Bret Harte and His Life

Bret Harte is best known for the short stories he wrote about the Gold Rush and the American West. Harte, according to some, "reinvented the American short story" and "laid the foundation for the Western novel". The stories were powerful and well crafted, with local color and picturesque characters confronting the difficult environment they lived in.

Harte's stories about the mining camps in Tuolumne County catapaulted him to fame. One biographer wrote that "Harte was the first American author-celebrity in the age of mass newspapers, a time when fame could become worldwide fame. His stories were reprinted all over the world, his doings and sayings were reported in newspapers large and small..."

Harte helped his friend Mark Twain with his writing craft, and Twain's literary and popular reputation eventually eclipsed that of Harte.

Harte, born in Albany, New York, came to California in 1854 by ship to Nicaragua, up a river via sternwheeler through the jungle, and across mountains to the Pacific Coast. The last stage of the journey was by steamer, a scary voyage with failed engines and a boiler that flooded the ship with steam. He was seventeen at the time and was accompanied by his younger sister. Harte was met at the wharf in San Francisco by his mother and new stepfather, his own father having died when he was eight. Unlike most travelers to California, Harte wasn't looking for adventure or riches. He simply had nowhere else to go.

Harte spent a little more than a year traveling around the Gold Country beginning in 1854, first working as a schoolteacher in La Grange (near today's Don Pedro Reservoir). When the school closed, he took up mining near the Stanislaus River, probably moving as far north as Angels Camp and as far south as Table Mountain, near Jamestown. He visited Jim Gillis at his cabin on Jackass Hill, the same cabin where Mark Twain lived eight years later. He supposedly later worked as a Wells Fargo guard on stagecoaches carrying currency and gold bullion.

Harte cut an odd figure in the mining camps, dressed not in the miner's flannel shirt and boots but in a "boiled shirt" [heavily starched shirt], patent-leather shoes, and carrying a morroco dressing case rather than a pack. He was an Eastern dude and a fastidious dresser.

In 1857 Harte moved to Union (now Arcata) near Humboldt Bay, eventually taking a job as a printer's assistant--a rather dirty job for the delicate Harte--for a new weekly newspaper, the Northern Californian. He also wrote for the newspaper and served as editor when the usual editor was out of town. On one of these occasions, a group of white men attacked, without provocation, some Indians and murdered more than sixty of them, mostly women and children. Harte wrote an editorial strongly condemning the massacre. Native Americans were held in low esteem at that time, and the editorial was not well received. Threatened and in danger, Harte returned to San Francisco.

In San Francisco, Harte worked for a weekly newspaper, writing a column. He was encouraged as a writer by Jessie Benton Fremont, wife of the explorer, soldier, and politician John C. Fremont, who helped get one of his writings, "Legend of Monte del Diablo", published in the Eastern literary magazine, the Atlantic Monthly.

Harte later worked for a literary magazine, writing essays, poems, factual articles, and getting Mark Twain to write for it. Harte also encouraged Twain to write up the story of the jumping frog that Twain had heard. In 1868, Harte became editor of the Overland Monthly, where he was known for encouraging young writers, getting material out of them, and for his good understanding of what readers wanted. The main attraction of the magazine, however, were the stories that Harte wrote for it, including "The Luck of Roaring Camp", "The Outcasts of Poker Flat", "Tennessee's Partner", and others. These stories, published in book form in the East, made Harte's reputation, and are considered the peak of his literary career.

At the peak of his literary reputation—in 1871—Harte left California forever, traveling to the East. His family's journey--by this time he had a wife and two children--was chronicled in frequent newspaper reports, even in London. Mark Twain wrote later that Harte "crossed the continent through such a prodigious blaze of national interest and excitement that one might have supposed he was the Viceroy of India ... or Halley's Comet..."

Harte, however, never thrived in the East. He was never comfortable as a public speaker as literary figures were then expected to be. He was distracted by all the attention he received, his wife's illnesses, and the financial problems resulting from his extravagent lifestyle. And most of all, he seemed to have little motivation to progress as a writer. He was never able to do better than the run of stories that he wrote in California in the late 1860s.

He tried collaborating with Mark Twain on a play in 1876, but the two old friends, with Twain tired of Harte's condescension and his habit of not repaying loans, couldn't work together, and the play failed. Harte and Twain never saw each other again. Twain said about Harte that "He hadn't any more passion for his country than an oyster has for his bed; in fact not so much and I apologize to the oyster. The higher passions were left out of Harte; what he knew about them he got from books." Twain also said "Harte is a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward, a Jeremy Diddler [con artist], he is brim full of treachery, and he conceals his Jewish birth as carefully as if he considered it a disgrace." Others also turned against him. Henry James, when asked if he knew Bret Harte, replied, "Yes, I know the son of a bitch".

In 1902, Harte died in England. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that "Nobody ever knew Bret Harte."

Bret Harte's Stories

Bret Harte wrote a large volume of material, but by far his best were the stories he wrote in the late 1860s and published in the Overland Monthly in San Francisco.

You can read Harte's stories by clicking on the links below.

Three of the stories that helped make his reputation were "The Luck of Roaring Camp", "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" and Tennessee's Partner". "Roaring Camp" and "Poker Flat" are mythical mining towns, but likely modeled on camps between Sonora and Angels Camp, which Harte visited, including Melones, the remnants of which are now at the bottom of New Melones Reservoir. "Outcasts" was made into a 1937 movie starring Preston Foster, and remade in 1952 with Dale Robertson. "Tennessee" was made into a 1955 movie starring John Payne and Ronald Reagan.

The first story Bret Harte published was in 1860, "My Metamorphosis", about a young man who goes swimming nude in a lake decorated with statuary. When a group of people come along, he attempts to disguise himself as a statue.

A later story, also published in 1860, was "The Work on Red Mountain", based on his experiences as a schoolteacher in the town of La Grange, near what is now Don Pedro Reservoir. In the story La Grange is disguised as the mythical town of "Smith's Pocket". This was later expanded into a much longer piece titled "The Story of M'liss", but the earlier, shorter version is considered the better one. The story was made into several movies, including an 1918 one starring Mary Pickford.

The first story Harte published in the East was The Legend of Monte del Diablo", based on a Spanish legend. This was published in 1863 in the Atlantic Monthly, the most prestigious literary publication in the country.

Another interesting story is "Wan Lee, The Pagan", which shows Harte's sympathetic attitudes—unusual for his time—toward Asians.

The one piece of apparently autobiographical nonfiction Harte wrote about his experiences in the mines was "How I Went to the Mines", published in 1903, the year after his death.

Although his later fiction is considered not as good, one of the best stories from this period is "An Ingenue of the Sierras", with Yuba Bill the stagecoach driver as the leading character.

Bret Harte in Europe
Through friends high up in the U.S. government, he managed to get a job in Germany as a commercial agent. He spent two years there, disliking the town, eventually getting a transfer to a better job as U.S. consul to Glasgow. He led a double life, often gone dealing with his literary career. His wife and children remained in the U.S. After five years in Glasgow, he was replaced by a new U.S. President. He stayed in Europe and continued writing the same stories about the west, though he had been gone for decades. He said he had to "grind out the old tunes on the old organ and gather up the coppers." Although his literary reputation among the elite in the U.S. suffered, his books continued to sell well and he was just as popular among the public. He never returned to the U.S., and he saw his wife only once, when she visited England, during his 24-year expatiation.
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