Bret Harte

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This article is about the American author. For the Canadian born professional wrestler, see Bret Hart. For other uses, see Bret Harte (disambiguation).
Bret Harte
Bret Harte (by Sarony, 1872).jpg
Bret Harte in 1872
Born (1836-08-25)August 25, 1836
Albany, New York, U.S.
Died May 5, 1902(1902-05-05) (aged 65)
Camberley, England, UK
Occupation Author
Genre Fiction, poetry
Spouse Anna Griswold (m. circa 1862-1902; his death)


Francis Bret Harte (August 25, 1836[1] – May 5, 1902) was an American author and poet, best remembered for his short fiction featuring miners, gamblers, and other romantic figures of the California Gold Rush. In a career spanning more than four decades, he wrote poetry, fiction, plays, lectures, book reviews, editorials, and magazine sketches in addition to fiction. As he moved from California to the eastern U.S. to Europe, he incorporated new subjects and characters into his stories, but his Gold Rush tales have been most often reprinted, adapted, and admired.


Early life[edit]

Bret Harte was born in Albany, New York.[2] He was named Francis Brett Hart after his great-grandfather, Francis Brett. When he was young, his father, Henry, changed the spelling of the family name from Hart to Harte. Henry's father was Bernard Hart, an Orthodox Jewish immigrant who flourished as a merchant, becoming one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange.[3][4] Later, Francis preferred to be known by his middle name, but he spelled it with only one "t", becoming Bret Harte.[citation needed]

An avid reader as a boy, Harte published his first work at age 11, a satirical poem titled "Autumn Musings", now lost. Rather than attracting praise, the poem garnered ridicule from his family. As an adult, he recalled to a friend, "Such a shock was their ridicule to me that I wonder that I ever wrote another line of verse".[5] His formal schooling ended when he was 13, in 1849.[6]

Career in California[edit]

Harte moved to California in 1853, later working there in a number of capacities, including miner, teacher, messenger, and journalist. He spent part of his life in the northern California coastal town of Union (now Arcata), a settlement on Humboldt Bay that was established as a provisioning center for mining camps in the interior.[citation needed]

The 1860 massacre of between 80 and 200 Wiyots at the village of Tuluwat was well documented historically and was reported in San Francisco and New York by Harte. When serving as assistant editor for the Northern Californian, Harte editorialized about the slayings while his boss, Stephen G. Whipple, was temporarily absent, leaving Harte in charge of the paper. Harte published a detailed account condemning the event, writing, "a more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people. Old women wrinkled and decrepit lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbled with their long grey hair. Infants scarcely a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds." After he published the editorial his life was threatened, and he was forced to flee one month later. Harte quit his job and moved to San Francisco, where an anonymous letter published in a city paper is attributed to him, describing widespread community approval of the massacre. In addition, no one was ever brought to trial, despite the evidence of a planned attack and references to specific individuals, including a rancher named Larabee and other members of the unofficial militia called the Humboldt Volunteers.[7]

Portrait of Bret Harte – oil painting by John Pettie(1884)[8]

Harte married Anna Griswold on August 11, 1862, in San Rafael, California.[9] From the start, the marriage was rocky. Some suggested she was handicapped by extreme jealousy while an early biographer of Harte, Henry C. Merwin, privately concluded that she was "almost impossible to live with".[6]

Among Harte's first literary efforts, a poem was published in The Golden Era in 1857,[10] and, in October of that same year, his first prose piece on "A Trip Up the Coast".[11] He was hired as editor of The Golden Era in the spring of 1860, which he attempted to make into a more literary publication.[12] Mark Twain later recalled that, as an editor, Harte struck "a new and fresh and spirited note" which "rose above that orchestra's mumbling confusion and was recognizable as music".[13]

Well-known minister Thomas Star King recommended Harte to James Thomas Fields, editor of the prestigious The Atlantic Monthly. Fields published Harte's first story in the magazine in October 1863.[14] He joined with Charles Henry Webb in starting a new literary journal called The Californian in 1864. In 1868, Harte became editor of The Overland Monthly, another new literary magazine, published by Roman Anton with the intention of highlighting local writings.[15] The Overland Monthly was more in tune with the pioneering spirit of excitement in California. His story "The Luck of Roaring Camp" appeared in the magazine's second issue, propelling Harte to nationwide fame.[citation needed]

When word of Charles Dickens's death reached Harte in July 1870, he immediately sent a dispatch across the bay to San Francisco to hold back the forthcoming publication of his Overland Monthly for 24 hours, so that he could compose the poetic tribute, "Dickens in Camp". This work is considered by many of Harte's admirers as his verse masterpiece, for its evident sincerity, the depth of feeling it displays, and the unusual quality of its poetic expression.[citation needed]

Leaving the West[edit]

Determined to pursue his literary career, in 1871 he traveled back East with his family, to New York and eventually to Boston, where he contracted with the publisher of The Atlantic Monthly for an annual salary of $10,000, "an unprecedented sum at the time".[16] His popularity waned, however, and by the end of 1872 he was without a publishing contract and increasingly desperate. He spent the next few years struggling to publish new work (or republish old), delivering lectures about the gold rush, and even selling an advertising jingle to a soap company.[citation needed]

In 1878, Harte was appointed to the position of United States Consul in the town of Krefeld, Germany, and then to Glasgow in 1880. In 1885, he settled in London. During the 24 years he spent in Europe, he never abandoned writing and maintained a prodigious output of stories that retained the freshness of his earlier work. He died in Camberley, England in 1902, of throat cancer, and is buried at Frimley.[17]

His wife, Anna (née Griswold) Bret Harte, died on August 2, 1920. The couple lived together only 16 of the 40 years they were married..[18]


In Round the World, Andrew Carnegie praised Harte as uniquely American:

"A whispering pine of the Sierras transplanted to Fifth Avenue! How could it grow? Although it shows some faint signs of life, how sickly are the leaves! As for fruit, there is none. America had in Bret Harte its most distinctively national poet."[19]

Writing in his autobiography four years after Harte's death, however, Mark Twain characterized him and his writing as insincere. Twain criticized the miners' dialect used by Harte, claiming it never existed outside of his imagination. Additionally, Twain accused Harte of "borrowing" money from his friends with no intention to repay it and of financially abandoning his wife and children. He referred repeatedly to Harte as "The Immortal Bilk".[20] Ironically, the Mark Twain Bret Harte Historic Trail (Marker Number 431 erected in 1948 by the California Centennial Commission), in Tuolumne County, California, is named after both writers.[21]


Bret Harte's gravestone in the churchyard of St Peter's Church, Frimley, Surrey, England
Inscription on gravestone: "Death shall reap the braver harvest."
  • "Tennessee's Partner", first published in The Overland Monthly in 1869
  • The Tales of the Argonauts, a volume of short sketches published in 1875
  • Plain Language from Truthful James, first published in The Overland Monthly in 1870 as The Heathen Chinee, was a satire of racial prejudice in northern California, but was embraced by the American public as a mockery of Chinese immigrants, and shaped anti-Chinese sentiment more than any other work at the time.[4]
  • The Crusade of the Excelsior, first published in 1887.
  • The Stolen Cigar-Case, featuring ace detective "Hemlock Jones", was praised by Ellery Queen as "probably the best parody of Sherlock Holmes ever written".[22]
  • The Society upon the Stanislaus is a tragicomic poem, like Plain Language from Truthful James set in the northern California mining camps, and told by the same narrator, "Truthful James."
  • Nord-Amerika, seine Städte und Naturwunder, sein Land und seine Leute was authored by Austrian Ernst von Hesse-Wartegg, with contributions by others including Harte.
  • Bret Harte: A Bibliography, edited by Gary Scharnhorst (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1995), lists known books, poems, lectures, and prose articles, sketches, stories, and reviews by Harte, including known reprints and translations.
  • Bret Harte, Selected Stories and Sketches, was a selection of his work edited by David Wyatt and published in the Oxford World's Classics series, 1995.

Dramatic and musical adaptations of Harte's work[edit]



  1. ^ Some sources say he was born in 1837 or 1839. Even his gravestone has the wrong year, 1837. See also Bret Harte Birth Year Set as 1836, Berkeley Daily Gazette, August 15, 1936
  2. ^ Scarnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000: 3; ISBN 0-8061-3254-X
  3. ^ Kanfer, Stefan (1989). A Summer World. New York, NY: Farrar Straus Giroux. p. 40. ISBN 0374271801. 
  4. ^ a b Scharnhorst, Gary. "Ways That Are Dark": Appropriations of Bret Harte's "Plain Language from Truthful James". Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Dec. 1996), pp. 377–399.
  5. ^ "Autumn Musings" is reported to have been published in the New York Sunday Atlas, according to Theodore Bryant Kingsbury, "Vanity of Earthly Things," Charlotte Observer (North Carolina), December 13, 1903, p. 14. The Atlas may have been one of the Albany newspapers using that title from 1843–55.
  6. ^ a b Scarnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000: 4. ISBN 0-8061-3254-X
  7. ^
  8. ^ Gerten-Jackson, Carol. "CGFA – John Pettie: Portrait of Bret Harte". CGFA. Retrieved 2006-06-07. 
  9. ^ Nissen, Axel. Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper. University Press of Mississippi, 2000: 64. ISBN 1-57806-253-5
  10. ^ Scarnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000: 6; ISBN 0-8061-3254-X
  11. ^ Nissen, Axel. Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2000: 48–49. ISBN 1-57806-253-5
  12. ^ Tarnoff, Ben. The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. New York: The Penguin Press, 2014: 26–27. ISBN 978-1-59420-473-9
  13. ^ Tarnoff, Ben. The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. New York: The Penguin Press, 2014: 28. ISBN 978-1-59420-473-9
  14. ^ Tarnoff, Ben. The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. New York: The Penguin Press, 2014: 59. ISBN 978-1-59420-473-9
  15. ^ Tarnoff, Ben. The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. New York: The Penguin Press, 2014: 149. ISBN 978-1-59420-473-9
  16. ^ Scharnhorst, Gary (2001). "Introduction". In Bret Harte, The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Writings, p. xvi. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-043917-X.
  17. ^ Newburgh Daily Journal, May 6, 1902.
  18. ^ Nissen, Axel. Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper. University Press of Mississippi, 2000: 243–244; ISBN 1-57806-253-5
  19. ^ Andrew Carnegie, Round the World, The Project Gutenberg EBook
  20. ^ Krauth, Leland. Mark Twain & Company: Six Literary Relations. University of Georgia Press, 2003: 23. ISBN 978-0820325408
  21. ^ "Mark Twain Bret Harte Historic Trail". 
  22. ^ Davies, David Stuart (1998). Shadows of Sherlock Holmes, p. xvii. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions. ISBN 1-85326-744-9.
  23. ^
  24. ^ Organization at
  25. ^ "Bret Harte Memorial, (sculpture)". Save Outdoor Sculpture!. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved May 9, 2012. 
  26. ^
  27. ^ Scott catalog # 2196.

External links[edit]