Bret Harte 1837 – 1902 was an American author and poet, best remembered for his accounts of pioneering life in California. In 1987 he appeared on a $5 U.S. Postage stamp, as part of the “Great Americans” Series of issues.
Harte was a lifelong friend and admirer of homeopath Egbert Guernsey, and Harte wrote about Guernsey as the central character of his story The Man Whose Yoke Was Not Easy, a portrayal of a kind and distinguished physician.
… a man who had devoted the greater part of his active life to the alleviation of sorrow and suffering; a man who had lived up to the noble vows of a noble profession; a man who locked in his honorable breast the secrets of a hundred families, whose face was as kindly, whose touch was as gentle, in the wards of the great public hospitals as it was beside the laced curtains of the dying Narcissa; a man who, through long contact with suffering, had acquired a universal tenderness and breadth of kindly philosophy; a man who, day and night, was at the beck and call of anguish; a man who never asked the creed, belief, moral or worldly standing of the sufferer, or even his ability to pay the few coins that enabled him (the physician) to exist and practice his calling; in brief, a man who so nearly lived up to the example of the Great Master that it seems strange I am writing of him as a doctor of medicine and not of divinity.
Due to difficult and poor family circumstances Harte was earning at age 15, though he was beginning to write his poetry even then.
In 1871 he and his family traveled back East, to New York and eventually to Boston, where he contracted with a publisher for an annual salary of $10,000, “an unprecedented sum at the time.”
Harte was also part of the intelligentsia who gathered around James T Fields, one of America’s most famous publisher of American writers, and a partner in Ticknor and Fields, had a bookstore known as Parnassus Corner on Old Corner.
His literary salon was packed with the influential people of the time, including Louisa May Alcott, John Greenleaf Whittier, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, James Russell Lowell, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Julia Ward Howe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, , Mark Twain, Bret Harte, William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Margaret Fuller, Bayard Taylor, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edwin Booth, and Nathaniel Parker Willis, who described Parnassus Corner as ‘the hub in which every spoke of the radiating wheel of Boston intellect had a socket.. ‘
Harte wasn’t pleased with the effects that the railroad was having on the West, nor was he pleased with the way the white man was taking advantage of minorities, Indians, Chinese, and Mexicans to help settle the West. Both of these themes are shown throughtout his works.
Although Bret was appalled at these events, writing about them in the weekly newspaper helped to make him popular. That is the irony of his writings. His stories reporting the lawlessness and the atrocities of the West made his articles more interesting to the readers.
Sometimes this vivid portrayal of the Wild West got him trouble. Once Harte was fired for printing a story of a tribe of Indians who were planning a three-day religious ceremony on an island, until a party of white men arrived on the island and ambushed the ceremony, leaving many women, children, and elders slain.
Although this published article costed Harte his job, it conveyed his true feelings of outrage against such cruelties.
Another well known piece of his work is the lecture, “California’s Golden Age“, where he described the gold rush days as
“a kind of crusade without a cross, an exodus without a prophet. It is not a pretty story:…it is a life of which perhaps the best that can be said is that it exists no longer.”
The other popular theme used by Harte dealt with racism. In “Plain Language from Truthful James“, whites are outsmarted in their own efforts to cheat a Chinese. This poem, which Harte called “the worst I ever wrote”, was popular world wide. However, it initiated racial discord in California against the Orientals.
Harte learned to entertain his readers by giving them what they wanted. Despite all the works Harte completed, only a few are remembered.
In 1860, Harte began writing stories with escape and illusion as their theme. For instance, “My Metamorphosis” tells the tale of a man who is caught bathing but hides among the statues in the garden of keep his nakedness hidden.
As a writer, Harte was a talented humorist who could take fairly routine story formulas and give them new vigor and settings. His background as a journalist gave him a brisk style and a special skill for describing people, their mannerisms, and dialogue.
Harte won national acclaim through his writings and publications from the West. Soon he began to write regularly for a magazine and published two plays. Also, Harte began to work as a literary critic, although his harsh reviews made him unpopular with other writers.
While serving as clerk and superintendent of the new U.S. mint, he met his future wife Anna Griswold. They married in August of 1862. During the Civil War, Harte wrote twenty-two poems and he made an outstanding contribution to The Overland Monthly, founded in 1868 with Harte as its editor. In fact, he even created the emblem for this magazine which was a bear paw print on the tracks of the railroad.
Two of his most memorable pieces were published in this magazine, “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat“. In these two stories lay the formula for the western movies and books which would entertain our country for the next century.
These two stories deployed a cunning narrative strategy which insured their success with genteel readers. The tales argue that society’s outcasts- whether gamblers, gold-seekers, prostitutes, or unemployed cowboys-all have hearts of gold.
The University of California in Berkeley offered Harte a Professor’s seat in recent literature, but he declined in pursuit of being promoted further. Even magazines and newspapers offered Harte such positions as editor, publisher and columnist.
Finally, in 1878, out of debt to friends and coworkers, Harte left his family and accepted a station in Germany, as a U.S. Consul. After his transfer, he decided that Germany wasn’t to his liking and he began to make frequent visits to Great Britain where he enjoyed being popular.
He later transferred to Glasglow, Scotland where he began making significant connections to the literary world. He lived with a diplomat and his family of nine children, and continued to write for the next seventeen years.
His wife and two of his children followed Harte to London after 1898. But by this time Harte had been entertaining the widow of the diplomat for some years, and he never reconciled with Anna, his wife.
Harte continued to write with little public recognition until his death from throat cancer in 1902.