The Luck of Roaring Camp by Bret Harte, 1870

views updated

by Bret Harte, 1870

The characters in Bret Harte's short story "The Luck of Roaring Camp" live in a very rough place indeed. They have traveled to California to brave primitive conditions as they pan for gold in the streams that rush down from the Sierras. The hundred or so men come from across the world and from every walk of life. Some are criminals, many bear scars and mutilations that show they have been in fights, and none displays any sign of education or refinement. Cherokee Sal, "a coarse and, it is to be feared, a very sinful woman," is the only female in the camp, which reflects the fact that in California at the time women made up only a very small proportion of the population.

When the story opens, Sal is in the throes of childbirth. Death, generally by violence, is an everyday occurrence in this community, but birth is an unprecedented event. After pausing as Sal screams out in agony, the men decide that she must have help, and they send one Stumpy to her aid, not that he possesses any real medical expertise but simply because he is known to have fathered two families some time back. Although Stumpy does what he can to save the woman, it is in vain, and a piercing cry is the last sound uttered by the wretched Sal as she dies. The men are not much concerned about her, but they wonder about the chances for survival of the baby boy to whom she has just given birth. Stumpy shows resourcefulness, thinking that, because there is no other possible source, an ass's milk might serve as food, which it does. Then, after a pause, he admits the patiently waiting crowd into the rude cabin to see the baby.

Stumpy has had the foresight to place a hat in a prominent place, and as the men pass quietly by in a "curious progression," they leave a strange assortment of gifts that testify both to their shady pasts and to their sense that they must contribute something. Almost against their will, they seem impressed and behave with unaccustomed restraint, none more so than Kentuck. He cannot get over the fact that the baby grasped his finger tightly, creating a bond. Sal is buried, and the baby thrives, perhaps because "the invigorating climate of the mountain camp was compensation for material deficiencies." Stumpy and the rest, seeing that things are working out and even thinking that the baby has brought luck to their community, resolve to bring him up themselves without female aid or interference.

After a month or so, they decide that the baby must be christened and given a name. No clergyman is available, however, and some think that it would be good fun to play out some burlesque ritual instead. Stumpy, exercising authority that none ventures to question, will not hear of a joke at the baby's expense. Instead, he takes it upon himself to proclaim Sal's son as Thomas Luck "according to the laws of the United States and the State of California." Despite its dubious status, the declaration provokes no challenge. Thereafter, as summer comes and the healthy baby grows, Roaring Camp gradually becomes not only a luckier place, as if to reflect the baby's name, but also a more civilized and law-abiding community. The men are all devoted to Lucky, but none more than Kentuck.

The change in seasons marks the end of the idyll. In the harsh winter a swollen stream rushes through Roaring Camp, carrying away Stumpy's cabin and Lucky with it. Next morning an anxious search party finds a grievously injured Kentuck, who is lying on the shoreline and holding Lucky in his arms. On being told that the baby is dead, Kentuck passes away too, content to follow Luck into eternity.

"The Luck of Roaring Camp" is a tale that tugs powerfully at the heartstrings, and some people criticize it for being sentimental. It is possible, of course, that rough men can show soft hearts when circumstances demand or permit, and Harte does not play down this notion. He brings out contrasts between the emotions, actions, and reactions that we reasonably expect from the tough characters, and is perhaps too ready to resolve them. Yet beneath the apparently facile sentimentality of the story's surface, Harte makes points that have wider significance. He places realism, which comes from a host of minutely noted details, at the service of symbols that transcend the mundane to posit spiritual values.

As in old-style preaching, for example, images of rising to a higher state, which is achieved by sloughing off the old self, are found throughout the story. Cherokee Sal, "dissolute" and "abandoned," is not, in fact, "irreclaimable." For her, childbirth is a "martyrdom" that purges her of sin. As she dies, she cries out like Christ on the cross, and she then climbs "as it were, the rugged road that led to the stars." Her sacrifice is not in vain either. The child continues her redemptive work, for, after visiting the baby and, like the Magi, leaving gifts, the hardened men instinctively perceive a reason for changing their brutish way of life.

The effect is seen first on the material level. As the miners, who were attracted to California by hopes of finding gold, discover that true riches lie in humanity itself, Roaring Camp is transformed from disorder into something approaching civilization. In this connection Stumpy's allusion to the laws of the United States and California is significant. California's admission to the Union involved the imposition of a legal system on a society that was not far from chaos. Kentuck's devotion to Luck in the storm operates on another level. The floodwaters act in traditional metaphorical fashion as a cleansing stream, and Kentuck's acceptance of death serves as a final assertion of spiritual values that survive death.

Part of the impact of the sentiment and symbolism in "The Luck of the Roaring Camp" comes from Harte's writing. The story, which follows a straightforward chronological course throughout, is told by an anonymous third-person narrator who views the events from the outside. From the outset he creates the impression of being an experienced reporter who knows everything and is himself as hard-boiled as the characters he describes. Readers cannot for a moment entertain the suspicion that this is a narrator who is ever likely to be taken in. Because we accept the facts as they are narrated, we are easily persuaded to accept the interpretation the author puts on them.

The style is persuasive in conveying the toughness of the characters in a particularly harsh environment. In such a context transcendental values take on special significance precisely because of the materialistic context out of which they develop. Harte's concise and economical style also contributes to the story's clarity. This comes across particularly well when the story is read aloud, for example, in a family circle, as it often was at the time it was published.

—Christopher Smith