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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

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Critical Overview

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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 stories as a major component of nineteenth-century popular culture and utilize them as a tool to help understand the past. This idea is closely related to the observations of Donald E. Glover, who argued in Western American Literature that Harte's later fiction, a body of work traditionally dismissed by literary scholars, is qualitatively similar to his early stories. Glover believed the caliber of Harte's writing did not decline; rather, the audience for his work changed and his style shifted accordingly.

In his interpretation of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," Harold H. Kolb, Jr. suggested another explanation for the author's declining appeal. Kolb claimed that critical misunderstanding has long undermined an appreciation of Harte's work and that too much emphasis has been placed on the notion of Harte as a realist. Arguing that "Harte is not concerned with an impression of actuality, his interests lie elsewhere," Kolb pointed to Harte's reliance on juxtaposition, such as the contrast between the crudeness of his characters and the sophistication of the narrator, as a form of humor. Despite its somber ending, "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" was designed to be read as a comedy. But as Kolb explained, "the irony of his ironic style is that, for a century, he has had to be content with the enjoyment of his own fun."

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