Sunday, June 30, 2013


By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

I always find it interesting to learn about authors from history. How did their backgrounds or childhood influence them as adults? Were they self-taught or did they receive a formal education? What inspired them to pursue writing as a career? Did they find success during their lifetime or was survival a daily challenge?

I discovered the answers to these questions vary, but there was one striking similarity they all shared. They were avid readers as children. In many instances, they also tried their hand at writing something while a child. For Bret Harte, considered by many to be the founding father of Western literary fiction, his first piece of creative writing was a poem titled Autumn Musings, penned when he was eleven years old in 1847. Unbeknownst to his family, he sent it to the New York Sunday Atlas, and it was published in their next issue.

Harte’s instinctive desire to be a writer never left him. No matter where he journeyed, the often dire financial circumstances of his life, or the type of employment he attempted simply to survive in the world, his yearning to be a writer remained a constant.

During his lifetime Harte’s stories were published and translated into numerous foreign languages including French, German, Russian, Italian, and Swedish. Still his life, personal and literary, was filled with ups and downs, success and failure, but his vivid, descriptive writing – whether an editorial column for a newspaper, a work of poetry, or literary fiction – provided readers all over the world with a compelling picture of pioneering life in the American West, particularly California and its mining camps during the Gold Rush.

Born on 25 August 1836 in Albany, New York, Francis Brett Harte was the third of four children and the second son born to Henry Harte and Elizabeth Ostrander. Called Frank by his family as a boy, he later went by the name Brett then changed the spelling of his middle name to Bret when he adopted the name of Bret Harte for his writing.

His father had been a teacher and principal who moved the family about a great deal for employment. A true man of letters, Henry Harte spoke French, Spanish, and Italian, and could read Latin and Greek. Although the family often struggled financially, Henry Harte was “a man of warm impulses and deep feeling”. His legacy to his children had been a love of learning and his library of fine books. Mrs. Harte also had a love of literature. Consequently, all of the Harte children were exceptional readers at an early age and would often engage in discussions about books. Unfortunately, Henry Harte died in 1845 when his children were all still young; Bret Harte was just nine years old.

Quiet and studious, fragile health from the ages of six to ten prevented Bret Harte from leading an active life as a little boy. Confined to bed a great deal of time, he became a voracious reader of books from his father’s library. He read Shakespeare at six. At seven years of age, he read Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, his favorite author. From Don Quixote by Cervantes to works by Fielding, Goldsmith and Washington Irving, a love of literature stirred Harte’s imagination and, no doubt, became his window to the world.

After the death of his father, Harte’s widow and his children lived in New York and Brooklyn, assisted financially by relatives. Bret Harte’s formal education ended in 1849. He was 13 years old at the time and immediately started working as a clerk for a lawyer. He would, however, continue to teach himself and during a two month illness when he was 14 years old, he learned to read Greek so well that his mother was astonished.

In late 1853, Harte’s widowed mother remarried and moved to California with her older son and some other relatives. [Note: Elizabeth Harte’s second husband, Colonel Andrew Williams would become mayor of Oakland in 1857.] Elizabeth Harte Williams’ older daughter was already married and remained in the East. Harte’s mother wanted to bring her younger children with her to California, but they followed two months later. On 20 February 1854, 17-year old Bret and his younger sister, Maggie departed New York. They arrived in San Francisco on March 26th.

He lived with his mother and stepfather, with whom he had a warm relationship, for a year at their home in Oakland. He did some teaching and worked as an assistant at an apothecary shop. He also wrote some stories and poems which were published in magazines back East.

In 1856, Harte left Oakland and worked as a private tutor for the four sons of a rancher in the San Ramon Valley. However, when the rancher could no longer afford his services, Harte walked to Tuolumme County and briefly opened a small settlement school near Sonora. That venture failed when local families moved away. About this time, Harte tried his hand at mining for gold but barely survived. Still, the experience and the characters he met served to greatly influence his future writing including The Luck of Roaring Camp and Tennessee’s Partner, the latter of which the musical Paint Your Wagon was based.

Where am I goin’? I don’t know.
When will I be there? I ain’t certain.
All that I know is I am on my way.

The above words are from lyrics to the title song to the 1969 movie musical Paint Your Wagon which starred Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. As mentioned above, the film was based on one of Harte’s works titled Tennessee’s Partner. In addition, the words seemed to convey the hope, self-doubt, and challenges Harte took as a young man to find his true path in life.

A journal entry on 31 December 1856 documented Harte’s difficulty in earning a living and his desire to try and pursue a career in literature. Apart from the fact publishers were located on the other side of the country in New York and Boston, and mail between the east and west coast was still being routed around Cape Horn by ship, there were no daily newspapers published anywhere but Stockton, Sacramento, and San Francisco, and there was just one literary paper published on a weekly basis in San Francisco.

Much as he wanted to support himself by writing, he had to have other income to survive. As a result, in 1857, a then 21-year old Harte accepted work as an agent and messenger for the Wells Fargo Express Company in Humboldt Bay, approximately 250 miles north of San Francisco. He made trips on stages running east to Trinity County and north to Del Norte. However, working for the Wells Fargo was dangerous. Gold was often transported and “heavily chained to the box of the coach”. Even when armed guards were hired to accompany especially large shipments, the stage was often targeted for robbery. The man who held his job before Harte had been shot during a robbery, and the man who replaced him was killed in the job. In addition, there were other dangers to consider not the least of which were controlling six “half-broken” horses and flash floods while crossing a stream which were a frequent occurrence.

Consequently, by May of 1857, he accepted a position as a printer’s assistant at the Humboldt Times, a weekly paper. There, using the pseudonym of Ichabod, he also wrote six columns during the spring and summer. But by October of that year, he once again worked as a private tutor for two sons of local rancher Charles Liscomb. He lived at their ranchero in Uniontown. His now married sister, Maggie, also lived in Uniontown with her husband.

In many respects it is easy to see why Harte used the name Ichabod for his newspaper articles. Despite his longing to earn his living as a writer, like the fictitious character Ichabod Crane from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Harte often had to earn his livelihood as a teacher and often had trouble fitting in with settlers. Charles Murdock, a friend of Harte described his friend as follows: “He was fond of whist, genial, witty, but quiet and reserved, something of a ‘tease’, and a practical joker; not especially popular, as he was thought to be fastidious, and to hold himself aloof from ‘the general’, but he was simply a self-respecting, gentlemanly fellow, with quiet tastes, and a keen insight into character. He was no roisterer, and his habits were clean. He was too independent and indifferent to curry favor, or to counterfeit for a liking.”

On Christmas Day in 1857, Harte’s journal reflects his depression over his circumstances as well. “What the d---l am I to do with myself—the simplest pleasures fail to please me—my melancholy and gloomy foreboding 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.”

In December 1858, he became a printer’s assistant at the Northern California, a weekly newspaper published in Eureka. Harte also contributed to columns and sometimes subbed for the editor when he was out of town. One such incident occurred on 7 September 1859, when he penned an editorial titled, “Cruelty to Indians”. In the editorial, Harte defended local Indians who were being targeted by acts of violence from white settlers. Four months later, he wrote another editorial about the cold-blooded massacre of up to 200 Wiyot Indians. Though a peaceful tribe who “never fought with white settlers”, they had been wrongly suspected of cattle rustling. Resentment and anger toward the Wiyots had escalated during a two-year period, ending in a sneak attack during the night of February 26, 1860. Using hatchets, knives, clubs, and guns, a group of white settlers crossed Humboldt Bay and attacked the Wiyot village located on Tuluwat, a small island. The victims were old men, women, children and infants. Because the attack took place during the tribe’s World Renewal Ceremony, the majority of Wiyot men capable of defending the village were away. It had been their custom to gather supplies for the ceremony which lasted 7-10 days while the women and children slept.

Harte hated injustice and cruelty, and his very graphic accounting of the bloody brutality inflicted against the Wiyot, and his condemnation of the unprovoked massacre, created such a firestorm of controversy that he received death threats and moved to San Francisco. However, his outrage over the massacre could not be silenced. Not long after his relocation, an anonymous letter published in the local paper reported the massacre at Tuluwat had not only been condoned by the community of Humboldt Bay, but despite the evidence which showed it had been a planned attack by the Humboldt Volunteers (a militia group), no arrests or trial of anyone took place.

On 24 May 1864, The Californian, a weekly literary newspaper began publication in San Francisco. Among the contributors to the first issue were Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Charles Henry Webb, and Stoddard.

It is interesting to note that Harte and Twain both began their literary careers about the same time in San Francisco. In point of fact, it was Harte who, after listening with amusement to Twain (then a reporter for The Morning Call) talk about a recent visit to the mining district for a newspaper assignment, called in someone and asked Twain to tell it again so it could be published in The Californian. The Jumping Frog of Calaveras became the first work of Mark Twain that received national attention from California back to the Eastern states. Years later, Twain later said of his old friend: “Bret Harte trimmed and trained and schooled me patiently until he changed me from an awkward utterer of coarse grotesqueness to a writer of paragraphs and chapters that have found a certain favor in the eyes of even some of the very decentest people in the land…”

It has been said that Harte was a slow and intensely self-critical writer. Gee, can I relate to this. He was fastidious when writing and rarely talked about his works in progress. However, Noah Brooks, a colleague and confidant of Harte recalled a specific incident when Harte asked for advice while writing The Outcasts of Poker Flat. Brooks said: “He asked me to help him in a calculation to ascertain how long a half-sack of flour and six pounds of side-meat would last a given number of people. This was the amount of provisions he had allowed his outcasts of Poker Flat, and he wanted to know just how long snow-bound scapegoats could live on that supply.”

In July, 1868, Harte became editor of a California magazine called The Overland Monthly. Published in its first issue was a short story penned by Harte titled, The Luck of Roaring Camp. The far-reaching success and groundbreaking significance of this particular piece literally triggered western fiction. In many respects, he not only ignited the flame for western fiction, but paved the way for other contemporary authors of his time, including Mark Twain.

In July 1870, after learning Charles Dickens had died, Harte wired the Overland Monthly and had them hold back publishing the issue for 24 hours until he could pen a tribute to his favorite author since childhood. The tribute titled “Dickens in Camp” is considered his poetic masterpiece, noted for its sincerity, depth of feeling, and the “unusual quality of its poetic expression”.

Among his literary accomplishments, in 1871, Harte was the first author to sign an unprecedented (at that time) publishing contract for $10,000.00 for virtually anything he wrote (fiction or poetry) over a 12-month period. He was the highest paid and most famous American author at the time. In the following years, he continued to write and publish his work, sometimes republishing earlier works, as well as make appearances as a lecturer. In 1878, Harte was appointed United States Consul to Krefeld, Germany and later Glasgow, Scotland. He moved to London in 1885, where he continued to write and lecture.

Film adaptations of his work include: The Outcast of Poker Flat (1937), as well as Tennessee’s Partner (1955) and the musical Paint Your Wagon (1969) the latter two of which (as stated earlier) were based on Harte’s short story titled “Tennessee’s Partner”.In 1975, a popular Italian ‘spaghetti western’ ‘Four of the Apocalypse’ was based on two of Harte’s titles: “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp”.

It truly is difficult to summarize the life of an individual in a blog post, particularly someone with such a compelling story and contribution to Western literature. His wanderings in California and his keen observations of everything were reflected in his vivid writings, and very much like Jane Austen who provided the world with firsthand knowledge of the Regency period in England, Bret Harte was an eye-witness to the mining camps and the pioneers of California. He saw the victims of an Indian massacre, and lived the danger as an Expressman with Wells Fargo. He shared those visual images in his writing with the world. Although some critics have claimed Harte romanticized California and the pioneers who settled there, or created an unrealistic picture for readers, evidence from diaries, narratives, and letters written firsthand by California pioneers – as well as most of the daily newspapers published in San Francisco – corroborate Harte’s portrayal of the people and the area.

In 1902, Bret Harte died of throat cancer in England and is buried in the St. Peter’s churchyard in Surrey, England. In addition to his legacy as an author and the numerous memorials to him, there are nine schools (including elementary, middle, and high schools) named in his honor.

Thank you for stopping by, and I hope you enjoyed learning about Bret Harte. ~ AKB

Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West by Gary Scharnhorst (2000) University of Oklahoma Press)
The Life of Bret Harte by Henry Charles Merwin (1911) Houghton Mifflin Co., The Riverside Press Cambridge


  1. Ashley, thanks so much for this portrait of Bret Harte. He was a favorite of my dad's and I also enjoy his work.

  2. Ashley, what an eloquent, touching testament to Bret Hart! I don't recall reading any of his work, but it sounds amazing. I'll have to look for his stories.

    BTW, I can relate to Harte's slow manner of writing too. A speedy writer I will never be.

  3. Thank you very much, Lyn. I had to laugh because Harte also had the "writer ritual" where the furniture had to be juat so, the temperature juat right, etc. when he sat down to write. He also always wrote on what sounded like a mid-1800s version of a yellow legal pad. Don't we all have things we do? I light a scented candle, put my playlist on for each wip, etc.

  4. Ashley--even with his self-doubts and episodes of depression, he was an amazing man. It's interesting that he enjoyed a friendship with Mark Twain.
    Yes, you and Bret share that fastidious writing trait--your posts are always perfect.
    I share a birthday with Bret Harte--August 25. But that means nothing..I share that birthday with Regis Philbin, too, and it hasn't helped me one bit.
    I wonder what kept Bret sickly as a child? Rheumatic fever? Asthma? Diabetes?
    Thank you--I never knew anything about Bret Harte.

  5. What an informative post, Ashley. I've not read any of Harte's work that I know of, but did see Paint Your Wagon when it came out and several times later on television. It's one of my husband's favorites.

  6. I always love learning more about writers I admire. Wow. As you say, he witnessed just about everything that makes up the West.

  7. I don't know why suddenly my YA pen name is coming up. This is Tanya Hanson. Sheesh.

  8. Ashley, this post is great. I have been to and through Twain Harte so many times and have always thought of Mark Twain. Never gave thought to the Harte part of the name of the community. I definitely remember Paint Your Wagon and have the video of it. The music was so good and now I can hear that song you sent the words for. Thanks so much for bringing this man to our attention.

  9. Fascinating. Thank you for sharing. I love coming here to be introduced to people from our past.

  10. Ashley--I forgot to mention the words to the opening song of Paint Your Wagon. Since I read them, I've had that song in my head. We loved that movie, and I had the album for the entire musical score. I loved those.
    Anyway, "I'm on my waaaay!"

  11. Fascinating biography of Bret Harte. I'd heard of him, but didn't know about his depression, his relationship with Mark Twain or his courage to speak out against society for the Indians. Great post. I enjoyed it.

  12. What an adventuresome life. I notice the trend of those days for people to move around a great deal. I wonder what that's about? This was an amazing account of Harte's life.
    I loved Dickens, too with his complicated plots and tattered characters. Stephen Crane was also in this time period with the Red Badge of Courage based on his brother's ordeal in the Civil War--it's his poetry that I love best.
    A great blog about a wonderful author, Tanya.

  13. Hi Celia - Thank you. I couldn't find out what his childhood illness was, but I can well imagine it might have been asthma or a susceptibility to lung infections. Perhaps the climate in California helped in that respect.
    Oh, and you also share the same birthday as my grandfather and my great-grandmother -- two of my favorite people. :)

  14. Glad you enjoyed the post, Linda. My first dance recital as a kid was to a song from Paint Your Wagon.We were doing like a square dance to "Hand Me Down That Can of Beans". And I didn't like that song. haha

  15. Thank you, Tanya. It really is fascinating to think of all he witnessed -- including the advent of the railroad to California.

  16. Thank you for your comment, Paisley. My mom had the movie and soundtrack. I think she had a secret crush on Clint Eastwood at that time. :) I always loved the song "They Call The Wind Maria". :)

  17. Thank you so much, Ciara. By the way, you have a beautiful name. :)

  18. Kathy, I have to say that when I read about his defense of the Wiyot, I was very moved. I also read his editorial about the massacre and he was, indeed, very graphic. Clearly, his intent was to truthfully convey the animalistic brutality (unprovoked) inflicted upon defenseless women, children, old men, and even infants. I think it is to be admired when you use your voice to stand up for what is right and convey the truth -- especially back then. He was very courageous. And the fact he received death threats for it was awful, but really didn't surprise me.

  19. Sarah, I believe there was the sense of adventure and opportunity that pulled people out West. Harte kept moving about trying to earn a living at a time in California when there were few opportunities, especially if you were not in a big city like San Francisco. ~ Ashley


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