The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

VI. The Short Story

§ 10. Bret Harte

Francis Bret Harte was born in 1839 at Albany, where his father, a scholar and an itinerant teacher of languages, happened at the time to be stationed. A youth of frail physique, he became a precocious reader, preferring a Hawthorne-like seclusion among books to playground activities among boys of his own age. From his childhood he was predisposed to literature; he dreamed over it, and he began to make poems even in his early school days. His removal to California at the age of fifteen, five years after the first gold rush, came from no initiative of his. To the delicate youth dreaming over his books it was an exile at the barbarous ends of the world. For a time he lived at his mother’s home at Oakland—after a nine years’ widowhood she had married again—and then half heartedly he began to support himself as a school teacher, as a private tutor, as a druggist’s clerk, and later as a type-setter on a rural newspaper. There is little doubt that for a time he saw something of mining life during a visit to Humboldt County, but the experience was brief. He had no taste for the rough life of the border. The greater part of his seventeen years in California he spent in San Francisco, first as type-setter, then as editor in various newspaper and magazine establishments. He was a man of the city, a professional literary worker, a poet, and a dreamer over the work of the older poets and romancers.

Harte came to the short story by way of Irving. His first dream was to do for the lands of the Spanish missions what Irving had done for the highlands of the Hudson. As early as 1863 he had contributed to The Atlantic Monthly his Legend of Monte del Diablo, which, with half a dozen other pieces written during the same period, breathed the soul of The Sketch Book. Poe had affected him not at all, but he had read much in the French, and he had been from his boyhood a devotee of Dickens. When in 1868, therefore, he found himself editor of the new Overland Monthly, which was to be the Atlantic Monthly of the Pacific coast, it was not strange that he should have evolved for its second number a short story like The Luck of Roaring Camp. The time was ready for such a production, and the place was ready: it could have come only during the decade following the war, and, moreover, it could have come only from California.