Postbellum America, 1866-1913

Bret Harte, 1836-1902

By Victoria Henderson  
Student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke 

Bret Harte was born in Albany, New York, to a family of little financial means. His father, Henry Hart, was the son of an immigrant, Bernard Hart, who moved to America and became rich. However, Bernard left Henry and his mother to marry another lady. Henry, raised in a Dutch Reformed church, finished his college education but didn't receive a diploma due to the fact that he owed a ninety dollar graduation fee. Bret's mother, Elizabeth Rebecca Ostrander Hart, was from the English and Dutch culture. Not much is known of her other than she came from a cultured, middle-class stock and was Episcopalian. His parents met during a visit to the Brett's home and married in 1830. Francis Bret Hart was born in 1836. 

His education was interrupted many times throughout his early years because the Harts' moved around quite a bit in order to keep from paying the high cost of tuition. Bret's father changed the family name to Harte, and passed away shortly after. By the age of eleven, Bret had published a number of poems. Around 1845, Elizabeth moved the family to Brooklyn, where Bret found odd jobs in a lawyer's office and for a druggist. Despite his extremely young age, Bret had become a self-supporting young manat age fifteen. During this time, Henry, Bret's brother who had joined the army, frequently wrote letters filled with stories of his adventures fighting in the Mexican War and the war in California. It was during this time that Bret felt inpired to write more of his colorful poems. Elizabeth moved to California in 1853 and married one of her husband's former college friends. In late 1854, Bret and his sister, Margaret, joined the family in California. They traveled by steamship to California, a trip during which they encountered many unfortunate circumstances, to include storms at sea, revolutions, and shipwreck. These experiences helped to color Harte's later writings. 

Harte's first years in California were not easy ones. He lived with his family for a few months, but then he sought out work anywhere he could find it. Bret drifted from job to job until he became settled. He tutored the children of ranchers and even rode shotgun for a stage coach. During these years he kept a diary and he continued to write poetry. Harte thought of himself as a failure, but he didn't give up. Finally, the opportunity arrived for him to work as a printer for the Northern Californian, where he enjoyed the luxury of printing his own work at times. He had a keen sense of his audience and their expectations and interests. Experience in so many occupations helped Bret relate to the many characters who made up the new culture of people in the West, and added to the characters in many of his short stories. His colorful stories about the West made California famous. After the transcontinental railroad was connected, the Easterners flocked out West to see this land of gold Harte described so vividly. 

Harte was passionate about the treatment of minorities and he was particularly digusted with the influence civilization was having on the West. Harte wasn't pleased with the effects that the railroad was having on the West, nor was he pleased with the way the white man was taking advantage of minorities, Indians, Chinese, and Mexicans to help settle the West. Both of these themes are shown throughtout his works.  Although Bret was appalled at these events, writing about them in the weekly newspaper helped to make him popular. That is the irony of his writings. His stories reporting the lawlessness and the atrocities of the West made his articles more interesting to the readers. Sometimes this vivid portrayal of the Wild West got him trouble. Once Harte was fired for printing a story of a tribe of Indians who were planning a three-day religious ceremony on an island, until a party of white men arrived on the island and ambushed the ceremony, leaving many women, children, and elders slain. Although this published article costed Harte his job, it conveyed his true feelings of outrage against such cruelties. Another well known piece of his work is the lecture, "California's Golden Age", where he described the gold rush days as "a kind of crusade without a cross, an exodus without a prophet. It is not a pretty is a life of which perhaps the best that can be said is that it exists no longer." The other popular theme used by Harte dealt with racism. In "Plain Language from Truthful James", whites are outsmarted in their own efforts to cheat a Chinese. This poem, which Harte called "the worst I ever wrote", was popular world wide. However, it initiated racial discord in California against the Orientals. 

Harte learned to entertain his readers by giving them what they wanted. Despite all the works Harte completed, only a few are remembered. In 1860, Harte began writing stories with escape and illusion as their theme. For instance, "My Metamorphosis" tells the tale of a man who is caught bathing but hides among the statues in the garden of keep his nakedness hidden. "As a writer, Harte was a talented humorist who could take fairly routine story formulas and give them new vigor and settings. His background as a journalist gave him a brisk style and a special skill for describing people, their mannerisms, and dialogue" (DLB 79). Harte won national acclaim through his writings and publications from the West. Soon he began to write regularly for a magazine and published two plays. Also, Harte began to work as a literary critic, although his harsh reviews made him unpopular with other writers.. 

While serving as clerk and superintendent of the new U.S. mint, he met his future wife Anna Griswold. They married in August of 1862. During the Civil War, Harte wrote twenty-two poems and he made an outstanding contribution to the Overland Monthly, founded in 1868 with Harte as its editor. In fact, he even created the emblem for this magazine which was a bear paw print on the tracks of the railroad. Two of his most memorable pieces were published in this magazine, "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and "The Outcasts of Poker Flat". 
In these two stories lay the formula for the western movies and books which would entertain our country for the next century. "These two stories deployed a cunning narrative strategy which insured their success with genteel readers. The tales argue that society's outcasts- whether gamblers, gold-seekers, prostitutes, or unemployed cowboys-all have hearts of gold" (DLB 74). 

The Univiersity of California in Berkeley offered Harte a professor's seat in recent literature, but he declined in pursuit of being promoted further. Even magazines and newspapers offered Harte such positions as editor, publisher and columnist. Finally, in 1878, out of debt to friends and coworkers, Harte left his family and accepted a station in Germany, as a U.S. Consul. After his transfer, he decided that Germany wasn't to his liking and he began to make frequent visits to Great Britain where he enjoyed being popular. He later transferred to Glasglow, Scotland where he began making significant connections to the literary world. He lived with a diplomat and his family of nine children, and continued to write for the next seventeen years. His wife and two of his children followed Harte to London after 1898. But by this time Harte had been entertaining the widow of the diplomat for some years, and he never reconciled with Anna, his wife. Harte continued to write with little public recognition until his death from throat cancer in 1902. 


Golemba, Henry L.,  Wayne State University,  Bret Harte,  DLB 74,  American Short-Story Writers Before 1880.  
This article found as an entry in the DBL is an excellent historical source.  So much of what Bret Harte wrote is based on events that were taking place in the time in which he was writing.  That is what makes the historical view of information relevant to Bret Harte's success as a writer. 
Fleming, Charles A., Oklahoma State University,  Bret Harte,  DLB 79.  
This account of Bret Harte is focused less on his life and more about the content of his writings.  Several of his articles and plays are discussed in detail.  Also, this article gives an account of what Harte's contemporaries thought of his writing. 
Webb, Dottie. "Local Color: 19th Century Regional Writing in the United States Bret Harte: Popularity, Poetry, and Performance." 23 August 1998   <> 
This site presents concise discussion of Harte's influence and work, with references to several of Harte's contemporaries and a brief discussion of the 'signs of the times' in this era. 
Major works  
  • "The Luck of Roaring Camp" 
  • "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" 
  • "Plain Language from Truthful James", (Poem)
  • "The Argonauts of 49"or "California's Golden Age" (lecture)
  • Mrs. Skaggs's Husbands, and Other Sketches 
  • "My Metamorphosis"
  • and Many More
  • Careers 
    • Tutor, California
    • Shotgun rider on a stage coach, California 
    • Printer, Reporter, Columnist, and Editor  Northern Californian 
    • Columnist, Golden Era, Atlantic Monthly, and "Etc."
    • Lecturer throughout United States
    • Poet
    • Author
    • Clerk/Superintendent, California  Mint
    • Editor, Overland Monthly
    • U.S. Commercial Agent, Germany
    • U.S. Consul, Glasglow, Scotland
    • Wife: Anna Griswold
    • Children: Griswold, Francis, Jessamy, Ethel 
    • Albany, New York
    • Brooklyn, New York
    • Oakland, California
    • Union, California
    • San Francisco, California
    • Chicago, Illinois
    • Morristown, New Jersey
    • Crefeld, Germany
    • Glasglow, Scotland

    • London, England
    1836: born August 25 in Albany, New York 
    1845: father dies 
    1847: first poems published 
    1854: moves to San Francisco 
    1857: lands job at Northern California 
    1860: begins working as columnist at Golden Era 
    1862: marries Anna Griswold 
    1864: takes job with the California Mint 
    1865: Outcroppings printed 
    1868: becomes editor of Overland Monthly 
    1870: "Plain Language from Truthful James" published 
    1871: Harte family moves East 
    1877: writes play Ah Sin with Mark Twain 
    1878: accepts consulship in Germany 
    1880: transfers to Glasglow, Scotland 
    1885: retires to London 
    1902: dies from throat cancer in London

    "Plain Language from Truthful James"


    Study Questions

    1. What was the major theme in this poem?
    2. What can we learn from the characters in the poem about the people of this time period?
    3. What lesson can be learned from the plot of this poem?
    4. What message was Harte trying to convey through this work?
    5. From reading this poem, do you think Harte was comfortable with the newly developed culture of the West? What was his reaction to America's expanding society versus its disappearing frontier?
    Updated April 17, 2000 | | © Mark Canada, 2000 | University of North Carolina at Pembroke