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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Regional Realism Bret Harte (1836-1902)

[3707] Louis Charles McClure, The Gold Miner (c. 1890), courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.

At the height of his career, in the 1860s and 1870s, Bret Harte was one of the most famous and most highly paid American writers. His popular accounts of life in Gold Rush-era California, including short stories such as “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” seized the public imagination and made him an international celebrity. Harte’s invention of prototypical “western” characters–the shady prospector, the cynical gambler, the tough cowboy, the prostitute with a heart of gold–created the mythology through which Americans learned to understand the culture of the “Old West.” Combining realistic descriptions of the specific regional characteristics of California life with sentimental plots, Harte hit on a formula that delighted nineteenth-century readers and continues to influence American narratives of the West.

Born in Albany, New York, Francis Bret Harte was tutored at home by his schoolteacher father, Henry Harte. When Henry died in 1845, the family relocated first to New York City and then to San Francisco when Harte’s mother married Colonel Andrew Williams, an early mayor of Oakland, California. During his first six years in California, Harte drifted from job to job, working as a teacher, miner, and stagecoach guard for Wells Fargo. He ultimately found his calling as a printer’s apprentice, journalist, and editorial assistant at the small newspapers The Humboldt Times and The Northern Californian. By 1865, Harte had graduated to positions with larger newspapers and magazines of San Francisco, eventually serving as the editor of the weekly Californian, where he commissioned pieces from the then-unknown writer Samuel Clemens. In 1868, Harte was hired as the first editor of the literary magazine Overland Monthly, a position that catapulted him to national fame when he used the magazine as the venue for his best stories and his popular poem “Plain Language from Truthful James,” usually called “The Heathen Chinee.”

Recognized as one of the most popular and marketable writers in America after his stint at the Overland Monthly, Harte received a deluge of offers of editorial positions and professional opportunities across the country. In 1871 he signed a one-year contract for $10,000 (a record-breaking salary for a writer at that time) with the Atlantic Monthly in Boston. Harte had promised the magazine a minimum of twelve stories and poems, but, distracted by his status as a celebrity, he grew careless about meeting his obligations. When the Atlantic refused to renew his contract at the end of the year, Harte found himself suddenly in need of a new source of income. To fill the gap, he began lecturing and writing plays, but his work never again achieved the success or acclaim he had come to expect. He eventually used his connections in the political world to attain diplomatic posts with the consulates in Germany and Scotland, jobs he held until he was relieved of his positions for “inattention to duty” in 1885. He lived out the rest of his life in London, where he became the permanent guest of the wealthy Van de Velde family. Harte remained a prolific writer until his death, publishing a volume of short stories almost yearly. While his fiction was favorably received in Europe, American critics generally dismissed his later work as repetitive, formulaic, and overly sentimental. Although Harte’s reputation declined dramatically in the twentieth century, scholars have recently begun to reassess his important contributions to the development of regionalism and the genre of western fiction.

Teaching Tips

  • Harte’s literary reputation has suffered for what critics have historically understood as his sentimentality and romanticism. Recently, however, some literary scholars have claimed that Harte has been misunderstood and that his stories are much more cynical and ironic than has been appreciated. Ask students to think about whether they would characterize “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” as an example of sentimentality (you might refer back to Unit 7 for a discussion of sentimentality) or as participating in a more clearly realist tradition. How ironic is the tone of Harte’s narration in this story? What is the relationship between irony and realism?
  • Have your students write articles for the Poker Flat newspaper in which they report on the fate of the “outcasts” from the perspective of a Poker Flat inhabitant.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Who are the central characters in “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”? How do they construct or participate in stereotypes about characters from the Old West? How do they challenge these stereotypes?
  2. Context: Bret Harte was a mentor to Mark Twain, giving him some of his first writing assignments and, according to Twain, teaching him a great deal about his craft: “He trimmed and schooled me patiently until he changed me from an awkward utterer of coarse grotesqueness to a writer of paragraphs and chapters.” Later, however, Twain attacked Harte’s work as overly romantic, unbelievable, and repetitive. How is Harte’s work similar to Twain’s? What ideals and narrative strategies do they share? How are they different?
  3. Exploration: Compare the plot and characters of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” to the plot and characters of one or more Western movies (Stagecoach, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Unforgiven, or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for example). How do subsequent American portraits of the Old West draw from Harte’s depictions? What familiar ideas about the Old West seem to start in Harte’s work?
  4. Exploration: In the video for Unit 12 you will encounter two more key sentimental scenes in realist fiction: the breast-feeding of the dying man by Rose of Sharon in The Grapes of Wrath and the poisoning of Alejo by crop dusters. How do these compare to Mother Shipton’s self-sacrifice in “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”? How do you see the relationship between sentimentality and realism?

Selected Archive Items

[1147] Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1861),
courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.
This painting’s title became a popular motto for Manifest Destiny in America after 1850. Portraits of Captain William Clark and Daniel Boone flank a depiction of San Francisco Bay at the bottom of the image.

[1181] Albert Bierstadt, Valley of the Yosemite (1864),
courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Rerproduced with permission. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1825-1865, 47.1236.
The romantic grandeur and luminism of Bierstadt’s western landscapes reflect Hudson River School influences. Realist writers like Bret Harte sought to imbue the same landscapes with the gritty realities of frontier life.

[3707] Louis Charles McClure, The Gold Miner (c. 1890),
courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.
The discovery of gold and silver in the American West drew fortune seekers from all over the world. Miners often served as the vanguard of American expansion.

[5228] Anonymous, Montgomery Street, San Francisco, 1852,
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-55762].
Rapid, mainly white immigration during the Gold Rush brought California to statehood in 1850 as a “free state” that forbade slavery. Yet demand for land and forced labor caused a genocidal-scale population decline among California Indians.

[5824] “Harte’s Poems” (1871),
courtesy of the Cornell University Making of America Digital Collection.
This January 1871 review of Bret Harte’s Poems reflects the way Harte’s work helped shape notions of American manhood.

[5841] Currier and Ives, Gold Mining in California (c. 1871),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1755].
This lithograph presents a romantic and sanitized portrayal of life in the gold fields.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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