Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1412
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...
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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 because of its innocence. What matters is that the baby brings out the generous qualities of the people whose lives the child touches and thereby redeems them from their own pettiness. In the second story of the collection, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” a gambler and two prostitutes are saved from themselves by their devotion to a pair of innocent youngsters who have eloped. In the third story, “Miggles,” a pretty young woman is redeemed by her devotion to a helpless disabled man. The theme of love’s power to save invests Harte’s best stories with human interest. This was the source of Harte’s uplift, optimism, and popularity.
Harte’s weaknesses, which can be attributed to this same source, include frequent lapses into sentimentality and the use of illusory glamour and romance to gloss over the sharp frictions and discord of everyday life. In “Brown of Calaveras,” the image of gambler Jack Hamlin riding off into the rosy sunset after having handsomely refused to run away with a man’s beautiful young wife certainly strikes one as unnecessarily romantic and sentimental. The theme of redemption through love and death lends itself too easily to theatrical, facile endings.
At his best, however, Harte avoids these pitfalls. A story’s sentimentality is usually balanced by an ironic, humorous narrative style. In his most memorable stories, Harte employs an ironic prose that maintains a distance between the author and his subject matter. This skillful prose is clear and restrained, giving his fiction a sweet-sour flavor that blends well with his vision of life and convinces the reader that his characters do not deserve sympathy until they succeed in redeeming themselves. It reminds readers that his characters are human and subject to human failings. Harte is never self-righteous, however. On the contrary, he is deeply sympathetic in his treatment of character, realizing human limitations as well as human virtues. In his preface to The Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Sketches, he writes I might have painted my villains of the blackest dye. . . . I might have made it impossible for them to have performed a virtuous or generous action, and have thus avoided that moral confusion which is apt to rise in the contemplation of mixed motives and qualities. But I should have burdened myself with responsibility of their creation, which . . . I did not care to do.
Even in his preface, Harte’s use of irony is skillful. Actually, he was a shrewd judge of character and had a particular talent for “the contemplation of mixed motives and qualities.”
Harte put this talent to good use in his sketches. He was an admirable craftsman in blending virtue and vice, humor and pathos, the ridiculous and the sublime. He had a good eye for contrasts, particularly for the contrast between nature and human nature. Harte saw the ambivalences in both. On one hand, he saw nature as serene, remote, and passionless; on the other, it could be violent, deadly, and passionate. In Harte’s stories, the moods of nature are usually in juxtaposition with the moods of his characters. In “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” for example, nature becomes still for a moment at the birth and the first cry of the baby. Later, when everything in the human realm seems calm and settled, a flood overwhelms the mining camp and takes several lives, including the baby’s. The same kind of juxtaposition occurs in “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” When the gambler, the thief, and the two prostitutes are driven out of town, everything is calm, but when these four begin to find some measure of peace, a snowstorm overtakes them and their two innocent companions.
It has been pointed out that Harte’s literary techniques were borrowed from such writers as Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. To be sure, Harte did adapt techniques from writers of the eastern United States and European writers, and he had developed out of the Romantic tradition, but to focus on what Harte borrowed from other writers is to miss the point. Harte was essentially an easterner who traveled to the West for his literary materials and who transformed his adopted techniques through his own personal values, limitations, and vision of life.
Both Harte’s virtues and his weaknesses as a storyteller derive from his optimistic vision of human redemption. While his bittersweet endings are patently stylized and he has a tendency to overuse sentiment, Harte creates endings with a good measure of dramatic impact. Then, too, he frequently balances sentiment and glamour with healthy humor and irony. Harte is an effective stylist, and his sentences are sharp and lucid. Moreover, Harte’s focus on human interest and local color helped pave the way for a school of regional fiction. His talent for characterization and caricature blended well with his style of writing, creating a fortunate fusion of form and content. For these many reasons, Bret Harte retains an assured place in a minor tradition.