Bret Harte: Biography, Books & Short Stories

Instructor: Ronald Speener

Ronald, with my Masters in English, has taught composition, literature, humanities, critical thinking and computer classes.

Author Bret Harte captured an key moment in American history with his stories about the California Gold Rush. This lesson explores his life, works and contribution to American literature.

A New Voice in Literature

''There was commotion in Roaring Camp. It could not have been a fight, for in 1850 that was not novel enough to have called together the entire settlement.'' So begins The Luck of Roaring Camp, a story by Bret Harte. Known for his tales of colorful characters in California mining towns and other Western holes-in-the-wall, Harte's stories brought a new aspect of the American experience to literature.

Editor, Writer and Diplomat

Francis Bret Hart was born in Albany, New York, in 1836, although there is some disagreement about the exact date of his birth. He was raised in the New York/Brooklyn area, and drifted out of school by the age of 13. Although his formal education was limited, Harte was an avid reader.

His family moved west to California and, at 18, Harte began a series of odd jobs that included teaching, mining and working as a messenger for Wells Fargo. His experiences would eventually become the pantry of his stories. Harte landed a job as a print setter for The Northern Californian, a weekly newspaper based in Uniontown, which led to the job of assistant editor and the start of his career as a writer.

In 1860, local settlers massacred the inhabitants of a Wiyot village -- men, women and children. Harte was appalled and wrote an editorial in his newspaper that riled people up because he supported the Native Americans. After receiving a number of death threats, he relocated to San Francisco.

Two years later, Harte married Anna Griswold. It was a marriage made in hell. During their 40-year relationship, they spent only a few years under the same roof. Although their time together was brief, it was enough for the couple to have three children.

In San Francisco, Harte was hired as the editor of The Golden Era, a literary magazine. He not only published his own stories, he also introduced works by other rising authors including Mark Twain. Harte and Twain remained good friends until the 1870s when they had a falling out. Twain never had a good word about Harte after that.

It was during his stint as the editor of another magazine, Overland Monthly that Harte published two of his best known stories, The Luck of Roaring Camp and The Outcasts of Poker Flats. Together these stories established his international reputation as a writer who captured the authentic characters of rough-and-tumble mining towns.

In 1871, Harte signed a contract to write a dozen short stories for the Atlantic Monthly for the huge sum of $10,000 dollars, more than the magazine had ever paid any other writer. He moved back East and never returned to California. Shortly after that move, Harte's literary career started to decline. He went on the lecture circuit, like Twain, to boost his income. However, Harte did not like audiences; nor was he a dynamic storyteller like Twain. He was ready for a career change, and accepted several diplomatic posts that took him first to Germany, and then, Scotland. Living abroad, he found a ready audience for his stories of California. He retired from diplomatic work in 1885, and settled permanently in England where he died from cancer in 1902.

Celebrated Short Stories

Harte's literary reputation rests mostly on his short stories. Some critics consider him the Father of Western Literary Fiction for his portrayal of mining camps and the frontier characters.

His first real success came with the publication of The Luck of Roaring Camp which describes the birth of a boy to the only woman in the mining camp. The story captures the flavor of the camp and the hard lives of the miners. Although Harte romanticizes the miners, he does not stereotype characters. It is a story of hope, and then despair.

Harte's other well-known stories include The Outcasts of Poker Flats and Tennessee Partner which used dialect and strong characters to entertain readers with vivid accounts of life in the West.

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