Few authors ever achieve the astonishing literary success that Bret Harte did during his lifetime. His enormously popular stories of California life were in great demand by magazine editors all over the country, and The Atlantic Monthly offered the unprecedented amount of ten thousand dollars for the sole rights to one year of Harte’s literary production. Such enormous popularity is seldom consistent with a lasting literary reputation, however. Harte reached his artistic maturity at the age of thirty-one, and the quality of his work began to decline five years later. During the few years when he was at his peak, Harte produced some stories of genuine literary value, most of which are collected in The Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Sketches. It is therefore mainly on this volume that Harte’s literary reputation rests.
Harte’s vision of life goes far to explain the meteoric popularity of his stories. The local color and picturesque characters he chose and the trick endings he devised added to the attraction, but these were surface features. The heart of his success lay in his ability to convey his particular vision of life to his readers. Harte was, essentially, an optimist and an uplifter. This does not mean that he believed in a shallow doctrine of social or moral reform. Rather, he believed in the potential goodness of human beings and in the possibility of redemption for every sinner. Harte saw life as a purgatory for the human soul, a test, the ultimate goal of which is salvation. He also thought that salvation could be achieved in this life, although, paradoxically, frequently at the cost of death. Rather than being an end of the trial, in Harte’s view, death is the final consummation of the trial. Redemption for Harte is an act of selfless heroism, love, and devotion. Such an act can lift individuals above the petty world of grasping self-interest and redeem them from the sin of self-involvement. This is the spirit that pervades Harte’s most memorable stories.
This spirit raises Harte’s best characters from local stereotypes and picturesque caricatures to people of real feeling and semiheroic stature. Mark Twain explained that “Bret Harte got his California and his Californians by unconscious absorption, and put both of them into his tales alive.” Harte wove the experiences of his people into his private theme of redemption and thereby gave them life. The people in Harte’s stories are seeking salvation from themselves; they are people who long to wipe their pasts clean, people who have come to the American West to lose their identities, as indicated by the fact that very few of his characters retain their given names—instead they have names such as Cherokee Sal, Kentuck, Yuba Bill, Tennessee’s Partner, and the Duchess.
These people are ripe for redemption by virtue of their self-dissatisfaction. To be saved, one must first have sinned. This theme is at the core of Harte’s most successful stories. In the title story of the collection, “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” which first appeared in the Overland Monthly in 1868, a dissolute prostitute works out her salvation by giving birth to a baby and dying. The miners in the camp work out their salvation by giving the baby love and generous gifts to make up for the absence of a mother. One miner, Kentuck, works out his salvation by giving his life in a futile attempt to save the baby. The baby, of course, is incidental...
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