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

§ 11. “Local Colour”

The story was woven of four strands: first, there was the Dickens sentiment, melodrama, theatric presentation of lowly material; second, there was the French art that had been adapted from Poe—form, finesse, nothing too much; third, there was the unusualness of background, new skies, strange types, presented by one who seemingly had been a part of what he told, a voice of the new spirit of the age in America; and, finally, over it all there was a reminiscence of Irving, that impalpable atmosphere of romance which covers it with the soft haze of remembered things, of the far-off and the idealized. Only the third was new, the “local colour” we have come to call it, that touch of strangeness added to the picture by means of strongly picturesque characters and scenes hitherto unknown to the reader. A mere spice of novelty it was, a detail of stage setting wholly subsidiary to the vital elements of the tale, and yet it was largely this single element that gave The Luck of Roaring Camp its enormous vogue and that made its author—at least in America—the most influential writer of short stories in a generation.

And yet Harte was an effect rather than a cause. America was ready for local colour. He was the voice that started the avalanche that was bound to come sooner or later. The Civil War had liberated America from provincialism. It had done away with the boundaries of New England, of the South, of New York, of the West. The new emphasis was now upon the nation rather than upon the state or section. The first railroad across the continent was completed in 1868. Now everywhere were problems national in scope. The tremendous activities of the war were now transferred to the breaking of the great West, to the building of new cities and industries, and to the extending into every part of the continent of a network of communication. Books of travel like Bowles’s Across the Continent and King’s The Great South began to appear, and all at once the nation awoke to a realization of its own riches, of its own picturesque diversity. The long period of the settlement had bred individualism; it had covered America with little isolated areas as provincial as if they were the only settlements on the continent. The era following the war was an era of self-discovery. America was as full of new and interesting life and environment as even Europe, and for two decades and more American writers exploited the strange new riches of the land as the first wave of placer miners excitedly rifle the nugget pockets of a new-found bonanza. Eagerly the public read of the picturesque conditions that had evolved from the California rush of ’49; it wondered at the new world that Mark Twain revealed in his Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and that Cable opened in old Creole New Orleans, and at the grotesque Hoosier types revealed by Eggleston; it thrilled with astonishment at Charles Egbert Craddock’s pictures of the dwellers in the Tennessee Mountains, and at Octave Thanet’s revelations of life in the canebrakes of Arkansas; and it lingered over the Old South before the war as revealed by Johnston, and Harris, and Page.

Never was movement launched with more impetus. No sooner had The Luck of Roaring Camp reached the East than the foremost publishing house of Boston hailed it as a new classic. Its author immediately was offered ten thousand dollars a year to write for The Atlantic Monthly, and the progress of his train east as he came to accept his unprecedented commission was indicated by daily bulletins in the newspapers as if he were a royal personage on a tour of the land. When was short story ever so advertised before? No wonder that everybody at the earliest opportunity read it, and later, in 1870, bought the book of short stories to which it gave the title.

Harte’s arrival in Boston marks the climax of his career. We need not follow him to Europe whither he afterwards went to spend the rest of his life, or read widely in his voluminous later product. The work in that first collection containing The Luck of Roaring Camp he never surpassed, though over and over for years he repeated its characters and backgrounds in stories of California life. If he is to endure it will be on account of the title story, or Tennessee’s Partner, or The Outcasts of Poker Flat.

Like James, Harte was a conscious artist, a workman who had served a careful apprenticeship. His stories are models of condensation, his characters are as distinct and as striking as are those of Dickens, his climaxes are dramatic, and his closing effect is always impressively theatric. Sentiment he used with a free hand, but he kept it more within control than did the creator of Little Nell. Fiction with him, as with Poe, was a deliberate thing, to be written with the reader always in mind. His unit necessarily was short. He had no power to trace the growth of a soul or to record the steps of an evolution. His one attempt at a novel, Gabriel Conroy, was a failure. He could make a situation dramatic, he could make alive a climactic moment in a reckless career, but he was powerless to deal with the resultant effects from a complexity of motives and situations. What he added to the short story of his time, aside from the obvious local colour, was the dramatic element. His stories move, they culminate, they may be translated with little change into acting plays. Moreover, Harte was the first prominently to bring into the short story the element of paradox. It is the object of the theatrical always to move strongly the emotions, to keep interest taut by swift change and by unexpected turns. With Harte paradox became almost a mannerism. Everywhere anticlimax: in a desperado suddenly an outburst of Christlike self-sacrifice; from a mild youth with seraphic countenance a fiendish outburst; from a seeming clergyman, all in a moment, profanity.

The weakness of Harte was his lack of sincerity and of moral background. Unlike Cable and Page, he stood apart from his material, cold and unmoved, and sought not the truth but effect upon the reader. Every one of his extreme characters may have had somewhere a counterpart, and every separate incident, no matter how startling, may actually have happened at some time during the mining era, but the assembling of all this mass of exceptions and of isolated extremes into pictures that give the impression that they represent the ordinary course of life everywhere in California during a period is in reality a violation of the truth. The stories are unnatural: they have about them the atmosphere of the theatre. They are melodrama: they are compounded of the stage properties of the showman. Great as has been his influence, Harte cannot rank with the supreme masters of the short story. Lacking sincerity and sympathy and moral background, he becomes a picturesque incident rather than a permanent force.

After the enormous publicity given to Harte and the universal praise accorded his work both in America and in Europe, one might expect to find that a sudden change came over the spirit of American fiction. A change there was, indeed, but it was not sudden. One may leaf through whole volumes of such periodicals as Harper’s Magazine and find no hint of the new vogue. Artists like James and Aldrich went on with their work as if The Luck of Roaring Camp had never been written. The writers who were to be influenced—that group which later was to be known as the “local colour school”—in 1870 were just beginning to find themselves, and they fell under the spell of Harte just as Longfellow and his circle in earlier days had fallen under the spell of Irving. It was not until the eighties and the early nineties that the tide which had begun in The Overland Monthly in 1868 came to its full.