Bret Harte (1839-1902), American author and frontiersman

Francis Bret Harte was born August 25, 1839 in Albany, New York. Some reports have him born in 1836, but Harte himself places the date three years later. Upon his father's death in 1854, Mrs. Harte, Bret, and his three siblings moved to California. Bret, at the young age of 15, began working there as a miner and general gofer for many of the other miners in the area. Eventually he secured a job as a teacher for children in the area, and freelanced as a post journalist from time to time.

In 1857, Bret moved to San Francisco, where he took up work at a small newspaper ambitiously called "The Golden Era." At first merely a printer, his few bits of prose caught the attention of an editor, who made him to a writer for the publication. He spent 5 years in the town, writing primarily but also living the frontier life and befriending the people who would shape the colorful characters of his stories and poetry.

By 1862 he had been published several times in Charles Henry Webb's The Californian, and his prose was especially admired for its characterization of the care-free spirit of frontier America. He often employed exaggeration and a hint of satire in his work, but he essentially championed the life of the miners, ranchers, and other immigrants to California as the greatest people on Earth. A sharp contrast from the distinctly British stylings of the New England authors of the era, Harte is perhaps the first truly American storyteller, and is certainly one of the most prolific. Interestingly, despite his storytelling prowess, his prose output is dwarfed by that of his poetry, living, breathing odes to the American attitude of hard work and the dream of the self-made man. Harte also used his platform to speak out against the poor treatment of Chinese immigrants, most famously in his work "The Heathen Chinee" (though being a man of his times, heaped numerous unconscious racist remarks upon them as well.)

In 1863, he was published for the first time in Atlantic Monthly, and the following year was given a job as a secretary in the office of the United States Mint in San Francisco, a position he filled until his exodus from the state. The position was a relaxed one, and gave Bret ample time to compose the works that made him famous.

In 1868 he began editing The Overland Monthly, a magazine more directly aimed at expounding the virtues and excitement of California life for the East Coast readers back home, and his short story "The Luck of Roaring Camp", which appeared in its second edition, sealed Harte's fame as the foremost pioneer writer of his day.

In 1870, he composed the touching tribute "Dickens in Camp" upon the death of the famous author, and many critics and essayists since have drawn numerous parallels between the writings of Dickens and Harte. It was also during this period that he wrote his most famous work, The Outcasts of Poker Flats, which crystallized the frontier life in a succinct, touching, and timeless fashion.

Ultimately, though, Harte was more of a writer than a frontiersman, and when Atlantic Monthly offered him $10,000 for 12 stories in 1871, he signed the deal and returned to New York City. In 1873, he relocated to Boston, where he regaled locals with tales of the Wild West. In 1878, he was appointed U.S. Consul of Krefeld, Germany, and in 1880 he was transferred to the Scottish town of Glasgow. He retired to life in London, where he wrote and produced a number of plays, most of them to no acclaim or effect.

In 1898, Harte's more successful writing counterpart, the great Mark Twain (a colleague of Harte's during the early days of The Californian), insulted him in his autobiography by claiming that Harte's stories were more imagination than truth, and not based on the real lives of frontiersmen and pioneers. Harte never saw fit to respond, and Twain's greatness at the time served to lessen Harte's impact on future generations of writers.

Harte himself died only four years later of throat cancer, at the age of 65. He was buried at Frimley.

Most criticism of Harte's work is a non-starter because, simply put, Harte's subject matter and his tastes were too far out of the mainstream of poetry and prose of the 19th century. His use of slave, Chinese, Mexican, and Native American dialects, his characters with endless accents and malapropisms, his firsthand lowbrow knowledge of poker games, barroom brawls, loose women, and the roughneck life - none of this translates well in comparison with, say, the earlier works of naturalists Washington Irving or James Fenimore Cooper, or even Harte's contemporaries in Ralph Waldo Emerson and Twain. In fact, Twain used the South and frontier as backdrops for heightened satire, whereas Harte bought more dearly into the actual lives being lived at the time. It is perhaps then no small consolation that the work considered Harte's greatest, "The Outcast of Poker Flats", falls more squarely in line with Twain's application than Harte's own.

All in all an exciting writer, the progenitor of Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, founder of a decidedly American school of writing, and the epitome of the can-do American spirit so revered in book and history.

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