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Bret Harte
Bret Harte in 1872
Bret Harte in 1872
BornFrancis Brett Hart
(1836-08-25)August 25, 1836
Albany, New York, U.S.
DiedMay 5, 1902(1902-05-05) (aged 65)
Camberley, England, UK
GenreFiction, poetry
SpouseAnna Griswold (m. ca. 1862–1902; his death)

Bret Harte (/hɑːrt/, HART; born Francis Brett Hart; August 25, 1836 – May 5, 1902) was an American short story writer and poet best remembered for short fiction featuring miners, gamblers, and other romantic figures of the California Gold Rush.

In a career spanning more than four decades, he also wrote poetry, plays, lectures, book reviews, editorials and magazine sketches.

As he moved from California to the eastern U.S. and later to Europe, he incorporated new subjects and characters into his stories, but his Gold Rush tales have been those most often reprinted, adapted and admired.[2]

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  • Bret Harte Elementary School
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  • Bret Harte Teacher and Staff Message



Early life

Harte was born in 1836[3] in New York's capital city of Albany.[4] He was named 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.[5] Bret's mother, Elizabeth Rebecca Ostrander Hart, was from the English and Dutch culture and raised her child in a Dutch Reformed church.[6] Later, Francis preferred to be known by his middle name, but he spelled it with only one "t", becoming Bret Harte.[7] Harte was of French Huguenot and Dutch ancestry and descended from prominent New York landowner Francis Rombouts.[8]

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,[who?] "Such a shock was their ridicule to me that I wonder that I ever wrote another line of verse."[9]

His formal schooling[where?] ended when he was 13, in 1849.[10]

Career in California

Harte moved to California in 1853, later working there in a number of capacities, including miner, teacher, messenger, and journalist; he was also secretary of the San Francisco Mint.[11] He spent part of his life in the northern California coastal town of Union (now Arcata), a settlement on Humboldt Bay, as a tutor and school teacher, then a printer's devil on The Northern Californian,[12] and went on to reporting news, writing poems, and occasionally, acting editor, leaving after three years, from lynching threats for writing an editorial about the 26 February 1860 Wiyot massacre.[13] In the editorial, Harte wrote:

[A] more shocking and revolting spectacle was never 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 gray hair. Infants scarce a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds."[14]

Union was established as a provisioning center for mining camps in the interior.[citation needed]

The Wells Fargo Messenger of July 1916 relates that after an unsuccessful attempt to make a living in the gold camps, Harte signed on as a messenger with Wells Fargo & Co. Express. He guarded treasure boxes on stagecoaches for a few months, then gave it up to become the schoolmaster at a school near the town of Sonora, in the Sierra foothills. He created his character Yuba Bill from his memory of an old stagecoach driver.

Among Harte's first literary efforts was a poem published in The Golden Era in 1857[15] and, in October of that same year, his first prose piece on "A Trip Up the Coast".[16] In the spring of 1860 he was hired as editor of The Golden Era, which he attempted to make into a more literary publication.[17] 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".[18]

The 1860 massacre of between 80 and 200 Wiyot Indians at the village of Tuluwat (near Eureka in Humboldt County, California) was reported by Harte in San Francisco and New York. While serving as assistant editor of the Northern Californian,[19] Harte was left in charge of the paper during the temporary absence of his boss, Stephen G. Whipple. Harte published a detailed account condemning the slayings, 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."[17]

After he published the editorial, Harte's 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 describing widespread community approval of the massacre was attributed to him. In addition, no one was ever brought to trial, despite the evidence of a planned attack and of references to specific individuals, including a rancher named Larabee and other members of the unofficial militia called the Humboldt Volunteers.[20]

Portrait of Bret Harte – oil painting by John Pettie (1884)[21]

Harte married Anna Griswold on August 11, 1862, in San Rafael, California.[22] From the start, the marriage was rocky. Some suggested that she was handicapped by extreme jealousy, while early Harte biographer Henry C. Merwin privately concluded that she was "almost impossible to live with".[10]

The well-known minister Thomas Starr King recommended Harte to James T. Fields, editor of the prestigious magazine The Atlantic Monthly, which published Harte's first short story in October 1863.[23] In 1864, Harte joined with Charles Henry Webb in starting a new literary journal called The Californian. He became friends with and mentored poet Ina Coolbrith.[17]

In 1865, Harte was asked by bookseller Anton Roman to edit a book of California poetry; it was to be a showcase of the finest California writers.[17] When the book, called Outcroppings, was published, it contained only 19 poets, many of them Harte's friends (including Ina Coolbrith and Charles Warren Stoddard). The book caused some controversy, as Harte used the preface as a vehicle to attack California's literature, blaming the state's "monotonous climate" for its bad poetry.[17] While the book was widely praised in the East, many newspapers and poets in the West took umbrage at his remarks.[17]

In 1868, Harte became editor of The Overland Monthly, another new literary magazine, published by Roman Anton with the intention of highlighting local writings.[24] The Overland Monthly was more in tune with the pioneering spirit of excitement in California. Harte's short story "The Luck of Roaring Camp" appeared in the magazine's second issue, propelling him to fame nationwide and in Europe.[19][11]

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 issue of the Overland Monthly for 24 hours so that he could compose the poetic tribute "Dickens in Camp".

Harte's fame increased with the publication of his satirical poem "Plain Language from Truthful James" in the September 1870 issue of the Overland Monthly.[25] The poem became better known by its alternate title "The Heathen Chinee" after being republished in a Boston newspaper in 1871.[26] It was also quickly republished in a number of other newspapers and journals, including the New York Evening Post, the New York Tribune, the Boston Evening Transcript, the Providence Journal, the Hartford Courant, Prairie Farmer, and the Saturday Evening Post.[27] Harte was chagrined, however, to find that the popularity of the poem, which he had written to criticize the prevalence of anti-Chinese sentiment among the white population of California, was largely the result of its being taken literally by the very people he had lampooned, who completely misconstrued the ironic intent of Harte's words.

Portrait of Bret Harte by Napoleon Sarony (c. 1870). Housed at the National Portrait Gallery (United States)

Leaving the West

Harte was determined to pursue his literary career and traveled back east with his family in 1871 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".[28] 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 and delivering lectures about the gold rush. The winter of 1877–78 was particularly hard for Harte and his family. He later recalled it as a "hand-to-mouth life" and wrote to his wife Anna, "I don't know—looking back—what ever kept me from going down, in every way, during that awful December and January".[29]

Some time between 1872 and 1881, Bret Harte rented The Willows, a Morristown, New Jersey mansion then owned by Union general and author Joseph Warren Revere.[30] Harte's time in Morristown inspired him to write 1877 historical romance novel Thankful Blossom.[31]

After months of soliciting for such a role, Harte accepted the position of United States Consul in the town of Krefeld, Germany, in May 1878. Mark Twain had been a friend and supporter of Harte's until a substantial falling out, and he had previously tried to block any appointment for Harte. In a letter to William Dean Howells, he complained that Harte would be an embarrassment to the United States because, as he wrote, "Harte is a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward, a Jeremy Diddler, he is brim full of treachery... To send this nasty creature to puke upon the American name in a foreign land is too much".[32] Eventually, Harte was given a similar role in Glasgow in 1880. In 1885 he settled in London.[11] Throughout his time in Europe, he regularly wrote to his wife and children and sent monthly financial contributions. He declined, however, to invite them to join him, nor did he return to the United States to visit them. His excuses were usually related to money. During the 24 years that he spent in Europe, he never abandoned writing and maintained a prodigious output of stories that retained the freshness of his earlier work. Among his writings of this time were parodies and satires of other writers, including The Stolen Cigar-Case featuring ace detective "Hemlock Jones", which Ellery Queen praised as "probably the best parody of Sherlock Holmes ever written".[33]

He died in Camberley, England, in 1902 of throat cancer and is buried at Frimley.[34] His wife Anna (née Griswold) Harte died on August 2, 1920. The couple lived together only 16 of the 40 years that they were married.[35]


In 1878, Andrew Carnegie praised Harte in Round the World as uniquely American, likely alluding to his regionalism:

"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."[36]

Rudyard Kipling also showed himself to be an admirer of Harte's writing. In From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches, Letters of Travel,[37] while in San Francisco Kipling wrote:

"A reporter asked me what I thought of the city, and I made answer suavely that it was hallowed ground to me because of Bret Harte. That was true: 'Well,' said the reporter, 'Bret Harte claims California, but California don't claim Bret Harte. ...' He could not understand that to the outside world the city was worth a great deal less than the man."

Mark Twain, however, characterized him and his writing as insincere. Writing in his autobiography four years after Harte's death, Twain criticized the miners' dialect used by Harte, claiming that it never existed outside of his imagination. Additionally, Twain accused Harte of "borrowing" money from his friends with no intention of repaying it and of financially abandoning his wife and children. He referred repeatedly to Harte as "The Immortal Bilk."[38]

Selected works

Bret Harte's gravestone in the churchyard of St Peter's Church, Frimley, Surrey, England
Inscription on gravestone: "Death shall reap the braver harvest."
  • Outcroppings (1865), editor
  • Condensed Novels and Other Papers (1867)
  • Tennessee's Partner (short story; 1869)[39]
  • The Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Sketches (1870)
  • "Plain Language from Truthful James", aka "The Heathen Chinee" (1870)
  • Poems (1871)
  • The Heart's Foundation (1873)
  • The Tales of the Argonauts (1875)
  • Gabriel Conroy (1876)
  • Two Men of Sandy Bar (1876)
  • Thankful Blossom (1877)
  • Drift from Two Shores (1878)
  • An Heiress of Red Dog, and Other Tales (1879)
  • Flip and Found at Blazing Star (1882)
  • By Shore and Sedge (1885)
  • A Millionaire of Rough-And-Ready and Devil's Ford (1887)
  • The Crusade of the Excelsior (1887)
  • The Argonauts of North Liberty (1888)
  • Cressy (1889)
  • A First Family of Tasajara (1892)
  • Colonel Starbottle's Client, and some other people (1892)
  • A Protégée of Jack Hamlin's; and Other Stories (1894)
  • Barker's Luck etc. (1896)
  • Tales of Trail and Town (1898)
  • Stories in Light and Shadow (1898)
  • Under the Red-Woods (1901)
  • Her Letter, His Answer, and Her Last Letter[40] (1905)

Works of parody

Harte's short story collections Condensed Novels (1867) and Condensed Novels: Second Series New Burlesques (1902) are parodies of contemporaneous writers and novels.

Condensed Novels (1867)
Parody Named author Parodied author Parodied novel Remarks
Muck-a-Muck - A Modern Indian Novel After Cooper James Fenimore Cooper
Terence Denville Ch—l—s L—v—r Charles Lever
Selina Sedilia Miss M. E. B—dd-n and Mrs. H-n-y W—d Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Mrs. Henry Wood The melodramatic style of both authors in novels such as Lady Audley's Secret and East Lynne is parodied. Mrs Henry Wood (Ellen Wood) is best known as the author of East Lynne.
The Ninety-Nine Guardsmen Al-x-d-r D-m-s Alexandre Dumas Twenty Years After
The Dweller of the Threshold Sir Ed——d L–tt–n B–lw–r Edward Bulwer-Lytton Zanoni The figure of the Guardian of the Threshold in Zanoni.
The Haunted Man - A Christmas Story  Ch–r—s D–ck–n–s Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol
Miss Mix Ch—l—tte Br—nte Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre Mr. Rawjester is obviously Mr. Rochester
Guy Heavystone; or, "Entire." A Muscular Novel.  The Author of "Sword and Gun."
Mr. Midshipman Breezy - A Naval Officer  Captain M-rry-t, R.N. Captain Frederick Marryat Mr Midshipman Easy
John Jenkins; or, The Smoker Reformed.  T. S. A—th—r. Timothy Shay Arthur Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There T. S. Arthur was a noted temperance author. The parody exhorts the rejection of tobacco.
No Title W-lk-e C-ll-ns Wilkie Collins No Name
N. N. Being a novel in the French paragraphic style.
Fantine. After the French of Victor Hugo. Victor Hugo
"La Femme." After the French of M. Michelet. Jules Michelet La Femme
Mary McGillup - A Southern Novel  After Belle Boyd - With an introduction by G. A. S-la Maria Isabella Boyd and George Augustus Sala Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison [41]
Handsome is as Handsome Does. Ch-s R—de. Charles Reade
Lothaw; or The Adventures of a Young Gentleman in Search of a Religion.  Mr. Benjamins. Benjamin Disraeli Lothair
The Hoodlum Band; or, The Boy Chief, the Infant Politician, and the Pirate Prodigy 
Condensed Novels: Second Series New Burlesques (1902)
Parody Named author Parodied author Parodied novel Remarks
Rupert the Resembler A-th-y H-pe Anthony Hope The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau
The Stolen Cigar Case A. Co—n D—le Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories
Golly and the Christian or The Minx and the Manxman  H-ll C—ne Hall Caine The Christian and The Manxman
Dan'l Borem E. N-s W-t-t Edward Noyes Westcott David Harum
Stories Three R-dy-d K-pl-g Rudyard Kipling Soldiers Three In the second story, "A Private's Honor", the three characters Mulledwiney, Bleareyed, and Otherwise parody Learoyd, Mulvaney and Ortheris of Soldiers Three. The story title, "A Private's Honor", references "His Private Honour" of Many Inventions, another Learoyd, Mulvaney and Ortheris story.
"Zut-Ski" The Problem of a Wicked Feme Sole M-r-e C-r-lli Marie Corelli Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul

Dramatic and musical adaptations



  1. ^ "Bret Harte". Geni. October 28, 2018. Retrieved November 9, 2020.
  2. ^ "American Passages: A Literary Survey".
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000: 3. ISBN 0-8061-3254-X
  5. ^ Kanfer, Stefan (1989). A Summer World. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux. p. 40. ISBN 978-0374271800.
  6. ^ "Bret HARTE Science & Magnet Cluster School". Retrieved December 2, 2022.
  7. ^ "Bret Harte Biography". eNotes. Retrieved March 16, 2017.
  8. ^ Merwin, Henry Childs. The Life of Bret Harte, page 8
  9. ^ "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 to 1855.
  10. ^ a b Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000: 4. ISBN 0-8061-3254-X
  11. ^ a b c Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Harte, Francis Bret" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 13 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 31–32.
  12. ^ "Susie Baker Fountain: Arcata Historian". Humboldt Room - HSU Library Special Collections. Archived from the original on January 8, 2023. Retrieved January 8, 2023.
  13. ^ "Harte in Humboldt". Humboldt County Historical Society. April 29, 2022. Retrieved January 8, 2023.
  14. ^ Tarnoff, Benjamin (2014). The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-1594204739.
  15. ^ Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000: 6. ISBN 0-8061-3254-X
  16. ^ Nissen, Axel. Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2000: 48–49. ISBN 1-57806-253-5
  17. ^ a b c d e f 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
  18. ^ 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
  19. ^ a b "Bret Harte". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved August 21, 2017.
  20. ^ "Crandell" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on August 7, 2007. Retrieved 2009-06-28.
  21. ^ Gerten-Jackson, Carol. "John Pettie: Portrait of Bret Harte". CGFA. Archived from the original on August 20, 2006. Retrieved June 7, 2006.
  22. ^ Nissen, Axel. Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper. University Press of Mississippi, 2000: 64. ISBN 1-57806-253-5
  23. ^ 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
  24. ^ 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
  25. ^ Tarnoff, Ben. The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. New York: The Penguin Press, 2014: 188. ISBN 978-1-59420-473-9
  26. ^ Scott, David. China and the International System, 1840–1949: Power, Presence, and Perceptions in a Century of Humiliation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008: 60–61. ISBN 978-0-7914-7627-7
  27. ^ Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000: 146. ISBN 0-8061-3254-X
  28. ^ 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.
  29. ^ Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000: 133. ISBN 0-8061-3254-X
  30. ^ Strathearn, Nancy (August 16, 1990). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Fosterfields (Boundary Increase)". National Park Service. With accompanying 28 photos
  31. ^ "The Project Gutenberg E-text of Thankful Blossom, by Bret Harte". Archived from the original on March 30, 2022. Retrieved March 30, 2022.
  32. ^ Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000: 139. ISBN 0-8061-3254-X
  33. ^ Davies, David Stuart (1998). Shadows of Sherlock Holmes, p. xvii. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions. ISBN 1-85326-744-9.
  34. ^ Newburgh Daily Journal, May 6, 1902.
  35. ^ Nissen, Axel. Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper. University Press of Mississippi, 2000: 243–244. ISBN 1-57806-253-5
  36. ^ Andrew Carnegie, Round the World, The Project Gutenberg EBook Archived February 9, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  37. ^ From Sea to Sea; Letters of Travel by Rudyard Kipling - FROM SEA TO SEA No. XXIII How I got to San Francisco and took Tea with the Natives there : Project Gutenberg
  38. ^ Krauth, Leland. Mark Twain & Company: Six Literary Relations. University of Georgia Press, 2003: 23. ISBN 978-0820325408
  39. ^ Coates, Frank (January 1, 1934). "The early history of Tuolumne County, California". University of the Pacific Theses and Dissertations. University of the Pacific (United States): 139. Retrieved January 8, 2023.
  40. ^ Harte, Bret; Keller, Arthur I. [Illustrator] (1905). Her Letter, His Answer, and Her Last Letter. Houghton, Mifflin & Company.
  41. ^ Boyd, Belle; Hardinge, Sam Wilde (1865). Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison. Saunders, Otley, and Company. p. 38.
  42. ^ "The Database of Recorded American Music". Archived from the original on May 18, 2006. Retrieved August 9, 2006.
  43. ^ Organization Archived July 18, 2006, at the Wayback Machine at
  44. ^ "Year of Destiny on Death Valley Days". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved October 30, 2018.
  45. ^ "Bret Harte Memorial, (sculpture)". Save Outdoor Sculpture!. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved May 9, 2012.
  46. ^ "Journalism & Mass Communication". Retrieved July 17, 2023.
  47. ^ "Mark Twain Bret Harte Historic Trail".
  48. ^ "Basic page". Archived from the original on August 21, 2014. Retrieved 2014-08-20.
  49. ^ Scott catalog # 2196.

External links

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