The Luck of Roaring Camp

by Bret Harte
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Last Updated on June 29, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706

Throughout “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” the reader is presented with a duality of circumstance that pervades the story. The river, for example, both provides a welcome physical border for the little town and becomes a violent force that takes away the lives of several townspeople. Through various pieces of textual evidence, it is clear that life’s circumstances are complex.

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The language utilized in “The Luck of Roaring Camp” is a mix of endearing colloquialisms and broad grandeur. Kentuck affectionately refers to the new baby as a “d—d little cuss,” and, in describing him, the group says he “ain’t bigger nor a derringer.” However:

“Tommy” was christened as seriously as he would have been under a Christian roof, and cried and was comforted in as orthodox fashion.

It is also noted that

there was a rude attempt to decorate this bower with flowers and sweet-smelling shrubs, and generally some one would bring him a cluster of wild honeysuckles, azaleas, or the painted blossoms of Las Mariposas.

The language brings a complexity to the characters of the town, avoiding letting them stand as two-dimensional stereotypes on the page. They are both rough and compassionate; they are simultaneously amoral and endearing.

The complexities of nature are seen in the story. When the baby is born, the narrator notes that nature becomes the child’s playmate:

For him she would let slip between the leaves golden shafts of sunlight that fell just within his grasp; she would send wandering breezes to visit him with the balm of bay and resinous gums; to him the tall red-woods nodded familiarly and sleepily, the bumble-bees buzzed, and the rooks cawed a slumbrous accompaniment.

The men note in astonishment that it seems that the child talks to the birds and chatters with the squirrels. Indeed, Mother Nature seems to take on a nurturing role in the child’s life (which is lacking in female tenderness otherwise). And then, ultimately, Mother Nature takes the child away. A snow blankets the Sierras, and a “tumultuous watercourse” descends the hills which border the town—flooding the river and sweeping away the house Stumpy and the boy lived in.

Although Kentuck makes valiant efforts to save the child, they both die in the end. Humanity is presented as helpless against the forces of nature. Nature is neither all beauty nor all deadliness; like the characters, it is a complex mixture of both.

Cherokee Sal is a complex character central to the story. She is the town’s lone female inhabitant, probably a sex worker, and though it is noted that she is “a coarse and . . . sinful woman,” the men pity her position of laboring alone when “she most needed the ministration of her own sex.” Her sufferings bring the town to a standstill as they await news of her delivery, and a few are “touched by her sufferings.”

She brings a novelty to Roaring Camp: birth. It is noted that people only leave this little town, not enter it. No man claims paternity of her child, but they collectively join forces to raise him. They honor her child by both bringing him expensive gifts and immediately committing themselves to care for him.

After her death, Cherokee Sal is given “such rude sepulture as Roaring Camp afforded.” Although their actions in her life likely did not honor her, the men honor Cherokee Sal’s memory through devotion to her son. Cherokee Sal is both the woman they use to fulfill their sexual desires and the mother of the child they grow to adore.

Even the very name of the child indicates the duality of meaning that runs throughout the short story. “The Luck” (the boy) is so named because the men declare that the baby has brought luck to their town. And yet, he is quite unlucky in the end: brought to his untimely death by an overflowing river that sweeps him away.

Even the efforts of Kentuck to desperately save him are not enough, and his life ends much too soon. The baby is both lucky in his situation of finding a group of men committed to caring for him following his mother’s death and unlucky in the situation that ends his life.

The Luck of Roaring Camp

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 217

The story is set in 1850 in Roaring Camp, a mining settlement in California. Cherokee Sal, an Indian prostitute, dies shortly after giving birth to an infant boy. The men in the camp are joined together by a sense of responsibility for the orphan, although the child’s actual father is unknown. The child’s care is supervised by Stumpy, who uses the milk of an ass to feed the baby.

The intrusion of the infant into this rambunctious setting has a civilizing effect on its inhabitants. The greatest change takes place in Kentuck, an impoverished miner who feels a strong affection for the child, now known as Tommy Luck. Soon Roaring Camp and its people take on a new respectability and acquire an unexpected prosperity.

All ends, however, with a freak flood which destroys the settlement. The next morning, the survivors find Kentuck with the dead child in his arms. With a smile, he accompanies the spirit of Tommy Luck into the unknown.

Bret Harte wrote this story for the OVERLAND MONTHLY, the magazine he edited. It pictured the realism of life in a mining camp but did so within a sentimental framework. His characters are stereotypes, and the resolution of the tale is undeniably maudlin. It remained for Twain to turn similar material into great literature.

Style and Technique

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The tone is important in this tale. Although this is a story of sentiment, even perhaps of sentimentality, the feeling of perhaps excessive emotion is tempered by humor and the author’s distance from the events and from the miners. Much of the narrative deals with Roaring Camp matter-of-factly, with opinion to the side, often put in parenthetical comment: “a silver spoon (the initials, I regret to say, were not the giver’s).” Only at the end does the narrator soar to sentimental philosophy that might be taken as sincere. The narrative of events before the flood reflects a teller who views the regeneration of Roaring Camp with detached irony. His language is much elevated above that of the miners, and his background is obviously more refined. His attitude is one of amusement at the miners’ roughness but of sympathy for their innocent reaction to the child’s coming among them. With the rehabilitation of the miners, the narrator’s attitude changes to reverence.

The most effective and lasting achievement of the story is the creation of the society of Roaring Camp. In combining the romance and realism of a time and place about which his readers know—and which in fact did exist and did experience the real dream of a gold rush—Bret Harte was able to cast that romantic air of mystery across realistic events to cause in readers both belief and wish fulfillment. In effect Harte created for the reading public a description of how forty-niners talked and thought in the camps. This sort of realistic romance is unique in being rooted so deeply in the locale of its setting that it could not be placed anywhere else.

The story is very short—ten pages in almost all editions—and has only essential or exemplary quotation of character speech. The pace is not at all breathless, yet the reader is quite conscious that events are being summarized with economy. Most of the attention is placed on what the place and the people are like as events occur around them. However, there are no extended descriptions. Harte draws swiftly: “that air pungent with balsamic odors,” “a fire of withered pine boughs added sociability to the gathering.” Through small, quick pictures around the events, the reader remains aware of the forests, the rough camp, the stark diggings. This is all significant, for it is the natural world of the wild country that will carry off the Luck and Kentuck. Nature is a character in the story, not a mere piece of scenery. Thus it is constantly worked into Harte’s paragraphs, with a touch here and there. At its best this story gives its readers the presence of the mining camp.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 115

Barnett, Linda D. Bret Harte: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.

Duckett, Margaret. Mark Twain and Bret Harte. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.

Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte. Boise, Idaho: Boise State College Press, 1972.

Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte, Literary Critic. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1979.

Nissen, Axel. Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

O’Connor, Richard. Bret Harte: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: A Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

Stewart, George R. Bret Harte, Argonaut and Exile. 1931. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1979.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

The story depends on the local color of the mining camps of the California gold rush for its plot and theme. Not only is the setting in place and time vital to the story but also vital is the formation of the characters by that place, time, and situation. What happens happens because of the gold rush, because of the topography and weather of the place, and because of the sort of men who sought the gold for the reasons they had in the middle of the nineteenth century. The meaning of events is bestowed because of the way the miners thought and felt. Locale is not merely background, then, but is a major determiner in the story. The Luck’s name, the way he is treated, and the reformation of the camp and its inhabitants are all attributable to the nature of the dreamers who rear him. His coming is a miracle because his unlikely foster fathers have hope in miracles out of nature.

If the story seems improbable because the effect of the baby is so sudden and so far-reaching, one needs to realize that this is a tale, a yarn, and not a realistic story, despite its use of realistic locale, speech, and mannerisms. Mostly the tale is narrated by a third-person narrator, who may have been one of the Roaring Camp miners or who might have gotten the tale from one of them. The narrator treats the tale with both humor and reverence. The tale is a tall one, to be smiled at; yet it is also offered as the story of a miracle in reformation, and that is supposed to inspire awe. Thematically the mood of the story spans the humorously shady past of the miners to the reverent mood of their hopes.

The allegorical intent is obvious, though it is slight and only to a small degree significantly symbolic. Out of the camp’s sinful past (personified by Cherokee Sal), nature bestows luck on the residents (the orphan), and trust in the luck (their devotion to the boy) reforms the community until nature (the flood) takes the luck away—but carries their representative, Kentuck, along with the Luck. Some readers may find a Christian allegory in the events, but it should be noted that it is the characters who bring up the suggestion of allegory and not the narrator, for the miners name the baby.

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