The Luck of Roaring Camp

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 453 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.