HARTE, [FRANCIS] BRET[T] (1836–1902). Born in Albany, New
York, Bret Harte rose to literary prominence as editor of the Overland
Monthly (first pub. 1868), a San Francisco-based magazine of western lore.
In this forum Harte produced his best sketches, stories, and poems, including “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (August 1868), “The Outcasts of Poker
Flat” (January 1869), and the satirical poem “Plain Language from Truthful
James,” better known as “The Heathen Chinee” (September 1870). Following his return to the East Coast in 1871, Harte lectured extensively
about the Pacific coast and eventually produced his best-known novel, Gabriel Conroy (1876). The tepid reception of his novel, a sign of ebbing
interest in his stories, convinced Harte to accept a consulate in Prussia in
1878 and later in Scotland in 1880. He remained in Europe, where interest
in his writing continued throughout his lifetime.
Harte romanticized the hardy souls who settled California and the hardships they endured, using themes and metaphors drawn from the sea. In
“The Luck of Roaring Camp” and in “Notes by Flood and Field” (1870),
in which various rural settlements along estuaries of the Pacific Ocean are
inundated with floodwaters from the Sierra Mountain range, Harte depicts
nature as unpredictable and wild. In a similar vein, “High-Water Mark”
(1870) is the tale of a woman whose home is consumed by the rising tide
of the nearby Pacific Ocean and of her struggle for survival aboard a fallen
tree. The power of the wild waters rushing to the sea symbolizes the adversity faced by the inhabitants of this new frontier, generating awe and
respect for both sea and westerners.
In “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” a story evoking thoughts of the ill-fated
Donner party, swells of snow that consume a band of refugees are equated
metaphorically with the sea. “The Man of No Account” (1860), an easterner
whose failed California experiment left him with the title, is returning home
aboard a passenger steamer, which is lost at sea. “By Shore and Sedge”
(1885) is the story of Abner McNott, an entrepreneur who converts the Pontiac, a ship abandoned on the California shore by early gold-seekers,
into lodging rooms. In “The Right Eye of the Commander” (1870), a
mysterious sailor named Peleg Scudder from Salem, Massachusetts, is given
safe harbor at a Spanish fort during a storm. By the next morning he has
disappeared, leaving the commander of the fort with a seemingly possessed
right eye, striking fear in those around him.
A rare story not involving California, “Mr. Midshipman Breezy” (1867)
chronicles a young English sailor’s journey across the Atlantic Ocean and
through the Caribbean* Sea. In a lecture delivered in the Martin Opera
House in Albany, New York, in 1872, Harte referred to the early settlers of
California as “Argonauts” whom he respected for their adventurous optimism in settling the Pacific coast.