March 16, 2011

Harte: no longer a rough Westerner

The March 16, 1896 issue of The Critic printed a short article that was, ostensibly, a review of The Bell-Ringer of Angel's and Other Stories, a new collection by Bret Harte. Instead, however, the review began by focusing on one of Harte's stories published 28 years earlier: "The Luck of Roaring Camp," printed in the Overland Monthly in 1868 while Harte was its editor.

As the review notes, that story immediately gave Harte an important position in American literature. According to The Critic, his earlier work (mostly poems), had previously "failed to elevate him" despite being widely admired 30 years later."The Luck of Roaring Camp" offered a subject and style that had "a distinct departure from the typical Western tale," with "qualities of a high order."

After working with the Overland Monthly in the late 1860s, Harte moved to Europe and served for a time as Consul to Germany before moving to London. Ultimately, he stayed in Europe for over two decades. It was while overseas that he wrote The Bell-Ringer of Angel's and Other Stories, but he still maintained his interest in the American West, as reflected in these individual stories. The Critic noted how his style maintained "the same bold, daring type of manhood... the same idea of action, of dramatic effect," but that there was a problem:
Something is wanting —the personal presence, the personal participation, the personal interest of the writer." Memory will not do in this day of stern realism. A man who aims to reproduce in literature a certain phase of life must be apart of that life to feel directly its influence and inspiration. Mr. Harte is no longer a rough Westerner, living heart to heart with uncouth laborers and bold adventurers. The culture and ease of an older civilization have materially influenced him—have, in fact, transformed him. And while his powers and possibilities may not be any less than they once were, they are certainly very different. He has enriched American literature immensely by the exercise of his splendid genius in immortalizing a dramatic period of our national life: he should be content to rest upon what he has done so well—so far, at least, as American literature is concerned.

So, says the reviewer, stop writing, and Harte's place in American writing is already assured. If Harte refuses to return to the United States, he should stop writing stories set here. Instead, the article says, he should write about European scenery. In fact, it was in England that Harte died in 1902.

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