Bret Harte: Contribution to American Short Story Writing

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      LIFE.—The father of Bret Harte was professor of Greek in the Albany, New York, Female College, where his son, named Francis Bret, was born in 1839. The boy never attended an institution of learning higher than a common school. Fatherless at the age of fifteen, he went with his mother to California in 1854. Here he tried teaching school, mining, going on stages as an express messenger, printing, government service, and editing. Of his experience in California, he writes:—

Bret Harte Literary Contribution to American Short Story Writing
Bret Harte

      "Here I was thrown among the strangest social conditions that the latter-day world has perhaps seen…. Amid rushing waters and wildwood freedom, an army of strong men, in red shirts and top-boots, were feverishly in search of the buried gold of earth…. It was a land of perfect freedom, limited only by the instinct and the habit of law which prevailed in the mass…. Strong passions brought quick climaxes, all the better and worse forces of manhood being in unbridled play. To me it was like a strange, ever-varying panorama, so novel that it was difficult to grasp comprehensively."

BRET HARTE (From a painting by John Pettie, R. A.)
      Amid such surroundings he was educated for his life work, and his idealization of these experiences is what entitles him to a sure place in American literature.

      After spending sixteen years in California, he returned in 1871 to the East, where he wrote and lectured; but these subsequent years are of comparatively small interest to the student of literature. In 1878 he went as consul to Crefeld in Germany. He was soon transferred from there to Glasgow, Scotland, the consulship of which he held until his removal by President Cleveland in 1885. These two sentences from William Black, the English novelist, may explain the presidential action: "Bret Harte was to have been back from Paris last night, but he is a wandering comet. The only place he is sure not to be found is at the Glasgow consulate." Bret Harte was something of a lion in a congenial English literary set, and he never returned to America. He continued to write until his death at Camberly, Surrey, in 1902. The tourist may find his grave in Frimley churchyard, England.

      WORKS.—Bret Harte was a voluminous writer. His authorized publishers have issued twenty-eight volumes of his prose and one volume of his collected poems. While his Plain Language from Truthful James, known as his "Heathen Chinee" poem, was very popular, his short stories in prose are his masterpieces. The best of these were written before 1871, when he left California for the East. Much of his later work was a repetition of what he had done as well or better in his youth.

      The Overland Magazine, a San Francisco periodical, which Bret Harte was editing, published in 1868 his own short story, The Luck of Roaring Camp. This is our greatest short story of pioneer life. England recognized its greatness as quickly as did America. The first two sentences challenge our curiosity, and remind us of Poe's dictum concerning the writing of a story:—

 "There was commotion in Roaring Camp. It could not have been a fight, for in 1850 that was not novel enough to have called together the entire settlement."

      We at once stand face to face with the characters of that mining camp. "The assemblage numbered about a hundred men. One or two of these were actual fugitives from justice, some were criminal, and all were reckless." We shall remember "Kentuck" and Oakhurst and "Stumpy," christening the baby:—

 "'I proclaim you Thomas Luck, according to the laws of the United States and the State of California, so help me God.' It was the first time that the name of the Deity had been otherwise uttered than profanely in the camp."

      There are two sentences describing the situation of Roaring Camp:—

 "The camp lay in a triangular valley between two hills and a river. The only outlet was a steep trail over the summit of a hill that faced the cabin, now illuminated by the rising moon."

      Poe would have approved of the introduction of this bit of description, for it heightens the pathetic effect and focuses attention upon the mother. Even that "steep trail" is so artistically introduced that she

 "… might have seen it from the rude bunk whereon she lay,—seen it winding like a silver thread until it was lost in the stars above…. Within an hour she had climbed, as it were, that rugged road that led to the stars, and so passed out of Roaring Camp, its sin and shame, forever."

      Bret Harte in a few words relates how these miners reared the child, how they were unconsciously influenced by it, and how one day an expressman rushed into an adjacent village saying:—

 "They've a street up there in 'Roaring,' that would lay over any street   in Red Dog. They've got vines and flowers round their houses, and they   wash themselves twice a day."

      He had, as we have seen, something of the remarkable technique of which Poe was a master. The influence of Dickens, especially his sentimentalism, is often apparent in Harte's work. Some have accused him of caricature or exaggeration, but these terms, when applied to his best work, signify little except the use of emphasis and selection, of which Homer and Shakespeare freely availed themselves. The author of The Luck of Roaring Camp, The Outcasts of Poker Flat, and Tennessee's Partner seemed to know almost instinctively what he must emphasize or neglect in order to give his readers a vivid impression of the California argonauts. He mingles humor and pathos, realism and idealism, in a masterly way. No other author has had the necessary dramatic touch to endow those times with such a powerful romantic appeal to our imagination. No one else has rescued them from the oblivion which usually overtakes all transitory stages of human development.

      Bret Harte's pages afford us the rare privilege of again communing with genuine primitive feeling, with eternal human qualities, not deflected or warped by convention. He gives us the literature of democracy. In self-forgetfulness, sympathy, love for his kind, Tennessee's partner in his unkempt dress is the peer of any wearer of the broadcloth.

      Bret Harte's best work is as bracing, as tonic, as instinct with the spirit of vigorous youth, as the mountain air which has never before been breathed. Woodberry well says: "He created lasting pictures of human life, some of which have the eternal outline and pose of a Theocritean idyl. The supreme nature of his gift is shown by the fact that he had no rival and left no successor. His work is as unique as that of Poe or Hawthorne." [Footnote: Woodberry: America in Literature.]

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