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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Bret Harte (1836–1902)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Henry Hudson (1862–1918)
 
FRANCIS BRET HARTE (from whose name, so far as pen purposes are concerned, the Francis was long since dropped) was born in Albany, New York, August 25th, 1839. After an ordinary school education he went in 1854 to California,—drawn thither, like so many other ambitious youths, by the gold excitement and the prospects of fortune. At first he tried his hand at teaching and mining, and had ample opportunity to study in close contact the wild frontier life which he was afterwards to portray. Unsuccessful in both lines of experiment, he presently entered a printing-office, and in 1857 was in San Francisco as compositor on the Golden Era. Unsigned sketches from his pen soon after this began to attract notice, and he was invited to join the staff of the Californian, to which he contributed a series of clever parodies on the styles and methods of famous contemporary writers of fiction, subsequently published in volume form under the title ‘Condensed Novels.’ Meanwhile, in 1864, Mr. Harte had been made secretary of the U. S. Branch Mint; and during his six-years’ tenure of office he produced some of his best-known poems,—‘John Burns of Gettysburg,’ ‘The Pliocene Skull,’ and ‘The Society upon the Stanislaus’ among the number. In 1868 the Overland Monthly was started, with Mr. Harte as editor. It was now that he began in a systematic way to work up the material furnished by his earlier frontier life. The first result was ‘The Luck of Roaring Camp,’ which upon its appearance in the second number of the magazine instantly made its mark, and was accepted as heralding the rise of a new star in the literary heavens. No other prose production of its author has enjoyed greater popularity, though as a work of art it will hardly bear comparison with such stories as ‘Miggles,’ ‘Tennessee’s Partner,’ and ‘The Outcasts of Poker Flat,’ which followed in rapid succession, and the last-named of which is generally considered the most perfect of his works. In 1871 Mr. Harte settled in New York, and became a regular contributor to the Atlantic Monthly. In 1878 he was appointed United States consul in Crefeld, Germany, whence in 1880 he was removed to the more lucrative post in Glasgow, after which time he resided abroad, principally in England, where his books enjoyed wide popularity. His pen still remained active; but despite long absence from the land out of whose life his initial successes were wrought, he continued for the most part to deal with the old California themes, remaining facile princeps in a field in which he soon had many imitators. That he ever did anything quite so good as his first group of stories and poems cannot be said, for he undoubtedly paid the penalty of working an exhausted soil, and his later volumes are marked as a whole by the repetition of well-worn motives and by declining spontaneity and power. Hence it is by his earlier writings that he will always be known. Still, the average quality of his output remained unusually high; and when the circumstances of its production are borne in mind, it may perhaps seem remarkable that it should have preserved so many traces of the writer’s youthful freshness and vigor.  1
  In estimating Mr. Harte’s work, allowance has of course to be made for the fact that it was his rare good fortune to break new ground, and to become the first literary interpreter of a life which with its primitive breadth and freedom, its unconventionality and picturesqueness, its striking contrasts of circumstance and character, offered singular opportunities to the novelist. But appreciation of this point must not lead us to underrate the strength and certainty with which the chance of the moment was seized on and turned to use. In the last analysis the secret of Mr. Harte’s success will be found to inhere not so much in the novelty of the people and incidents described, as in the sterling qualities of his own genius and art.  2
  Among such qualities, those which perhaps most constantly impress the critical reader of his total work are his splendid dramatic instinct, his keen insight into character, his broad sympathy, and his subtle and pervasive humor. In his handling of certain of the more commonplace comic types, he frequently reveals the strong early influence of Dickens, whose familiar method is to be detected for instance in Sal, Mrs. Markle, and even Colonel Starbottle of ‘Gabriel Conroy,’ and of whom we are often unexpectedly reminded here and there in the author’s more distinctive studies. But at his best, and in his own particular field,—in such characters as the gamblers Hamlin and Oakhurst, Tennessee’s Partner, Kentuck, Miggles, M’liss, Olly, and many others, from his earlier stories especially,—Mr. Harte is altogether himself. Dealing for the most part with large, strongly marked, elemental types, as these develop and express themselves under conditions which give free play to instinct and passion, he does not indulge in lengthy analyses or detailed descriptions. His men and women are sketched with a few bold firm strokes, and are left to work out their own personalities in speech and deed; and yet, such is the skill with which this is accomplished that they stand out before us as creatures of real flesh and blood, whom we unquestioningly, even if sometimes against our cooler judgment, accept and believe in. Mr. Harte does not purposely soften the shadows in his pictures; the baseness and extravagance, the sin and wretchedness, of frontier life are frankly portrayed, as well as its rough chivalry and its crude romance. None the less, there can be little doubt that consciously or unconsciously he contrived to throw an idealizing glamor over the fret and fever, the squalor and misery, of the mine and the camp, and that many of his most lifelike and successful characters are wrought in the imagination, though out of the stuff of fact. His place is emphatically not among the realists, realistic as much of his work undoubtedly is; for the shaping power of dramatic genius molds and fashions the raw material furnished by experience and observation. That—to take a single example—the reprobate Hamlin had no counterpart or original in actual life, is altogether improbable; yet it is certain that in the picture as we have it, much, perhaps very much, is attributable to the cunning and delicacy of the artist’s hand. Thus what he gives us is something very different from a photograph. But it is just here that we touch upon what is perhaps one of the finest qualities of his work,—a quality not to be separated from his tendency towards idealization. Rarely falling into the didactic, and dwelling habitually upon life’s unexplained and inexplicable tragic complexities, he nevertheless suffuses his stories with an atmosphere of charity, eminently clear, sweet, and wholesome. His characteristic men and women, products of rude conditions, are generally rough and often positively vicious; but he succeeds in convincing his readers of their common humanity, and in showing the keen responsiveness to nobler influences still possessed by hearts which, superficially considered, might well seem hopelessly callous and dead. And he does this simply and naturally, without maudlin sentiment or forced rhetoric—without, in a word, playing to the gallery.  3
  The weakness of Mr. Harte’s writing is closely connected with some of its main elements of strength. A master of condensed and rapid narration, he produced many stories which are too episodical in character and sketchy in method to be completely satisfactory from the artistic point of view; while in his desire to achieve terseness, he occasionally sacrificed clearness of plot. This is particularly the case with his more ambitious efforts, especially with his long novel ‘Gabriel Conroy,’ an elaborate study of the culture conditions of early California civilization. The book has many admirable points. It abounds in memorable descriptions, vivid and humorous character sketches, and separate scenes of remarkable power. But it lacks wholeness, proportion, lucidity. It is a bundle of episodes, and these episodes do not hang together; its plot is unduly intricate; while the conduct of the story everywhere shows the author’s inability to hold in hand and weave into definite pattern the multitudinous threads indispensable to his design. Undoubtedly written under the influence of the huge novels of Dickens, the contrast that it presents on the structural side with such an orderly and well-sustained work as ‘Bleak House’ is almost painful.  4
  As a writer of verse Mr. Harte is unequal. Some of his humorous poetry is too racy and original to be lost; much on the other hand is too temporary and extravagant to find an abiding place in literature. His best verse, artistically considered, is perhaps to be sought in his wonderfully dramatic monologues in dialect. ‘Jim’ and ‘In the Tunnel’ are masterpieces of this kind; while ‘Plain Language from Truthful James’ (currently known as ‘The Heathen Chinee’) must remain secure of a distinct place in American verse. He died after a brief illness, at Camberley, England, May 5, 1902.  5
 
 
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