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Harte, Bret (1836-1902)

Bret Harte (1836-1902)

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Writer

Western Legacy. Bret Harte, the first American writer from the West Coast to gain an international reputation, was instrumental in introducing frontier literature to eastern audiences. His stories established many of the basic characteristics of the western genre: rough, sarcastic humor, rustic dialect, and character types such as good-natured gamblers, greedy bankers, and prostitutes with hearts of gold. His literary fame was brief, lasting less than a decade, but it helped make possible the success of other frontier writers, including Ambrose Bierce, Robert Newell (Orpheus C. Kerr), Charles Farrar Browne (Artemus Ward), and Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain).

Success. Harte was born in Albany, New York, on 25 August 1836. His father died in 1845, and at the age of thirteen Harte was forced to leave school and work to support his family. His mother remarried in 1853 and moved to California, where Harte joined her a year later. He drifted from job to job at firstschoolteacher, gold prospector, drugstore clerk, stagecoach guardbefore deciding to become a printer. He worked for the Northern Californian in Union, California, then moved to San Francisco and became a compositor for The Golden Era, a respected literary magazine. He began making friends in the citys growing literary and artistic circles, contributed a column titled Talk of Town and Table to the magazine, and began writing the stories and poems that would make him famous. He received his first big break in 1868 when he was appointed editor of The Overland Monthly, a newly established regional magazine with ambitions of national circulation. His short story The Luck of Roaring Camp was published in the August 1868 issue and brought him immediate national fame. A second story, The Outcasts of Poker Flats (January 1869), and a prose poem, Plain Language from Truthful James (September 1870), cemented his reputation. The poem, better known as The Heathen Chinee, became so popular that it was quoted in the streets, dramatized, set to music, and repeatedly pirated.

Writers Block. In 1870 Fields, Osgood, and Company published Hartes collection The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches, and the firm purchased the exclusive rights to print his stories and poems in their magazines The Atlantic Monthly and Every Saturday. Buoyed by his success, Harte left California in 1871 and came east, where he was lionized by the literary society of Boston and New York. At the peak of his fame, however, Harte found himself unable to produce new works. He was six months late in fulfilling his contract with Fields, Osgood, and Company, and the agreement was not renewed for the following year. Between 1873 and 1876 Harte published only seven stories and soon was deeply in debt. He made lecture tours through the Eastern Seaboard, Midwest, and the South, and his first novel, Gabriel Conroy (1876), was a commercial success, but his financial troubles continued. In 1878 he accepted an appointment as the U.S. commercial agent at Krefeld, Germany, then served as U.S. consul in Glasgow, Scotland, from 1880 to 1885. Harte lived in London for the remainder of his life and resumed his writing career, but he never matched his success of the 1870s. He died of throat cancer in London on 5 May 1902.

Impact. In Hartes best stories he balances realistic description, dialect, and characterization with sentimental plots and narration. His tales rely heavily on local color, and the Humboldt River, Nevada, about which he wrote became known as Bret Harte Country. Harte used a detached, third-person point of view, and his sophisticated, highly polished narration made palatable to genteel eastern readers the rough-and-tumble characters, dialogue, and events in his stories. Though his vogue was brief and he never attained the lasting reputation of his friend Samuel Clemens, Bret Hartes writing was instrumental in popularizing stories of the western frontier and in establishing the characteristics of the western genre that survive in books and movies today.

Sources

Alvin F. Harlow, Bret Harte of the Old West (New York: Messner, 1943);

Richard OConnor, Bret Harte: A Biography (Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown, 1966).

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Harte, Bret

Bret Harte (Francis Brett Harte) (härt), 1836–1902, American writer of short stories and humorous verse, b. Albany, N.Y. At 19 he went to California, where he tried his hand at teaching, clerking, and mining. In 1868 he helped establish the Overland Monthly, where his short stories and verse first appeared. He gained enormous success with the publication of "The Luck of Roaring Camp," the first of his picturesque stories of Western local color, and with such later stories as "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" and "Brown of Calaveras." Although Harte did not develop character and motivation, he had an observant eye and a brisk reportorial style. He was U.S. consul in Germany and Scotland from 1878 to 1885. The remainder of his life was spent near London.

See his letters, ed. by G. B. Harte (1926); biographies by R. O'Connor (1966) and A. Nissen (2000); M. Duckett, Mark Twain and Bret Harte (1964).

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