Francis Bret Harte was born in Albany, New York, on August 25, 1836, to Henry Philip (a schoolteacher) and Elizabeth Rebecca Ostrander Hart; their last name was changed to Harte in 1844. Bret, the third born of the Hartes’ four children, was in ill health from ages six to ten, during which time he read avidly. He was particularly influenced by the writing of British author Charles Dickens. Harte’s first poem to be published, “Autumnal Musings,” was printed in the New York Sunday Atlas when he was eleven. Bret attended eight different schools before he ended his formal schooling at the age of thirteen for financial reasons.
In 1845, after the death of Bret’s father, the family moved to Brooklyn. After becoming engaged to Andrew Williams, Elizabeth Harte moved to Oakland, California, in 1853, where the two were married. A year later, Bret and his younger sister Margaret joined their mother in California. Bret stayed there until 1870.
Bret Harte began working at odd jobs when he was thirteen and was self-supporting by the time he was fifteen or sixteen. In 1857, when he moved to Union (now Arcata), California, Harte began his career in journalism. He worked for the newspaper in Union from 1858 to 1860. He was forced out of town after the February 26, 1860, issue of the newspaper The Northern Californian, in which Harte, in the editor’s absence, published an account of the Mad River Indian massacre of 1860, the slaughter by local whites of all the Indians attending a three-day religious festival. Harte, outraged at the “cowardice” and “cruelty” of the attack, intimated that another local editor and Eureka’s sheriff were behind the attack. Some sources say Harte had to leave town instantly, barely escaping with his life; others say he was forced to leave within the month.
On August 11, 1862, Harte married Anna Griswold, an older woman who was well established in her musical career. Neither family approved of the marriage. Bret and Anna had four children: Griswold (1863), Francis (1865), Jessamy (1873), and Ethel (1875). In 1871, the Hartes left San Francisco for Chicago. Harte never returned to California, and he even avoided friends from the West. In 1875, he began keeping an apartment separate from his family. After that time, the Hartes had a sort of genteel Victorian divorce, although neither took legal action.
During the eleven years that Harte lived in San Francisco, he was a prolific writer. In 1868, he became the first editor of the Overland Monthly, California’s first quality literary journal. Before the publication of the second issue, he had a battle with a proofreader about “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” one of the stories for which Harte is most remembered. She wanted the story omitted because it contained a prostitute and profanity. Harte threatened to resign as editor if the story were not published. The publisher backed Harte, thus furthering realism in American literature.
Harte met numerous literary figures in the United States. Among them were William Dean Howells, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Louis Agassiz, and Julia Ward Howe. Perhaps his closest friend among well-known writers, however, was Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). In 1876, however, after Clemens and Harte jointly wrote and produced the unsuccessful play Ah Sin, a dramatization of Harte’s “Heathen Chinee,” they had a falling out.
Harte lived the life of a celebrity, and he lived extravagantly. After his work dried up he was surrounded by scandal concerning his indebtedness, drinking, and partying. During this time, in Chicago, he tried unsuccessfully to write plays and novels. Curiously, his novel Gabriel Conroy (1876) failed in the United States but went through several editions in Germany. In desperation over debts, Harte began a lecture tour of the United States, but he was contemptuous of his audiences, and this did not enhance his...
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