Once the golden boy of San Francisco letters, Bret Harte ended his days in obscurity.

By J. Kingston Pierce


Bret Harte's witty, sometimes heart-rending tales of frontier California earned him acclaim during the 1860s as the "new prophet of American letters." Eastern magazines courted him for submissions, no less a critic than San Francisco's own Ambrose Bierce called his humor "incomparable," and the highlights of Harte's oeuvre--from "The Luck of Roaring Camp" to "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" and "Mliss"--helped establish the foundations of western American fiction.

Some of his Bay Area colleagues must have found it comical to hear this writer identified as "the voice of the West," for despite legends that have eddied up around Harte (it's been said that he once fought Indians and later battled bandits as an expressman--probably both untrue), he was really a dude, something of a snob, a city boy all the way down to his clean socks. He wrote about miners, yet his first-hand experience with mining was very limited. He described the travails of prostitutes and gamblers and other undesirables, yet he hankered after a life of genteel clubs and hansom cabs. Other San Francisco writers had experienced the hardships of a western existence; Harte crafted his fiction from second-hand gleanings. He had spent eight years in the Bay Area listening to men who'd journeyed to and from gold diggings, worked riverboats or stagecoaches, always trying to catch the tenor of their speech and the atmosphere of their lives, so that when he sat down finally to pen a western narrative, he didn't have to depend exclusively on his imagination.

But to most of his readers it didn't matter that Bret Harte romanticized this part of the country. Americans were anxious in his time to believe stories about miners with deep-seated soft spots and whores with hearts as golden as the metal that had made California famous. Harte was in the business of legend-making--an aspiring Homer of the gold camps. And for the 17 years of his San Francisco residency, there were few others to rival him.

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He followed his mother from New York to Oakland in 1854. His father, a teacher plagued by chronic penury, had died almost a decade before, and his mother was coming west to remarry. Francis Brett Harte, as he was known at birth (only after he took up as a career scribe did Harte become known by his middle name, dropping its second t), had less clear ideas of what he might accomplish in California. He tried working for an East Bay apothecary and doing some tutoring, but it wasn't until he moved with a married sister to Humboldt County, on the coast near Oregon's border, that he discovered his true calling.

He obtained his first scrivener's post at a newspaper called the Northern Californian, in the bantam burg of Union (now Arcata), north of Eureka. The pay was paltry and the hours long. Harte would probably have made more money fishing off Humboldt Bay or mining in the Trinity River district. Yet he kept at it, freelancing some poetry and romantic prose to Eastern magazines as well as to San Francisco's venerable Golden Era, and at the close of 1857, when Harte was just 21 years old, his diary received some important news: He had decided to devote his life to the printed page, no matter what the cost.

The cost became pretty clear three years later when he made the mistake of taking the Indians' side in his Northern Californian report on the notorious Gunther's Island Massacre, during which some 60 peaceable Native Americans living near Arcata were slaughtered by whites. In response, Harte's neighbors ran the young journalist angrily out of town. This wasn't exactly an auspicious start to the career of a man who wanted freedom in what he wrote, but at least it forced him out of the country and into the city, where his talents would be more sorely tested and his style more quickly matured.

San Francisco took him in, as it so often took in the lost, the lonely, the loony, and the literary-minded. He went to work initially as a typesetter at The Golden Era, but it wasn't long before he was also contributing stories regularly to that journal's pages, signing himself as "Bret" or "The Bohemian." More than a hundred of his tales, essays, and sketches were featured in the Era over the next three years, including his half-tongue-in-cheek proposals for a new California order of bohemianism, based on writers and artists becoming nature-worshipping apostates. (Crazy as it sounds, that later became the starting point for this city's still-extant Bohemian Club.)

The Era gig was valuable not only because that weekly happened to be well read by people who were well-read, but for the contacts it gave Harte among San Francisco's rapidly gathering literati. Its downside was that it again paid bread-and-water wages. So in 1861, when Jessie Benton Frémont, author (Far West Sketches, A Year of American Travel) and wife of explorer-turned-politician John C. Frémont, helped Harte to secure an appointment as clerk with the local surveyor-general, he could hardly get out of the Era's offices fast enough. Two years later, he moved up to the San Francisco branch of the United States Mint, where he served for six years as the superintendent's secretary.

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Working at the mint was ideal for Bret Harte, since his responsibilities were minimal and rote. It left him time to start a family, which he did with his marriage to a New York woman, Anna Griswold, in August of 1862. It also allowed him to spend many free hours with his pen and his creative instincts, and without the terminal anxiety of trying to live off what he could publish. Harte became an avid supporter of Abraham Lincoln and the pro-Union cause, creating some poems that were intended to stir patriotic fervor among his California readership. But most of his efforts were still art for art's sake. In addition to the Era, after 1864 he submitted many more of his musings to The Californian, a most eclectic but sophisticated competitor that serialized novels, featured satire and articles on fashion, and covered a broad spectrum of eyebrow-raising phenomena, from hauntings to vampires to Haitian voodoo. Harte's contributions were more earth-bound than some in The Californian, mostly wry essays ("Neighborhoods I Have Moved From; by a Hypochondriac") and parodies. Over the next two years, he even took on some of that weekly's editing tasks.

It was his assembling of California's first poetry anthology in 1865, though, that made Harte's name as an editor--and practically destroyed him as a critic of verse. The idea for Outcroppings came from Anton Roman, a shy, rather owlish Bavarian publisher and book dealer, whose shop in San Francisco was considered fashionable. As the city was sprouting bards and would-be rhymers in superfluity, Roman proposed to Harte that he collect some of their work between book covers. It seemed an innocent enough project, and resulted in a volume containing 42 selections by 19 authors, plus a rather skeptical introduction by Harte. But the response was immediate--and overwhelmingly negative. Virginia City's Territorial Enterprise labeled Outcroppings a "feeble collection of drivel," while the San Francisco News Letter reported that "the ‘country poets’ were in a state of fearful excitement. Yesterday it was rumored that three to four hundred of these were coming down on the Sacramento boat in a ‘fine phrensy’ and swearing dire vengeance upon Harte." While he was spared the indignity of being run out of town again, Harte was notably excluded from the authors featured in a second compilation of local poetry, published several months after Outcroppings.

Harte could sluff off such slights, for he was indisputably now one of the old men of San Francisco letters--regardless of the fact that he was still only 31 years old. Other writers sought him out for advice, including a rangy newspaperman who went by the pseudonym "Mark Twain." His power in literary circles was confirmed in 1868, when he was installed as editor of San Francisco's newest journal, The Overland Monthly. Again, this was a brainchild of Anton Roman, who envisioned a publication less high-toned than The Californian and more concerned with the 31st state than with the balance of the world. Partly through Roman's influence, partly because of Harte's contacts, the magazine had access to a wealth of excellent prose. It featured Bierce's first short story, "The Haunted Valley," Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz's reports on the animal kingdom, and other submissions from John Muir, Joaquin Miller, and even General William T. Sherman.

"The Luck of Roaring Camp" appeared in the second issue of The Overland Monthly and earned Bret Harte an audience well beyond the Rocky Mountains. "Luck" is the heavily romanticized tale of an infant boy, the progeny of a mining-camp prostitute, and how he brings out the redemptive virtues in even the most grizzled of goldseeking veterans. Harte's fictional formula here, combining sentiment, pathos, and ironic humor, carried the strong scent of his literary inspirator, Charles Dickens --but it was Dickens transported to the wildest of settings, unfamiliar and appealing especially to readers back east. He went on to duplicate this yarn-spinning formula over and over again, yet readers didn't tire of it. In fact, his work became so popular that many other young writers sought to emulate its "local color" style, importing traditional characters and situations to their own novel settings. You can still find some of Harte's motifs in novels by contemporary western writers.

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In 1870, Bret Harte published a humorous poem called "Plain Language from Truthful James" (better known as "The Heathen Chinee"). While he didn't think much of the work, himself, many westerners embraced it for its implicit condemnation of cheap Chinese labor, and the rest of the English-speaking world loved it merely for its exoticism. It boosted sales for Harte's book, The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches, and it convinced the author that he was finally ready to take on the New York publishing world. He left San Francisco for the East on February 2, 1871.

Manhattan writers who'd expected to welcome into their ranks a sweaty frontiersman wearing red long-johns and carrying a saddle over his shoulder must've been shocked--more likely, disappointed--to shake hands with the foppish, well-spoken Harte. But appearances aside, Atlantic Monthly magazine was confident that this Californian had the stuff of greatness in him, and its Boston editors wanted it all. They offered Harte a whopping $10,000 for a year's worth of writing, at least 12 contributions. It was enough to set him up in high clover, with his wife and four children all enjoying the newfound fruits of his success.

Unfortunately, while he satisfied his contract with the Atlantic, the quality of his work didn't satisfy the editors. There was no talk of renewing Harte's contract, and he was left to make do as best he could in the crowded East Coast freelance market. He struggled through a mediocre novel, Gabriel Conroy (1876), and composed two plays, including Ah Sin, which he wrote in 1877 with Mark Twain (and which bombed at the box office). Careless as ever about his money, he and Anna both frittered it away. He tried to recoup his fortune by embarking on extensive lecture tours, the way Twain had, but Harte didn't like the long hours or the niggardly recompense, and gave it up.

Desperate, he accepted a US consulate position in Prussia and sailed for Europe in June 1878, leaving his wife and children behind. He never again set foot in America. But in the 1880s, he did return to California--at least in mind. Living in London, where his reputation was still good, he locked himself away in a flat and, coughing incessantly, tried to revisit the themes and western characters that had briefly made him a household name. "I grind out the old tunes on the old organ and gather up the coppers," he lamented. It was a depressing task and an unsuccessful one. Harte had used up the fund of his best ideas by his 40th birthday. He died of throat cancer 25 years later, in the spring of 1902.

(Excerpted from San Francisco, You’re History!, copyright 1995 by J. Kingston Pierce. Reprinted with permission from the author.)


J. Kingston Pierce, a Seattle writer specializing in history, travel, and politics, is the author of San Francisco, You're History! (Sasquatch Books, 1995) and America’s Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (KQED Books, 1997). He is currently at work on a collection of stories about significant events and eccentrics from Seattle’s past.

Index - San Francisco History: Bret Harte