The Luck of Roaring Camp

by Bret Harte

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How does "The Luck of Roaring Camp" demonstrate the use of local color?

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"The Luck of Roaring Camp" uses local color to vividly depict the unique characteristics of a specific group and setting through dialogue, actions, and cultural details. The story portrays gamblers unfazed by violence, men with distinctive nicknames, and unconventional celebrations like discharging revolvers at a birth, which reflect the rugged culture of an American mining camp during the westward expansion. These elements serve to enhance the authenticity of the setting and deepen the narrative's immersion.

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Local color uses techniques within the style of writing to reflect the unique characteristics of a certain group of people. This can be reflected in dialogue, the interactions of characters, or unusual vocabulary which is specific to a particular region or time period.

The commotion that captivates the attention of...

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the men in the camp is contrasted to an event which didnot do so in recent past:

The ditches and claims were not only deserted, but “Tuttle’s grocery” had contributed its gamblers, who, it will be remembered, calmly continued their game the day that French Pete and Kanaka Joe shot each other to death over the bar in the front room.

This is an example of local color. Gamblers sitting in a bar, playing cards without interruption while two men shoot each other to death nearby, is a portrait of American history that reflects the period of the westward expansion. This scene is something that is particular to that time period and setting and creates a specific scene.

Local color is also utilized in dialogue, such as the following example:

“You go in there, Stumpy,” said a prominent citizen known as “Kentuck,” addressing one of the loungers. “Go in there, and see what you kin do. You’ve had experience in them things."

(Bold added for emphasis.)

The nicknames the men have for each other reflects their culture; Stumpy and Kentuck are names which could only be found in particular circles of men. The grammar is also not standard English, reflecting their time period and the culture of the men. This is not an elite group of men who emulate formal English usage.

Various actions of the men also reveal a local color. Consider what happens when the baby is born:

The camp rose to its feet as one man! It was proposed to explode a barrel of gunpowder, but, in consideration of the situation of the mother, better counsels prevailed, and only a few revolvers were discharged; for, whether owing to the rude surgery of the camp, or some other reason, Cherokee Sal was sinking fast.

The men are so amazed by the birth of a baby that they feel the need to celebrate in some way. They aren't quite sure how to mark the joyous occasion, so they first consider blowing up an entire barrel of gunpowder. This would have been quite a commodity in their little camp, which shows the value they place on the well-being of the child from the beginning; they are willing to use their limited resources to celebrate the birth. The usage of gunpowder and the subsequent discharge of revolvers furthers the local color of the story.

These types of details, specific to a particular culture, are crafted by the writer to further the characterization and plot needed to drive the story.

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The local color writer paints a picture of a particular area or period by using picturesque characteristics or peculiarities. Its purpose is to capture a feeling and evoke that feeling in the reader.  The subject of the stories usually conveyed a theme of universality through their characters and plot lines.

Bret Harte was a California local colorist. His stories came from his firsthand knowledge of living around the mining camps while working on newspaper articles.  He saw the life styles of the miners and the women that were on the fringes of their lives.

Self-educated, Harte drew from literary sources including the Bible and the great English writers to serve as a guide and influence on his writing. His writing brought the Gold Rush to the other half of the United States and possible enticed more than his share of men searching for Eldorado.

The Luck of Roaring Camp” performs as a perfect example of local color.  The men are caricatures of stereotypical men.  The one woman in the story serves as the local prostitute who has given birth to a baby. 

Every one of the men in the mining camp feels a responsibility for the baby. In the story, the local prostitute who is also an Indian woman named Cherokee Sal gives birth but is not going to make it beyond the birth. His portrayal of the mother is harsh yet the men feel bad for the pain and suffering that she endures giving birth. 

 Harte describes the beauty of the surrounding woods, but also the harshness of the men and the camp where the birth takes place.  There were many deaths in Roaring Camp but this was the first birth. 

The story sets out to describe the impact of the baby to an all-men camp.  The major part of the story involves the description of how to raise the child, whose father is unknown.   Harte seemed to take even the lowest of creations and show the good that might come from it.  If it was a true event, it was worthy of the written word. 

The men are described by a physical or character trait or a location from which they came to the “rush.” The major players in the story are also seen in other Harte stories---Kentuck, John Oakhurst, French Pete, and Stumpy.  These are the men who will help to raise the baby and attempt to save its life when the rains cause the river to flood. The men decide to name the baby Tommy Luck; however, they call the baby Luck.  The old African Proverb is appropriate here: It takes a village to raise a child.  That is what the Luck had.

Everything that could possibly be done for the child was done.  The infant had his own cabin, white-washed and clean. After the birth, the name of God was used only in prayer,  and it seemed that a regeneration of manners and former good behaviors came over the camp. 

The local colorist purpose was to feature an event or aspect of life to illustrate sometimes in a comedic or sentimental style.  Harte’s stories usually ended with the death of a major character.  In this case, both Kentuck and the baby do not survive. 

Kentuck opened his eyes.  “Dead?” he repeated feebly.

“Yes, my man, and you are dying too.  A smile lit the eyes of the expiring Kentuck.

“Dying,” he repeated, “he’s a taking me with him---tell the boys I’ve got the Luck with me now.”

Harte portrays the major characters in his stories with some redeeming qualities.  Kentuck tries to save the child and gives his life doing it.

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