Bret Harte Harte, Bret - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Bret Harte 1836?-1902

(Full name Francis Brett Harte) American short story writer, novelist, poet, critic, journalist, editor, and playwright.

The following entry presents criticism of Harte's short fiction works from 1991 to 2000. For criticism of Harte's short fiction career published prior to 1991, see SSC, Volume 8.

One of the most influential and popular writers of the nineteenth century, Harte achieved fame and success for his works about the American western frontier. In his short fiction, he employed realistic description, stock characters, and local dialect and humor to nostalgically portray life in the California mining camps of the 1840s and 1850s. Although Harte lost much of his popularity later in his career, elements of his work—especially its regional flavor and use of such stereotyped characters as the ornery prospector, the cynical gambler, and the kind-hearted prostitute—influenced his contemporaries and later writers of popular Westerns.

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

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Gary Scharnhorst (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Lee Mitchell (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Axel Nissen (essay date spring 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Axel Nissen (essay date summer 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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J. David Stevens (essay date September 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Janet Floyd (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Gary Scharnhorst (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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;...

(The entire section is 129 words.)