American Literature Bret Harte
Gary Scharnhorst
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 December 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0167


Bret Harte (b. 1837–d. 1902), long regarded as a pioneering western American local colorist, is best-known today for half a dozen short stories, including “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (August 1868), “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” (January 1869), and “Tennessee’s Partner” (October 1869), as well as the poem “Plain Language from Truthful James” or “The Heathen Chinee” (September 1870). Born in Albany, Harte immigrated with his family to California in 1854. After working in the gold fields for a few weeks in 1857, he became a journalist and typesetter for the San Francisco Golden Era in 1860. In 1868 he became the founding editor of the Overland Monthly, and in February 1871 he crossed the continent in a blaze of glory. As Mark Twain remarked, his movements were “marked from station to station by telegraph, as the progress of a Prince would be.” The next month he signed the most lucrative contract to that date in the history of American letters with Fields, Osgood and Company, the Boston publisher of the Atlantic Monthly, to write exclusively for the firm’s magazines for a year at a salary of ten thousand dollars. Unable to sustain the quality of his early fiction, however, Harte soon began a slow spiral into insolvency and irrelevance. He earned his living between 1872 and 1874 by lecturing some 150 times from Boston and New York in the east to Omaha in the west, Toronto in the north and Atlanta in the south. His novel Gabriel Conroy (1876) and his plays Two Men of Sandy Bar (1876) and Ah Sin (1877), the latter written in collaboration with Mark Twain, were commercial and critical disasters. In 1878 he was saved from pecuniary embarrassment by an appointment as US Consul to Crefeld, Germany, and two years later he was promoted to US Consul in Glasgow, Scotland. He never returned to America, though he continued to support his family financially. Meanwhile, he slowly resurrected his literary career with a series of romanticized tales of Gold Rush California, such as “The Ingénue of the Sierras” (1893) and “Three Vagabonds of Trinidad” (1900), which were more popular in England and Germany than in the United States. He also earned commercial success in both England and the United States with the play Sue (1896), cowritten with his official biographer T. Edgar Pemberton. A habitual smoker, Harte died of throat cancer near London in May 1902.

General Overviews

The essays listed below are adequate to excellent introductions to Harte’s career. Hansen 1984 discusses the common narrative strategy of Harte’s best fiction. Kolb 1991 makes the case for the coherence of Harte’s oeuvre when read in the context of western humor. Morrow 1972a, Morrow 1972b, and Morrow 1973 all make essentially the same point: that Harte was misread by those audiences who expected either a realistic or sentimental rendering of western themes. Scharnhorst 1992 is a brief but comprehensive sketch of his life and survey of his major writings.

  • Hansen, Klaus P. “Francis Bret Harte: Ironie und Konvention.” Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik 9.1 (1984): 23–37.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In his fiction, according to Hansen, Harte deliberately violates the rules of conventional narrative in order to alienate the reader from the fictionalized frontier.

  • Kolb, Harold H., Jr. “The Outcasts of Literary Flat: Bret Harte as Humorist.” American Literary Realism 23 (Winter 1991): 52–63.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A detailed and persuasive case for reading Harte not as a local colorist or regionalist but primarily as an ironist, satirist, parodist, and humorist.

  • Morrow, Patrick D. Bret Harte. Western Writers Series No. 5. Boise, ID: Boise State College, 1972a.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A passable overview of Harte’s career marred by occasional factual mistakes and an overemphasis on his literary criticism.

  • Morrow, Patrick D. “The Predicament of Bret Harte.” American Literary Realism 5 (Summer 1972b): 181–188.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A spirited defense of Harte not as a gifted realist but as a parodist, satirist, and literary critic.

  • Morrow, Patrick D. “Bret Harte, Popular Fiction, and the Local Color Movement.” Western American Literature 8 (1973): 123–131.

    DOI: 10.1353/wal.1973.0031Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Explains how the genre of parable functions in Harte’s formulaic western fiction and appeals to his target audience of eastern readers.

  • Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte. Twayne’s United States Authors Series 600. New York: Hall, 1992.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that as a prototype of the American writer as a business type, Harte commercialized the role of the “man of letters” in the postbellum United States. Traces his development as a regionalist, newspaper correspondent, literary critic, allegorist, lecturer, poet and playwright, and novelist while emphasizing the period of his career when, as the founding editor of the Overland Monthly, he was most successful.

back to top

Your subscription doesn't include the subject of this book.