BRET HARTE has been called the writer of the best short stories in the English language. A literary court of arbitration would doubtless find that the best of his short stories are without superiors. It should not be forgotten that the reading public is still under the magic spell which Mr. Harte wove more than a third of a century ago with ” The Luck of Roaring Camp,” ” Plain Language from Truthful James,” ” Tennessee’s Partner,”
Miggles” and the other works which first called attention to the author’s still unquestioned genius. ” The Luck of Roaring Camp” and ” Under the Redwoods” mark the present extremes ‘of one of the most romantic chapters in our literary history.
Some years ago, when the popular writer and his wife were spending the summer at Newport, a woman said confidentially to Mrs. Harte, What is your husband’s real name? ” It evidently did not seem natural to the inquirer than an author could always have borne such a crisp and striking name ; and the same idea, that the name must be simply a happy pseudonym, has, we believe, struck many others. The idea is partly wrong and partly right. Francis Brett Harte was his name originally. That form was changed to Francis Bret Harte, then to F. Bret Harte, and finally to the attractive form which long ago endeared itself to the whole English-reading world. For it is well known, undoubtedly, that the Bret Harte stories are quite as popular in England and in the British colonies as in the United States ; that Germany yields to none in her admiration for them ; and that one of them, ” Gabriel Conroy,” has been printed in at least fourteen languages. Indeed, a quarter of a century ago the name of Bret Harte was as powerful the world over as was Mr. Kipling’s a few years since. Perhaps the felicitous brevity of the name was one of the elements of that power.
Bret Harte was born in Albany, N.Y., on August 25, 1839. His father was at that time a teacher in the Albany Female Seminary. Bret was still in boyhood when his father died. The boy, who had received an ordinary public school education, went to California with his mother in 1854. The Golden State was then one enormous mining-camp. The laws were largely unwritten. A passion either for gold or for adventure had taken possession of thousands of persons and thrown them together in one of the wildest parts of the world. In this exciting school. of life young Harte studied his first lessons of life. For three years he was thrown hither and thither, with his eyes and his ears wide open, and with his mind sponging up the lively incidents which, through his skillful pen, have since become the idyls of the pioneer West, with all its vice and virtue, its heroes and cravens, its showy wealth and its heart-touching poverty. For a year he was an express rider, with a route lying among the ravines and gulches of the northern part of the State ; and what he had not learned by his own observation he learned during this period from other observers. This was the time when Yuba Bill and the other heroic road-agents took form in his imagination. At another time he picked up the trade of compositor in a newspaper office in Eureka; and at still another time he went out prospecting, and there was a sign of later days in the fact that before the three years of his uncertainty came to an end he taught school for a short while. It was then that, for the first time, he indulged the literary instincts awakened by his experience in the newspaper office in Eureka. This budding age is outlined in ” M’liss.”
In 1857 the young man settled down in San Francisco as a compositor in the office of the Golden Era, a weekly periodical. A few round-about-town sketches called A Boy’s Dog,” ” Sidewalkings,” and ” In a Balcony,” submitted most humbly and respectfully to the editor, brought to the ambitious printer the reward of an invitation to join the editorial staff. With the acceptance of the invitation began a most brilliant literary career. We are indebted to a friend of the author’s for the statement : ” Those were busy days, and much of the matter ground out in that time of probation is as pregnant with genius and wit as any that he has seen fit to retain in his complete edition.” But the edition is not yet complete, we may remark.
When, not long afterward, a weekly called The Californian was established in San Francisco, the new writer went over to it enthusiastically. In the columns of this periodical and of some of the daily papers appeared the poems and the sketches which rounded out Mr. Harte’s “time of probation.” The Californian was the means of acquainting him with Mark Twain, also a new figure on the literary horizon. Indeed, it has been said by men who knew the little group of enthusiasts connected with The Californian that it was Harte who induced the Mississippi pilot first to put to use his genius as a humorist.
This catch-penny work of the days of The Californian was profitable to Harte simply as experience. Like many another story-teller, he came to the conclusion that steady employment, with a few leisure hours in the day, would do more to advance him than anything else, and so he found work, first in the United States Surveyor General’s office, then with the United States Marshal, and later in the mint. Shortly before going to the mint he was introduced to Easterners by a sketch in The Atlantic Monthly, ” The Legend of Monte Diablo,” which introduction was due largely to the patronage of Jessie Benton Fremont, one of the most cultivated women in California. His secretaryship at the mint, which began in 1864, led to a very productive period, some of the fruits of which are
John Burns of Gettysburg,” ” The Pliocene Skull,” ” The Society on the Stanislow ” and the remarkable “Condensed Novels,” in the writing of which, as one of the old-time critics remarked ” a new set of faculties was required.”
At this point naturally comes in the question, What was Bret Harte’s first book ? The question was answered last year by the author himself, in this statement : ” When I say that my first book was not my own, and contained beyond the title page not one word of my own composition, I trust that I shall not be accused of trifling with paradox, or tardily unbosoming myself of plagiary. But the fact remains that in priority of publication the first book for which I became responsible, and which probably provoked more criticism than anything I have written since, was a small compilation of California poems indited by other hands. There was an ominous calm when the book reached the market. Out of it the bolt fell. A well-known mining weekly, which I will poetically veil under the title of the Red Dog Jay Hawk,was the first to swoop down upon the tuneful and unsuspecting quarry as follows : ‘ The hog wash and ” burp ” stuff ladled out from the slop bucket of Messrs. and Company, of ‘Frisco, by some lop-eared Eastern apprentice and called ” A Compilation of Californian Verses,” might be passed over as far as criticism goes. A club in the hands of any able-bodied citizen of Red Dog and a steamboat ticket to the bay, cheerfully contributed from this office, would be all sufficient. But when an imported green-horn dares to call his flapdoodle mixture ” Californian,” it is an insult to the State that has produced the gifted Yellow Hammer, whose lofty flights have from time to time dazzled our readers in the columns of the Jay Hawk. That this complacent editorial jackass, browsing among the dock and the thistles which he has served up in this volume, should make allusion to California’s greatest bard, is rather a confession of idiocy than a slur upon the genius of our esteemed contributor.’ ”
There were other bolts quite as forceful, but as a sample of the literary criticism found in California in the great mining days, and also of the reins that kept editorial enterprise in check, the foregoing will suffice.
In 1868, while Mr. Harte was still working in the mint and quietly hitching his literary wagon to a star, Mr. Roman, an ambitious San Francisco publisher, projected The Overland Monthly, a periodical that has had considerable influence on the literary growth of the far West. He invited the secretary of the mint to be its editor. The invitation was accepted, and the editor-to-be at once went to work on a story for the first number, which was to appear in July. The scheme of the magazine was thoroughly Eastern, but the editor decided that, for the honor of the West, his story should have a strong local flavor. He called it ” The Luck of Roaring Camp,” and, with-out a thought of any impropriety, had it put into type. For the sake of accuracy we take the liberty of relating the consequences as they were related in the old days :
” The first intimation that it was likely to arouse criticism of any kind, good or bad, came to him in the form of a protest from the young woman who read proof on the paper. She sent word to him that if matter as indecent as The Luck of Roaring Camp’ was to be printed in The Overland Monthly she could not retain her place as an employee of the paper. Harte read the story over again in proof to see where the indecencies were, but could find none. Then he took it to the owner of the paper, and asked his opinion of it. The owner took it home and read it to his wife. It made her cry, and she thought it was a powerful production, but she agreed with the proof-reader that it was too daring in its conception, and too frank in its details even for the not-over particular society which inhabited California. Harte heard her judgment with amazement. He was utterly unable to see anything improper in the story. Finally the owner of the paper so far went over to the side of the story’s critics as to say that he thought the story would have to be left out. Harte took a day and a night to think the matter over, and then he announced his own decision. He said that if the story was left out of that month’s issue of The Overland Monthly he would himself insist on being left out of all connection with the paper in the future. There was no quarrel. He simply was certain that his judgment was good, and felt that if it was considered bad on this occasion by the owner, he would never be able to suit him in the future. Finally, after the matter had been placed on this definite basis, the owner made up his mind to let the story run.” We have met the account of the momentous difficulty in a slightly different form, but the account which we have repeated may be accepted as substantially correct.
The Luck of Roaring Camp ” did not please the Californians, and it seemed for some time as if the censure of the feminine critics would be justified popularly ; but when the flattering opinions of the Eastern readers were reported, the gold hunters changed their minds. No doubt they were astonished to hear that a Boston publishing house, at that time the most powerful organization of its kind in the land, had offered to accept anything the author might offer at his own terms.
Harte was busy sending provisions to the snowbound camps in the Sierras in the fall of 1868, so that his next story, The Out-casts of Poker Flat,” made its appearance as late as January, 1869. That same year, too, ” Plain Language from Truthful James,” popularly known as The Heathen Chinee,” came to delight the reading public ; and since that time Bret Harte’s fame has remained more or less brilliant.
For a time he filled the chair of Modern Literature in the University of California. In 1871 he came East. The journey was a triumph. Nothing like it ever occurred before, or has occurred since. Once in the East, The Atlantic Monthly agreed to pay him one thousand dollars a month for a poem and a short story ; but the author soon found the agreement irksome. He lectured and wrote at his leisure in this country until 1878, when he was appointed United States Consul at Crefeld, Germany, and two years later he was sent to Glasgow. His term there closed in 1885, and ever since he has made London his home.
However, he has always been Californian in his stories. His latest offering, ” Under the Redwoods,” is as reflective of the growing days of the West as are early master-pieces like ” Tennessee’s Partner and ” Miggles.” His star may be a trifle lower in the heavens than it was when he went abroad, but it is still of the first magnitude.