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Bret Harte (1836 - 1902)

Harte, Bret

Francis Bret Harte was born in Albany, New York on August 25, 1839. His father, Henry Hart, was the son of an immigrant who had moved to America and became rich. However, Bernard left his family in order to marry again. Bret's mother, Elizabeth Rebecca Ostrander Hart, was from the English and Dutch culture and raised her child in a Dutch Reformed church. By the age of eleven, Bret had published a number of poems.

In 1854 Harte went to California with his mother, a widow. While in California, Harte worked as a miner, a school teacher, an express messenger, a printer, and finally, a journalist. Harte wrote for The Northern Californian. At the beginning of 1859, Harte lost the job after he used the paper to denounce the townspeople who had massacred a tribe of peaceful Native Americans that were holding a religious festival near Eureka. In 1864 Harte was appointed to the branch mint at San Francisco. He held that office for four year, when he was invited to become the editor of the Overland Monthly. Harte met Mark Twain during this time: the later claimed Harte taught him how to write.

Harte used ubiquitous newspapers to break into the literary market. "The Luck of Roaring Camp," the first of his scenic stories of the West, was published in the Overland Monthly. Later, stories like “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “Brown of Calaveras” and the poem "The Plain Language from Truthful James" (aka "The Heather Chinee") cemented Harte's fame.

"Which I wish to remark
And my language is plain
That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain
The heathen Chinee is peculiar."
(from The Plain Language of Truthful James)

Because of the stir his short stories were causing, Bret Harte was flooded with offers for his work: Parke Godwin offered him the editorship of Putnam's; Frank P. Church solicited a series of contributions for the Galaxy; the publishers of Lakeside Magazine in Chicago offered him the editor's chair; the University of California offered him a patronage appointment; and John Carmany, having recently bought The Overland from Anton Roman (a San Francisco bookseller), promised to raise Harte's salary and give him exclusive control over the contents of the magazine. However, when Fields, Osgood and Company, after publishing The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Stories offered Harte $10,000 in April of 1870 for the exclusive rights to the rest of his work over a twelve-month period, Harte accepted.

Other works include "The Idyl of Red Gulch," "Tennessee's Partner," and "Sketches of the Sixties" which Harte co-authored with Mark Twain.

For a year, Harte served as professor at the University of California, and then returned to his native State, living in New York City until 1878. He continued to write poetry and prose and enjoyed wide-spread popularity.

In 1878 Bret Harte was appointed United States Counsul at Crefeld, Germany. Harte was transferred to Glasgow, Scotland in 1880. Thereafter he resided in London. He found a ready audience for his tales in England, long after American readers had tired of his formula. Works from this time include "Ingénue of the Sierras" and "A Protégée of Jack Hamlin's" (both 1893).

Harte died from throat cancer in Camberely, England on May 6, 1902.

Famous quotations by Bret Harte:

  • The only sure thing about luck is that it will change.

  • Suggested sites for Bret Harte:

    Encyclopedia article about Bret Harte
    Texts by Harte
    Devil's Ford

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