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The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Harte, Francis Bret

HARTE, Francis Bret, American novelist and poet: b. Albany, N. Y., 25 Aug. 1839; d. Aldershot, England, 6 May 1902. In 1854 he went to California, attracted there by the gold excitement. He was first a teacher at Sonora, then tried mining, in which he was unsuccessful. He next entered a printing office, and in 1857 was compositor on the San Francisco Golden Era. At that time he began to write short sketches, which appeared in the Golden Era, and soon attracted attention; he was invited to join the staff of the Californian, to which he contributed a series of clever parodies on famous contemporary writers of fiction, later published as ‘Condensed Novels.’ In 1864 he was appointed secretary to the United States branch mint; in 1868 became editor of the Overland Monthly for which he wrote ‘The Luck of Roaring Camp’ and others of his most successful stories of frontier life. In 1871 he went to New York and became a regular contributor to the Atlantic Monthly. In 1878 he was appointed United States consul in Crefeld, Germany, and in 1880 received the consulship at Glasgow, Scotland. In 1885 his tenure of oEce as consul came to an end and be settled in London, devoting his whole time to literary work. He was a prolific writer and continued for the most part to deal with California themes. Among his shorter stories the following may be mentioned: ‘Miggles’; ‘The Outcasts of Poker Flat’; ‘M'Liss’ (1872); ‘The Twins of Table Mountain’ (1879); ‘An Heiress of Red Dog’ (1879); ‘Flip’ (1882); ‘On the Frontier’ (1884); ‘By Shore and Sedge’ (1885); ‘Devil's Ford’ (1887); ‘A Phyllis of the Sierras,’ and ‘A Drift from Redwood Camp’ (1888); ‘The Heritage of Dedlow Marsh’ (1889); ‘A Sappho of Green Springs’ (1891); ‘The Bell-Ringer of Angel's’ (1894); ‘A Protégé of Jack Hamlin's’ (1894); ‘Barker's Luck’ (1896): ‘Tales of Trail and Town’ (1898); ‘Stories in Light and Shadow’ (1898); ‘Mr. Jack Hamlin's Mediation’ (1899); and ‘From Sand Hill to Pine’ (1900), a collection of short stories. His longer stories and novels include ‘Tales of the Argonauts’ (1875); ‘Gabriel Conroy’ (1876); ‘Thankful Blossom: A Romance of the Jerseys’ (1877); ‘In the Carquinez Woods’ (1883); ‘Manuja’ (1885); ‘Snowbound at Eagle's’ (1886); ‘The Crusade of the Excelsior’ (1887); ‘Cressy’ (1889); ‘A Waif of the Plains’ (1890); ‘A Ward of the Golden Gate’ (1890); ‘A First Family of Tasajara’ (1892); ‘Colonel Starbottle's Client and Some Other People’ (1892); ‘Clarence’ (1895), dealing with incidents in the American Civil War; ‘In a Hollow of the Hills’ (1895); and ‘Three Partners’ 1897), He also wrote much verse comprised in volumes entitled ‘Poems’ (1871); ‘East and West Poems’ (1871); ‘Echoes of the Foot-Hills’ (1874); and ‘Some Later Verses’ (1898). See Tales of the Argonauts.

In estimating Harte's work it must be remembered that it was his rare good fortune to break new ground and to become the first literary interpreter of a life which with its primitive breadth and freedom, its striking contrasts of circumstance and character, offered singular opportunities to the novelist. That he ever did anything quite so good as his first group of stories and poems cannot be said, for his later volumes are marked, as a whole, by the repetition of well-worn motives and by declining spontaneity and power. Still, the average quality of his output remained high. Among qualities of his work those which perhaps most constantly impress the critical reader are his dramatic instinct, his keen insight into character, his broad sympathy and his subtle and pervasive humor. Dealing for the most part with large, strongly marked, elemental types, aa these develop and express themselves under conditions which give free play to instinct and passion, he does not indulge in lengthy analyses or detailed descriptions. His men and women are sketched with a few strokes and left to work out their own personalities in speech and deed; and yet, such is the skill with which this is accomplished that they stand out before us as creatures of real flesh and blood. He did not purposely soften the shadows in his pictures; the sin and wretchedness of frontier life are frankly portrayed; none the less, there can be little doubt that consciously or unconsciously he contrived to throw an idealizing glamour over the mine and the camp and that many of his most lifelike and successful characters are wrought in the imagination, though out of the stuff of fact. But it is here that we touch upon what is perhaps one of the finest qualities of his work — a quality not to be separated from his tendency toward idealization. Though he dwelt habitually upon life's unexplained and inexplicable tragic complexities, he nevertheless suffused his stories with an atmosphere of charity, clear, sweet and wholesome. Consult Kozlay, ‘Stories, Poems and Other Uncollected Writings of Bret Harte’ (1914); Merwin, ‘Life of Bret Harte’ (1911).

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