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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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8. Regional Realism   

8. Regional

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Charles W.
- Kate Chopin
- Charles
- Mary E. Wilkins
- Joel Chandler
- Bret Harte
- Sarah Orne
- Alexander Posey
- Mark Twain
- Zitkala-Sa
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Bret Harte (1836-1902)

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

Bret Harte Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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.

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