Overland Monthly

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Published from 1868 until 1935, San Francisco's Overland Monthly has been remembered chiefly as the journal that launched the writer Bret Harte (1836–1902), its first editor, to national and international fame. Reciprocally, Harte may be credited with launching the Overland toward what fame it has enjoyed: after his departure at the end of 1870 successive proprietors inherited immediate distinction and authority with the journal's name and its emblem of a grizzly bear snarling down a railroad track. Although the later files usually attract less attention than the five semiannual volumes edited by Harte, the Overland maintained its status as a leading regional magazine into the early twentieth century and as such remains valuable for a literary history of the American West. Furthermore, questions about the way literature articulates ideas of class, region, and nation have generated renewed interest in the Overland, a periodical that for most of its history affirmed the manifest destiny of its readers and its region.


Bret Harte's Overland would not have existed without Anton Roman (1826–1903), the San Francisco bookseller and publisher who in 1868 felt he could support a new monthly magazine and who persuaded Harte to edit it. A few other local magazines had attempted a high literary standard, and the most recent of these, the Californian, had folded in February. Roman's status as a long-standing local businessman and his extensive contacts with area readers and writers enabled him to secure advertising contracts that would bring in $900 per month for the first year and to guarantee a circulation of 3,000 copies. To lure the skeptical Harte, the leading man of letters on the West Coast in 1868, Roman agreed to provide half the editorial content for the first volume from material submitted to him as a publisher, and he engaged two local journalists to assist in editorial duties.

Although Roman wanted the magazine to promote the commercial interests of California, Harte steered it—as Roman had feared—on a more literary and intellectual course. In one oft-cited incident, for example, Harte mocked the skittish journalists who underreported an 1868 earthquake because they thought news of damage would frighten away capital. Not that Harte set out to be contrarian with the magazine. In the "Etc." column of the first number he warmly anticipated the civilizing effects of the approaching transcontinental railroad, but he also published Henry George's cautionary essay "What the Railroad Will Bring Us" in the October issue a few months later. Working out some theories of political economy that would inform his classic Progress and Poverty (1879), Henry George (1839–1897) posed questions about the California of the "new era":

She [California] will have more wealth; but will it be so evenly distributed? She will have more luxury and refinement and culture; but will she have . . . so little of the grinding, hopeless poverty that chills and cramps the souls of men, and converts them into brutes? . . . And so the California of the future . . . will be a better country for some classes than the California of the present; and so too, it must be a worse country for others. Which of these classes will be the largest? (1 Overland 1 [1868], p. 301)

Setting the tone for the magazine for decades to come, Harte's Overland devoted itself to the free discussion of ideas and original material rather than one-sided attention to either commerce or criticism.

Harte earned the authority to work so independently by increasing the circulation of the magazine (meeting Roman's goal of three thousand copies within six months) on the merits of his own remarkably popular stories and poems. After "The Luck of Roaring Camp" appeared anonymously in the second number (August 1868), the prestigious Atlantic Monthly invited Harte to contribute something in the same style. Samuel Bowles of the Springfield Republican, to which Harte had been a regular and recent contributor, also praised "The Luck" as "a genuine California story" before he knew the identity of its author (Scharnhorst, p. 40). As Harte often repeated later in his career, the first success of the Overland depended on favorable notices from the East. More to the point, Harte seems to have brokered more local authority for himself as editor by earning the critical praise and the subscriptions of outsiders.


According to Harte, a name referring only to California would not be sufficient for a magazine with the ambitions of the Overland Monthly. He explained the title in the July 1868 issue, the magazine's first.

Turn your eyes to this map made but a few years ago. Do you see this vast interior basin of the Continent, on which the boundaries of States and Territories are less distinct than the names of wandering Indian tribes; do you see this broad zone reaching from Virginia City to St. Louis, as yet only dotted by telegraph stations, whose names are familiar, but of whose locality we are profoundly ignorant? Here creeps the railroad, each day drawing the West and East closer together. . . . Shall not the route be represented [in a magazine] as well as the termini? And where our people travel, that is the highway of our thought.

Bret Harte, "Etc.," Overland Monthly, July 1868, p. 99.

Following the lead of those contemporary easterners, twentieth-century critics have usually agreed that Harte's Overland stories offered something new and worthwhile in the national literature, although they have long differed about the reasons for the stories' value. Harte's first champions appreciated what they considered his realism—his ability to convey the language, costumes, customs, and scenery of California's mid-nineteenth-century mining districts; but for every Californian with supposed evidence of Harte's fictional verisimilitude, another asserted that his sketches actually distorted the life of miners and mining. A second set of champions, arguing against opponents who accused Harte of bad craftsmanship, claimed that he helped to pioneer the short story genre. More lasting claims for the significance of Harte's Overland tales and poems include his skill as a humorist, his defense of Indians and Chinese immigrants against Anglo prejudice and violence, his satire of social and literary conventions, his creation of a market for the genre western, and his transformation of local gold rush folklore into an international mythos. The ongoing interest in Harte's fiction—to which these debates and rereadings bear testimony—has ensured the first five volumes of the Overland Monthly, published from July 1868 through December 1870, a place in literary history.


The reputation and legacy of the later Overland are less secure, in part because no other single personality placed such a stamp on the magazine or caught the attention of distinguished outsiders. After Harte's departure, the magazine lost money for its second publisher, John H. Carmany, and ceased publication in the midst of an economic depression in 1875. Revived under new management in 1883, it was handed from one publisher or editor to the next for another fifty-two years. Latter-day owners merged it with Out West Magazine in 1923 and moved it to Los Angeles five years later, where it finally ceased publication in 1935 with more of a promotional than literary character. In sum, the magazine had two and a half years under Bret Harte and fifty-seven years without him, about which scholars have had much less to say.

Critics tend to accept the verdict of the literary historian who referred to the Overland in its second series (1883–1935) as "still the most important magazine of the Pacific Coast" (Mott 4:105). The number of later contributors who achieved a lasting fame—including Frank Norris, Jack London, Gertrude Atherton, and Mary Austin—helps to ensure some respect for the journal's second series. However, Ambrose Bierce's reference to the "Warmed-Overland" (Scharnhorst, p. 52) represents a pervasive view that the journal was never as good or as influential after Harte's departure.

Nonetheless the Overland continued to cast itself and its region in grand terms and at times to enjoy a strong circulation. Several months after its price was reduced to ten cents per issue to remain competitive with other national magazines, James Howard Bridge (1856?–1939), then the editor of the Overland, crowed that

at its present rate of progress it is only a matter of a few months before [the Overland] establishes itself as the leader of all the magazines outside of the metropolis [New York]. . . . It is the most characteristically American of all illustrated periodicals. It represents in literature the most virile of American traits. (2 Overland 31 [1898], p. 179)

Although sales fluctuated during the 1880s and 1890s, the magazine boasted a circulation of thirty thousand when the publisher Frederick Marriott bought it in 1900, and that number rose to seventy-five thousand twelve years later (Mott 3:408). Whether such staying power is explained by the magazine's ability to attract writers such as Atherton and London or whether there are other explanations the thin critical record does not make plain.

The Overland owed part of its grand sensibility to a vision of San Francisco and the West that the journal had always fostered. In his 1868 essay "What the Railroad Will Bring Us," George anticipated that San Francisco would become the leading commercial city in the world, with the ocean to the west and the railroad to the east connecting it with all the world's markets. Echoing him thirty years later in a jubilee issue of the journal, Bridge remained convinced that the city's geographic position destined it for greatness. According to Bridge, "In thirty years [California] will be the center of American mercantile life. The doors of the Orient are being flung open; a colonial domain is unrolling itself like a map at our threshold" (2 Overland 32 [1898], p. 90). As editor during and after the imperial year of 1898, in which the United States annexed Hawaii and took control of Spain's former colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific, Bridge predicted greatness for the magazine commensurate with the national, even global, rank he envisioned for San Francisco and the Anglo-American West.

According to the critic Nancy Glazener, the Overland's promotion of itself and its region were not at all unusual for the era of American realism. Magazines of Glazener's "Atlantic group"—those that resembled the Atlantic Monthly in their editorial content, book reviews, and sense of cultural authority—were actually in the business of creating a high-ranking class identity for themselves. In this context the Overland is both a lower-ranking regional magazine in the eyes of such self-proclaimed national magazines as the Atlantic (as evidenced by the recurring pattern of young writers graduating from the Overland to the more prestigious and lucrative Boston monthly) and a self-proclaimed elite magazine itself with imperial aspirations. Featuring contributions from professors at the University of California, among other authoritative sources, the Overland through most of its history assumed an audience of "high civilization" and "genuine education," to borrow phrases from an 1883 book review (2 Overland 1 [1883], p. 100). Among those who wrote for the Overland were Louis Agassiz, Gertrude Atherton, Mary Austin, Ambrose Bierce, Noah Brooks, J. Ross Browne, Alice Cary, Phoebe Cary, Samuel Clemens, Josephine Clifford (McCracken), Ina Coolbrith, Rollin Daggett, Dan De Quille, Henry George, Bret Harte, Helen Hunt Jackson, Georgiana Bruce Kirby, Jack London, Joaquin Miller, Prentice Mulford, John Muir, John G. Neihardt, Frank Norris, Josiah Royce, Charles Warren Stoddard, Frances Fuller Victor, and Woodrow Wilson.

Setting aside the Hartean gallery of chivalric miners and gamblers and tender prostitutes for which the magazine has long been remembered, the legacy of the founding editor most relevant to the purposes of half a century of subsequent writers and proprietors may have been the air of authority that allowed the name Overland Monthly to elevate those associated with it to a high cultural rank commensurate with the high economic rank reached in the same period by railroad barons and industrial tycoons.


"The Luck of Roaring Camp" (August 1868)
"The Outcasts of Poker Flat" (January 1869)
"Miggles" (June 1869)
"Tennessee's Partner" (October 1869)
"The Idyl of Red Gulch" (December 1869)
"Brown of Calaveras" (March 1870)
"Mr. Thompson's Prodigal" (July 1870)
"The Iliad of Sandy Bar" (November 1870)
"The Christmas Gift That Came to Rupert"

(January 1871)

see alsoThe Atlantic Monthly; Realism; Spanish-American War


Primary Works

Mighels, Ella Sterling. The Story of the Files: A Review of California Writers and Literature. San Francisco: World's Fair Commission, 1893. Contains quotations, photographs, profiles, and a subjective history of the Overland from an admiring perspective.

Overland Monthly, July 1868–December 1900. Making of America digital library. University of Michigan. http://www.hti.umich.edu/m/moajrnl/browse.journals/over.html. Contains the complete first series (1868–1875), cited in text as 1 Overland, and much of the second series (1883–1935), cited in text as 2 Overland.

Secondary Works

Glazener, Nancy. Reading for Realism: The History of a U.S. Literary Institution, 1850–1910. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. Compares the Overland to other contemporary periodicals that promoted literary realism and their own high-cultural status.

Marovitz, Sanford E. "Romance or Realism? Western Periodical Literature: 1893–1902." Western American Literature 10 (1975): 45–58. Provides a brief analysis of western fiction in some middle volumes of the Overland and a comparison of similar material published in other U.S. magazines.

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. Vols. 3–4. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957. Includes the best profile to date of the entire run of the Overland as well as invaluable material about American magazines during the Overland's era.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000. Provides an authoritative, updated history of Harte's relationship to the Overland based on primary sources, including some material not available in Stewart.

Stewart, George R. Bret Harte, Argonaut and Exile. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931. The definitive biography of Harte until 2000, this remains a useful source of information about Harte's relationship to the Overland.

Walker, Franklin Dickerson. San Francisco's Literary Frontier. New York: Knopf, 1939. This study ends at 1875, so it only covers the first series of the Overland. Excellent source of biographical and historical information to that point.

Tara Penry