Bret Harte's California Tales And Poems

( Originally Published 1916 )


BRET HARTE is the one writer of undoubted genius who made California and its pioneers known around the world. His creative activity ran over forty-five years, yet in all that time he seldom chose any other scene for his stories than the early California which he knew so well. Only one side of that pioneer life he painted with such remarkable clearness and force that every reader saw it with his eyes. It was the purely adventurous life of the California mining camps that Bret Harte exploited with the same fidelity that Kipling has pictured the life of the English man in India. The miner who varies feverish work with long bouts at the faro table, the professional gambler, the stage driver, the lawyer, the dance-hall keeper, the harlot and the Chinaman these are Bret Harte's leading types. He makes them all picturesque, but in none of his stories does he give any glimpse of that other life led by many pioneers that life of hard work, careful saving and ultimate wealth which led to the unparalleled development of California. He never touches on the men who built schools and churches and laid the foundations of New England life in a new and sunnier land.

Bret Harte was largely self-educated. Forced by the death of his father to work in an office at the early age of nine years, he gained by reading what ordinary school boys acquire by painstaking study. At eighteen he left Albany, his native city, and went to California, where his mother had married again. It was his good fortune to be a school-teacher and an express messenger in the foothill counties of California in the late fifties the period which witnessed the decline and end of placer mining. Less than a year Harte spent in this land of the pioneer miners, yet in that short time he gained impressions of scenes and characters upon which he drew for over forty years, while working in an alien land among alien people. In one of his reminiscent sketches he speaks of his "eager absorption of the strange life around me and a photographic sensitiveness to certain scenes and incidents." This is as good a description as has ever been given of creative literary genius.

Like many other American authors, Bret Harte became a compositor, and it was this work in a printing office which stimulated him to write. He finally drifted to San Francisco and there, after several ventures on weekly newspapers, he became the editor of a new magazine, the OVER LAND MONTHLY. To the second number of this magazine Harte contributed The Luck of Roaring Camp, a short story brimful of the dare-devil, hilarious spirit of early California mining days. The broad humor, the defiance of all social conventions, the mingled pathos and art of this story, attracted the American reading public and when this story was followed by another short masterpiece, The Outcasts of Poker Flat and a striking humorous poem, The Heathen Chsnee, Harte gained a national reputation almost in a day.

A Boston publishing house paid him $10,000 for the exclusive right to every thing which he should write in a year. If the firm had known him better it would never have made such a bargain, for he did little for the money. For several years he wrote short stories and sketches and lectured throughout the country. Then he secured a consulship at Crefeld, Germany, and soon after a similar post at Glasgow. Seven years of this consular service sufficed. Thereafter he lived in London and produced about a book a year for many years. Exile from California seemed to lend force to his imagination, for some of his best work was done in his later years.

The poetical output of Bret Harte was comparatively small, but this verse is of high quality. Like his prose it reveals the hand of the master-craftsman. Many of the Spanish legends of early California Harte has put into beautiful verse. His is the best bit of poetry on San Francisco and his is also the finest poetical tribute on the death of Dickens. The Heathen Chinee the most famous of Harte's poems was written in the metre of Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon, which has since become popular with humorous bards.

The best way to make the acquaintance of Bret Harte is through The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches. These short stories are all in perfect form. My favorite is The Outcasts of Poker Flat, which tells of the adventures of four disreputables who have been evicted from the mining camp of Poker Flat. They expect to cross the mountain divide and reach a neighboring camp, but Uncle Billy, a hanger-on about saloons, smells the coming snowstorm and deserts his companions in the night, taking the pack-animals and most of the provisions. John Oakhurst, a professional gambler, is left with two women, Old Mother Shipton and a handsome damsel, known as "The Duchess." The outcasts are joined by a young couple who have eloped and are on their way to Poker Flat to be married. Oakhurst knows that their fate is sealed, as the first snowfall in the Sierra is usually heavy, but he keeps this knowledge from his companions, as well as any revelations about the character of the outcasts from the two innocents. The story of this camp among the snows is beautifully told, with many humorous touches, such as the tale of the Iliad related by the young rustic who refers to the swift-footed Achilles as "Ash heels." The other campers perish of cold and hunger, but Oakhurst's body is found near by, with a derringer bullet through the brain, and these last words, written on the deuce of clubs, pinned to a pine tree with his bowie knife — "Struck a streak of bad luck and passed in his checks."

Tennessee's Partner is another perfect short story which relates the fidelity of a miner for his partner, although that partner had stolen his wife. Tennessee is the evil partner, but when he returned to the lonely cabin after this escapade, he was forgiven. Seized by a Vigilance Committee for holding up a man on the stage road, he is being given a fair trial when the partner appears and pouring all of his gold dust on the table offers it as a ransom for Tennessee. This attempt to bribe judge Lynch proved fatal to the accused man and he was promptly hanged. Then came the faithful partner with his little donkey and cart containing the home-made coffin. He cut down the body of his friend and carried it away in the coffin for burial. The story is an idyl of fidelity that is stronger than death and it is told with a simple pathos that is never theatrical. Observe the last page of this story, giving the account of the partner's death, with its touches of rare pathos.

The works of Bret Harte fill nineteen volumes, of which only two are devoted to subjects outside of California. Harte was essentially a short-story writer, his only long romance, Gabriel Conroy, being poorly constructed and lacking in continuous interest. It was an attempt to put into the form of fiction the terrible tragedy of the Donner party, many of whom perished in the snow near the Summit, only a few rods away from the main overland trail. Yet this book contains the finest description of Winter in the High Sierra, and it is full of humor in the relations of Gabriel and his shrewd, managing little sister.

Bret Harte has drawn in his stories a gallery of charmers that appeal to the reader as real flesh and blood people. Among these may be mentioned the two professional gamblers, Oakhurst and Jack Hamlin, the typical Southern gentleman of the old school, Colonel Starbottle, and Yuba Bill, the spectacular stage-driver.

Harte possessed in supreme degree the faculty of describing a place or a character in a paragraph which clings to the memory. Above all, he seemed to have ever before his eyes a vision of the California foothills, with their dust-laden air, their pungent odors of pine and bay, and their back-ground of the snow-crowned mountain wall of the Sierra Nevada. Endless was the variety of the tales he wove about these California scenes, but what makes them appeal powerfully to readers who have never seen the Far Western land that he celebrates, is the joy that he exhibits in the telling and the freshness and enthusiasm of his pictures of the State that he loved and made the whole world love with him.

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