Bret Harte was a 19th century author and poet famous for his stories about California mining towns, and about the pioneering life in the California of his day. Harte was born in Albany, New York, as Francis Brett Hart. He was named after his great grand father Francis Brett, and his family name was then Hart. Harte clearly did not like the names he was born with, and later in life eliminated his first given name, Francis, changed his second given name to Bret from Brett, and changed his family name from Hart to Harte. I guess he just wanted to be different.
Harte moved to California in 1853, when he was only 17 years old. It is not clear if he was a young adventurer or whether he moved with his family. Harte initially lived in Union [now Arcata], California, where he served as assistant editor for the “Northern Californian”, a local newspaper. In 1860, a massacre occurred at Tutulwat, near Union, where between 80 and 200 native Americans were killed. Harte wrote a scathing editorial about the massacre, and published it in the “Northern Californian, the local newspaper.
By writing the critical article, Harte put his own survival at stake. His life was threatened, and he was forced to flee the area. He ended up in San Francisco, probably for the best of his writing career. A slightly modified excerpt of the editorial follows: “Old women wrinkled and decrepit lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and drabbled with their long gray hair. Infants scarcely a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets, and their bodies were mutilated ghastly with wounds.”
The massacre apparently had wide community approval in the area where it occurred. No one was ever brought to trial, despite the evidence of a planned attack and reference to specific individuals, and to members of the unofficial militia, the Humboldt Volunteers. But at least Harte survived by moving from the area around where it occurred.
An early literary journal, “The Californian”, published by Charles Henry Webb published some of Harte’s early poetry and prose which helped him become known in California literary circles. In 1868, Harte became editor of “The Overland Monthly”, a literary journal focused more on the pioneering style of the California of that time period. His first famous story, “The Luck of Roaring Camp” appeared in “The Overland Monthly”, and propelled Harte to nationwide fame.
When Charles Dickens passed away in 1870, Harte composed a poetic tribute, “Dickens in Camp”. This poem was considered a masterpiece of verse, with an unusual quality of poetic expression.
It was during the late 1860’s that Harte met his contemporary Mark Twain, apparently in California. Although Mark Twain was a year older than Harte, it was Twain who gave Harte credit for teaching him how to write. Twain told Thomas Aldrich Bailey in 1871, that, “Harte had trained and schooled him so patiently until he changed me from an awkward utterer of grotesquenesss to a writer of paragraphs and chapters that have found a certain favor in the eyes of even some of the very decentest people in the land.” Later in life Mark Twain would, of course, continue on to become of the more famous writers of his era.
In 1871, Harte decided to pursue his writing career in the east, and travelled with his family to New York and eventually settled in Boston, Massachusetts. He contracted with “The Atlantic Monthly”, to write prose and poetry. However, his California style which had served him well while living in California, apparently did not go over so well with the eastern establishment. His popularity waned, and he eventually decided to find other work to earn a living.
In 1878, Harte accepted a position as United States Consul in the town of Krefeld in Germany. He was later, in 1880, transferred to Glasgow, Scotland. Harte apparently liked the British Isles and settled in London in 1885. During the entire time he spent in Europe, about 24 years, Harte did not abandon his writing, and his stories retained the same freshness as his earlier work. Harte passed away in 1902 of throat cancer. He was buried in Frimley, Surrey, England. Mark Twain outlived Harte for another eight years.
Harte is best remembered in California. Numerous elementary and high schools are named after him, as well as many streets and roads. In 1987, Harte appeared on a United States postage stamp, as part of the “Great American Series” of postage stamp issues.
Bret Harte, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bret_Harte
Kaplan, Justin, “Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain”, NY: Simon and Shuster, 1966, p. 74.
Twain, Mark, “Mark Twain at the Buffalo Express”, Edited by Joseph McCullough and Janice McIntyre-Strassburg, Northern Illinois University Press, 1979, p296, n. 126.
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