American writer and poet Bret Harte was born Francis Brett Harte in Albany, New York in 1836. Throughout his life, Harte also worked as a teacher, a miner, a journalist and an American diplomat in Europe. He is best remembered today for his iconic short stories, poems and articles about the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century.
Although his formal education was sporadic and ended for good when he was only thirteen, Harte read and wrote from a young age. The earliest record of his published work cites a satirical poem called Autumn Musings, written when he was just eleven years old and published in the New York Sunday Atlas. After the death of his schoolteacher father in 1853, Harte’s family moved to Oakland, California where his mother had remarried (to Col. Andrew Williams, a future mayor of Oakland). Harte took up a series of diverse occupations before settling into a life-long career in letters. Following several years of teaching and working as a miner further along the coast in Humboldt’s Bay, Harte became an editor and journalist with the weekly newspaper Northern Californian. After writing an editorial condemnation of the infamous 1860 massacre of a local community of Wiyot Native Americans by white settlers and vigilante militia, Harte’s life was threatened and he was forced to re-locate back to the San Francisco area. Here he continued to write, publishing his first poetry and prose pieces in The Californian and The Golden Era, both newly established literary journals. During the Civil War (1861-1865) Harte identified as an Abolitionist and wrote patriotic propaganda poetry.
Harte married Anna Griswold, with whom he went on to have four children, on August 11, 1862, in San Rafael, California. By all accounts the marriage was at times somewhat difficult. Now a family man, Harte supplemented his still meager earnings from writing and editing by briefly taking a job with the United States Mint. It was also around this time that he started using the pen name Bret Harte. He published a collection of poems called The Lost Galleon and Other Tales under this name in 1867.
In 1868, Harte became founding editor at The Overland Monthly, a literary journal that would publish Harte’s The Luck of Roaring Camp later that same year. The short story about an orphan child raised by prospectors made Harte’s reputation in North America and remains one of his best-loved works. The story is considered classic Harte with its exploration of physical hardship within an unforgiving landscape and the possibility of redemption for the colourful hardscrabble inhabitants who moved through it.
Other important Harte works published in Overland Monthly during Harte’s tenure there include Dickens in Camp, a tribute to Charles Dickens upon the death of the great author in 1870 and the narrative poem Plain Language from Truthful James (also known as The Heathen Chinee). Harte intended the latter as a satirical jab against anti-Chinese prejudice within the white working class. However, it was more popularly received as a mocking portrayal of Chinese Californians, then performing many of the most menial jobs in the mining camps and frontier towns of the West Coast. Harte later distanced himself from the work, calling it “the worst poem I ever wrote, possibly the worst poem anyone ever wrote.”
Also while at Overland Monthly, Harte famously commissioned work from a fledgling writer named Samuel Clemons with whom he would collaborate almost a decade later. Though younger than Clemons, Harte became established as a writer first and for a time he was a mentor to the man who would become Mark Twain, reading and critiquing early manuscripts.
By the time Harte left the journal in 1870, he was both well known and well paid, a star of the American literary scene. It’s not difficult to understand why. Harte’s emphasis on the rollicking and the rough and ready in his stories, poems and “sketches” set in the West during the California Gold Rush was in sharp contrast to the staid Victorian sentimentality of the prevailing literature of the day. Harte’s prose style was energetic and raw by comparison, his work peopled with grotesque and fantastic characters; it reflected American history and experience in a welcome and unique way.
So much so that The Atlantic Monthly magazine wooed Hart back East with the unprecedented offer of $10,000 to write a monthly story or poem for them for a year. In many ways, the contract was the pinnacle of Harte’s career and it ushered in a period of declining fortune for the writer. He wrote two novels – M’Liss in 1873 and Gabriel Conroy in 1876 – both flopped. His contract with The Atlantic Monthly went un-renewed and Harte was once again forced to lecture, write advertising copy and otherwise freelance to survive.
In 1877 Harte also embarked on several more ill fated creative ventures. One of them was a play based on the character of Ah Sin, hero of the poem Plain Language from Truthful James. He co-wrote the play with Twain, who by then was becoming very well known as a writer and humourist, and it opened on Broadway – but it was not successful. The friends quarreled and parted company for good. Twain later had harsh words for Harte, writing critically in his autobiography that Harte was “insincere” and not to be trusted in personal matters. He referred to Harte as “The Immortal Bilk”. The failed collaboration and Twain’s vocal harshness about whose fault it was further tarnished Harte’s reputation and the writer found his remaining opportunities drying up.
Harte left America in 1878 and was never to return. Thanks to some powerfully connected friends, he asked for and received postings as a United States Consul, first in Germany, then in Scotland.
Rather than moving back home to Boston where his family had remained, Harte moved to London, England following his consular tours of duty. He spent his final years in that city, writing prolifically but without real acclaim. Nonetheless, Harte did write some influential works while living in Europe, notably the short story, The Outcasts of Poker Flat. The tale follows the fortunes of four miscreant outcasts from the California gold camp of Poker Flat and features the eccentric characters and regional colour that originally made Harte famous. Not so surprisingly, the story has been reworked for different disciplines. An opera version by American composer Stanworth Beckler was performed in 1960 at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California; another version by composer Samuel Adler appeared in 1962. The story also spawned multiple film versions – one with screen stars Preston Foster, Margaret Irving and Van Heflin in 1937 and one with Dale Robertson (best know as the host of the television series Death Valley Days) in 1952, among others. Harte’s story Tennessee’s Partner was also made into a movie starring John Payne and Ronald Reagan in 1955.
Up to the very end, Harte mined the scenarios and themes of California, the West and the Gold Rush era, with the short story collections Under the Redwoods (1901) and Opening in the Old Trail (1902) being his final works. In his later writing years, he remained marginally more popular in Europe and the UK than in his homeland, where literary tastes had moved on.
On May 5th, 1902, Harte died of throat cancer at the age of 65. At that time, he was living in Camberley, Surrey on the estate of the wealthy Van de Velde family who had been supporting him for some years. He is buried in the village churchyard in nearby Frimley. Inscribed on his gravestone are the words “Death shall reap the braver harvest”.
Today, Harte is still considered an important figure in the evolution of a distinct and independent American literary style. He was one of the first to write from personal knowledge about the frontier experience in California and the West, originating many of the archetypes and stock characters – the rugged miners, desperate gamblers, schoolmarms and prostitutes with hearts of gold – that we still associate with the Western genre in literature and popular culture to this day. His successful Condensed Novels, in which he wrote in the style of many established literary figures of the day, reveal the mix and breadth of his talents as well as his confidence. Equally his taste for writing in dialect can at times seem exhibitionist and was another issue that Twain remarked negatively on.
Though more than one literary critic has suggested that Harte’s oeuvre failed to evolve past his initial successes and that he repeated a limited number of essential plotlines, themes and characterizations with each new work created, his contributions to American literary history are still regularly re-assessed and re-considered by contemporary academics. Reviews of his work and their value continue to be very mixed, yet Harte and his place in American literary history have not been forgotten.