Authors: Bret Harte

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American short-story writer and poet

August 25, 1836

Albany, New York

May 6, 1902

Camberley, Surrey, England


Francis Bret Harte, who attained fame with two short stories and a humorous poem, is best known in literary history for his short stories of the West. Of Jewish, Dutch, and English descent, Bret Harte was born in Albany, New York, in 1836. His indigent parents moved from city to city in the East until, after the death of the father, his mother remarried and moved to California; Harte and his sisters followed her, and during the next few years he was engaged in school teaching, typesetting, mining, politics, and finally journalism.

Bret Harte

(Library of Congress)

In 1857, Harte became a typesetter on the Golden Era in San Francisco. Though serving in a nonliterary capacity, he wrote poems and local-color sketches on the side, and in 1865 he edited a book of Western verse, Outcropping. In 1868, he was made editor of the newly founded Overland Monthly in San Francisco. The second issue contained his story “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” and in January, 1869, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” appeared in the same magazine. Though both caught the approving attention of readers in the East, the accidental publication of his poem “Plain Language from Truthful James” (familiarly known as “The Heathen Chinee”) produced his greatest popularity. It resulted in an offer, which he accepted, of $10,000 to write for The Atlantic Monthly for a year, and in 1871 he left for the East. The volume East and West Poems appeared that same year. However, his work soon declined in popularity, and, running into debt after the failure of a magazine venture, he entered the United States consular service. After posts in Germany and Scotland, he lost his political appointment in 1885 and moved to London, where he remained, isolating himself from his past, until he died at Camberley, Surrey, on May 5, 1902.

Harte’s prose works as well as his verse tend toward the melodramatic, and they are often poorly constructed. However, Harte provided a sentimental point of view of the West that suited contemporary preconceptions among Eastern and British readers. Despite the criticism leveled at it, Harte’s sentimental depiction of the West became a standard that lasted far beyond his lifetime. Some of his stories and characters were the original models for the stereotype features that were copied in thousands of subsequent Western novels and filled hundreds of Saturday-afternoon film screens. Along with artists such as Frederick Remington and Charles Russell, Harte created an American West that found favor around the world for generations. The works of these men continue to influence many later writers and artists who draw on images of the West.

Author Works Short Fiction: The Lost Galleon, and Other Tales, 1867 Condensed Novels, 1867 The Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Sketches, 1870 Stories of the Sierras, 1872 Mrs. Skaggs’s Husbands, 1873 The Tales of the Argonauts, 1875 Thankful Blossom, 1877 The Story of a Mine, 1878 Drift from Two Shores, 1878 The Twins of Table Mountain, 1879 Flip and Found at Blazing Star, 1882 In the Carquinez Woods, 1883 Maruja, 1885 By Shore and Sedge, 1885 The Crusade of the Excelsior, 1887 A Millionaire of Rough-and-Ready, 1887 Frontier Stories, 1887 A Phyllis of the Sierras, 1888 Cressy, 1889 The Heritage of Dedlow Marsh, 1889 A Waif of the Plains, 1890 A First Family of Tasajara, 1891 Colonel Starbottle's Client and Other Stories, 1892 Sally Dows, 1893 A Protégée of Jack Hamlin’s, 1894 The Bell-Ringer of Angel’s, 1894 Barker’s Luck, and Other Stories, 1896 The Three Partners, 1897 Tales of Trail and Town, 1898 Stories in Light and Shadow, 1898 Condensed Novels: New Burlesques, 1899 Mr. Jack Hamlin’s Meditation, 1899 From Sand Hill to Pine, 1900 Urban Sketches, 1901 Condensed Novels: Second Series, 1902 Openings in the Old Trail, 1902 Trent’s Trust, 1903 The Story of Enriquez, 1924 Long Fiction: Gabriel Conroy, 1876 Jeff Brigg's Love Story, 1880 Snow-Bound at Eagle's, 1886 The Argonauts of North Liberty, 1888 Susy: A Story of the Plains, 1892 Clarence, 1895 In a Hollow of the Hills, 1895 Devil's Ford, 1896 A Ward of the Golden Gate, 1900 Drama: Two Men of Sandy Bar, pr. 1876 Ah Sin, pr. 1877 (with Mark Twain) Sue, pr. 1896 (with T. Edgar Pemberton) Poetry: “Plain Language from Truthful James,” 1870 (also known as “The Heathen Chinee”) Poems, 1871 East and West Poems, 1871 Poetical Works, 1880 Poetical Works of Bret Harte, 1896 Some Later Verses, 1898 Nonfiction: Selected Letters of Bret Harte, 1997 (Gary Scharnhorst, editor) Miscellaneous: The Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Writings, 2001 Bibliography Barnett, Linda D. Bret Harte: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. With a brief introduction outlining the historical directions of Harte scholarship and criticism, this work provides a good annotated bibliography and checklist through 1977. Duckett, Margaret. Mark Twain and Bret Harte. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964. Duckett’s book is an intriguing and carefully documented history of the friendship and literary association of Twain and Harte and their eventual falling out and feud. Includes illustrations and a bibliography through 1963. Hall, Roger. “Annie Pixley, Kate Mayhew, and Bret Harte’s M’Liss.” ATQ, n.s. 11 (December, 1997): 267-283. Discusses the struggle in 1878 over the rights to M’Liss, a play based on a story by Bret Harte; claims that the struggle indicates the chaotic state of copyright laws, contracts, and play “pirates” in the late nineteenth century. Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte. Boise, Idaho: Boise State College, 1972. This brief but excellent study analyzes Harte’s major work in both literature and criticism. Although concise, it is a very helpful introduction. Supplemented by a select bibliography. Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte, Literary Critic. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1979. Morrow surveys and analyzes what he considers a very neglected part of Harte’s work, his literary criticism. He establishes Harte’s significance in the “local color” movement. Contains a useful bibliography of primary sources. Morrow, Patrick. “Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and the San Francisco Circle.” In A Literary History of the American West. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University, 1987. This important chapter covers the contributors to the Western journals between 1865 and 1875, placing emphasis on Harte. Nissen, Axel. Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. This scholarly biography provides a new assessment of the life and achievements of the writer. O’Connor, Richard. Bret Harte: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966. A lively, anecdotal, and gossipy account limited to Harte’s life, this work is not critical in focus. It does list Harte’s best-known literary characters. Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte. New York: Twayne, 1992. A critical biography of Harte, providing analyses of stories from four different periods of his life, fully informed by critical reception of Harte’s work. An afterword summarizes Harte’s critical reputation. Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: A Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995. An excellent tool for the student of Harte. Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000. A study of the writer/editor and his struggle to make the West part of the wider American culture. Scharnhorst, Gary. “Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and the Literary Construction of San Francisco.” In San Francisco in Fiction: Essays in a Regional Literature, edited by David Fine and Paul Skenazy. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995. Discusses Harte’s acceptance of the Eastern canon’s taste in such stories as “The Idyl of Red Gulch” and his romanticized depiction of San Francisco as a rough-and-tumble boomtown in several late stories. Stevens, J. David. “’She War a Woman’: Family Roles, Gender, and Sexuality in Bret Harte’s Western Fiction.” American Literature 69 (September, 1997): 571-593. A discussion of gender in Harte’s western fiction; argues that what critics have labeled sentimental excess in Harte’s fiction is in fact his method of exploring certain hegemonic cultural paradigms taken for granted in other Western narratives; discusses stories that deal with the structure of the family and how they critique gender roles. Stewart, George R. Bret Harte, Argonaut and Exile. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1964. Stewart’s is the most scholarly and highly regarded of Harte’s biographies. It focuses on Harte’s life and defends the writer’s achievements against his detractors. Stoneley, Peter. “Rewriting the Gold Rush: Twain, Harte, and Homosociality.” Journal of American Studies 30 (August, 1996): 189-209. An examination of authority and gender in gold rush fiction. From the perspective of poststructuralist theories of difference, explores the partnership of Mark Twain and Bret Harte; situates the Harte-Twain relationship within a broader network of late nineteenth century.

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