California Authors

 
 

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Bret Harte (1836-1902)
by Janice Albert

Bret Harte's characters in bronze, Bohemian Club, Post Street side

The year 2002 marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the death of Bret Harte, Argonaut and author. Wherever you live in California, there is probably a Bret Harte elementary, middle or high school near you. Who was Harte and what is his contribution to the life and literature of California?

Although his collected work runs to many volumes, Harte's reputation is built on a handful of stories and a poem that he wrote while living in San Francisco during the years of the Gold Rush. "Tennessee's Partner," "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," "M'Liss," and "The Luck of Roaring Camp" are some of the titles that brought him international fame and caused readers to call him "the young Dickens."

In these stories, Harte created a set of characters that live in the American imagination even now-the ruffian who gently helps a tiny child, the gun totin' preacher, the judge who administers justice by the seat of his pants-all these types that we know so intimately from countless TV shows and Westerns have their origin in Harte's stories of the Forty Niners.

Through his poem "Plain Language from Truthful James," Harte created a wily Chinaman who outwits his Anglo gambling opponents. These materials brought out his flair for constructing dialect and description. His own mining experiences were slender and unsuccessful, but he was on friendly terms with others, such as Louise Clappe (Dame Shirley) who had lived at Rich Bar and observed all the nationalities at work there. From this material, Harte constructed stories that catapulted him to fame.

California historian Kevin Starr comments on a more significant effect: "Bret Harte fixed the Gold Rush into formula and made it serve as California's mythic history. Harte depicted the Gold Rush as quaint comedy and sentimental melodrama, already possessing the charm of antiquity.… Harte softened and enriched the raw present of what was yet a frontier…filling in the empty and perpetual Sierras with comforting memories of finite human comedy and civilizing human sentiment."

Harte was born in Albany, New York, schooled until the age of 13, and entered California at the age of 17, following his newly widowed mother. In the next six years, he moved around, finally settling in Arcata where his sister had relocated and where he worked as a teacher and a printer. He did not mix well with the general male population. He found them too rough; they no doubt felt his disapproval. Given a chance to write for the local paper, Harte learned reporting.

In February, 1860, his editor had left him in charge of the paper when a tribe of sixty Wiyot Indians was massacred in cold-blooded nearby. Harte vividly described the murdered bodies of women and children, stating, "Today we record acts of Indian aggression and white retaliation. It is a humiliating fact that the parties who may be supposed to represent white civilization have committed the greater barbarity." His life was threatened and, finding himself without sympathetic support, he left town.

Returning to San Francisco, he continued writing, but no longer to record the realities of the frontier. In his poems and stories for the Golden Era and the Overland Monthly, he wove yarns and satirized the popular authors of the day. He edited a collection of California poetry and helped the young Sam Clemens with an early manuscript . Within a few years, he was the toast of San Francisco and a "hot property" being courted by publishers in Chicago, New York and Boston. He left San Francisco at the age of 34 with the offer of $10,000. from the Atlantic in return for a promise of one story a month for a year.

Fame unmasked a personality wracked with many flaws. Harte's life from the time he left California is a sorry string of fiascoes, many brought on by his own failings. Invited to a dinner designed to raise money for a magazine he would edit, Harte failed to appear, and the wealthy Chicago gathering declined to court him further. Instead of fulfilling his contract with the Atlantic, Harte missed deadlines and submitted work the editors found boring. Repeatedly, over the course of more than ten years he set out on the lecture circuit only to disappoint his audiences by failing to arrive, arriving late, arriving drunk, failing to make himself heard, failing to exhibit in his delivery and manner any of the qualities that made his writing popular.

Curiously, amid the reviews that spoke of his poor performance, there were occasions on which he was a smashing success. What made the difference and why did he not learn to improve his style of delivery? What made him so inconsistent?

In his award-winning book Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West, Gary Scharnhorst chronicles Harte's many ruses and stumbles. He draws a picture of a man who drank before public appearances and who kept a decanter of whiskey at his bedside throughout the night. Harte apparently had the skill, grace and charm to borrow thousands of dollars from friends who wished to help him meet his various needs, but he almost never paid money back. He was famous for a wardrobe that reflected every foppish trend of the day, and boasted that he knew which tweeds to choose to enable a man to go through life never picking up a check.

Moreover, when faced with an opportunity which required performance, Harte nearly always ran away. Yet, when his debtors pressed him for payment of bills, his inspiration and motivation would return. In short, he seemed to need a crisis to act; the danger past, he felt no obligation to keep his promises. He was intensely secretive; he dreaded being alone; he claimed to despise much of his own work; he disliked his fans; he consistently found others to blame for his troubles and spent a great deal of time threatening to take people to court for maligning his reputation. If we put it all together-the paranoia, the grandiose sense of self alternating with self-loathing, the ability to manipulate others, the whiskey at the bedside, the lectures where, without any show of emotion, he would merely read from the page-is it unreasonable to conclude that Harte was an alcoholic in the days before such a condition was discussed or understood?

He spent his final twenty years in England, where he acquired an agent and a mentor. Though married, Harte lived apart from his wife and four children until the end of his life. He continue to write about the American West, spurred on by his friend Hydeline Van de Velde, whom he had first met when she was living as the wife of the chancellor of the Belgian legation in London. In 1902, she buried him in the churchyard of St. Peter's, Frimley, England under a red granite stone engraved with a line from one of his own poems: "Death Shall Reap the Braver Harvest."

Back in San Francisco, his friends mourned his passing and held a final pageant at the Bohemian Club consisting of tableaux representing his famous tales. Ina Coolbrith wrote a celebratory poem, containing this description of their early days together:

Bohemian Club, Post and Taylor, San Francisco

I see him often, with the brown hair half
Tossed from the leaning brow, the soft yet keen Gray eyes uplifted with a tear or laugh
From the pen-pictured scene.

And hear the voice that read to me his dear
Word-children-and listen till I seem Back in the olden days; they are the near And these are but a dream.

 

 

 

Members of the Bohemian Club also erected a bronze casting of his most memorable characters: Cherokee Sal, Colonel Starbottle, Miggles with Ursa Minor, and others. This ten-foot long memorial was mounted on the outside of the building at Taylor and Post in San Francisco, where it can be seen to this day.

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