When "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" first appeared in the January, 1869, issue of the Overland Monthly, the story was an immediate critical and popular success. Critics such as Emily S. Forman, writing for Old and New, praised Harte's use of "novel vernacular" and "vivid portraiture" to "thrill the very depths of the heart and soul." Harte's critical stature declined in subsequent years as people's tastes in literature changed. Despite this shift in tastes, "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" is continually recognized as one of Harte's best stories and is widely anthologized and read today.
As late as 1936, Arthur Hobson Quinn argued in American Fiction: An Historical and Critical Survey that the tale was "a masterpiece." But within seven years, Harte's reputation was seriously challenged by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Perm Warren's seminal text Understanding Fiction, which was published in 1943. In their analysis of Harte's "Tennessee's Partner," Brooks and Warren cited what later became standard criticisms of the author's work in general: inconclusive plots, lack of realism, and a reliance on melodrama and sentiment.
Such charges are interesting for they are essentially denouncing the traits that were responsible for Harte's initial success. In his heyday, Harte was celebrated for providing a realistic picture of the West. However, later generations possessing the advantage of historical hindsight were quick to label the author as a fraud. In 1973 Kevin Starr categorized Harte's work as "pseudo-history" complete with "comforting memories of finite human comedy and civilizing human sentiment." Given such attitudes it is not surprising that literary critics often take the position that Harte's stories lack artistic merit but are significant because of their influence on others. As an example, James K. Folsom cautioned, "In any discussion of Bret Harte one must begin by making a clear distinction between importance and quality."
Other critics argue that is important to understand Harte in the context of nineteenth-century literature. In an article for American Literary Realism , Patrick Morrow suggested an alternate approach that sidesteps the issue of whether or not Harte's writing qualifies as great literature and focuses on its importance as a product of the culture in which it was written. Morrow points out that although Harte quickly fell from favor with critics, his work remained immensely popular with the public well into the twentieth century. Rather than denouncing him as a "hack" or "servant of the masses," scholars should recognize his...
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