Bret Harte Essay
The United States has some of the best literature that has ever been written. American literature is very well refined and unique from other countries. In the writing world, American literature has not even been around that long. The past 337 years that America has been a country is relatively short compared to the thousands of years that literature has existed. The many great American writers are what make American literature able to overcome its short lifespan and be one of the greatest countries for literature in the world.
From Washington Irving to Mark Twain, American authors are responsible for American literature’s current amazing state. One certain author played an especially important role in shaping a specific genre in American literature. Bret Harte is the man responsible for making the Western genre of literature popular. His stories are captivating. Bret Harte was able to contribute to the rise of American literature by shaping the Western genre so that other authors may adapt to his new style of writing, and by writing some of the most memorable stories of all time, such as “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.
” Bret Harte was born in Albany, New York, on August 25, 1836. He was raised as one of his family’s four children. Harte was very ill from ages six to ten, which gave him free time for reading (Franks 829). This time for reading had a great influence on Harte, giving him blocks for him to build on in his writing career. He was especially affected by the writings of British author Charles Dickens (Franks 829). His family was so poor, that they were unable to afford for him to finish school (Franks 829). When his father died in 1845, Harte and his family moved to Brooklyn.
When his mother became engaged again, he and his family moved to Oakland, where his mother was married. His family was still very poor though. These times of hardship were also very influential on his writing. He was able to understand difficult struggles, thus making the problems that his characters face in his stories more interesting. He connected with his characters in many ways when they would experience times of hardship. His time in Oakland is what made him such a great “Western” writer. It made writing about the Wild West natural for him.
Harte then moved to Union, California, but was run out of town after publishing a newspaper story about local white men slaughtering Indians. Harte married Anna Griswold, and they had four children together. They lived together in San Francisco, where Harte wrote most of his popular stories and became quite famous. During the height of his popularity, he signed a contract with The Atlantic Monthly for $10,000 for 12 stories a year, the most money then offered to a U. S. writer (“Hutchinson’s”). His fame led to his stories becoming even more popular, but it would also go to his head.
The main genre used in most of Harte’s stories is the “Western”. According to The New Encyclopedia Britannica, the “Western” is defined as “an original genre of novels and short stories, motion pictures, and television and radio shows that are set in the American West, usually in the period from the 1850s to the end of the nineteenth century,” (598). An average Western story was about a cowboy fighting Indians or a sheriff catching a bad guy, but Harte made his special. Of those stories, one of the most popular is “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.
” This story is about a group of people who are kicked out of their town for being “bad” people. They set up camp together and attempted to work with each other to stay alive. The group experiences many setbacks, including a member betraying them, a long snowstorm, and a shortage of food. While the reader watches the story unfold, he or she starts to see that these people really are not that bad, and perhaps they did not deserve this punishment. This story is very different from the traditional Western stories.
In “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” Harte is able to make criminals seem like good guys. Usually a “Western” is about a perfect main character, who stops the bad guys; but in this story, the main characters are some of the worst people in the town. His is also different from traditional “Westerns” in the way that it does not have any guns. When most people think of a “Western,” they think of guns, but Harte was able to change that. He wrote a story with no guns at all, and it is able to focus more on the characters and their feelings, rather than action and violence.
Harte goes far beyond the ordinary way of writing with this story. In the opening paragraph of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” Harte writes: As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty-third of November, 1850, he was conscious of a change in its moral atmosphere since the preceding night. Two or three men, conversing earnestly together, ceased as he approached, and exchanged significant glances. There was a Sabbath lull in the air, which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous.
(“The Outcasts of Poker Flat”) As is visible in this paragraph, Harte was a very descriptive writer. He was able to paint a picture in the reader’s mind and effectively set his story’s mood. The characters that Harte used in this story were very significant. As said by Abby H. P. Werlock, his characters included “the stoic gambler, the soft-hearted prostitute, the unthinking drunk, and the vigilante committee driven by personal interests and blinded by the passion of a moment” (Werlcok). All of these characters that Harte used are still seen in many Western stories today.
In fact, they are quite typical in modern Western stories, but Harte was the one to come up with them. Shaping the Western genre and writing some of the most memorable stories of all time, such as “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” was how Bret Harte was able to contribute to the rise of American literature. After Harte’s era, “Westerns” became much more popular. He forever changed American literature to be much more Western themed. Harte will always be remembered as one of the best authors of all time, and more specifically, the man who changed the way Western stories are written.