Born August 25, 1836
Albany, New York
Died May 5, 1902
Writer and editor
"The only sure thing about luck is that it will change."
In 1868, Bret Harte burst onto the literary scene as a popular writer of tales set in California mining camps and boomtowns and as the founding editor of a new magazine called Overland Monthly. By 1871, he signed the highest paying publishing contract in American history to that time. Harte was known as a satirist (a writer who uses a humorous tone to criticize human characteristics) and a writer who specialized in regional stories. He carefully recreated distinct California settings, speech patterns of people drawn to mining districts, and details of clothing and manners from people of high society to everyday men and women trying to get rich or find work. Harte himself experienced the boom and bust of a gold rush: He went from being the highest-paid and most popular writer in America to experiencing a series of personal and professional failures within five years that would challenge him the rest of his life.
Francis Brett Hart was born in Albany, New York, on August 25, 1836, to Henry and Elizabeth Hart. The youngster was called Frank as a child. He had two older siblings, Eliza and Henry; a younger sister, Margaret, was born in 1838. Harte's father added an "e" to the family surname when Harte was a young boy, apparently to distance himself from his father, with whom he did not have a good relationship. Harte's father was a teacher, but many schools closed during financial hard times that began in 1837. The family moved frequently to wherever Henry Harte could find work as a teacher. When he died in 1845, the family was left in dire conditions and moved to New York City. By the time he reached thirteen, Harte quit school to work as a clerk. He later joined a local military company.
Around the time Harte was sixteen and already living on his own, he accompanied his sister on a boat ride from New York to San Francisco, California. The boat sailed from New York to Nicaragua. The Hartes crossed Nicaragua to reach a boat on the Pacific Ocean and sailed to San Francisco. Harte's mother had settled there after marrying Andrew Williams, who became the first mayor of Oakland, California.
Soon after arriving in Oakland, Harte headed north to a mining district near Sonora, California. He started a school, but could not attract enough students, and then turned to mining. Harte moved around the area north of San Francisco during his early twenties, working as an agent and messenger for the Wells, Fargo and Company bank, in an Oakland drugstore, as a tutor for ranching families, and as a typesetter and occasional writer for the Northern Californian newspaper in Arcata.
Meanwhile, he pursued his ambition of becoming a writer. Having been an avid reader since he was a boy, Harte long held onto hopes of writing professionally one day. He began contributing poems and tales to local newspapers as well as the national magazine, the Knickerbocker. Several stories he wrote for the Golden Era, a weekly San Francisco literary paper, including "The Man of No Account" and "High-Water Mark," would appear in his later book, The Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Sketches (1870).
In February 1860, Harte's career with Northern Californian came to an abrupt end. He was in charge of the paper on a Sunday when a report came in about a group of whites who killed sixty Native Americans, mostly women and children, at a nearby camp. Harte reported the story and wrote about his outrage in an editorial. Relations between whites and Native Americans in the area were very tense at the time, and Harte's articles met with a strong negative reaction by local residents. After being threatened with violence, Harte returned to San Francisco. He held government jobs during the 1860s as a surveyor, marshal, and in the U.S. mint division based in San Francisco. In 1864, Harte married Anna Griswold, a church singer. They would have four children.
Reaches national audience
Continuing to write, Harte landed a story, "The Legend of Monte del Diablo," in the Atlantic Monthly in October 1863 (the magazine still publishes today) and edited a collection of poetry. Meanwhile, he drew attention for parodying (making fun of by imitating) works by famous writers like Charles Dickens (1812–1870) and James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851). The pieces were collected in Condensed Novels, and Other Papers (1867), published in New York. Winning respect in the east for his writing skills, Harte became the California correspondent for two Massachusetts papers, the Springfield Republican and the Boston Christian Register. In 1868, he was selected by a San Francisco publisher, Anton Roman, to edit a new magazine, Overland Monthly.
Roman wanted to produce a magazine that had the flavor of the west but would appeal to a national audience, and Harte delivered on that goal. From the first issue in July 1868, Overland Monthly won praise and gained subscriptions across the nation. The second issue a month later featured Harte's story, "The Luck of Roaring Camp," which proved immensely popular. Within a year, Overland Monthly sold as many copies in the East as in the states of California, Nevada, and Oregon. Readers admired Harte's portraits of the people who lived and passed through California mining towns.
"The Luck of Roaring Camp" is set around 1850 in an isolated mining settlement. The camp's only female resident dies while giving birth to a child, named Tom Luck, and the miners struggle to raise the child. The mystery of luck, an important subject in Harte's works, is explored in this story and in another popular tale, "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," published in the January 1869 edition of Overland Monthly. As that story begins, the town of Poker Flat has just "suffered the loss of several thousand dollars, two valuable horses, and a prominent citizen." The outcasts include a group of characters forced out of Poker Flat and living in a mountainside camp. The tough landscape is carefully evoked and reflects the characters' difficult attempts to survive and make good in an often hostile physical and social environment.
However, even with the immediate success of Overland Monthly, Harte ran into conflicts. Roman sold the magazine, believing Harte had made both the magazine and California look rough and unmannered. John H. Carmany, who bought the magazine from Roman for $7,500, found himself competing for Harte's services. Harte was offered contracts to write exclusively for magazines and publishers in the East. He became even more sought after when his stories were collected and published in The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches in 1870 to critical and popular success. In addition, the September 1870 issue of the Overland Monthly contained "Plain Language from Truthful James," a sing-song poem that became a national sensation. Telling the story of how two frontier card sharks (professional card players who win by cheating) are outwitted by an unassuming Chinese man, the poem was frequently recited, set to music, and made into a short play.
Harte decided to leave California, despite generous offers by Carmany and the University of California, which offered to make him a professor of modern literature with an annual salary and freedom to keep writing and editing. Instead, Harte decided to head East: He signed an exclusive contract to produce twelve poems and stories for one year for Atlantic Monthly and Every Saturday, magazines owned by Fields, Osgood and Company, which had published The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches. As a literary celebrity, Harte enjoyed publicity all along his cross-country travel. When he arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, he met many of the major writers of the day at a party in his honor.
An Excerpt from "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"
The following is an excerpt from Bret Harte's "The Outcasts of Poker Flat." Harte presents gambler John Oakhurst's observations.
As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty-third of November, 1850, he was conscious of a change in its moral atmosphere since the preceding night. Two or three men, conversing earnestly together, ceased as he approached, and exchanged significant glances. There was a Sabbath lull in the air, which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous [threatening].
Mr. Oakhurst's calm, handsome face betrayed small concern in these indications. Whether he was conscious of any predisposing cause, was another question. "I reckon they're after somebody," he reflected; "likely it's me." He returned to his pocket the handkerchief with which he had been whipping away the red dust of Poker Flat from his neat boots, and quietly discharged his mind of any further conjecture.
In point of fact, Poker Flat was "after somebody." It had lately suffered the loss of several thousand dollars, two valuable horses, and a prominent citizen. It was experiencing a spasm of virtuous reaction, quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that had provoked it. A secret committee had determined to rid the town of all improper persons. This was done permanently in regard of two men who were then hanging from the boughs of a sycamore in the gulch, and temporarily in the banishment of certain other objectionable characters. I regret to say that some of these were ladies. It is but due to the sex, however, to state that their impropriety was professional, and it was only in such easily established standards of evil that Poker Flat ventured to sit in judgment.
Mr. Oakhurst was right in supposing that he was included in this category.…
Harte continued writing for another thirty years. He fulfilled his exclusive contract with Fields, Osgood and Company, but none of the pieces he submitted generated the excitement of his previous work. One of the best stories, "How Santa Claus Came to Simpson's Bar," was postponed for three months in favor of works by other writers. Meanwhile, Harte lived lavishly and ran up debts. He went on a lecture tour to make extra money, but many fans who attended the events were disappointed: They expected a rough-looking and sharp-witted man, but Harte was soft-spoken, fashion conscious, and sipped champagne during his lectures.
Harte's reputation suffered further when he took advance payments for story ideas, then worked on other projects, including writing a play for Stuart Robson (1836–1903), a famous actor of the period. The play, Two Men of Sandy Bar: A Drama (1876), received awful reviews when performed in Chicago and New York. A critic in the New York Times called it "the worst failure witnessed on the boards of our theatres for years." However, Harte's friend and fellow author Mark Twain (1835–1910) enjoyed it and suggested that he and Harte should collaborate on a play. Their comedy of mistaken identity, Ah Sin (1877), received modest reviews and closed after a brief tour.
Still in debt in 1877, Harte managed to get a government appointment to work in the American consulate (a government office mandated to oversee specific interests of the home country) in Germany. Thinking he would be away for only a year or two, Harte left his family in their New Jersey home. But he disliked living in Germany, was reappointed to Scotland, and remained there until being dismissed from his position in 1880. He moved to London and began writing and publishing prolifically. He lived in England until his death, never again living with his family. Harte published at least one volume of new fiction every year from 1883 until his death from throat cancer in Camberley, England, near London, in 1902. These later works had a steady sales and provided Harte with a regular income, but he was no longer a literary superstar. Harte's literary reputation remains with the stories and poems he published before leaving California.
For More Information
Barnett, Linda. Bret Harte: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.
Harte, Bret. The Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Sketches. Boston: Fields, Osgood, 1870. Multiple reprints.
Nissen, Alex. Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.
"Bret Harte." California Authors.http://www.cateweb.org/CA_Authors/harte.html (accessed on July 22, 2004).
"Bret Harte." San Francisco History Index.http://www.zpub.com/sf/history/harte.html (accessed on July 22, 2004).
Harte, Bret (1836-1902)
Bret Harte (1836-1902)
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 first—schoolteacher, gold prospector, drugstore clerk, stagecoach guard—before 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 city’s 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.
Writer’s Block. In 1870 Fields, Osgood, and Company published Harte’s 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 Harte’s 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 Harte’s 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.
Alvin F. Harlow, Bret Harte of the Old West (New York: Messner, 1943);
Richard O’Connor, Bret Harte: A Biography (Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown, 1966).