October 19, 2011

Harte: a gloomy spectacle of myself

As he recorded in his journal entry for October 19, 1857, Bret Harte "commenced school" in Uniontown, California. The young Harte had only recently published his first mature poem. Now faced with difficulty finding work, was hired by the wealthy Charles Liscomb to tutor his two teenage sons.

The New York-born Harte tutored the boys nearly every day (except Sunday) from about 8:30 in the morning until shortly after noon. The topics of the day included reading and writing, arithmetic, and geography. Outside the classroom, Harte apparently kept to himself; at least one local thought him "quite a snob" because of it. In fact, Harte was quite unhappy. That winter, he wrote:

What the d——l am I to do with myself — the simplest pleasure fail to please me — my melancholy and gloomy forboding stick to me closer than a brother. I cannot enjoy myself rationally like others but am forced to make a gloomy spectacle of myself to gods and men.

This period in Harte's life was quite formulaic: tutoring during the day, poor attempts at hunting in the afternoon, sermons on Sundays (which he described as often "trite" or "vapid"). He meticulously recorded the lackluster details in his journal for five months. Harte stuck out in the frontier community of Uniontown; one neighbor wrote he "did not mix very well with the rougher element which formed a great part of the population." He was, by many accounts, the best dressed in town and once refused an offer from Liscomb to go hunting on a Sunday (as "a matter of conscience"). The same month he began tutoring, however, his first prose work was published.

By March of the next year, Harte stopped tutoring the Liscomb boys. In the decade which followed, he became more established as a writer, journalist, and poet. By the 1870s, he had moved to Europe.

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