Discussion Topics

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What examples of vivid sensory details can you find in “The Luck of Roaring Camp”? What do they contribute to the story?

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How plausible is the motivation of the characters in “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”?

What, other than his virtual invention of the genre, were Bret Harte’s contributions to the American Western story?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of Harte’s type of third-person narration?

What facts of the second half of Harte’s life (including extraneous events) best account for his literary decline?

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Bret Harte attempted practically every form of belles lettres common in the nineteenth century. He wrote several collections of poems, almost entirely forgotten in the years since his death. Indeed, his poetic reputation to modern readers depends completely on the success of one poem, his comic verse masterpiece “Plain Language from Truthful James,” more commonly known as “The Heathen Chinee,” published in 1870. He wrote and edited newspaper material, essays, the novel Gabriel Conroy (1876), and some excellent satirical work, notably his Condensed Novels; and he collaborated with Mark Twain on a play, Ah Sin (1877), based on his poem “The Heathen Chinee.”


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Bret Harte’s influence on “local color” fiction, especially the literature of the American West, was profound but not totally fortunate. He was one of the earliest writers, and certainly the most influential one, to set stories on the mining frontier that evolved from the California gold rush of 1849. His interest in the Western story and his success in transforming his raw material into popular fiction led many subsequent writers to explore American Western themes that they might otherwise have dismissed as unworthy of serious notice. Harte’s stories, however, focusing on colorful characters that he deemed worthy of treatment for their own sake, tend to undervalue plot and setting, and his contrived plots and sentimental treatment of character gave subsequent Western fiction an escapist, juvenile bent, which it took a long time to outgrow.


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Barnett, Linda D. Bret Harte: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. With a brief introduction outlining the historical directions of Harte scholarship and criticism, this work provides a good annotated bibliography and checklist through 1977.

Duckett, Margaret. Mark Twain and Bret Harte. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964. Duckett’s book is an intriguing and carefully documented history of the friendship and literary association of Twain and Harte and their eventual falling out and feud. Includes illustrations and a bibliography through 1963.

Hall, Roger. “Annie Pixley, Kate Mayhew, and Bret Harte’s M’Liss.” ATQ, n.s. 11 (December, 1997): 267-283. Discusses the struggle in 1878 over the rights to M’Liss, a play based on a story by Bret Harte; claims that the struggle indicates the chaotic state of copyright laws, contracts, and play “pirates” in the late nineteenth century.

Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte. Boise, Idaho: Boise State College, 1972. This brief but excellent study analyzes Harte’s major work in both literature and criticism. Although concise, it is a very helpful introduction. Supplemented by a select bibliography.

Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte, Literary Critic. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1979. Morrow surveys and analyzes what he considers a very neglected part of Harte’s work, his literary criticism. He establishes Harte’s significance in the “local color” movement. Contains a useful bibliography of primary sources.

Morrow, Patrick. “Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and the San Francisco Circle.” In A Literary History of the American West. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University, 1987. This important chapter covers the contributors to the Western journals between 1865 and 1875, placing emphasis on Harte.

Nissen, Axel. Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. This scholarly biography provides a new assessment of the life and achievements of the writer.

O’Connor, Richard. Bret Harte: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966. A lively, anecdotal, and gossipy account limited to Harte’s life, this work is not critical in focus. It does list Harte’s best-known literary characters.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte. New York: Twayne, 1992. A critical biography of Harte, providing analyses of stories from four different periods of his life, fully informed by critical reception of Harte’s work. An afterword summarizes Harte’s critical reputation.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: A Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995. An excellent tool for the student of Harte.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000. A study of the writer/editor and his struggle to make the West part of the wider American culture.

Scharnhorst, Gary. “Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and the Literary Construction of San Francisco.” In San Francisco in Fiction: Essays in a Regional Literature, edited by David Fine and Paul Skenazy. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995. Discusses Harte’s acceptance of the Eastern canon’s taste in such stories as “The Idyl of Red Gulch” and his romanticized depiction of San Francisco as a rough-and-tumble boomtown in several late stories.

Stevens, J. David. “’She War a Woman’: Family Roles, Gender, and Sexuality in Bret Harte’s Western Fiction.” American Literature 69 (September, 1997): 571-593. A discussion of gender in Harte’s western fiction; argues that what critics have labeled sentimental excess in Harte’s fiction is in fact his method of exploring certain hegemonic cultural paradigms taken for granted in other Western narratives; discusses stories that deal with the structure of the family and how they critique gender roles.

Stewart, George R. Bret Harte, Argonaut and Exile. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1964. Stewart’s is the most scholarly and highly regarded of Harte’s biographies. It focuses on Harte’s life and defends the writer’s achievements against his detractors.

Stoneley, Peter. “Rewriting the Gold Rush: Twain, Harte, and Homosociality.” Journal of American Studies 30 (August, 1996): 189-209. An examination of authority and gender in gold rush fiction. From the perspective of poststructuralist theories of difference, explores the partnership of Mark Twain and Bret Harte; situates the Harte-Twain relationship within a broader network of late nineteenth century.

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Critical Essays