child who is trained to lie or sit and amuse itself, is happier than one who is carried and tended a great deal, and thus rendered restless and uneasy when not so indulged” (271).


As these numerous examples indicate, in “The Luck of Roaring Camp” Harte brings the cult of domesticity to the Sierra foothills. What makes the text so novel is not only that Bret Harte erects the “American Woman's Home” in the wilderness, but that he does it without the American woman. The men of Roaring Camp become everything she could wish for—they are docile, sensitive, caring and not least of all, clean; they stop fighting and swearing; they even develop an aesthetic sense—yet it is a child and not a woman who brings about their regeneration. This cannot be seen as anything but a direct challenge to the woman's self-appointed role as the “minister of the family state” and the savior of “the Homeless, the Helpless, and the Vicious” (the latter is part of the title of Beecher's penultimate chapter).

As to Beecher's claims for a woman's superior fitness as “the chief educator of our race, and the prime minister of the family state” (149), “The Luck of Roaring Camp” proved with convincing clarity that “it ain't necessarily so.” Neither was marriage necessary to establishing a “Christian house”—that is, “a house contrived for the express purpose of enabling every member of a family to labor with the hands for the common good, and by modes at once healthful, economical, and tasteful” (Beecher 24). Stumpy's rural cabin is a Christian house avant la lettre and probably looks not far different from the illustration on the title page of Beecher's book. In one of the final chapters of her book, Beecher suggests that the same building may serve as a home, a church, and a schoolhouse. In Harte's story, it is the great outdoors that takes on this triple function. Tommy is christened in the open air “as seriously as he would have been under a Christian roof, and cried and was comforted in as orthodox fashion.” Roaring Camp as a whole is a Christian house with the heavens as its roof. Here is the “outdoor labor for all” that the family state demands and plentiful “exercise in the pure air, under the magnetic and healthful rays of the sun” (Beecher 24).

From the most unpromising of starting points, Harte creates an all-male utopia. In a central image from the story, “Man-o'-War Jack” is depicted rocking the baby in his arms as he croons forth a naval ditty to soothe him to sleep. The men “lie at full length under the trees, in the soft summer twilight, smoking their pipes and drinking in the melodious utterances. An indistinct idea that was pastoral happiness pervaded the camp. ‘This 'ere kind o' think,’ said the Cockney Simmons, meditatively reclining on his elbow, ‘is evingly.’” Roaring Camp has been depicted from the beginning as “a city of refuge,” though what it is a refuge from is not directly stated. We may now discern that it is a refuge from American womanhood in general and from marriage in particular. In the background of the story lurks the specter of beset manhood, so vividly delineated by Leslie Fiedler and, in the context of theories of American literature, by Nina Baym. “The Luck of Roaring Camp” features not just one but a hundred men that more or less fit Fiedler's description of the “typical male protagonist of our fiction”: “a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat—anywhere to avoid ‘civilization’, which is to say, the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall of sex, marriage, and responsibility” (25).

Misogyny is not veiled in the text; it is explicit: the men are described as being “fiercely skeptical in regard to [the female sex's] general virtue and usefulness.” In this they may have something in common with their Eastern brethren, as Catharine Beecher notes with dismay the “increasing agitation of the public mind, evolving many theories and some crude speculations as to woman's rights and duties” (16). It was not manifest to all that women had “a great social and moral power in their keeping” (16), and clearly not to the author of “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” His strategy was to beat his contestants at their own game; in subtlety it was worthy of the “Heathen Chinee,” the hero of Harte's famous poem “Plain Language from Truthful James.” By putting middle-class domestic ideals to work in a camp full of roughs, Bret Harte made himself and his story unassailable. Who could object to the regeneration of sinful manhood? Who could pillory a child, however dubious its origins, for being the cause of this regeneration? Beecher herself reminds us in her chapter entitled “The Christian Home” that Jesus Christ “chose for his birthplace the most despised village, for his parents the lowest in rank” and Tommy Luck (and his author) does just the same in mid-century America. What parents could be lower? What village more despised? What precedent more illustrious?


Harriet Beecher Stowe's contribution to An American Woman's Home was four new chapters on home decorating and gardening that had not been part of the original Treatise (Sklar 263). These chapters reveal an interior decorating aesthetic that sounds like a recipe for bringing the Californian wilderness to Nook Farm. Whether in the shape of pretty rustic frames, brackets, hanging-baskets or planted in “Ward cases” (tabletop conservatories), pine is the wood of preference in 1869 and pine cones very much de rigeur (Beecher 91, 95, 98, 102). Ivy is the thing with which to decorate a room (Beecher 96), just like the wondrous “vines and flowers” around the houses of Roaring Camp. Among the inexpensive yet beautiful cabinet pictures recommended by Stowe is Bierstadt's “Sunset in the Yo Semite Valley.” Yet, as the goldminers show, it is not necessary to buy works of art to beautify the home, and poverty is no excuse for negligence:

If you live in the country, or can get into the country, and have your eyes opened and your wits about you, your house need not be condemned to an absolute bareness. Not so long as the woods are full of beautiful ferns and mosses, while every swamp shakes and nods with tremulous grasses, need you feel yourself an utterly disinherited child of nature, and deprived of its artistic use.

(Beecher 94)

As the narrator of “The Luck” comments: “The men had suddenly awakened to the fact that there were beauty and significance in these trifles, which they had so long trodden carelessly beneath their feet.” In this realization, the men of Roaring Camp are way ahead of Mrs. Stowe. As early as 1851 they are busy decorating the baby's bower “with flowers and sweet-smelling shrubs.” Their “wild honeysuckles, azaleas, or the painted blossoms of Las Mariposas” are far more exotic and beautiful then Mrs. Stowe's mundane ferns, trailing arbutus, Mayflowers, eye-bright, and violets (Beecher 101-02).

The miners, of course, do not have to pay $12 for a chromo of the Yosemite. They and their child can have the real thing completely free, and we may well imagine that “Surrounded by such suggestions of the beautiful,” Tommy is being “constantly trained to correctness of taste and refinement of thought” (Beecher 94) at least as well as any Eastern child. What need has he of a “Ward case” to “learn to enjoy the beautiful, silent miracles of nature” (Beecher 102)? How sorry seem the “grottoes from bits of shells, and minerals, and rocks” (Beecher 101) when compared with “A flake of glittering mica, a fragment of variegated quartz. … [P]laythings such as never child out of fairy-land had before. …” “The Luck” does not have to be content with only having “a fragment of the green woods brought in” (Beecher 103). He does not need plate glass between him and nature. Or does he?

At the end of the story, little Tommy Luck, not yet a year old, is drowned in a flashflood. Mother Nature's spring cleaning wipes the “Virgin Sierras” free of impurities, literally throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is not insignificant that it is the only “female” influence in the child's life (besides the ass) that finally kills him. Mother Nature, who had taken the foundling “to her broader breast” and been his “nurse and playfellow,” drowns him through an act of wanton negligence, while Kentuck, one of Tommy's many foster fathers, gives his life trying to save him. Ironically, despite the efforts of one hundred motherly men to raise the child according to the most modern and enlightened principles, Harte's story reenacts a sad truth in the America of the late 1860s: “one fourth of all who are born die before reaching the fifth year” (Beecher 54).


Toward the end of her life, Catharine Beecher found it increasingly difficult to see the family as an institution that would bridge the ever-widening gulf between the sexes. As Kathryn Kish Sklar has noted, by 1869 the family seemed to her “to embody rather than to meliorate the tensions between … men and women” (167). An important difference between The Treatise on Domestic Economy and The American Woman's Home was that in the latter book, Beecher began to outline alternatives to the traditional family. She “appended to the usual domestic forms an entirely female domesticity, in which a woman ‘who earns her own livelihood, can institute the family state’ by adopting children” (Sklar 167). Despite these developments, The American Woman's Home was an end-point for Catharine Beecher; she was “too deeply immersed” in the ruling ethic of domesticity “to break away completely from domestic forms” (Sklar 167). Not so Bret Harte. For him, “The Luck of Roaring Camp” was only the beginning. He went on to build an entire literary career on exalting the strength and beauty of male bonds, particularly as represented by the institution of “partnership” between men in the mines. In such stories as “Tennessee's Partner” (1869) and “Uncle Jim and Uncle Billy” (1897), partnership represented an idyllic contrast and a viable, life-long alternative to marriage.


  1. Due to the brevity of Harte's story and its availability in a variety of different editions and anthologies, I cite no page numbers for the quotations.

Works Cited

Baym, Nina. “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Woman Authors.” American Quarterly 33 (1981): 125-39.

Beecher, Catharine E. and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The American Woman's Home or, Principles of Domestic Science; Being a Guide to the Formation and Maintenance of Economical, Healthful, Beautiful, and Christian Homes. New York: J. B. Ford, 1869.

Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. London: Paladin, 1970.

“The First Appearance in Book Form of Bret Harte's Californian Sketches.” Chicago Times 4 May 1870.

Harte, Francis Bret. The Works of Bret Harte. New York: Collier, 1906. Vol. 7.

Morrow, Patrick. “Bret Harte, Popular Fiction, and the Local Color Movement.” Western American Literature 8 (1973): 123-31.

“Sketches of Californian Life.” Spectator 43 (1870): 1587.

Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity. New Haven: Yale UP, 1973.

J. David Stevens (essay date September 1997)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9399

SOURCE: Stevens, J. David. “‘She War a Woman’: Family Roles, Gender, and Sexuality in Bret Harte's Western Fiction.” American Literature 69, no. 3 (September 1997): 571-93.

[In the following essay, Stevens traces the development of Harte's treatment of gender and sexuality in his short fiction.]

By almost all accounts, Bret Harte must be considered a progenitor of the popular Western in America. Although he eschewed the displays of violence central to other frontier texts, his renditions of town and mining camp life constructed the principal backdrop against which the struggle of the Western hero would later take place; and though his characters are not as stereotypical as some critics maintain, they are for the most part representative figures in the “universal” battle of good and evil that later Westerns underscore.1 In Harte's fiction, ethical questions are settled by a contest of souls rather than a showdown in the street, but he ultimately arrives at the same place as other Western writers, extolling the absolute triumph of good over evil and maintaining a Manichean moral vision of the people he describes. Thus, while differences surely exist between his stories and those of Cooper or Wister, Harte's contributions to the development of “some of our most venerable literary stereotypes” cannot be overstated.2 And his name, as one critic dramatically affirms, should “be forever associated in the annals of literature with the great foundation of the History of the West.”3

But for all the critical attention Harte has received, scholars still have trouble incorporating his work into a larger history of popular Western writing. Part of the difficulty stems from his liberal stances on race in defiance of “frontier” convention, for in both his journalism and fiction Harte exhibited a genuine compassion for minorities, having once had to flee a lynch mob after writing an editorial that condemned the white massacre of sixty Indians near Eureka, California.4 Of course, the near absence of nonwhite characters in the stories that truly established Harte's literary fame—those published from 1868 to 1873, including his first significant collection, The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches (1870)—suggests that his relative lack of ethnocentrism cannot alone account for his ambiguous place in the popular Western canon. Rather, scholars have pointed to the sentimental excess with which he draws many of his characters: tender-hearted miners and prostitutes, pensive gamblers, virginal schoolmarms. The chief contention seems to be that, lacking realism and depth, Harte's writing never rises above piously humanist caricature.5 Such arguments, however, assume that Harte's design was simply to represent the world as it was, even though his compassionate depiction of other races suggests a clear attempt to alter the world by altering his audience's conceptions of it. Taking this social activism as my cue, I will argue that what critics have labeled sentimental excess is actually Harte's method of exploring certain hegemonic cultural paradigms taken for granted in other Western narratives. In particular, the stories written around 1870 are concerned with the structure of the family, questioning the usefulness of a patriarchal order in which domestic roles are assigned strictly according to sex. This investigation leads to a critique of gender roles in society at large, which in turn prompts an examination of sexual identity.6 Finally, in his sympathetic depiction of homoerotic urges and a blatantly enacted homosexual relationship, Harte not only subverts the Western convention of universal heterosexual monogamy but also radically tropes the supposedly stereotypical characters he creates, characters that not only recur throughout his writing but also serve as prototypes for much American literature to follow.

Using the Western as a window into Harte's reformist sensibilities is particularly appropriate since the Western is arguably the most rigid genre in American literature in its delineation of family, gender, and sexual roles. For the purposes of this essay, I will read the Western as a place where “men are men and women are women,” and where this supposedly self-evident state of affairs translates into the almost inviolable cultural inscription of both sexes. Despite the frequency of “male bonding” in frontier texts, I will treat the Western as an explicitly heterosexual space where men engage together in work, play, and displays of violence, while women are assigned to the home or brothel to serve mostly as an outlet for male sexual urges. Of course, my criteria are somewhat simplistic, but what must be remembered is the nearly absolute separation of gender roles that Westerns tend to construct: men work outdoors, drink heavily, and fight off outlaws; women stay at home and tend to the family.7 Clearly women in the Western may vary somewhat, being either virginal schoolmarms or lusty prostitutes, but both identities are highly charged sexually and seem largely intended to reaffirm the Western male's own (hetero)sexuality.8 One of the great fears in the Western, then, is a breakdown of gender roles that might lead to the breakdown of sexual ones. Yet these breakdowns do occur in Harte's fiction, as his early representations of the ambiguous nature of “family” lead to a more pointed attack on the cultural inscription of sexuality itself. Starting with the well-known “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (August 1868), I will trace this progression through several notable stories: “Miggles” (June 1869), “Tennessee's Partner” (October 1869), and “The Poet of Sierra Flat” (July 1871). Examined in the order in which they were published, the stories illustrate the development, whether conscious or not, of Harte's thoughts on these subjects.


In a mining camp in the Sierra Mountains, a baby is born to one Cherokee Sal, “a coarse and … very sinful woman”9 who dies just after giving birth. The men of the camp—there are no other women—must decide what to do with the babe, and after some discussion they settle on adopting and raising it themselves. Christened Thomas Luck, the baby exerts a civilizing influence on the crew of blackguards, ushering in a time of moral and material prosperity. Triumph gives way to tragedy, however, as a flood washes away the camp and Thomas drowns, despite the fatal efforts of Kentuck, one of the most irascible miners, to save him. The end of the story finds “the strong man … clinging to the frail babe” as together they drift “into the shadowy river that flows forever to the unknown sea” (36).

“The Luck of Roaring Camp” was the first story to establish firmly Harte's fame as a Western writer, and it remains one of his best-known and most popular today. It has been read by critics in diametrically opposed ways. Allen Brown, for instance, views Thomas as a Christ figure who arrives in Roaring Camp to “redeem” the community of men, while J. R. Boggan sees Harte's story as a parody of Christian values, noting that “the men of Roaring Camp are no more regenerated, no more spiritually reborn, than is the Christ child in the person of little Luck.”10 The truth probably lies somewhere between these two readings; for, as Boggan suggests, it is improbable that Harte's penchant for satire would have allowed him to treat the idea of a Second Coming in the Sierras with complete gravity. But it is equally dangerous to assume that Harte's intent was to satirize the Christian excess of which he was so often accused. The rebirth of Roaring Camp may not be as absolute as Brown claims, but as the miners unite to become the “parents” of young Thomas, they both learn to appreciate the “family” they struggle to create and receive a spiritual insight to which they have previously not had access.

To continue a religious reading, I would argue that Thomas is not so much a representative of Christ as an Adamic figure released into the garden of the Sierras. His “bower,” decorated with “flowers and sweet-smelling shrubs, and … honeysuckles, azaleas, or the painted blossoms of Las Mariposas” (33), echoes not only the garden of Genesis but also Adam and Eve's bower in Milton's Paradise Lost. And like Adam, Thomas communes with the animals of Eden. As Kentuck once reports, “dern my skin if he wasn't a-talking to a jay bird as was a-sittin' on his lap. There they was, just as free and sociable as anything you please, a-jawin' at each other like two cherrybums” (34). Whether exaggerated or not, the image of Thomas talking to a real animal suggests his metaphorical role as tamer of Roaring Camp's “beasts.” Several critics have suggested that Thomas's presence actually reaffirms the violent male qualities that typified the camp before his arrival. For example, the gifts that the miners leave by the crib after his birth—guns, a lady's handkerchief, cash—all “represent violence, objects of sensual pleasure, or mere monetary booty.”11 Yet as gifts they are also things the miners are giving up for Thomas's sake. Thus, though one Freudian reading sees the gifts as signs of the men's carnal ids, their willingness to part with these possessions suggests a superseding ego-driven desire to suppress their “baser” impulses. To return to a religious reading, even the serpent is subdued when Kentuck—who views “garments as a second cuticle, which, like a snake's, only [sloughs] off through decay”—learns to appear before Thomas each day “in a clean shirt and face still shining from his ablutions” (31).

Moreover, Thomas's role as Adam is important for its resonance in later frontier novels, where the hero is understood to be a “new” man struggling to create a version of civilization superior to both Europe and America's Atlantic Coast. In traditional frontier literature the hero is “a man with a gun,” and his method of guiding the nation back into Eden almost always calls for the use of violence, at which he is particularly skilled. Harte, however, tropes this kind of rugged pathfinder by making his “Adam” a defenseless infant and by claiming that the return to Eden requires adherence to codes of sacrifice and pacifism that the miners come to adopt. Of course, the Western hinges on the existence of a frontier where the hero can operate, and as soon as it is gone, the hero's adventures must be transplanted to the next frontier or ended outright. So, too, with Harte's story, for Thomas can only remain a babe so long, after which he would cease to embody the absolute innocence required to counter the Western hero's desire for conquest. As a result, the Genesis-like flood must come to destroy Roaring Camp, an Eden that cannot remain forever idyllic in a world of transgression.

Yet significantly, the flood also offers a kind of rebirth that does not depend on Thomas's literal ability to rise from the grave in Christian fashion, as Boggan suggests. Rather, this rebirth reflects the kind of internal struggle and conversion common to Harte's fiction throughout his career, a struggle in which characters are redeemed not through transcendent grace but through self-exploration and commitment to change.12 Kentuck may be called to his heavenly home by the Luck, but finally it is the chance for an earthly home that “saves” the rest of Roaring Camp after Thomas's death. For Thomas is not Christ. He does not redeem the former outlaws through his literal presence or a final “sacrifice.” Rather, what he offers them is an alternative worldview, the possibility of family in a more than physical sense, and of nonviolent intercourse even in the consummately violent realm of Roaring Camp.

Of course, the problem with viewing Roaring Camp as a kind of family is that there are no women in it, and on the surface Harte's story appears to perpetuate the Western fantasy of a female-free space. But whatever the nature of the camp before Thomas's arrival, the story remains grounded in the redemptive power of the family as it binds the miners to Thomas and, later, to one another. The reason there are no women in the camp is not to demonstrate that they are unnecessary but to underscore how essential their contributions are. Without women, men are forced to assume the roles of father and mother, defender and nurturer; in so doing they find their lives made remarkably more complete. Where traditional Westerns tend to push stereotypically feminine associations (“the home”) to the background, Harte's story plants them firmly at the fore in both narrative action and cultural importance. Ironically, what seems like Harte's slighting of women becomes his affirmation not only of the importance of feminine qualities in a civilized society but also of the necessity of their expression by males. “The Luck of Roaring Camp” thus unfixes the cultural ascription of gender roles, implying that society functions best when maternal and paternal qualities are expressed equally by both sexes.


At least Harte implies that men would do well to explore their more feminine sides. Women are never specifically mentioned. But if the possible value of adopting opposite gender traits is only implied in “The Luck,” it is explicitly confirmed for both sexes in “Miggles,” published nine months later.

The story begins when a stagecoach driven by Yuba Bill, an itinerant rascal in Harte's fiction, is delayed by rain and its passengers are forced to take shelter at Miggles's nearby home. Breaking into the house, the passengers discover a paralytic invalid and set about arguing over whether he could be the Miggles of whom they have heard. When the real Miggles arrives moments later, the company is shocked to find that she is a woman. During a subsequent meal and several conversations, Miggles reveals that she is a former prostitute and that Jim, the invalid, used to be her best customer. Because of Jim's deteriorating health from syphilis, Miggles has retired to their country home, spending the “heap of money” he once lavished upon her and a considerable amount of effort caring for him (she repeatedly calls him her “baby”). The story ends when the passengers depart the next day, but not before the Judge, whose generic title suggests his authority in such matters, leads the men in a toast: “Well, then, here's to Miggles—GOD BLESS HER!” To which the narrator privately responds, “Perhaps He had. Who knows?”13

Whereas in “The Luck of Roaring Camp” issues of gender and cultural expectation are somewhat subdued, in “Miggles” they form the explicit basis for the narrator's thoughts. Even before the detour to Miggles's home, he singles out the stagecoach passengers according to gender, taking careful stock of the company's women: “The French lady on the back seat was asleep too, yet in a half-conscious propriety of attitude, shown even in the disposition of her handkerchief which she held to her forehead and which partially veiled her face. The lady from Virginia City, traveling with her husband, had long since lost all individuality in a wild confusion of ribbons, veils, furs, and shawls” (155). Hardly an extensive description, the two sentences nonetheless offer two stereotypical versions of femininity against which Miggles may later be judged: the French lady as a model of “propriety” and the lady from Virginia City as a model of vanity and extravagance. Furthermore, while the narrator's decision to describe the two women rather than the nine men on board cannot be read as a comparative delineation of cultural roles according to sex, it can be seen as evidence of his taking masculine identity for granted. Because he believes that readers will assume what men are like and how they act (at least to some extent), he sees no need to reiterate their qualities. Ironically, then, both his early descriptions of the party and his various omissions anticipate Miggles's appearance—an appearance that will subvert not only the stereotypical female/feminine identities reproduced by the narrator but also the male/masculine identity that he takes for granted.

The narrator's thoughts aside, the cultural expectations of the company are expressed most forcefully when the stagecoach reaches Miggles's residence, only to find no one home. Several times the Judge entreats whoever is inside to let them in by shouting, “Really, my dear sir,” and Yuba Bill bellows, “Be a man, Miggles! Don't hide in the dark” (156). The joke, of course, is that the men are the ones truly in the dark about Miggles's nature. Even after her appearance, they remain oblivious to the implications that her identity may have for their own. As the narrator remarks when she enters, “And this was Miggles! this bright-eyed, full throated young woman, whose wet gown of coarse blue stuff could not hide the beauty of the feminine curves to which it clung; from the chestnut crown of whose head, topped by a man's oilskin sou'wester, to the little feet and ankles, hidden somewhere in the recesses of her boy's brogans, all was grace” (158). On the surface, the narrator's description contrasts Miggles with the two versions of femininity offered earlier. Miggles's beauty is natural and rugged, shining through her “gown of coarse blue stuff” in an exact inversion of the Virginia City woman's total dependence on her “ribbons, veils, furs, and shawls”; moreover, Miggles's “airy, frank, offhand manner” (159) stands in stark contrast to the unflinching reserve of the French lady. When Miggles darts “a quick, half-defiant glance at the two lady passengers” (159), her challenge is directed not so much toward the women themselves as toward the cultural values they represent. For she realizes that she is an alternative to the feminine norms of “civilized” society. She is aggressive and self-reliant, and insofar as she makes that identity succeed (she offers sustenance to the stagecoach passengers, not the other way around), she more than legitimizes her alternative femininity both practically and culturally.

However, what the narrator's contrasting of the three women obscures is the way that Miggles's rejection of traditional feminine identity introduces the possibility that she possesses a masculine identity instead. Indeed, the narrator's admiration of her “feminine curves” overlooks the “man's oilskin sou'wester” (a waterproof hat) and “boy's brogans” (heavy work shoes) in which she is dressed. From top to bottom, in other words, she is clothed more like a man than a woman—and she acts like a man too, running two miles in the rain to reach the stagecoach and, at the house, compelling the men to do a variety of domestic chores before dinner. Dinner itself provides further evidence of her masculine nature, as the narrator unwittingly notes:

The meal was a culinary success. But more, it was a social triumph … owing to the rare tact of Miggles in guiding the conversation … [and] bearing throughout a frankness that rejected the idea of any concealment on her own part, so that we talked of ourselves, of our prospects, of the journey, of the weather, of each other—of everything but our host and hostess. It must be confessed that … at times she employed expletives the use of which had generally been yielded to our sex. But they were delivered with such a lighting up of teeth and eyes … that it seemed to clear the moral atmosphere.


Not only does Miggles seem more like a man as the story progresses, but the stagecoach passengers seem more like women, growing positively chatty under Miggles's guidance, their egos pricked only when their hostess refuses to “yield” the supposedly male prerogative of cursing. Despite the narrator's insistence on specific cultural roles for the sexes, the gender inversion becomes complete several pages later, after the company has parted to go to bed. As the narrator reports, “Our sex—by which … I allude of course to the stronger portion of humanity—has been generally relieved from the imputation of gossip. Yet I am constrained to say that hardly had the door closed on Miggles than we crowded together, whispering, snickering, smiling, and exchanging suspicions, surmises, and a thousand speculations in regard to our pretty hostess and her singular companion” (162). Though the narrator's defense of masculinity grows more strident throughout the story, it is finally his own observations that reveal his attitudes toward women as mistaken and even laughable. Though he cannot see it, his inability to make his “feminine” actions conform to his “masculine” rhetoric demonstrates the viability of the alternative gender and cultural paradigms represented by Miggles and the inadequacy of the absolute distinctions of his own.14

Simply put, Miggles “out-mans” the men, even becoming a kind of frontier hero. A knock on the door during dinner reveals a half-grown grizzly named Joaquin that Miggles calls her “watchdog,” explaining that “he trots round with me nights like as if he was a man” (161). By taming Nature in the form of Joaquin, Miggles proves herself as resourceful a pioneer as any created by Cooper; she has, after a fashion, even “conquered” the neighboring Indians, who “do odd jobs” (163) for her when she is in need. Moreover, the triumph of her performance is that she balances the masculine and feminine aspects of her personality so that she seems much more than a Buffalo Bill in drag.15 Her conquest of the frontier is more peaceful and effective—in a word, more feminine—than any man's. As with the citizens of Roaring Camp, everything about Miggles, down to her furniture alternately “covered with gay calico or the skin of some animal” (160), suggests Harte's conviction that both sexes need to express masculine and feminine traits.16 Again, the point of gender inversion in the story is the “perfect sexual equality” (161) that the narrator understands Miggles to represent, “perfect” both because equality is absolute in her home and because that home functions perfectly under its influence.

Like Roaring Camp, that home itself is nontraditional, mirroring the change in gender roles. Jim, after all, is Miggles's former client, a john, and she makes it clear from the outset that he is neither her brother, father, nor husband. Yet the lack of a traditional tie to Jim does not decrease Miggles's devotion, as the company first suspects, and in some ways actually increases it. As she says, “if we were man and wife now, we'd both know that I was bound to do what I do now of my own accord” (164). Jim and Miggles's relationship is based on mutual affection, not on the notion of obedience built into a marriage vow. Granted, in her ministrations Miggles becomes the stereotypical whore with a heart of gold, and there is no small truth in the assertion that Jim's unresponsiveness prevents the reader from seeing how the two would interact under “normal” circumstances. (Would the relationship still seem idyllic if Jim were just another horny cowboy fresh off the range?) Yet Harte offers an instance of traditional marriage in the Virginia City lady and her husband, who never speak to each other and “look away” whenever their eyes meet. Given this alternative, even the initial relations of Miggles and Jim may be read as more positive, or at least more honest, than the forced devotion and subsequent estrangement of some other couples.17

Finally, Miggles's relationship to Jim can be read in various ways. In her role as comforter, she becomes a mother; as provider and protector, she is a father or husband; as former lover, she is a wife (though even this identity is continually troped, for in washing Jim's feet she reiterates her role as prostitute, only this time suggesting the redeemed Mary Magdalene). Furthermore, Miggles's attendance upon the “solitary” and “helpless” Jim recalls the failure of Roaring Camp to minister to that other Harte prostitute, Cherokee Sal, who dies in a state of “isolation” and “loneliness.” Just as Jim becomes a version of Sal, Miggles becomes an ironic inversion of Kentuck and the rest, men who are themselves partly inverted when they take on the maternal duty of caring for Thomas. In short, the story does not simply alter traditional family structures and gender codes but explodes them completely; once more the characters doing the most demolition are viewed with the greatest sympathy.


Unlike “Miggles,” “Tennessee's Partner” may not at first seem to endorse alternative family structures, beginning as it does with the trial of Tennessee, a notorious highwayman, before a kangaroo court in the town of Sandy Bar. During the judgment, Tennessee's former mining partner arrives and attempts to bribe the court into acquitting the accused. The gesture is made with such naïveté that the court overlooks it and listens patiently as the partner tells how he and Tennessee lived together even after the partner got married, how Tennessee ran off with the partner's wife, and how the partner welcomed Tennessee back after the wife deserted Tennessee as well. The partner appears to be the epitome of Christian mercy, a quality not shared by the court when it sentences Tennessee to hang. After the execution, the partner takes the body to a grave beside his home where, after a brief eulogy, he insists on burying Tennessee by himself. At the story's end, when the partner also lies dying, he cries out, “I told you so!—thar he is—coming this way … sober, and his face a-shining. Tennessee! Pardner!” To which the narrator adds, “And so they met” (49).

Linda Burton offers a provocative reading of this story in which she considers “the possibly homosexual relationship between Tennessee and his partner.”18 Pointing to how the men “live together not only before and after … but also during the marriage,”19 Burton suggests that the partner's taking a wife is a cover for the men's homosexual desire. After all, they try to assert their heterosexuality through a relationship with the same woman, and, after failing, they return to a satisfactory domestic partnership with one another. This partnership is so strong that it becomes a version of marriage, with the partner taking Tennessee's name (he is never identified as other than “Tennessee's partner”). Equally important is the “wifely” devotion the partner showers on his friend, first by offering all his possessions at the trial so Tennessee might go free, and later by admitting in his eulogy that “It ain't the first time that I've packed him home on my back, as you see'd me now. … [I]t ain't the first time that I and Jinny have waited for him on you hill, and picked him up and so fetched him home, when he couldn't speak and didn't know me” (48). In addition, the rapid failing of the previously healthy partner after Tennessee's death suggests that he is pining for a lost love, a love reaffirmed in his final words, as he apparently rejoices at being reunited with Tennessee in Heaven.

Most critics disagree with Burton's assessment of the men's relationship, a position exemplified by Gary Scharnhorst's dismissal of Burton's argument as “not very convincing.”20 Scharnhorst favors instead the ironic reading offered by William F. Conner, who claims that the partner wants Tennessee to hang and that “Far from [being] simple, pathetic, and deeply loyal, Tennessee's deadpan partner is complex, clever, and hard-boiled in his dogged individualism and firm sense of frontier justice.”21 According to Conner, Harte intended to trope the expectations of his sentimental audience by slowly revealing the partner as a man out for vengeance rather than an advocate of mercy. After all, the partner's testimony damns Tennessee—seemingly by accident—and after Tennessee's death the partner hauls him to an “unpicturesque” spot and insists on burying him personally, as if to complete the execution. In Conner's reading, the brief eulogy listing the many favors the partner has done Tennessee is intended to highlight the monstrousness of Tennessee's betrayal, and the partner's rapid demise after the burial is the result of losing an object of revenge rather than an object of love. Even after the funeral, the men of Sandy Bar cannot read the partner's emotion when, from a distance, they look back to see him seated on the grave, perhaps crying, perhaps laughing. The effect of Conner's ironic reading is two-fold. First, it restores the partner's manhood by making him the architect of Tennessee's downfall, an act of retaliation for the symbolic emasculation he suffered when Tennessee ran off with his wife. Second, it makes the partner the active agent in a revenge plot typical of traditional frontier fiction, in which characters reassert their masculinity through the successful deployment of violence. Tennessee's partner is thus transmuted from the Milquetoast he first appears to be into a subtle, if idiosyncratic, version of the frontier hero, ready to take justice into his own hands using whatever means are available.

The fundamental problem with this argument is that it seems to ignore the rest of Harte's work. In broadest terms, Harte wrote blatantly “sentimental” narratives all his life, well after their popularity had waned, a practice that threatened to leave him penniless. It hardly seems likely that a man in such a creative rut would produce the very conscious tropes of both literary convention and his own fiction with which Conner credits him. More narrowly, even the stories published around the time of “Tennessee's Partner” do not exhibit the ideological tendencies Conner elaborates. Rather, as I have argued, the other tales composing the 1870 volume of The Luck of Roaring Camp tend to subvert the violent impulses or strict gender conventions of popular frontier novels. Granted, traditional readings make the partner a model of sentimental excess, and it is possible that his failure to save Tennessee represents Harte's own recognition of the inefficacy of sentimental ideals. But to jump from such an expression of doubt to a view of the partner as a symbol of “frontier justice” hardly seems justified in light of Harte's other writing. Instead, if “Tennessee's Partner” intentionally challenges any literary convention, it is probably the formula Western. In one of the story's climactic moments, when Tennessee returns after stealing the partner's wife only to be welcomed back into the partner's home, the “boys who had gathered in the canyon to see the shooting were naturally indignant” (39). Like that of the boys, the readers' desire for violent conflict is what the story refuses to satisfy. When Conner cites Harte's practice of using “sentimentality to mock conventional morality,” he disregards the way that conventional morality at the time of the story's publication would have tolerated, even demanded, the partner's challenging Tennessee to a duel. That the partner refuses this imperative sets him apart not only from the men who later carry out “the weak and foolish deed” (45) of lynching but also from the mass of dime-novel enthusiasts who would have expected no less.

Such a reading reinscribes “Tennessee's Partner” as a tale of “brotherly love,” which is the way critics have traditionally seen it.22 Having acknowledged this, I would like to return to Burton's assessment of the homosexual aspects of the text, for it seems to me that brotherly love and a more subversive homoeroticism are not mutually exclusive and may be parts of the continuum from family to gender to sexual issues that Harte's fiction seems to chart. The central question behind this approach concerns the curious way that Tennessee continues to live in the partner's home even after the partner has taken a bride. The men's cohabitation before the marriage could be explained as a feature of their business partnership, and (accepting Conner's reading momentarily) the cohabitation after the wife's departure might be the partner's way of biding his time while plotting revenge. But what Conner cannot explain is the abnormal domestic arrangement of the two men living together during the partner's marriage, before the sin of wife-stealing has taken place. As a genre, the Western is very guarded about relationships between men and women, and marriage erects a kind of wall between the monogamous couple and the rest of the world. To even imply infidelity, let alone a homosexual affair or a ménage à trois, is patently verboten—yet that is the situation in the partner's home. Although Burton's assumption of homosexuality is based largely on innuendo, the presence of Tennessee in the partner's house at least suggests a sexual tension uncommon in Western literature. And the partner's welcoming Tennessee back after the wife's final departure might well suggest that the real tension was always between the two men rather than between the men and the woman.

Given Harte's reputation as moralist, one would not expect him to place all his cards on the table if he were, in fact, talking about a homosexually charged relationship. But certainly he stacks the deck in favor of such an interpretation by making Tennessee and his partner essential features of one another's lives. The men are colleagues, cohabitors, and “domestic” as well as economic partners. They represent an isolated male pair within the larger all-male community. They even have a physical bond through their sharing of the same woman, perhaps in the same time period. Given these homosocial complexities, is it so absurd to assume a certain homosexual tension as well?23 Of course, the leap to assuming a homosexual relationship is a precarious one, especially in a Western, for the Western adheres to a pattern of fixing cultural power in the hands of a hero who is, among other things, always white and heterosexual. Moreover, on a cultural level the Western seeks the same result: to offer power to a white heterosexual male audience that can claim an identity inherently suitable for the exercise of sociopolitical power.

Yet given these conventions, I would stress again that Harte's central literary project was to destabilize and debunk the traditional Western and to break down cultural inscriptions based on race and gender. Undeniably, he valorizes feminine qualities in a way that most other Westerns refuse to do. Could he, then, have made the connection between women's and homosexual issues, between gender and sexuality? By extension, could he also have recognized how both are related to the Western's unflinching assignment of cultural roles on the basis of sex? Regardless of one's answer, the fact that these questions can be raised points to the progressive social philosophy that Harte's work underscores, and his record of questioning “sacrosanct” cultural conventions suggests that the possibility of homosexuality in “Tennessee's Partner” cannot be easily dismissed. The philosophical progression outlined in this essay—Harte's treating men as women and women as men, his depicting nontraditional domestic orders as successful—moves him more than gradually toward a conflation of masculine and feminine identity. His arguments problematize all but the most basic correlations of cultural function to sexed bodies (for example, childbirth). It is thus hardly unreasonable to entertain ideas about what seems a rather small leap from his tolerant view of gender performance in the world at large to similarly open-minded attitudes toward sexual performance in the privacy of the bedroom.


Of course, if there really is a cultural progression in the works I have outlined, the next step would be to move from the largely implied and latent homosexual relationship in “Tennessee's Partner” to blatantly enacted homoerotic urges—which is exactly what happens in “The Poet of Sierra Flat.”

The story begins in the office of the “Sierra Flat Record,” when Mr. Morgan McCorkle, “a well-known citizen,” introduces the newspaper editor to the “born poet” of the story's title, Milton Chubbuck. “Knowed him for fower year,” claims McCorkle. “Can jerk a rhyme as easy as turnin' jack. Never had any eddication; lived out in Missooray all his life. But he's chock full o' poetry” (108). Somewhat skeptical about the town's poetic tastes, the editor nonetheless prints Chubbuck's verse after McCorkle offers to pay the standard advertisement rate: “The effect of [Chubbuck's first] poem on Sierra Flat was remarkable. … The absolute vileness of its doggerel, the gratuitous imbecility of its thought, and above all the crowning audacity of the fact that it was the work of a citizen and published in the county paper, brought it instantly into popularity” (111). Soon Chubbuck is pronounced the regional poet laureate, and his fame soars. One of the most disreputable citizens of Sierra Flat, Boston, even manages to acquire “letters of congratulations from H. W. Longfellow, Tennyson, and Browning to Mr. Chubbuck” and obligingly consents “to dictate the replies” (112).

Chubbuck's notoriety established, the story's second half seems to take a new tack after the arrival of the California Pet, a dance-hall performer whose “specialty lay in the personation of youthful masculine character; as a gamin of the street she was irresistible, as a Negro-dancer she carried the honest miner's heart by storm” (113). When Chubbuck begins to dote on the Pet, Boston hatches a plan to embarrass the poet in front of the object of his desire. He arranges for Chubbuck to read a poem before the Pet's final performance, during which the audience will heckle him then run him out of town. On the appointed night, however, Chubbuck gets such bad stage fright that when Boston jumps onto the stage, the sympathetic Pet races from behind the curtain dressed as a sailor, kicks Boston into the orchestra pit, and announces in wonderful Western fashion, “Wot are you goin' to hit a man fur when he's down, s-a-a-y?” (117). After the curtain falls, the Pet tears open Chubbuck's shirt to give him air, then starts to laugh hysterically. To ensure that his audience gets the joke, Harte quickly shifts the scene to the “Sierra Flat Record” a month later, where McCorkle, holding a letter from Chubbuck, announces of the poet, “She war a woman” (120).

For most critics, “The Poet of Sierra Flat” represents Harte's send-up of the kind of doggerel being written and praised by Californians in the 1860s and 1870s. Harte himself once agreed to edit a volume of California poetry and was dismayed when a number of regional newspapers attacked him for having the “audacity” to reject a large portion of the “native” submissions. In the usual reading, the satire in “The Poet of Sierra Flat” is directed at individuals like McCorkle who are so caught up in their limited artistic vision that they cannot see how their narrowness makes them ignorant regionalists of the worst kind.

Clearly, however, this satiric reading cannot account for the gender issues raised by the California Pet's arrival. I would argue that the second part of the story is designed to offer a version of American culture radically different from that satirized in the figure of McCorkle. Indisputably Chubbuck and the Pet explode conventional notions of gender more than any earlier Harte characters—the Pet especially, since her fame stems from her ability to play a man better than men themselves. This performance is made actual by her very real outmuscling of Boston on stage, which is followed, for emphasis, by her delivery of a macho Western line. Even Chubbuck turns gender expectations on their heads in his(?) role as local poet. Throughout the story Chubbuck is classed with such “celestials” as Poe, Tennyson, and Milton, a pedigree that establishes poetry as a male domain in the mind of Sierra Flat. This claim is repeatedly reiterated by McCorkle, who always attaches an assertion of Chubbuck's “male-ness” to his praise for the “young man's” ability. In fact, when McCorkle returns to the “Sierra Flat Record” at the story's end, his insistent repetition of how “wrong” he was suggests that he is referring to Chubbuck's literary greatness as much as to the poet's gender. Of course Chubbuck is a horrible writer, but McCorkle bases his assessment on the newly acquired knowledge that his protégé was a woman. Perhaps because he is so aware of how Chubbuck's and the Pet's performances jeopardize his limited cultural outlook, McCorkle struggles at length to demean Chubbuck and legitimize himself, until he must finally blurt out the unthinkable truth that the poet “war a woman.”

Like “Miggles,” “The Poet of Sierra Flat” succeeds in inverting gender roles and offering a credible version of society based on that inversion. But this reversal is not all “The Poet of Sierra Flat” accomplishes, for where Miggles adopts her masculine persona somewhat out of necessity, Chubbuck and the Pet are voluntary cross-dressers involved in a convincing drama of “playing men.” The necessary question, then, is how do we read this mid-nineteenth-century, ostensibly Western story in which there are two female cross-dressers, at least one of whose cross-dressing and masculine signification further eroticize her for both men and women? And how do we deal with the expression of desire, if not the strong imputation of a physical relationship, between the two women? To begin with the men of Sierra Flat, it seems fair to assume that the male reaction to the Pet stems from the same kind of suppressed sexual urges featured in “Tennessee's Partner.” While the men know the Pet is female,24 their delight in her masculine performance suggests a transference of homoerotic desire; that is, because she is a woman dressed as a man, their witnessing of her performance provides an outlet for homosexual impulses masquerading as, or even combined with, heterosexual ones. Thus the entire continuum of male sexuality as outlined by Sedgwick, from “brotherly love” to homoerotic longing,25 can be implicitly expressed without threatening the town's overtly heterosexual order.

Explanations of the relationship between Chubbuck and the Pet may be far simpler, for everyone in Sierra Flat, almost from the moment of the Pet's arrival, senses Chubbuck's desire for her. Of course, the gender dynamics are somewhat confusing, as the first meeting between poet and actress suggests:

However reticent Mr. Chubbuck might have been in the presence of his own sex, toward the fairer portion of humanity he was, like most poets, exceedingly voluble. Accustomed as the “California Pet” had been to excessive compliment, she was fairly embarrassed by the extravagant praises of her visitor. Her personation of boy characters … [was] particularly dwelt upon with fervid but unmistakable admiration. At last, recovering her audacity and emboldened by the presence of “Boston,” the “California Pet” electrified her hearers by demanding, half jestingly, half viciously, if it were as a boy or a girl that she was the subject of his flattering admiration.


For the Pet, still unaware of Chubbuck's sex, the immediate implication of the meeting is similar to that outlined for the men of Sierra Flat: she suspects Chubbuck's homoerotic desire for the male characters she plays. And her impression offers a basis for one of the story's most provocative readings: the possibility of a masculinely inscribed homosexual relationship between two women pretending to be men. But whether Chubbuck desires the Pet as man or woman, the relationship is necessarily homoerotic owing to the biological inscription of both women's bodies. At base, then, the story is about woman's desire for woman, despite the complex interplay of gender and sex signification that works to confuse—and many times to conflate—heteroerotic and homoerotic impulses.26 On one level the point of the story is to legitimize the apparently lesbian relationship into which the two women enter in defiance of the heterosexual code overtly championed by both the men of Sierra Flat and the Western in general. On another level, “The Poet of Sierra Flat” is Harte's piece de résistance (or perhaps coup de grâce) in the process of exploding sexuality into an open cultural chaos that more accurately represents submerged erotic desires. In this story desire is homo yet hetero, disguised yet openly proffered, misrepresented yet implicitly clear to the story's most desirous and desirable characters—repressed, oppressed, deferred, transferred, and finally acknowledged in a series of revelations that only further confuse the issues with which the men think, by the story's end, they are finally coming to terms. Indeed, the implication of Chubbuck's relationship to the Pet is so explosive that Col. Starbottle can compare it only to the “similar case” of a Philadelphia heiress who threw over “a Southern member of Congress to consort with a d—d nigger” (118). As if things weren't confused enough, Harte injects into his critique of sexual mores issues of race, class, and geography, expanding the tableau of his story to take in East and West, high society and the “common man,” black and white. And once more, those most openly defiant of cultural convention—the Pet, Chubbuck, the Philadelphia heiress—are regarded with the greatest sympathy, while those who cling to obsolete stereotypes—Boston (who disappears after the Pet's departure) and McCorkle—are left further confounded and displaced from power in an evolving society.

“The Poet of Sierra Flat” climaxes the progressive commentary on family, gender, and sexuality begun in “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” Despite the seeming frenzy into which American culture is plunged at the end of “The Poet,” it is probably dangerous to guess how much of Harte's cultural revisionism was wholly conscious. Similarly, making connections between his fiction and his personal life is inadvisable because he was careful, in his private papers, not to reveal information that might have embarrassed his family or himself. Though his own married life proved intolerable, and though he did reside with another married couple for many years after his separation, the details of these relationships, as well as any evidence of “impropriety,” are too sketchy to allow much speculation. Rather, his stories seem to extend to intimate relations his pacifistic attitudes—attitudes formed in response to both actual Western political ventures and spurious literary renditions of the frontier that pandered to the questionable taste of the East. Writing allowed Harte to extrapolate his liberal stances to a rational and moral end, with humorous and often insightful results. Questions of intentionality are thus somewhat moot, for whether Harte meant to offer the analyses I suggest or simply followed the logical flow of his ideas, his stories offer a version of the West and of American society vastly different from what many of his contemporaries (and future literary historians) would regard as the nation's cultural and moral mainstream. That Harte has often been paraded as a representative of that mainstream, even conceding his inability to break with the formulas he helped to create, speaks volumes about the subtlety of his intellect and the ambiguous nature of the American cultural center for which he supposedly speaks. Finally, if Harte is a mainstream writer, then his stories must be taken not just as gems of Western lore but as reformulations of American notions of the mainstream and complete (if early) reorientations of the characters and themes that have been accepted as archetypes of both the American frontier and the American character.


  1. That the Western constructs a simple dichotomy between good and evil has become a critical commonplace. As Richard Etulain writes, “the narrative structure of most Westerns is like a game: the good man pitted against the bad man on a field of competition that is definable and predictable. The game operates under a set of rules that are clear to all those involved in the game—and to the reader” (Richard Etulain, ed., The Popular Western: Essays Toward a Definition [Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green Univ. Popular Press, 1975], 76).

  2. See Wallace Stegner, introduction to The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Tales (New York: New American Library, 1961), ix. Stegner's appraisal is echoed by John Seelye, who writes that Harte's stories “are justly famous, and they established the formulas and conventions for much Western fiction written thereafter” (Stories of the Old West: Tales of the Mining Camp, Cavalry Troop, & Cattle Ranch [New York: Penguin, 1994], 3).

  3. Geoffrey Bret Harte, ed., The Letters of Bret Harte (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1926), xiv.

  4. George R. Stewart Jr., Bret Harte: Argonaut and Exile (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931), 85-89. For more on Harte's liberal stances on race, see Margaret Duckett's “Bret Harte's Portrayal of Half-Breeds,” American Literature 25 (May 1953): 193-212, and “Plain Language from Bret Harte,” Nineteenth Century Fiction 11 (March 1957): 241-60. Harte's writing on other races, especially the Chinese (“Wan Lee, the Pagan” and “Plain Language from Truthful James,” for example) was often wildly popular. However, recent critics suggest that this popularity may have stemmed more from the public's misreading of Harte's tolerant ideas than from an open acceptance of them.

  5. Even Harte's admirers agree on this point. Gary Scharnhorst writes that Harte's “characters … rarely transcend the stereotypical” (Bret Harte [New York: Twayne, 1992], 25); Patrick D. Morrow concedes that Harte's stories “are typically not well-wrought individualistic statements from a gifted, articulate consciousness” (Literary History of the American West, ed. Max Westbrook, [Fort Worth: TCU Press, 1987], 348).

  6. Here I should clarify my terminology. In this essay, the terms sexed and biological inscription are taken to be absolutes, indicative of one of two kinds of genitalia available to a person: penis to a man, vagina to a woman. Terms like gender and cultural inscription incorporate those ideas of sex but also link them to specific kinds of cultural performance. Thus the words male and female refer to anatomical difference (sex) only, while the words masculine and feminine refer to cultural categories of difference (gender) ascribed on the basis of sex.

  7. In West of Everything (New York: Oxford, 1994), Jane Tompkins argues that the Western evolved out of a masculine reaction to women's culture of the nineteenth century and that “elements of the typical Western plot arrange themselves in stark opposition to [the] pattern” (38) of the sentimental novel. Where the sentimental novel “takes place in private spaces, at home, indoors, in kitchens, parlors, and upstairs chambers” and “concerns the interior struggles of the heroine to live up to an ideal of Christian virtue,” the Western takes place in public arenas, focuses on a male hero, valorizes confrontation and conquest, and derides many Christian ideals, in particular the advocacy of peace and the preservation of chastity.

  8. By contrast, Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterion, 1960) and D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Penguin, 1961) both point to the kinds of homoerotic desire that white “frontier” protagonists seem to feel for a racial or cultural Other. Two points, however, must be made about this argument. First, as John Cawelti claims in The Six-Gun Mystique (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green Univ. Popular Press, 1984), the Western guards very carefully against the enactment of homosexual desire; while homosociality may pervade Western texts, the hero always accepts “the monogamous sexual pattern of modern middle-class life” (75). Second, Fiedler's and Lawrence's analyses are both based largely on readings of Cooper, where there is a clear racial Other for the hero to befriend and “eroticize.” Most later Westerns, however, dispense with this character.

  9. Bret Harte, The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Stories (New York: Lancer Books, Inc., 1968), 22. Except for “Miggles” (see note 13), all subsequent quotations from Harte's work are taken from this book and are cited parenthetically in the text.

  10. Allen S. Brown, “The Christ Motif in ‘The Luck of Roaring Camp,’” Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters 46 (1961): 629; J. R. Boggan, “The Regeneration of ‘Roaring Camp,’” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 22 (December 1967): 280.

  11. Fred E. H. Schroeder, “The Development of the Super-ego on the American Frontier,” Soundings 57 (summer 1974), 198.

  12. While Harte was not expressly concerned with reshaping cultural views of women, his narrative strategies are often similar to those employed by sentimental writers, and his stories certainly seem to work toward merging the disparate vocabularies of sentimental and frontier fiction. “The Luck of Roaring Camp” is a perfect example, as it explores the Christian values associated with discovering one's place in the family in the setting of a dingy and degenerate mining camp (a move that combines, to paraphrase Tompkins, the sentimental novel's theme of “home” with the Western's emphasis on the uncivilized and out-of-doors). In this sense, Harte's work has much in common with late-nineteenth-century women's writing about the West, especially the fictions of Mary Austin and Helen Hunt Jackson, who like Harte were concerned with the place of women and minorities on the developing frontier. Recent criticism of Austin by Marjorie Pryse and Melody Graulich, as well as more general works such as Women and Western American Literature by Helen Winter Stauffer and Susan J. Rosowski, not only offer some insight into the strategies of women's writing about the frontier but also suggest other fascinating links between certain male “Western” writers (Harte, Hamlin Garland, and Wright Morris, to name a few) and their female counterparts.

  13. Bret Harte, “Miggles,” in The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Tales (New York: New American Library, 1961), 166. Subsequent quotations from “Miggles” are taken from this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text.

  14. For a feminist view of theories of gender inversion, see Elizabeth Grosz's “Irigaray's Notion of Sexual Morphology,” in Reimagining Women: Representations of Women in Culture, ed. Shirley Neuman (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press), 199. In addition to interpreting Irigaray's strategies for subverting the ostensible determinism of sexed bodies, this article gives a useful synopsis of how feminist theory has dealt with the cultural inscription of sexuality through the twentieth century. “Miggles” seems to anticipate a number of these strategies.

  15. By contrast, Henry Nash Smith details the brutish heroines in dime-novel fiction of the day, who often might as well have been men; see chapter 10 of Virgin Land (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1950).

  16. Recall how Miggles is dressed when she first meets the party, in an outfit whose elements have been culled equally from a man's and woman's wardrobe.

  17. One can hardly make such a reading without noting the analogues to Harte's own unpleasant domestic experience. Briefly, Harte's wife spent money recklessly and, according to many witnesses, was something of a shrew. She and Harte were separated approximately thirty years before his death, and though he continued to support her financially, they were never again on speaking terms. Even before the couple separated, however, Harte spent much time away from his wife and children. His attention to domestic matters in fiction, then, may be an attempt to compensate for his family's absence or, more intriguing, his attempt to imagine a domestic space less limited and more palatable than his actual one.

  18. Linda Burton, “For Better or Worse: Tennessee and His Partner: A New Approach to Bret Harte,” Arizona Quarterly 36 (summer 1980): 212.

  19. Burton, 213.

  20. Scharnhorst, 29.

  21. William F. Conner, “The Euchring of Tennessee: A Reexamination of Bret Harte's ‘Tennessee's Partner,’” Studies in Short Fiction 17 (spring 1980): 113.

  22. The most influential of these traditional readings come from Richard O'Connor's Bret Harte: A Biography (Boston: Little, Brown, 1966), and from Understanding Fiction, ed. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (New York: Crofts, 1943).

  23. In Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), Eve Sedgwick notes how Anglo-American culture forbids homosexual expression even by men who regularly engage in acts of male bonding. As Sedgwick argues, it is culturally abhorrent to extrapolate homoerotic desire from men's expressions of brotherly love. Unlike male sexuality, however, female sexuality operates on “an intelligible continuum of aims, emotions, and valuations [that] links lesbianism with the other forms of women's attention to women. … Thus the adjective ‘homosocial’ as applied to women's bonds … need not be pointedly dichotomized as against ‘homosexual’; it can intelligibly denominate the entire continuum” (2-3). The question immediately arises, Why should the spectrum of female relations be continuous and that of males discontinuous? While Harte would not have put the question in Sedgwick's terms, it is clear that he was concerned with the different cultural roles assigned to men and women. He was not, then, exploring issues of homoerotics, but rather questions of gender difference that suggested questions of sexuality and sexual performance.

  24. One should here recall Shirley Neuman's caveat that a woman's assumption of masculinity signifies differently from the masculinely inscribed male body. For more on this issue, see Neuman, “‘An Appearance Walking in a Forest the Sexes Burn’: Autobiography and the Construction of the Feminine Body,” Signature: A Journal of Theory and Canadian Literature 2 (winter 1989): 1-26.

  25. See note 23.

  26. While I have accounted for the relationship of Chubbuck and Pet along anatomical lines, it is important to note that their lesbian bond can signify in a number of ways. Luce Irigaray points out how, according to Freud, lesbian impulses stem from a woman's refusal to admit that she lacks a penis and from her subsequent insistence upon taking another woman as “love object” (The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1991], 43). Harte, however, breaks down the correlation between sexed bodies and gender performance, thus unfixing the Freudian certainty of Chubbuck's desire (is Chubbuck a man in love with a woman? a woman in love with a woman? a woman in love with a man? a man in love with a man?). Even simpler is Irigaray's own objection to Freud, which asks, “Why is the interpretation of female homosexuality, now as always, modeled on that of male homosexuality?” (65). As Harte breaks down gender essentialism and the subordination of female/feminine to male/masculine, he may be asking the same question.

Janet Floyd (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6328

SOURCE: Floyd, Janet. “Mining the West: Bret Harte and Mary Hallock Foote.” In Soft Canons: American Women Writers and Masculine Tradition, edited by Karen L. Kilcup, pp. 202-18. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Floyd considers the position of Harte and Mary Hallock Foote within the literary tradition of the American West.]

The category “Western writing” is a slippery one, and the exercise of forming and reforming a Western canon has become relatively obscure in the larger context of recent critical considerations of regionalism. Yet, even against a background where Western writers' status is liable to shift, Bret Harte occupies a peculiarly insecure position not only in relation to the tradition of frontier narratives traced from Cooper but even within literary histories of Western literature, where his work is rarely described. Mary Hallock Foote has disappeared in a more complex way from “Western writing,” in a manner predictable to the feminist literary historian, only to reappear as a quite distinct figure within the various spheres of 1970s historical writing. Here she is constructed as a writer who is, in some absolute sense, in the wrong place. This is certainly the assumption of Rodman W. Paul, whose edition of Foote's unpublished reminiscences, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West (1972), has played a major part, along with Caroll Smith-Rosenberg's “Female World of Love and Ritual” (1975), in recovering Foote as, if nothing else, a Victorian middle-class lady occupying the “separate sphere” of 1970s feminist historical and critical discourse. Paul's assumption is that Foote's experience of the West—and apparently, by the same token, her writing—is especially, if not exclusively, mediated through her class identity as it intersects with constraints upon her as a woman: hence, his use of the anachronistic term “gentlewomen,” encoding ideas of inappropriate refinement, blinkered vision, and undemocratic values.1 This approach has been influential, not least because it matches one of the most common assumptions of writing about Anglo women in the West: that middle-class Eastern migrants were so much in the thrall of contemporary ideologies about womanhood as to be unable to take advantage of the relative flexibility of Western society. “No one,” as Richard W. Etulain puts it, “would have predicted she would have become a well-known Western writer.”2 Yet such assumptions seem to me to have generated a persistent misrepresentation of Foote's writing, and especially of the mining fictions with which I shall primarily be concerned: “In Exile” (1881), The Led-Horse Claim (1883), and John Bodewin's Testimony (1886).

Interestingly, Foote's own impulse was to separate herself from a tradition she associated with Harte, though this was not an issue of gender difference. She was not, in my reading, much given to positioning herself in relation to other writers of the West. If anything, she seems to have wanted to link herself with British traditions of medievalism, especially Tennysonian Arthurianism and Victorian fantasy (as, for instance, in the underground fairy stories of George MacDonald); or to have wished to respond—this is true of her woodcuts especially—to the New England canon of her day.3 But this is what she has to say about Harte: “The East continually hears of the recklessness, the bad manners and the immorality of the West just as England hears of all our disgraces, social, financial and national; but who can tell the tale of those quiet lives which are the lifeblood of the country,—its present strength, and its hope for the future? The tourist sees the sensational side of California—its scenery and its society; but it is not all included in the Yo Semite guidebooks and the literature of Bret Harte.”4 Here, at least, in her restatement of the Howellsian realist project in the context of writing about the West, Mary Hallock Foote places herself at odds with Harte's melodramas of social dislocation and societal hypocrisy.

It comes as something of a surprise, then, to find critics of Harte's and Foote's work choosing to understand them in very similar terms, that is, by association with the activity that some of their most important work describes: mining. This association is very striking in Harte criticism: he is a “casual, clever, literary miner,” who “exposes” in order to “exploit,” who is “lacking in literary conscience” in his use of his surroundings in California, merely scratching at the surface of his subject to turn a quick profit on fictions of cheap “unearned effects.”5 This criticism represents the West as a literary gold mine that Harte exploits without reflection or pause, to turn a quick profit on fictions of “very little flavour of the soil” (Wyatt, xxiii). Aptly, Harte himself is read as soon “exhausted” as a writer. The association works in similar and different ways for Foote. We must, it seems, search underground to find her “hidden excellence”:6 her work must itself be mined conscientiously for value. Although the critical verdict on Foote's “mining” is less vituperative than that upon Harte, the evaluation of her fiction has also become caught up in the perception that—to her work's detriment—she too is engaged in “converting … frontier experiences into artistic and literary capital” (Johnson, 9).

This issue extends beyond the accusation of a lack of literary ambition or even integrity. Paul begins his introduction to Foote's reminiscences by questioning whether Foote was “really a Westerner” (3), really the “authentic voice of the West” that her contemporaries believed (2). As with Harte, Foote's 1880s mining fictions are subject to a critique that finds her unable or unwilling to do justice to “the raw, new West” (Paul, 13): sometimes, as in Graulich's work on Foote, this shortcoming is not construed in terms of lack of artistry but rather as the result of her position as an alienated female in a literary space colonized by men; sometimes, as in James Maguire's argument, the problem lies as much in a predilection for literary fashion as in the “flaws of apprenticeship efforts.”7 Further, Foote's work, like Harte's, is regularly evaluated by reference to her interest in selling her work to an Eastern audience. Both are critiqued as Easterners commodifying the West, appropriating its treasures for a metropolitan audience interested in new places to discover.8 These writers are compromised, their critics seem to argue, by the same squalid economics as those driving the Western mining economy of the late nineteenth century.

The claim for a particular position occupied by Bret Harte and Mary Hallock Foote in relation to literary markets does not, of course, stand up. It is unusual nowadays to find the evaluation of the worth of artists' work conducted on grounds of greater or lesser complicity with the publishing marketplace; but it is, in any case, peculiarly difficult to make such a distinction in the context of the last two decades of the nineteenth century, when the most lofty American editors and writers operated, whether they liked it or not, within a highly specialized and professionalized, not to say cutthroat, publishing scene in which “the written word was … a commodity, bought and sold like other articles of commerce.”9 Harte was an early beneficiary and victim of the system within which Howells and Twain, as well as Foote, worked at the height of their careers. His famous financial success of the 1870s certainly did not preclude his being welcomed with open arms by the high cultural establishment of his own day, nor did it prevent his being considered an important and influential figure in American letters, long after his annus mirabilis of 1879.10

Likewise, Foote's career need not be read primarily as structured by financial considerations. It may be that some of her writing can be understood as produced in response to financial need; Foote describes, in her reminiscences, the “remorseless practicality” that led her to a point where she “made capital out of her children's tears” (Paul, 298). However, this was certainly not always the case. Her writing evolved from and in tandem with a successful career in woodcut illustration of literary texts, well established when Foote went West. From the mid-1860s (more than ten years before first going to California), she was moving within high cultural circles, supported by her close friendship with Helena and Richard Watson Gilder. Almost all her work was published by the Century Magazine (where Gilder was de facto, then actual, editor) as a result. Though we may understand Richard Gilder's commisioning of a friend who could produce the type of regionalist writing that precisely reflected his editorial strategy and the magazine's identity during this period,11 there is no evidence to suggest that either the Gilders or Foote regarded her work as produced with anything but serious literary ambition. And, in any case, Foote's mining fictions seem to have inaugurated a fashion for writing that dealt with the Far West and with mining (Johnson, 61).

Certainly, both Harte and Foote were apt to express an intense awareness of the relationship between their saleability and their subject matter, and of the currency of a certain kind of Western material for Eastern audiences. Harte is often quoted, albeit from a point later in his life, as bemoaning his need to “grind out the old tunes on the old organ and gather up the coppers.”12 Foote wrote of the problem of producing a Western story with a realism consistent with contemporary genteel manners (Paul, 18). Lee Ann Johnson also quotes Foote's concern that the West was “too much for my pencil” (46). Plainly, both artists had reason to reflect on their effectiveness in working to publishers' demands: Harte because he could not sustain his success once in the East; Foote because, the need for money aside, she struggled to keep a career going during a migrant existence in the Far West. Still, the link that critics have made between their output and an exploitative process of mining seems scarcely consistent with the level of interest they actually express in the financial rewards of their work. More to the point, the connection itself is less than appropriate: it compares formulaic hackwork to a money-making venture that was wildly unpredictable in financial terms. The late-nineteenth-century mining economy was notoriously a gamble.13

Further, this critical use of “mining” is itself organized by an assumption that positions the West as an object for Eastern consumption. I shall argue later in this essay that Harte's and Foote's Western narratives do not grant their Eastern readers so complacent a position. But the point I want to make here is that Harte and Foote did not choose to identify themselves either as migrant Eastern writers “mining” the West or as Western writers uncovering rich new veins of experience for an Eastern audience. To read a text like Franklin Walker's San Francisco's Literary Frontier is to understand that Harte, though he subsequently regarded writing for Eastern journals such as the Atlantic Monthly as the pinnacle of a literary career, operated in California not as at a literary outpost but rather within a complex literary scene with its own preoccupations and stylistic preferences.14 It is true that Harte and many of his Californian literary contemporaries went east as depression hit San Francisco in the 1870s, but Harte actually spent only six years of his adulthood in the East, trying to establish a literary career, before settling for his last twenty-three years in Europe, where he moved within expatriate literary circles in England. This was not a writer necessarily disposed to work with a model of writing about California that locates that region at the margins of an Eastern American center.

Foote seems at first to follow the conventional strategy of identifying the West as a blank wilderness space, with her references to the West as a “historic vacuum” and her identification of herself as an exile (Paul, 11, 13). Though the publication of “regional” fiction such as Foote's is sometimes understood in terms of Eastern patronage of provincial outsiders of dubious literary ambitions,15 Foote's relationship with her publisher actually replicated another model of middle-class East-West relations: as her husband got his first professional post in California through relatives, so Foote herself produced her first Western work through the husband of her close friend. And, like her engineering husband's, Foote's working life was spent on the move—not the life of an exile but rather a typical pattern of working in what were, in some ways, colonial provinces in the West. Foote's East consisted of a rural home and a well-established circle of acquaintance to which she returned in 1878-1879, in 1880, and in 1882-1884 (that is, during the period when she wrote “In Exile” and The Led-Horse Claim). The West in which she settled was, on each occasion of her return during the same period of the late 1870s and early 1880s, a very different place. New Almaden, Leadville, and Boise occupied very different positions in relation to, say, the culture of San Francisco, the East, or the Midwest. No simple formula of East/West difference need be used here either.

The understanding of Foote as an exile from a highly cultured Victorian center needs, in any case, to be revised in the light of her understanding of that term. Johnson quotes her as arguing, very early in her career, for the artist's need for the freedom of “exile” from the city to develop a “free yet precise way of working” (20). Accordingly, in her early years as an illustrator, she moved backwards and forwards, in and out of the high cultural milieu of New York, in the pattern we recognize from the careers of Sarah Orne Jewett and her circle. When she wrote her mining fictions, Foote continued to operate in a similar way, moving between involvement in the social and professional world of the West and “retreat” to her early home. While writers such as Jewett and Celia Thaxter define the regional space to which they “retreated” by reference to particular states of mind, particular configurations of social behavior, Foote does not make the same kind of distinction. East and West are not, in novels such as The Led-Horse Claim and John Bodewin's Testimony, clearly differentiated but are simply physically distant from one another, two spaces between which her characters “[rush] back and forth, thousands of miles at a stretch.”16

Both Foote's and Harte's representations of the mining economy in the late nineteenth century problematize the very idea of the West as a different space. Certainly, we find both writers measuring the distance popularly imagined to exist between East and West in social and cultural terms. Bret Harte's insignia for the Overland Monthly, the grizzly standing on the railway line, snarling its hostility to the oncoming train, expresses a hostility to Eastern industrial capitalism as signified by machine technology; a hostility laced with irony, for such technology was making possible both the national distribution of this Western magazine and his own popularity. Meanwhile, Foote's arid West produces a condition of anomie from which her Eastern characters can barely recover. The deracinated hero and heroine in her early story, “In Exile,” mourn the loss of their links to the East of their birth: “The East concerns itself very little about us, I can tell you! It can spare us.”17 But if their profound depression is associated with the landscape, it derives, as Etulain points out, from the destructive presence of the works of Eastern investors in the West (11).

By moving back twenty years to the 1850s in his tales, Harte seems, in particular, to play to the nostalgia of his audience for a world where men might test their mettle against the tough challenges of “the frontier,” although it may be argued that the portrait of rootless miners and gamblers that he produces is not inaccurate, for the early gold rushes did indeed produce a highly unstructured society in California. Nevertheless, Harte's retrospective project can appear especially suspect when one considers that, by the late 1860s, when he was writing the stories collected in The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Stories (1870), San Francisco was at the heart of a highly sophisticated economy operating in a global context, where miners and mining companies, although physically removed from the urban center, were actually locked into the operations of a city whose financial market rivaled that of New York. While the problems endemic within the mining communities of Harte's fiction are often resolved with a combination of some of nineteenth-century sentimental fiction's more threadbare techniques and the mechanics of Fate, Harte himself had experience (in his work in the Surveyor's Office and the Mint) of how and upon what grounds problems were actually solved in a multimillion-dollar industry.

The point is an obvious one, and it lies at the crux of the critique of Harte's work. Even the figure around whom Harte organizes some of his best work, the gambler, seems simply to anticipate the obsessive individualism and the preoccupation with male identity that is played out in the “big country” of the Western gunslinger, with all the deceptions about the facts of Western history that are associated with the Western. Certainly, we can see, in such stories as “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” (1870) or “A Passage in the Life of Mr. John Oakhurst” (1874), how the gambler seems able to do all the things that industrial capitalism denies its workers; untrapped by routine, with skills that mark him out from the rest, he works independently, he can make decisions. Harte's heavily ironic commentary on those who label gambling as a vice seems, on one level, simply to reinvent the fantasy of the West as guarded by that grizzly.

David Wyatt interprets gambling in Harte differently, arguing that it “sadly approximates the connection between effort, merit and success in the larger culture. … Its outcomes are mechanistic, largely a matter of luck” (xxv). This too seems apt. John Oakhurst fails, after all, to save the “outcasts” from the vagaries of the weather. The heroine of “A Protegee of Jack Hamlin's” (1893) experiences a brief sense of freedom under the gambler's auspices before finding herself deserted and desperate, the victim—albeit unintended—of the gambler's chivalry. But a reading of gambling in Harte's work that moves between the interpretative poles of escapist fantasy and the expression of the instability of the Gold Rush West misses the implications of Harte's choice of gambling as a metaphor around which to organize his representation of California.

As recent theoreticians of gambling have argued, the activity of gambling is neither “analytically distinct from the realm of work and production” nor does it operate according to universal patterns divorced from the specificities of its cultural context.18 I would argue that gambling in Harte can also be understood in just this way, as commenting very precisely on the assumptions underpinning the social actors of the California rush. Gambling, both in gaming and in speculation, was regarded from the first gold rushes as a Californian obsession, while the association between gambling and the working behavior of Californians was a matter of cliché, especially during the period in which Harte's fictions are set.19 Mining itself was notoriously—and with justification—perceived as gambling by absentee investors of the 1860s and 1870s as well as by the adventurers and the speculators of the prewar period (White, 260).

In Harte, the primacy of the relations of gambling in Californian culture is asserted in scenes such as in “Mrs. Skaggs's Husbands” (1873), where all conventional relations between husband and wife, father and son are erased in activity that is either explicitly or implicitly a gamble:

“Wot do you say,” said Johnson slowly, without looking at his companion, but abstractedly addressing himself to the landscape beyond,—“wot do you say to two straight games for one thousand dollars?”

“Make it five thousand,” replied Tommy reflectively also to the landscape, “and I'm in.”20

Clearly, gambling is not to be considered merely as a vice or as a sign of entrapment. Harte's gambler heroes, in transferring the codes of the gambling table—grace under pressure, scrupulous adherence to established conventions—to their daily life, pursue a course they perceive to be honorable insofar as it operates independently of the rules of the community: Jack Hamlin, for example, protects a young woman threatened by disgrace as he would shield a greenhorn from the results of his inexperience at the gambling table. This, it seems, is the antecedent of the hero of the Western (the genre of which Harte is sometimes cited as progenitor). Yet a comparison of such behavior and its implications with the situation of the Western hero is instructive here. Although he may defy convention, this hero is carefully and delicately differentiated from the outlaw. He uses his skill to protect the whole community and is often subsequently assimilated (if not altogether comfortably) into the norms of modern society, specifically domesticity. Harte's gambler, by contrast, is neither effective in resisting the corrupt hypocrisies of the community nor is he in any sense “rewarded” by domestic happiness.

This is because gambling, as Harte's fictions make clear, does not actually constitute the escape from patterns of behavior dictated by convention that both the gambler and his critics imagine. Certainly, the community is repressive and without scruple in enforcing the bourgeois values of “civilization and refinement” (“M'liss,” Collected Works, 2:3). For the developing middle class of California, the gambler is condemned by his rejection of those Protestant virtues of self-denial, deferred gratification, and fiscal prudence on which they hypocritically insist that their success rests. For all his sense of his own special status, the gambler is actually reenacting the principles by which the wealth of those whom he rejects is actually created. His is American capitalism's special predilection for laissez-faire economics, its rigid categorization of activity, its ideology of separation between sexes, between leisure and work, home and “the world.”

As the husband and son of the invisible Mrs. Skaggs play their desultory game of chance against the scene of destruction outside—the father apparently hardly understanding what he is doing, the son trying to keep the old man occupied, both unaware of their relationship—the reader prepares for the obvious point about moral and emotional impoverishment, and the degrading scramble for cash on which gambling and mining rest. It never comes. Full of ironies, this scene has not actually been one of desultory activity, chance, and poor reward, for which the father has made very precise plans. He is merely keeping his cards close to his chest. Harte's fictional West is always in the process of being domesticated, always either becoming assimilated or already taken over by the community-builders, a process organized around Eastern urban values that are subject to Harte's most withering scorn. But Harte's gambler signifies the actual agenda of Western “development,” in all its focus on the accumulation of money as well as its self-deceiving sense of its own undomesticated heroism and unincorporated glamour.

The issue that Harte avoided, however, in writing a West defined by gambling and the hypocrisies around it, was the agency of big business in the creation of the West's mining economy. As Donald Worster argues, the East's West was “given birth by modern technology,” and that technology was designed and managed by engineers in the pay of large corporations, a scene rather different from that delineated by Harte.21 What is so particular about Mary Hallock Foote's West is that she makes this matrix of relationships between absentee investors, migrant speculators, and company engineers her subject. She defines the situation of the mining West not in terms of the world of the gambler posing as a social critic but in terms of the situation of the very figure whose responsibility it was to manage, by means of technological innovation and managerial know-how, the extraction of those resources for investors as likely to be Europeans as Easterners.

While Harte locates his discussion of the West in a scene that is only loosely historicized, Foote places her engineer hero in a very precise context. The role of the mining engineer in the 1870s, during which her mining fictions are set, was at a point of transition from a career for the well-educated, reputedly high-minded sons of the Eastern upper middle classes—the so-called “lace-boot brigade” described by Clark C. Spence—to a more specialized profession positioned within more complex organizational structures.22 This change provided ripe material for a plot organized around conflicts between opposing forces: pastoralism and technology, moral and practical understandings of the process of Western “development,” West and East; and Foote's engineers are indeed embroiled within situations of literally competing (mining) claims. But Foote does not choose to schematize her heroes' choices along such well-worn lines. Although the conventional view of engineers was, as Cecilia Tichi argues (98-99), to imagine them as the noble harbingers of rationalism and science, Foote represents them in terms of their actual function: as the agents of the investors, the people who made the mines run. As David F. Noble points out, the work of engineers was, in essence, to maximize profits by keeping down the cost of labor.23 Foote shared the paternalist opposition of her lace-boot brigade husband and his fellow professionals to labor organizations, as her novel Coeur D'Alene (1894) makes clear.24 She is, however, interested in imagining situations in which an engineer is caught in the complications of competing claims to the contents of the ground. The plots of The Led-Horse Claim and John Bodewin's Testimony are both organized around the attempt of one claimant to appropriate the most productive seam of a rival. In both cases, the rights and wrongs of the affair appear increasingly arbitrary, and victory is granted, in the end, to the inglorious (and, in the case of The Led-Horse Claim, disembodied) outside investor. In both cases, public and private duty are entangled in such a way as to make the process of finding justice (and especially the engineer's agency within that project) hopelessly problematic, and the incorporation of all the lives of the community within the business of making money very evident. So, for example, the plot of John Bodewin's Testimony turns upon the engineer-hero's refusal to assert the right of the claim of Mr. Newbold, a Kansas investor, to a piece of land that contains a rich vein, even though he knows that claim to be well founded. This is because Newbold's raffish rival, Colonel Harkins, has earlier protected his sister from the consequences of her husband's desertion. Bodewin cannot make up his mind to fulfill either his professional duty or his personal debt of gratitude.

Foote's compromised heroes are involved in activities that make their explicitly chivalric ideals irrelevant: the strong imperatives of their professional lives continually interrupt their attempts to come to any understanding of the women with whom they fall in love. The revelation at the end of John Bodewin's Testimony that the eponymous hero's middle name is Tristram is pointed not so much in its association between the novel's morally sensitive hero and Arthurian idealism, but rather in its Tennysonian reading of the irrelevance of such ideals to a modern imperial nation.

Critics such as James Maguire have argued that Foote's use of romantic plots is at odds with her mining material, but in fact there is no suggestion of private triumph resolving the dissonances of public life.25 The private space that provides the sanctuary to which the harassed heroes and heroines of romantic fiction routinely retreat does not exist in these narratives, certainly not in the imprisoning vacuum of Cecil's temporary home in The Led-Horse Claim or the lodgings where Frances, in “In Exile,” fades into despair. More characteristically, figures engage in encounters with one another in more exposed positions, where the destruction brought by mining of the landscape provides a metaphor for a more general context of their lives. Thus, Hilgard is to be found scratching the frozen ground for the ring his aristocratic lady has given him (Led-Horse Claim, 157), while John Bodewin's escape into domestic fulfillment—in the only apparently unincorporated space in the novel—takes place in a desert to the sound of the station telegraph machine.26 In all of Foote's mining fictions, the personal and ecological terms of incorporating the West are intertwined. There is no question here, to use Donald Worster's terms anachronistically, of “calling a toxic dump the land of freedom” (15).

Foote's reading of the process of Western development through narratives of competing claims allows her to critique the rhetoric of progress that underpinned those involved, in every sense, in mining the West. Engineering itself, as a field, drew on the Spencerian social Darwinism of the era, with its assumption that what was destroyed was not useful anyway (Layton, 55). But the literary frame, national and British, within which Foote places her narratives of mining pulls her work away from the tropes of the American literature of Western development. The representation of underground mining as disruptive in The Led-Horse Claim, for example, echoes the Romantic critique of scientific rationalism that underpins, to use an example very familiar to Foote, Hawthorne's portrait of Roger Chillingworth in “The Leech and His Patient,” a portrait that makes constant reference to mining as devilish in all its dimensions.27 The response of Cecil as she sits alone in the Led-Horse mine is informed by a Darwinism that sidelines progress in favor of the fear of decay and that concentrates on the terror of shifts and changes so massive and slow as to be impenetrable to human understanding and investigation: “What a mysterious, vast, whispering dome was this! … There were far-off, indistinct echoes of life, and sub-animate mutterings, the slow respirations of the rocks, drinking air, and oozing moisture through their sluggish pores, swelling and pushing against their straitening bonds of timber. … Left to their own work, the inevitable forces around her would crush together the sides of the dark galleries, and crumble the rough-hewn dome above her head” (Led-Horse Claim, 113-114). Here, the miners' work represents a backward, deadly impulse, a “subanimate” compulsion to delve into darkness that is reminiscent of the use of Norse mythology and the märchen tradition in the work of fantasists such as George MacDonald.

Foote's mining fictions take place in a desolate space that is endlessly disputed, the reverse of the regenerative pastoral dream; in losing no opportunity to destabilize literary conventions of East-West relations, Foote also seems to refuse the exceptionalist rhetoric that justified Western “expansion.” The plots of both The Led-Horse Claim and John Bodewin's Testimony are resolved by a West-East movement, the reverse of the convention. Both texts suggest the difficulty of marking out East and West: in the California of “In Exile,” “everything is East,” and the West itself is “pervaded by the subtle breath of the Orient” (330); the “Eastern” investor who precipitates the disastrous events of John Bodewin's Testimony is from Kansas. In this context, there can be no mapping of East and West in gender terms, no “Eastern sophisticate” or domestic “Western” woman of instinct. All are immigrants, and, in the arid culture of the mining settlement, the female characters are no happier, no more ruined, except perhaps in terms of physical beauty, than their male counterparts.

To return, finally, to the consideration of the question with which this essay began: How do we understand the relative obscurity, on the one hand, of Harte, one of the inventors of the Western, and, on the other, of Foote, the writer unable, in some sense, to write the West or even participate in her life there? Margaret Duckett has argued convincingly in Mark Twain and Bret Harte that it was Twain who invented Harte as a mere hack,28 a reputation that has yet to pass out of conventional critical usage. Foote meanwhile remains the Eastern gentlewoman, neither recoverable as a forgotten Western writer nor available for appropriation into the feminist critical discourse of regionalism.

Both critical fates are interesting, in their different ways, to the student of canon formation, gendered or not. More to the point here, perhaps, is to consider how far critical discussions of Harte's and Foote's work are still locked within readings of Western writing that deal in longstanding assumptions about the West as a special space where behavior is under negotiation—in essence, with the West in its role as the object of fantasy for Eastern Americans. Harte and Foote, who do not engage with this web of discussion, have become largely invisible within this field. Meanwhile, the “new” Western history that is producing an increasingly dominant historical narrative about the West speaks to understandings of the process and context of “development” and of the deceptions located in the terms “frontier” and “West” that are comparable to those that can be read in Harte's and Foote's work. Interestingly, mining is, in many ways, central to their interpretation of the West as industrial, urban, and ecologically in turmoil; Patricia Limerick's The Legacy of Conquest, a founding text of new Western history, begins with an arid landscape and the business of mining.29 Far from “mining” the West for a quick profit and a quiescent audience of armchair tourists, Harte and Foote seem rather to have written a West that we thought we ourselves had uncovered.


  1. Rodman W. Paul, ed., A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote (San Marino, California: Huntington Library, 1972); Caroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs 1 (1975): 1-29.

  2. Richard W. Etulain, Re-Imagining the Modern American West: A Century of Fiction, History and Art (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996), 10. For discussions of women in the West, see, for example, Lillian Schlissel's “Frontier Families: Crisis in Ideology,” in The American Self, Myth, Ideology and Popular Culture, ed. Sam Girgus (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981), 155-164. More recent studies of Anglo women in the West, such as Sarah Deutsch's No Separate Refuge, Culture, Class and Gender on an Anglo-Hispanic Frontier in the American South-West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), and Peggy Pascoe's Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Authority in the American West, 1874-1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), have been less sanguine about the opportunities for any social class but still tend to assert a particularly restricted range, in terms of thought and behavior, among middle-class women.

  3. During her early career, Foote illustrated a number of New England texts, such as giftbook editions for Fields, Osgood and Co. of Longfellow's The Hanging of the Crane (1874) and Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1878), and editions of Whittier's Hazel-Blossoms (1875) and Mabel Martin (1876).

  4. Foote, cited in Helena de Kay Gilder, “Author Illustrators II: Mary Hallock Foote,” Book Buyer 11 (August 1894): 339-340.

  5. These references are found, respectively, in Stanley T. Williams, The Spanish Background of American Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), 211; David Wyatt, introduction to Selected Stories and Sketches, by Bret Harte (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), xvi; John Milton, The Novel of the American West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980), 14; Joseph H. Gardner, “Bret Harte and the Dickensian Mode in America,” Canadian Review of American Studies 2.2 (1971): 91; Wyatt, xiii.

  6. Lee Ann Johnson, preface to Mary Hallock Foote (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980), 9.

  7. Melody Graulich, “Mary Hallock Foote 1847-1938,” Legacy 3.2 (1986): 46-48; Graulich, “‘O Beautiful for Spacious Guys’: An Essay on the ‘Legitimate Inclinations of the Sexes,’” in The Frontier Experience and the American Dream: Essays on American Literature, ed. David Mogen et al. (College Station: Texas A& M University Press, 1989), 192; James H. Maguire, “Fictions of the West,” in The Columbia History of the American Novel, ed. Emory Elliott (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 438.

  8. The argument is cast in its most sympathetic form in Graulich, “‘O Beautiful’”; she argues that Foote was attempting to delineate a female West for an Eastern female audience. But, in essence, this is the same point as Paul's when he argues that her “continued reliance on the Gilders in artistic and professional terms made Foote subject to Eastern tastes” (9).

  9. Daniel H. Borus, Writing Realism: Howells, James and Norris in the Mass Market (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 24.

  10. Margaret Duckett, Mark Twain and Bret Harte (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964), 70-71, 330-332.

  11. Arthur John, The Best Years of the Century: Richard Watson Gilder, Scribner's Monthly and the Century Magazine, 1870-1909 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 63-65.

  12. Gary Scharnhorst, Bret Harte (New York: Twayne, 1992), ix.

  13. Richard White, “It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own,” A New History of the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 260.

  14. Franklin Walker, San Francisco's Literary Frontier, 2d ed. (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1969).

  15. Richard H. Brodhead, Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 118.

  16. Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim: A Romance of the Mining-Camps (Boston: Osgood, 1883), 271.

  17. Mary Hallock Foote, “In Exile: A Story in Two Parts,” Atlantic Monthly 48 (August and September, 1881): 326. The full story encompasses 184-192 and 322-330.

  18. Jan McMillen, “Understanding Gambling: History, Concepts, and Theories,” in Gambling Cultures: Studies in History and Interpretation, ed. McMillen (London: Routledge, 1996), 11.

  19. John Findlay, People of Chance: Gambling in American Society from Jamestown to Las Vegas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 80-86.

  20. Francis Bret Harte, The Complete Writings of Bret Harte, Collected and Revised by the Author (London: Chatto and Windus, 1914), 3:30.

  21. Donald Worster, Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 14; Edwin Layton, The Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University Press, 1971), 2-4.

  22. Clark C. Spence, Mining Engineers and the American West: The Lace-Boot Brigade, 1849-1933 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970).

  23. Cecilia Tichi, Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, and Culture in Modernist America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 98-99; David F. Noble, America by Design: Science, Technology and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 34.

  24. Mary Hallock Foote, Coeur D'Alene (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1894).

  25. James Maguire, Mary Hallock Foote (Boise, Idaho: Boise State College, 1972), 11, 14.

  26. Mary Hallock Foote, John Bodewin's Testimony (1886; reprint, London: Frederick Warne, 1887), 188.

  27. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Complete Writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1900), 6:184.

  28. Margaret Duckett, Mark Twain and Bret Harte (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964).

  29. Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1987).

Gary Scharnhorst (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11104

SOURCE: Scharnhorst, Gary. “The Overland Monthly: From ‘The Luck’ to ‘The Prodigal.’” In Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West, pp. 37-69. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Scharnhorst surveys the stories by Harte that were published in The Overland Monthly.]

From the start, Harte and Roman had very different ideas about what the magazine should be. The publisher wanted the Overland Monthly to promote “the material development of this Coast,” and according to its subtitle the magazine was “devoted to the development of the country.” He feared with good reason that Harte—who basked in the esteem of the San Francisco literary coterie—“would be likely to lean too much toward the purely literary articles.” On his part, as Roman reminisced thirty years later, Harte “entertained serious doubts of the success of such an enterprise,” much as he had questioned the commercial viability of the anthology of California verse Roman had commissioned two years earlier. “He didn't enthuse and threw cold water on the project. He said it couldn't be done,” Roman remembered. Harte feared that there would be neither enough contributions “of a proper character to interest magazine readers” nor a subscriber base sufficient to support the magazine over the long term. “The Overland marches steadily along to meet its Fate,” Harte wrote Charley Stoddard in March 1868 as he was planning the inaugural issue, “but what [it is] I know not.” To his credit, Roman persuaded Harte to accept the editorship by selling advertising space to local businesses, upwards of nine hundred dollars of it a month on a guaranteed circulation of three thousand, which virtually insured its short-term success. Had the Overland failed to attract readers, however, those advertising revenues would have dried up and disappeared—all the more reason for the magazine to make an immediate “smash.”

Roman needed the cachet Harte would bring as a contributor to its pages even more than as its editor, so for nearly three months prior to the issue of the first number of the magazine in July 1868 “we never dwelt apart.” Together with their wives and children, Roman remembered, “we went, first to San Jose, then after a month or so to a pleasant retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains,” to a cabin they built together, “and thence to Santa Cruz.” The first issue of the Overland contained an unfunny sketch by Mark Twain, “By Rail Through France,” based on his experience as one of the Quaker City pilgrims and reprinted with revisions in chapter twelve of The Innocents Abroad; poems by Harte and Coolbrith; several articles on western topics; unsigned book reviews by Harte and his assistant editor Noah Brooks; and a department of gossip and topical comment by the editor simply entitled “Etc.” These articles were “excellent from a commercial and advertising view-point,” Harte reminisced in 1899—that is, they satisfied the requirements of Roman's civic boosterism—but they contained none of the “wild and picturesque” frontier life he remembered from his years as a “youthful schoolmaster among the mining population.”

The Overland predictably generated more heat than light in the local press, its future by no means secure. Despite his initial reservations, Harte “manifested the same fastidiousness” in managing the affairs of the Overland “that characterized his own work,” according to Brooks. “I am trying to build up a literary taste on the Pacific slope,” Harte wrote the New York Unitarian minister Henry W. Bellows, and “we may be short-lived. But I want to make a good fight while it lasts.”

Still, the very survival of the Overland seemed unlikely when the August 1868 number, only its second issue, was put into production in mid-July. In his account of the genesis of the magazine, Roman claimed he had convinced Harte that “the early California gold diggers and their mining camps” were “comparatively new ground” for fiction, though Harte had been tapping this fertile vein of local color off and on since 1860. According to Harte, however, he called Roman's “attention to the lack of any distinctive Californian romance” in the first issue of the Overland “and averred that, should no other contribution come in, he himself would supply the omission.” In any case, as Carl Van Doren declared in 1926, Harte's “discovery that California was full of fiction made almost as much a stir as Marshall's discovery that the State was full of gold.”

For the second issue Harte wrote a subtle parody of the gospel accounts of the Nativity set in a mining camp, a nineteenth-century precursor of Monty Python's Life of Bryan, featuring a mixed-blood prostitute named Cherokee Sal, an ironic Virgin indeed, who gives birth to a transcendentally blessed child named Tommy Luck. While on the surface Roaring Camp seems to be regenerated through the agency of the child, the story ends when the camp is swept away and “the Luck” (a victim of blind chance) is drowned in a flood of biblical proportions. That is, the story resists any simple allegorical reading.

“The Luck of Roaring Camp” was set in type while Harte and Roman were at work in Santa Cruz; when they returned to San Francisco on July 22 they faced a crisis borne of the provincialism Harte disdained. The proofreader for the printer, Sarah B. Cooper, a religious enthusiast, was offended by the portrayal of Cherokee Sal and the elliptical cursing (“d——d little cuss”) of the miners or ironic Magi of the piece. Cooper protested to the printer, who expressed his own reservations to Roman, who in turn feared a controversy over the morality of the story that would doom the nascent journal before it had begun to attract a regular audience. Roman later asserted that Harte “did not try to explain away” the printer's and proofreader's objections—in fact, agreed to substitute other matter for the story so there would be no delay in the issue. In his version of events, Roman gave the proof sheets to his wife, who wept as she read the tale. “That was enough” to change his mind, Roman remembered. “I rushed to the office, and, without explanation, ordered the article inserted” in the August issue. When the story was praised in the eastern press, Roman told his wife “that she was truly the sponsor of Bret Harte.”

In 1879, after reading Roman's self-serving version of these events, Harte was appalled and “furious” at his “lies.” He described in a private letter to Anna Harte how he had read her the story in July 1868 “and took heart and comfort from your tears over it”—a predictable response, given the death of their infant son ten months earlier—“and courage to go on and demand that it should be put into the magazine.” “I was without a sympathizer or defender,” he elsewhere remembered, and even Roman “felt that it might imperil the prospects of the magazine.” Still, he made it a point of editorial prerogative that his manuscript be printed exactly as written. He

informed the publisher that the question of the propriety of the story was no longer at issue: the only question was of his capacity to exercise the proper editorial judgment; and that unless he was permitted to test that capacity by the publication of the story, and abide squarely by the result, he must resign his editorial position. The publisher, possibly struck with the author's confidence, possibly from kindliness of disposition to a younger man, yielded, and “The Luck of Roaring Camp” was published … without emendation, omission, alteration, or apology.

Both Roman and Harte agreed that local reviews of the story in the secular press were cool and equivocal (the Alta California described it as “a pleasant little sketch”), while those in the religious press were more hostile. The advertisers “were gravely urged to condemn and frown upon this picture of Californian society that was not conducive to Eastern immigration,” Harte recalled, and he “was held up to obloquy as a man who had abused a sacred trust.” One of the religious papers even warned that it would discourage “investment of foreign capital” in the West.

The tide turned in Harte's favor only when news of the story's more favorable reception in the East reached San Francisco in October. Samuel Bowles praised “The Luck” [“The Luck of Roaring Camp”] without stint in the Springfield Republican (“a genuine California story,” one “so true to nature and so deep-reaching in its humor, that it will move the hearts of men everywhere”) and reprinted it in its entirety even before learning the identify of the author. Only at the end of September did Bowles discover that no one other than “our old friend Harte” had written “the best magazine story of the year.” Similarly, the Nation applauded “The Luck” (“one of the best magazine articles that we have read in many months,” with “pathos and humor” that “take it out of mere magazine writing and give it a place in literature”), and Clemens puffed it during his short stint as co-owner of the Buffalo Express as “the best prose magazine article that has seen the light for many months on either side of the ocean.” (Clemens was just as complimentary in private. In the marginalia he scribbled in his copy of The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches, he noted that the title story was Harte's “most finished” work and “nearly blemishless.”) In Boston, Susan Francis, a staffer for the Atlantic Monthly, was so delighted by the unsigned story that she passed it along to James Fields, who immediately sent a letter in care of the Overland editor to the anonymous author of “The Luck of Roaring Camp” offering to publish “anything he chose to write, upon his own terms.”

Harte was elated—he opened the letter in Roman's presence—because he was vindicated by the very magazine that had spurned him five years earlier. As the San Francisco Evening Bulletin allowed in 1870, “The Luck” was “by general consent of Eastern critics regarded as the most original story of the year.” “Since Boston endorsed the story,” Harte explained in 1894, “San Francisco was properly proud of it.” Suddenly a coveted literary name, Harte played the hand he was dealt like a poker-faced gambler in one of his stories. “I'll try to find time to send you something,” he wrote Fields in reply. “The Overland is still an experiment,” he admitted, and “should it fail … why I dare say I may be able to do more.” In all, the favorable publicity the Overland enjoyed during Harte's tenure as editor paid off. At a subscription rate of four dollars per year, the magazine enjoyed a circulation of three thousand per issue—the minimum Roman had guaranteed his advertisers—within its first six months. By the end of its inaugural year, with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the Overland sold as many copies in the eastern United States as in the states of California, Nevada, and Oregon.

The critical success of “The Luck” emboldened Harte, too, to resist Roman's brand of boosterism in conducting the affairs of the magazine. After an earthquake struck San Francisco on October 21, 1868, he ridiculed the local press in his next “Etc.” column for downplaying the damage lest the news offend business interests in the city. “Much has been written about the lesson of this earthquake,” Harte wrote in the November issue of the Overland.

Judging from the daily journals, it seems to have been complimentary to San Francisco. In fact, it has been suggested that, with a little more care and preparation on our part, the earthquake would have been very badly damaged in the encounter.

According to Harte, the chamber of commerce worried that “one of the cheap photographs of the ruins in San Francisco” might circulate in the East and discourage investment in the city. “Local news was under an implied censorship which suppressed anything that might tend to discourage timid or cautious capital,” he remembered in 1900. Harte treated the matter of the earthquake “with a levity which some of the dignified dons of the city found unbecoming,” Noah Brooks later remarked. Clearly, as editor of the Overland Harte was not beholden to the local chamber of commerce, though he paid a price to beard the lions. He earned a reputation, deserved or not, as aloof, supercilious, and extravagant. In the summer of 1870 the state board of education received a petition to remove the Overland from school libraries “on the ground that it was impossible to forecast what might appear in its pages.” Even more than the contretemps over publication of “The Luck,” Harte's defiance of civic authority would prompt him in 1871 to resign his position with the Overland and to leave the West forever.

The success of “The Luck” in the eastern United States also enabled him, or so he claimed, “to follow it with other stories of a like character.” The nine tales he wrote for the Overland—the stories that crystalized his reputation—were, in fact, pitched in every case to appeal to eastern readers who were intrigued by the romance of the gold rush. (Just as Harte understood in 1867 that the success of Condensed Novels depended upon its sale in the East, he early recognized that the success of the Overland and his own future prospects depended upon the reception of the magazine in the East.) Patrick Morrow has suggested that Harte “saw California in mythic and archetypal terms” and his tales “reinforced the values” of “the Eastern reading public” by showing how “picturesque Western scenes really were a part of universal experience.” Or, as Harte explained at the time, he aspired simply to collect “the materials for the Iliad that is yet to be sung” in epic strains about gold-rush California. Predictably, Harte wrote his western stories not in the style of a realist but as a romancer, with an ensemble of such stock figures as the roguish gambler (e.g., John Oakhurst in “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” Jack Hamlin in “Brown of Calaveras”), the fallen woman (e.g., Mother Shipton and the Duchess in “Outcasts” [“The Outcasts of Poker Flat”], Tommy's “dubious mother” in “The Idyl of Red Gulch,” the title character in “Miggles”), the ingenue (Piney Woods in “Outcasts,” Miss Mary in “Idyl” [“The Idyl of Red Gulch,”]), the redshirt miner (Kentuck and Stumpy in “The Luck,” the Partner in “Tennessee's Partner”), as well as the comic Chinese laundryman, the decayed Spanish aristocrat, the noble Indian, the profane stage driver, and so forth.

Harte's modern critical reputation rests almost entirely, of course, on the nine stories and half a dozen famous poems he wrote for the first five semiannual volumes of the Overland. What is less obvious is the extent to which Harte's humor resonated with readers and explains his contemporary popularity. J. C. Heywood noted as early as 1876 that it was “as a humorist” that Harte “was first introduced to people east of the Rocky Mountains,” and Wallace Stegner asserted more recently that the comedy of his Overland stories is “pervasive, unprudish, often still fresh and natural.” Harte's humor, derived from Dickens, was a trick of juxtaposition and paradox, “bundling together apparently incompatible qualities” in a single two-dimensional character. Harte's gamblers may be libertines, but they are also chivalrous; his miners may be coarse, but they share their grubstakes with the poor and friendless; and his fallen women may have “easy virtue,” but in their breasts beat proverbial hearts of gold. (As Howells put it, in Harte's fiction “ladies with pasts were of a present behavior so self-devoted that they could often put their unerring sisters to the blush.”) Whereas Clemens described the defeat of a dandy by a rustic westerner in such sketches as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and the town dog versus the coyote episode of Roughing It, Harte's sophisticated narrator often mocks or patronizes such vernacular types. The author's moral dissolves in the satire, much as Harte, Howells thought, was so ironical in his person that “you could never be sure of” him.

Like “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” several of Harte's other Overland stories parody biblical text or other moral fables. That is, Harte's best tales were often antiparables that not only defy conventional didactic readings but subvert the tenets of Christian or cultural orthodoxy. Though it may seem morbidly sentimental on the surface, for example, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” (January 1869) both evokes the horror of the Donner Pass tragedy of 1846-47 and ridicules the myth of the hardy pioneers by burlesquing Hawthorne's “The Canterbury Pilgrims.” The four exiles—the gambler Oakhurst, the two prostitutes, and the villain—meet the eloping innocents Tom Simson and Piney Woods on the mountain road to Sandy Bar. Trapped by an early-season blizzard, the outcasts suffer their deaths honorably, even virtuously—but there is no overt or even implied moral to the story. Still, it deserves its high rank among American short stories: Richard Harding Davis considered it one of the best tales ever written in English, and Howells included it in his 1920 edition of The Great Modern American Stories. In it, too, Harte created the type of romantic gambler apotheosized by Bret (sic) Maverick in the 1950s western television series Maverick.

Similarly, “Tennessee's Partner” (October 1869), Harte's personal favorite of all his stories, recounts how an ostensibly addled miner avenges his sexual humiliation by gulling an entire camp, much to the delight of the attentive reader who avoids the trap Harte set for the unwary. Although Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren in their influential textbook Understanding Fiction excoriated the tale for its rank sentimentality—“Harte is so thoroughly obsessed with the pathos of the partner's loyalty that he has devoted no thought to the precise nature of that loyalty”—they fall into Harte's trap and completely misread the story because they miss its humor. Hardly the moral or didactic fiction they consider it, “Tennessee's Partner” again explodes the myth of the faithful '49ers. The title character neither displays selfless friendship nor forgives Tennessee for stealing his wife; on the contrary, Partner exacts his revenge by insuring that Tennessee is lynched, then buries “the diseased” in the garden he tilled with his wife during their brief “matrimonial felicity” and sits triumphantly on the grave. The Partner victimizes Tennessee according to a code of the West: he not only defeats his enemy but he humiliates him as well. Much as “The Luck” parodies the gospel account of the Nativity, moreover, “Brown of Calaveras” (March 1870) travesties Christ's parable of the Good Samaritan and “Mr. Thompson's Prodigal” (July 1870) burlesques the parable of the Prodigal Son by representing the West as a “far country” that corrupts the young and innocent.

Another pair of Harte's Overland stories subtly contrasts the vulgar West with the more refined East. “Miggles” (June 1869) was loosely based on the life of the notorious actress and dancer Lola Montez after her retirement from the stage as Harte imagined it from the perspective of an effete eastern traveler. (Howells later remarked that this “Magdalene of the mining camp” may be Harte's “prime invention” in fiction, and the story was soon reprinted in the Boston suffragist weekly, the Woman's Journal.) “The Idyl of Red Gulch” (December 1869) juxtaposes a wanton westerner, the dissolute miner Sandy Morton, with a genteel easterner, the chaste schoolmarm Miss Mary, who is the lineal ancestor of such agents of civilization as Molly Stark Wood in Owen Wister's The Virginian and Amy Kane (played by Grace Kelly) in the movie western High Noon. Vladimir Nabokov also refers in Lolita to “the prim pretty schoolteacher arriving in Roaring Gulch”—a transparent allusion to Harte's story, even as he conflates “Roaring Camp” and “Red Gulch.” Harte's tale concludes, however, not with a reconciliation of West and East in a happy union but with Miss Mary's hasty departure for Boston on the Slumgullion stage when she learns of Sandy's adulteries. The plot resolution presages Harte's own departure for the East at the close of his tenure as editor of the Overland Monthly.

Still another story that Harte first published in the magazine, “The Iliad of Sandy Bar” (November 1870), in silhouetting his brief estrangement from Clemens in 1870-71, seems transparently autobiographical. Though Harte had privately helped Clemens edit The Innocents Abroad at his friend's request, he reviewed the book in the Overland for January 1870. Unfortunately, he had to buy the copy he reviewed, an oversight for which he apparently blamed Clemens, to whom he wrote (according to Clemens) “the most daintily contemptuous & insulting letter you ever read.” By the time “The Iliad” [“The Iliad of Sandy Bar”] appeared nearly a year later, the two men had been “off” for “many months.” Significantly, then, Harte's story depicts the quarrel of two former partners in the “Amity Claim,” Matthew Scott (Harte) and Henry York (Clemens). Even though their common claim (western humor) seems “worked out” and “worthless,” it becomes a bone of contention. Scott wins a court battle, though “York instantly appealed” the verdict; that is, Harte seemed to blame their troubles on Clemens, who envied and resented Harte's greater popularity. The Scott-York feud escalates until York finally goes abroad, much as Clemens left for New York and the Quaker City excursion in late 1867, “and for the first time in many years, distance and a new atmosphere isolated the old antagonists.” In the end, York returns to Sandy Bar and the two men are reconciled, much as Clemens returned to San Francisco after his trip to Europe and the Holy Land and enlisted Harte's help on his book. Read in this context, “The Iliad of Sandy Bar” seems a poignant and pointed reminder of their friendship and an open invitation to Clemens to bury the hatchet.

Though he depicted the West through a soft lens and in muted light, Harte fairly qualifies as a local colorist in these stories, too—the literary analogy is to the “genre” painters—for his attention to local setting and atmosphere and for the vernacular or regional character types depicted in an ironic if not sardonic tone. His ideal brand of tale, as he explained in his late essay “The Rise of the ‘Short Story’” (1899), “was concise and condensed, yet suggestive. It was delightfully extravagant—or a miracle of understatement. It voiced not only the dialect, but the habits of a people or locality. It gave a new interest to slang,” and it “was often irreverent” and “devoid of all moral responsibility.” To the extent that his stories were distinctively western, Harte exploited in them a cultural moment or exotic milieu more fanciful than real. In effect, he wrote about the West to entertain readers unfamiliar with the region. “The gold discovery had drawn to the Pacific slope of the continent” a “heterogeneous and remarkable population,” Harte explained, and he represented this idiosyncratic mix of cultures—the colonial Spanish, the immigrant Chinese, the mestizo, the Native, and the Anglo—with as much subtlety and nuance as he could muster. “Add to this Utopian simplicity of the people” the “magnificent scenery, a unique climate, and a vegetation that was marvellous in its proportions and spontaneity of growth,” he averred, and he enjoyed as an author “a condition of romantic and dramatic possibilities” that was “unrivalled in history.”

Harte's Overland stories were reprinted, in every case, within days of their first publication in such eastern papers as the Springfield Republican, Albany Evening Journal, New York Evening Post, Providence Journal, Newport Mercury, and Hartford Courant. In chapter twenty-five of Howells's novel The Minister's Charge (1887), the rustic hero Lemuel Barker reads one of Harte's stories aloud to the Boston Brahmin Bromfield Corey, a scene which should underscore, if nothing else, Harte's appeal among the eastern gentry and cultural elite.

Of course Harte's popularity soon extended to England. Such British magazines as Fun and the Piccadilly Annual of Entertaining Literature copied Harte's writings as soon as the Overland arrived by ship, and British publishers—particularly the infamous John Camden Hotten—soon issued pirated editions of his writings. The humorist Tom Hood routinely praised Harte's stories (e.g., “The Luck” was “worthy of Hawthorne”), and the Hotten editions were puffed in Athenaeum, Public Opinion (“a genuine poet”), and Chambers' Journal (“The Luck” was “one of the best short stories ever written”). The Spectator praised Harte's “novelty of subject” and “originality of style” even while regretting his occasional “attack of ‘Dickens-on-the-brain.’” Ironically, shortly before his death Charles Dickens declared that Harte “can do the best things” and sent him an invitation to contribute to All the Year Round. After Harte learned of Dickens's death on June 9, 1870, he inserted a hastily composed tribute entitled “Dickens in Camp” into the July issue of the Overland, and it became one of his most popular lyrics. Around a campfire in the “dim Sierras” a miner takes from “his pack's scant treasure” a “hoarded volume,” and “cards were dropped from hands of listless leisure / To hear the tale anew.”

And then, while round them shadows gathered faster,
          And as the firelight fell,
He read aloud the book wherein the Master
          Had writ of “Little Nell.”

In his autobiographical dictation nearly forty years later, Clemens scorned Harte's “Dickensian mode”: “In the San Franciscan days Bret Harte was by no means ashamed when he was praised as being a successful imitator of Dickens; he was proud of it. I heard him say, myself, that he thought he was the best imitator of Dickens in America.” Whether or not Clemens's memory is accurate, and if so whether or not Harte's boast is creditable, the fact remains that Harte was often compared favorably to “Boz” by his contemporaries. “Had Dickens lived in California,” Warren Cheney once averred, for example, “his impressions would have given us stories of the same spirit as Mr. Harte.”

Predictably, James Fields wanted to tie the rising star to the Boston firm of Fields, Osgood and Company and approached Harte as early as the spring of 1869 about publishing a volume of his tales. “In regard to your proposal to examine a collection of my California sketches with a view to republication,” Harte replied in April to Fields's inquiry, “I fear that you have overestimated the number of my contributions to the Overland,” though he was “writing a little sketch similar in style” to “The Luck” and “have in view three or four more.” He also suggested collecting “one or two California sketches” he had written earlier and asked what Fields “would pay for stories like these proposed.” The two men soon agreed to terms, and Fields, Osgood and Company and its successor firms would remain Harte's U.S. publishers to the end of his life. The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches, issued in April 1870, contained the first five stories he had written for the Overland, “The Right Eye of the Commander” from the San Francisco Evening Bulletin for December 1867, and nine sketches that had originally appeared in the Golden Era between 1861 and 1863—one measure of the dearth of material Harte had ready to exploit his newfound popularity. He “eked out the book with some old and inferior things of his,” as Howells confided to Henry James.

Still, the book sold reasonably well, mostly in the East—according to surviving financial records of the firm in the Houghton Library at Harvard, 9,850 copies were issued in seventeen separate printings before November 1872—and the notices were almost unanimous in their praise. The New York Tribune asserted, for example, that Harte's “peculiar merit” lay in his ability to catch “the gleam of poetic light which irradiates at moments common and vulgar.” Thomas Wentworth Higginson commended the volume in the Boston Woman's Journal, Parke Godwin proclaimed him “a man of genius” in Putnam's, and Howells noted Harte's “very fine and genuine” appreciation of nature in his review for the Atlantic. Clemens likely penned the notice of the volume in the Buffalo Express (“Nothing so thoroughly picturesque or so thoroughly native in subject and spirit has appeared yet in American literature, nor has a finer genius displayed itself than that to which we owe these California sketches”), and similar reviews appeared in the New York Times (“sententious yet picturesque style”), the Alta California (“very correct photography of our local life”), the trusty Springfield Republican (“all that it contains is good”), and the Saturday Review (“a small but interesting volume”). Even the reclusive Emily Dickinson read the book.

Much as Harte had been liable to censure in the San Francisco press, to be sure, some religious periodicals objected to his religious skepticism and want of overt didacticism; e.g., Zion's Herald complained that “his heaven is free-love and good humor. Gamblers, harlots, thieves, murderers, men so vile as to have no trace of even good humor, sulky and villainous, entirely and completely, are sent by him to heaven.” Harte tried to disarm such complaints in his preface by insisting that “as a humble writer of romance” he labored under no obligation to point “any positive moral.” Predictably, however, given their challenge to mid-Victorian canons of taste, Harte's stories were sometimes denigrated in such prudish terms well into the next century.

Even though the Overland was critically acclaimed and modestly profitable, Roman sold it for $7,500 in June 1869, a year after launching it, ostensibly for health reasons. His differences with Harte over its tenor and target audience no doubt contributed to his decision. The new owner, John Carmany, publisher of the San Francisco Commercial Advertiser, immediately ran afoul of Harte, who pressed his advantage. Carmany in effect bought a literary property that was virtually worthless without Harte on board as editor and star contributor. On June 7, 1869, Harte submitted to Carmany a list of the conditions on which he would “continue in the editorial charge of the Overland Monthly,” specifically that he have “exclusive control” of its contents, a private office, a salary of two hundred dollars a month plus one hundred dollars for each story and twenty-five dollars for each poem he contributed to its pages, and “acceptable editorial assistance” when the “income of the magazine shall justify the expenditure.” These conditions were non-negotiable, or so he insisted the next day: “I will not modify nor alter any of the propositions in the terms I offered. They were made upon careful deliberation, and are, in my opinion, essential to the safety of the magazine and my reputation—in both of which I have some little pride.” Harte gave Carmany a deadline, 10 a.m. on June 9, “to employ me on the terms proposed by me” or “I shall consider myself at liberty to enter into other negotiations, elsewhere.”

Carmany capitulated, though he soon had reason to regret his decision. “As the publication of the third volume proceeded,” he explained later, “I became fully aware of the controlling literary position Mr. Harte occupied towards the magazine, which finally so strongly developed itself through his sudden popularity that the importance of his remaining with the magazine was a constant subject of anxious thought on my part.” He later claimed, with some exaggeration, that he “spent thirty thousand dollars to make Bret Harte famous,” and he even launched an ad hominem attack on Harte's character. Harte was, he sniffed, “a dandy; a dainty man, too much of a woman to rough it in the mines,” who was habitually “dilatory” in his editorial duties. Still, in August 1869, with the promise of both a secure salary and editorial autonomy, Harte finally resigned his position in the Mint to devote all his time to the magazine.

The next eighteen months, between mid-1869 and the end of 1870, can fairly be considered the heyday of the Overland. In addition to managing its affairs, Harte contributed the last six of his stories and a total of fifteen poems to its pages as well as reviews of such books as James Russell Lowell's Among My Books, Ralph Waldo Emerson's Society and Solitude, Nathaniel Hawthorne's English Notebooks, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Oldtown Folks. Stoddard testified to his rigor as an editor: “I am sure,” he insisted, “that the majority of the contributors” to the magazine during Harte's tenure “profited, as I did, by his careful and judicious criticism.” One measure of his temerity in the conduct of the magazine: in April 1870 he rejected Walt Whitman's “Passage to India” on the grounds it was “too long and too abstract.”

The appearance in the September 1870 number of his own poem “Plain Language from Truthful James” was perhaps his greatest triumph. By any objective measure—the frequency with which it was reprinted, the number of parodies it inspired, the times it was cited or set to music—“The Heathen Chinee” (as it was more commonly known) was one of the most popular American poems ever published. “No poem of its length in the language has furnished such a store of quotations to the newspapers,” one reviewer remarked a year after its first publication. “It is not too much to say that it has sensibly modified the colloquial speech of the day.” To be sure, Harte was quick to disparage the poem whenever he heard it mentioned in later years. His friend Pemberton remembered after Harte's death how “in quite recent years,” while “reading his morning papers,” he made “half humorous, half earnest protest” against the way the poem was cited in the press. Harte readily allowed that he had used it to fill out the issue of the Overland where it appeared. Clemens remembered that Harte wrote the poem “for his own amusement” and “threw it aside, but being one day suddenly called upon for copy he sent that very piece in.” Ambrose Bierce also recalled that Harte had offered the poem to him for publication in the San Francisco News-Letter, but that he had convinced Harte it belonged in the more up-scale Overland—this before Bierce began to pillory the magazine as the “Warmed-Overland.” Harte predicted in 1873, accurately enough, that the poem “will not live fifty years.”

Nevertheless, the verse struck a nerve. It was as nearly an overnight sensation as was possible in the days when San Francisco was six or seven days distant from New York via transcontinental railroad. More than “The Luck of Roaring Camp” or “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” which had appeared without signature, “Plain Language from Truthful James” made Bret Harte a household name in the eastern United States. Clemens contended in March 1871 that Harte was “the most celebrated man in America today,” “the man whose name is on every single tongue from one end of the continent to the other,” and the poem “did it for him.” Carmany later claimed that “the news agents in the East doubled their orders” for the Overland in the wake of its publication, with total circulation reaching about ten thousand per issue. One New York City bookseller reportedly had a standing order for twelve hundred copies per number. Within days the poem had been reprinted in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country, including the New York Evening Post and Tribune, Boston Transcript, Providence Journal, Hartford Courant, and Saturday Evening Post (twice). Ironically, though the poem was undeniably popular, there was (and is) no consensus about exactly what it meant.

This question is not a vexed one of authorial intention. To judge from all available evidence, Harte clearly intended the poem to satirize anti-Chinese prejudices pervasive among Irish day laborers, with whom Chinese immigrants competed for jobs. As early as April 1863 Harte wrote in a sketch for the Golden Era that the Chinese were “generally honest, faithful, simple, and painstaking,” and he blamed the campaign to restrict Chinese immigration on “the conscious hate and fear with which inferiority always regards the possibility of even-handed justice.”

In a piece for the Springfield Republican in March 1867, Harte noted that the “quick-witted, patient, obedient and faithful” Chinese were “gradually deposing the Irish from their old, recognized positions in the ranks of labor.” He predicted that “John Chinaman” would “eventually supplant Bridget and Patrick in menial occupations.” Similarly, in his final article for the Republican, dated March 1, 1868, he bitterly alluded to the “hod-carriers and drunken Irish laborers” who assault Chinese workers “in the streets of San Francisco” and “blackguard” them privately. “Plain Language from Truthful James,” which Harte formally modeled upon Swinburne's “Atalanta in Calydon,” ridicules class resentment at precisely this point: the economic threat the Chinese posed to the Irish underclass. “For ways that are dark” and “tricks that are vain, / The heathen Chinee is peculiar,” Truthful James insists. With his “pensive,” “childlike,” and “bland” smile, Ah Sin seems an easy mark to Bill Nye and the narrator, who stack a deck of cards against him. Ah Sin turns the tables on the Irishmen and beats them at their own game, however, by concealing cards in his sleeves and marking them with wax.

But the hands that were played
          By that heathen Chinee,
And the points that he made,
          Were quite frightful to see,—
Till at last he put down a right bower,
          Which the same Nye had dealt unto me.

“We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor,” Nye declares, before “he went for that Heathen Chinee,” though the poem omits any description of overt violence. To the end of his life Harte insisted he wrote it “with a satirical political purpose,” and Margaret Duckett has concluded that in the “context of Bret Harte's life and other writings, ‘The Heathen Chinee’ can have but one interpretation: It is a satiric attack on race prejudice.”

Harte's intention, of course, has no necessary correlation with the cultural work the poem actually performed. In fact, “Plain Language from Truthful James” was read by many a xenophobic reader as satire not of the Irish cardsharps but of Ah Sin and the “yellow peril” he seemed to represent. Whether or not Truthful James spoke plainly, Harte's language was misconstrued. Much as Jonathan Swift's “Modest Proposal” seemed to endorse infanticide or Babo confounded the racist assumptions of Amasa Delano in Melville's “Benito Cereno,” Ah Sin was liable to be misunderstood exactly to the extent that readers were as jaundiced as Bill Nye or as unwary as Truthful James. On the surface the poem seemed to epitomize what Edward W. Said has termed “the binary typology of advanced and backward (or subject) races” that emerged in the 1870s. On the surface, that is, the text constructs a racial Other in stereotypical terms; only when read ironically does it resist or subvert the stereotype. In the words of a hackneyed poem published later in the Overland,

An able writer tells us
          That all your ways are dark;
He hit the case exactly
          In that one trite remark.

Too often, rather than an ironic indictment of anti-Chinese sentiment, Harte's poem seemed to license that sentiment. The predominantly white, middle-class readers of the Overland, the Saturday Evening Post, and the other papers that reprinted the poem identified not with the “heathen” An Sin but with his presumed racial superior, Bill Nye, the ostensible victim of his trickery. Foes of Chinese immigration recited it in public, and Senator Eugene Casserley of California, a vehement opponent of Chinese labor, reportedly wrote to thank Harte for rallying to his cause. While Harte may have meant to satirize prejudice, his poem had the opposite effect. More than any other writer of the period, according to Jeffrey D. Mason, Harte “shaped the popular conception of the Chinese.”

This tendency to (mis)appropriate Harte's poem is painfully apparent in several illustrations that accompany reprintings of it. Before the end of 1870, for example, the Western News Company of Chicago issued a pirated edition illustrated by Joseph Hull that sold thousands of copies, to Harte's dismay. Though for the most part unremarkable, at least two of Hull's drawings pandered to racist sentiment by depicting violence against Ah Sin. Their reading of the poem is not only literal, without any sense of irony or ambiguity, but they revise Harte's text by picturing Nye's brutality and by imagining an adventitious scene of mob violence. Still, the London Daily News asserted that Hull's pictures perfectly convey Nye and the narrator's “patriotic indignation” at “the depravity of the heathen Chinee.” The Hull chapbook also popularized the poem even as it (mis)interpreted it: while “strolling down Broadway” on New Year's Day 1871, the editor of the New York Globe “saw a crowd of men and boys, of high and low degree, swarming about a shopwindow. … Elbowing our way through the crowd, we discovered an illustrated copy of Bret Harte's poem, ‘The Heathen Chinee’ displayed to the gaze of the public. … In all our knowledge of New York nothing like this has ever been seen on Broadway.”

Put another way, “Plain Language from Truthful James” was transformed into a culture-text that was appropriated for a variety of purposes, few of them intended by the poet. Not only was it adapted to the campaign against Chinese immigration, it spawned a short-lived school of western dialect poets that included Clemens, John Hay, and Washington Gladden. During its first months in print the poem was parodied at least fourteen times—e.g., to satirize flirtatious women (“Plain Language from Truthful Jane”), the presidential ambitions of Horace Greeley (“The Heathen Greelee”), cheating at British colleges (“The Heathen Passee”), the Treaty of Washington (“Plain Language from Truthful Bull”), and, ironically, anti-Irish prejudice (“The Game Hibernee”). News stories about murder and tax evasion were sometimes headlined with such phrases as “Ways That Are Dark” and “Tricks That Are Vain,” and items on Chinese immigration were often entitled “The Heathen Chinee” or “Chinese Cheap Labor.” In all, the poem worked to shape the debate over immigration policy in ways that Harte could neither have foreseen nor approved. It was quoted on the floor of Congress in January 1871, and each of the major political parties sought to outflank the other on the issue. The so-called “Heathen Chinee planks” in their platforms in 1876 were intended “not to secure justice for American citizens and certainly not to do justice to immigrants from China, but to make a bid for a majority of the votes of California, Nevada, and Oregon.”

On the heels of the success of “Plain Language from Truthful James,” moreover, Fields, Osgood and Company also issued a volume of Harte's Poems for sale during the 1870 Christmas season. Louise Chandler Moulton, the Boston correspondent for the New York Tribune, reported on November 5 that the publishers had received Harte's copy from San Francisco, “and the book will be issued immediately, before the current of popularity swelling up from the remarkable piece about the Heathen Chinee has time to ebb.” It was, in fact, the most popular of all Harte's books—with six editions totaling some 2,200 copies sold within its first five days in print, some 20,000 copies sold by the end of 1872, and an additional 10,000 sold over the next five years—for which the poet was paid nearly four thousand dollars in royalties. It was also favorably reviewed in such papers as the Boston Transcript, New York Tribune, Christian Register (“genuine wit and pathos”), and the North American Review (“our Theocritus at last, and from California, whence we least expected him”). To be sure, there were a few dissenting voices: the London Examiner complained that Harte's poems were “neither humorous nor poetical,” and the Springfield Republican, while commending his dialect verse, cautioned that “it is still too early to fix the rank of Mr Harte among the poets.” Howells remarked in the Atlantic, similarly, on the “narrow” range of Harte's poems and predicted that “the man who has written them can do things vastly better, things universally valuable.”

Still, by the close of 1870 and at the height of his popularity, Harte was one of the best-known writers (if not the best writer) in America. Editors from coast to coast wrote to solicit contributions from his pen, and “Bret Harte” became a type of literary brand name. Parke Godwin wrote him from New York in the spring of 1870 to offer him the editorship of the revived Putnam's Magazine, and Harte was sufficiently interested to offer terms. He had to exercise complete editorial control, “observing my own methods and after my own fashion as I do” the Overland, and he required “a salary of at least $5000 per annum, guaranteed for one year”—a proposal apparently vetoed by the publisher, George Palmer Putnam.

That summer, too, Whitelaw Reid, editor of the New York Tribune, offered him fifty dollars per letter for the sort of San Francisco correspondence he had sent the Springfield Republican and Christian Register three years earlier, though Harte declined because he thought California already “played out” as a subject:

Literary and Art items w[oul]d not occupy a letter once in a year, while Society as it has gained in respectability, I fear has lost in picturesqueness, and differs now but little from that of most American second rate towns. The tourists have already exhausted superficial California and what is below is hard, dry and repulsive.

Francis P. Church wrote him from New York in September to invite his submissions to The Galaxy, though Harte sarcastically replied that his was “the lowest and least advantageous offer wh[ich] I have yet had the honor to receive from any one.” In November the New York firm of Harper and Brothers promised to pay him at least one hundred dollars for every poem “illustrative of certain phases of Western life” published in their magazines. He also received proposals from Curtis Guild of the Boston Commercial Bulletin and J. G. Holland of Scribner's.

Meanwhile, Carmany put together a deal designed to keep Harte at the helm of the Overland: “When the wave of popularity was mounting higher and higher,” Carmany remembered later, “I suggested to him that we take a trip East on a lecture tour, the financial management of it to be in my hands.” In addition Carmany offered him “a salary of $5,000 per annum” and one hundred dollars for every story or poem he contributed, “together with a quarter interest in the magazine” to remain its editor.

Had he remained in San Francisco, moreover, Harte might have supplemented his income with yet another government job: Professor of Recent Literature and Curator of the Library and Museum at the new University of California in nearby Berkeley. Ambrose Bierce explained in the San Francisco NewsLetter that Harte “could not afford to remain in California—where there is a conspicuous lack of the sense necessary to the appreciation of genius—unless he were bribed with a lucrative sinecure.” The Berkeley offer was “a consummation devoutly to be hungered and thirsted after,” and Bierce predicted on August 20 that “Harte will stay with us along with our Golden Gate, and our Yosemite, and our Big Trees, and our mammoth vegetables.” “To stay here,” Harte reported in September 1870, “I am offered a professorship in the University which will not interfere with my editorial work on the O.M. both of wh[ich] offices will make my income amount to ab[ou]t $6,000 (gold) per annum.”

His appointment was opposed by one of the regents, “whose word was a power in the land,” however, because he had twitted the San Francisco press for minimizing the severity of the October 1868 earthquake, and he no doubt anticipated some continued political meddling had he accepted the university appointment. Harte finally declined it on the grounds that “it would interfere with his profession” (that is, his writing) and a trip he planned to the East. Before he finalized those plans, he even considered buying the Overland from Carmany, who set the price of the magazine at thirteen thousand dollars. Nothing came of any of these offers, however, and Harte carped a few months later that Carmany had backed out, that “he hadn't confidence enough in me to risk the experiment for three mo[nth]s and the expenditure of $600. Why he might have made $15,000 the next year, or sold out his right to me for $20,000.”

In the end, Harte was enticed to leave California by the promise of literary fame and fortune across the continent. As the Cincinnati Commercial joked in February 1871, while he was en route to the East, he had been hired to “write all the editorials, poetry and stories for all the daily newspapers of New York and all the weekly and monthly periodicals. He will also compose all the comedies and tragedies for the theaters” and “furnish sermons for the clergy of different denominations.” In fact, he had received a pair of offers too lucrative to ignore, the first to edit the Lakeside Monthly in Chicago, the other to write exclusively for the family of magazines, especially the Atlantic Monthly, published in Boston by James R. Osgood and Company, successor to Fields, Osgood and Company.

The latter offer—sent him on June 21, 1870, and proposing an annual salary of five thousand dollars, the requisite sum “named by me as essential to my removing East”—piqued Harte's interest in particular. The conviction was “strong upon me that I should be somewhere near Boston at this date,” he wrote Howells on November 5, 1870. “My coming being postponed, I sent you two sun-flattered pictures of myself,” one of them subsequently engraved for the cover of Every Saturday, another of the Osgood magazines. (That “remarkable picture,” he later observed, was “so faint, so spiritual, so ghostly and apparition-like” that he was “afraid to stay in the room with it in the dark.”) “I expect still to see you this winter,” he concluded his letter to Howells. He resigned from the Overland effective at the close of 1870 and laid plans to return to the East like a prodigal son to feast on the fatted calf. “I've just accepted an invitation from Mr. Fields to meet you and other distinguished folk at the Saturday Club” in Boston on February 25, he notified Howells early in the new year. “I would this had been put off until the tidal wave of my present cheap popularity had subsided, or until I had done something more worthy,” but “my daemon wills otherwise and I go three thousand miles to be found out.”

As assistant editor of the Atlantic, Howells had been instrumental in wooing Harte east. The two men first corresponded in the summer of 1869, when Harte only half-facetiously proposed that the editor of the Overland and the assistant editor of the Atlantic “exchange pulpits.” At first, that is, Harte considered Howells his peer; he was delighted to learn later that they were virtually the same age. After Harte quite the Overland, the rumors soon swirled in Boston that he would be offered the editorship of either Every Saturday or the Atlantic upon Field's retirement. Howells strenuously denied the rumor in a letter to his father in late January 1871:

You needn't feel the least troubled about Bret Harte on my account. I have the most solemn and repeated pledges from Osgood as to my relations with the magazine when Mr. Fields retires. … I should never suffer myself to enter rivalry with any one; but at any rate Harte's and my own lives are so divergent that we should not come into competition. He will be engaged probably as a salaried contributor to the Atlantic, but I shall be editor.

If Harte considered Howells his peer or rival, Howells disdained such a comparison. Still, he invited Harte and his family to stay at his home in Cambridge immediately upon their arrival, and Harte accepted with alacrity. “I go East from here on Feby. 1st,” he concluded his January 24 letter to Howells, “and will telegraph from Chicago or N.Y. when you can meet me at the Worcester depot.” “There is a perfect furore in cultivated society now about Bret Harte,” Elinor Howells confided to her sister-in-law on January 29. “All the young ladies are in love with him—but it is no use—he is married.”

A few days before he left San Francisco, Harte was feted at a farewell dinner at Louis Dingeon's restaurant, attended by about a dozen of his old friends and companions in literary work, including Noah Brooks and Samuel Bowles of the Springfield Republican. The party did not break up until 5 a.m. “Naturally Harte was the center of the little company,” Brooks recalled, “and he never was more fascinating and companionable.” Finally, on the morning of February 2, a day later than planned, he boarded the eastbound “Overland Express” with his wife and their two sons in tow and “burned his ships,” as he put it a few days later, vowing never to return.

Most of the local papers lamented the loss to western letters. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, his departure left “a vacancy among the literati of the coast which it will be hard to fill. Whatever his enemies may say to the contrary, Mr. Harte is possessed of genius—not in large quantity, perhaps, nor of the most brilliant order—and to this he adds industry and a habit of study.” On the very day he left, the Alta California reported that the “best-known and best-liked writer in light literature that we have” planned “to take up his residence permanently in the East.” However, the Call—“that degraded ‘Morning Call,’ whose mission from hell & politics was to lick the boots of the Irish & throw brave mud at the Chinamen,” as Clemens put it later—referred derisively to Harte's faults, “which were chiefly manifested in an overweening vanity,” declared he had been “badly spoiled” by the “over-indulgence” of his friends, and concluded that his “head has been turned by too many allusions to the ‘Heathen Chinee.’ He has latterly given us nothing but sorry doggerel when asked for poetry.” Not only would he not be missed, according to the Call, “his place here will be fully and capably filled.”

However divided local opinion about Harte may have been when he left San Francisco, he traveled by rail across the continent in February 1871 a full-fledged literary celebrity. Howells later compared his trip to “the progress of a prince” in the “universal attention and interest” it attracted in the press. Similarly, Clemens remembered that Harte “crossed the continent through such a prodigious blaze of national interest and excitement that one might have supposed he was the Viceroy of India.” Even the London Daily News heralded his movements in an editorial that began “America has a new star”—a copy of which Harte kept to the end of his life. In fact the Hartes arrived in Chicago, where they stayed a week with Anna Harte's sister on North La Salle Street, on February 7, traveling with such haste that “we saw nothing of [Omaha] from the cars.” By all accounts they were hospitably received in the Windy City. The Chicago Tribune remarked on the author's presence there on February 9 and added that “movements are on foot by which, it is hoped, Mr. Harte may be persuaded to adopt Chicago as his future home.”

The plan of several prominent local citizens, including the lawyer Wirt Dexter, was to install Harte as editor of the Lakeside Monthly at an annual salary of five thousand dollars and a stake in the magazine worth ten thousand dollars. Thirty Chicagoans had pledged five hundred dollars apiece to lure him to the city. On his part, Harte had assured the sponsors of this plan by telegraph before leaving San Francisco that he had not consummated an agreement with Osgood and Company “and that he would make no disposition of himself until after looking thoroughly into the Chicago project.” “For many reasons,” Harte wrote Josephine Clifford two weeks later, “I wanted the Chicago Magazine,” though in his version of events “the childishness and provincial character of a few of the principal citizens of Chicago spoiled the project.”

He and his wife were invited to a dinner party at Dexter's home to seal the contract but for whatever reason—because he expected a carriage to be sent for them though one never arrived, because his wife suddenly fell ill, or more plausibly because Anna Harte threw a tantrum when her sister was not invited to join them and she refused to accompany her husband—Harte failed to attend. He “promptly apologized, of course, as became a well-bred gentleman,” according to the Chicago correspondent of the Cincinnati Commercial, “but the apology was voted unsatisfactory, and it was resolved to cut his acquaintance and destroy the subscription.” The Chicago Mail reported on February 17 that the erstwhile publishers of the Lakeside had concluded “that a man who stands so much upon a point of California etiquette is not the one to run a Monthly in this go-ahead village.” Kate Field, in Bloomington, Illinois, on a lecture tour, read about the dustup and thought that Harte “was guilty of a most outrageous breach of decorum” in Chicago and “has killed himself there.” Another local wag burlesqued the occasion in a parody of “Plain Language from Truthful James”:

They sat down to their banquet, but their feelings were not festive, And the food lay on their stomachs in a way quite indigestive; And the things they wished the absent, in their anger, was a sin, And they swore that he should finger not a dollar of their tin.

On his part, Harte promised Bierce two weeks later that “some time I'll tell you my Chicago experience wh[ich] was very funny.” Harte was dogged for years afterwards by the rumor that he lost ten thousand dollars by his “diffidence.” In the wake of his faux pas, too, Harte was excoriated in the local press. While in the city, as the Chicago Republican reported a month later, Harte had visited the office of the Western News Company on State Street to investigate the sale of the edition of “The Heathen Chinee” illustrated by Hull: “He skulked around the corners, made inquiries of the cash-boys, and took notes of what he saw.” Later, Osgood and Company attempted to interdict the further sale of the Hull chapbook, though the legal issue was mooted in October when the last copies of it were destroyed in the great Chicago fire.

In any event, the Hartes left Chicago on February 15, dallied briefly in Syracuse, arrived in New York on February 20, where they visited with his sister Eliza and her family at their Fifth Avenue home, and finally reached Boston on Friday, February 24. Howells remembered thirty years later that “when they met at the station” Harte had “pressed forward with his cordial hand-clasp” and winning laugh. Despite the embarrassing imbroglio in Chicago only the week before, Harte played the role of literary lion while in Boston as though to the manor born. The city “has had no such sensation since the demolition of the ‘Coliseum’ as the arrival of Bret Harte,” the Boston Commonwealth declared. The local dailies were mosaicked with news of his movements that week. On February 25, his first full day in the Hub, he dined at the Parker House with the Saturday Club, where he met, among others, Lowell, Emerson, Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., and the Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz. Annie Fields confided to her diary her first impressions of Harte when “a part of the company adjourned to our tea-table” after dinner:

Jamie thought him very satisfactory. His size is rather under than over the ordinary, his face deeply pitted with small pox which has left a redness about the eyes as it is so apt to do—otherwise he is fine looking and reminded us a little of what the young Dickens must have been. Less absorbing, but of kindred nature. Fine hazel eyes, full lips, large moustache, an honest smile—so much for his personal. His accent slightly western and his colloquial expression careless and inelegant often. His aplomb is good and not too great—He is honest and refined. Quite unconscious of himself as a prominent person during the evening, but talking and listening by turns altogether naturally.

During the week he stayed with Howells, he supped with Longfellow and Lowell and Agassiz and attended the theatre with Fields (Bronson Howard's “Saratoga” at the Globe). Howells recalled that “Harte was nearly always late for those luncheons and dinners” and “it needed the anxieties and energies of both families to get him into his clothes” and “into the carriage where a good deal of final buttoning must have been done.” The highlight of the week was a dinner in Harte's honor at the Howells home on Berkeley Avenue in Cambridge on February 28 that was attended by the cream of Boston literary society, including the young Henry James and Henry Adams. “Why,” Harte joked with his host, “you couldn't stand on your front porch and fire off your revolver without bringing down a two-volumer.” “Till now, Elinor and I have met no young couple so congenial,” Howells wrote his father at the time. Elinor Howells, while conceding the Hartes were “not quite au fait in everything,” agreed they were “polished, cultivated people.”

At least from his own perspective, Harte took Boston by storm. As he reported to Bierce, “I was so wined and dined by the literary folk whom I used to scalp in the Overland that between remorse and good liquor I hardly knew where I stood.” Only Longfellow “escaped the corrosive touch of his subtle irreverence,” Howells recalled years afterward. The poet was, Harte allowed, “the man I most revered,” and he long remembered their stroll together late one night through the streets of Cambridge after dinner at Lowell's home. “Although I had met him several times before in a brief week of gayety,” Harte recalled at Longfellow's death twelve years later, “until that evening I do not think I had clearly known him.” At the gate of Craigie House, Harte said good night and made an abrupt departure. Had he stayed a moment longer, he told Annie Fields, “he should have put his arms around him and made a fool of himself then and there.” If, in California, he had assumed an air of superiority, in New England he presumed he was in his proper sphere among the Brahmin poets.

Of course he was mistaken. Harte may have been the guest of honor at the Howells dinner, but William and Elinor Howells planned the party to repay scores of social debts they had accumulated over the months. “We've been here five years accepting civilities and never done much in return,” Elinor Howells explained, “and this gave us a grand opportunity to really give our friends a treat.” The Hartes' visit “went off splendidly,” she added, “but the party! How shall I do justice to it?” The ostensible occasion for the dinner (to welcome Harte) masked its ulterior purpose (to fix Howells's rank among the custodians of culture). The same may be said of the lucrative contract Harte signed with Osgood and Company a few days later. If, on the surface, it seemed to signal his assimilation by the cultural elite, in fact he always remained an outsider, a “salaried contributor” and a “delightful guest.” In 1910, Howells even entitled his memoir of Harte in the second edition of Literary Friends and Acquaintance “A Belated Guest.”

Why, then, was he hired? Because the contract, whatever else may be said of it, was good business. Subscriptions to the Atlantic had plummeted by some fifteen thousand, to about thirty-five thousand, in the wake of the controversy over Harriet Beecher Stowe's “Lady Byron Vindicated” in the September 1869 issue. Harte was quite simply the beneficiary of fortuitous circumstances: he was the most popular writer in America at the very moment the publishers of the Atlantic needed a marquee name to shore up subscriptions and raise advertising revenue. By signing him to write for them exclusively for a year, whatever the substance or frequency of his contributions, the firm at least slowed the decline in sales of the magazine. Harte would earn his salary not by writing for the magazine per se but by becoming a literary property the firm could package for sale to subscribers and advertisers. As far west as Illinois, Kate Field got wind of the rumor that Osgood and Company “intend to make all sorts of offers and get down on their knees to him with Atlantic Monthly in one hand and half a dozen banks in the other.” Harte admitted in a letter to Bierce from New York on March 5 that “of the commercial value of my own stuff I really had no conception whatever. … I have just accepted ten thousand dollars per year from J. R. Osgood, tho merely for the exclusive right to such of my poems & sketches as I may turn out in that space—and this does not include the ‘half-profits’ they offer me for republication.” The agreement specified that Harte's contributions were not to number less than twelve—presumably one per month during the life of the contract.

The next day, he formalized the agreement in a letter to Osgood. “Of course I was sorely beset and tempted [by other proposals from publishers] here on my return, and I have made some pecuniary sacrifice for the sake of keeping my books in the one house”—Harte claimed he had been offered upwards of fifteen thousand dollars for a year's contributions—but “I am satisfied.” (The rumor soon reached print, as in the Paris American Register, that Osgood and Company had engaged Harte “for the sum of fifteen thousand dollars.”) In any event, Louise Chandler Moulton crowed that Boston “may still claim the proud distinction of being the literary metropolis” with the “capture of a literary quarry” so coveted as Harte: “He tarried in Chicago. He investigated New-York. He came to Boston, he saw, he was conquered.”

For the record, the agreement did not cover any plays or dramatic adaptations he might write during the twelvemonth, even though before leaving California he had contracted to script a play for the actor Lawrence Barrett entitled “In the Sierras” based on his Overland stories. The title was registered with the copyright office, though the script was apparently never completed. The contract also permitted Harte to earn additional money by lecturing. The very day he wrote Osgood to accept the proposal, in fact, he claimed to have received an invitation to deliver four lectures for ten thousand dollars. The Independent also reported that spring that Harte had been offered five thousand dollars for a series of twelve lectures and “had the good sense to decline” rather than glut the market with more “Bret Harte.” He would not begin to trade on his name by lecturing for nearly two more years, and his career by then would be in a fine mess.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 129


Hall, Roger. “Annie Pixley, Kate Mayhew, and Bret Harte's ‘M'Liss.’” ATQ: American Transcendental Quarterly 11, no. 4 (December 1997): 267-83.

Discusses theatrical adaptations of Harte's “M'Liss.”

Additional coverage of Harte's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865-1917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 140; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 80; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 12, 64, 74, 79, 186; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 3; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 8; Something about the Author, Vol. 26; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 25; and World Literature Criticism.

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Bret Harte Short Fiction Analysis