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FOUND TEXT: Letters From Bret Harte, 1872-78 "My Luck, Just Now, Is Pretty Hard" "MY LUCK, JUST NOW, IS PRETTY HARD' Letters From Bret Harte, 1872-78 Introduction HOWEVER MODEST his modern reputation, Bret Harte deserves to be resurrected from the footnote. As founding editor of the Overland Monthly in 1868, he was mentor to an entire generation of Western American writers, among them Samuel Clemens, Ambrose Bierce, Joaquin Miller and Ina Coolbrith. Clemens later allowed that Harte "trimmed and trained and schooled me patiently until he changed me from an awkward utterer of coarse grotesquenesses to a writer of paragraphs and chapters that have found a certain favor." In such stories as "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," Harte staked his own claim to a rich vein of California local color. His poem "Plain Language from Truthful James," more popularly known as "The Heathen Chinee," was an overnight sensation upon its publication in the Overland in September 1870 and made him a household name from coast to coast. In all, his Overland writings, so different from the genteel tradition of Hawthorne and the Fireside Poets, seemed to represent a new direction in American letters. Lured east in 1871 by the promise of literary fame and fortune, he soon exhausted his welcome and began to trade on his name. The highest-paid writer in the country while under contract to the Atlantic Monthly in 1871-72, he was peddling hackwork to the New York Times and other daily newspapers only two years later. A notorious spendthrift, he squandered his money on foppish suits, expensive cigars and a summer house in Newport. The quality and number of his contributions to the Atlantic simply did not warrant an extension of his contract, so in the spring of 1872 he was compelled to find other sources of income. For the next few years he sold stories to such magazines as Scribner's and Spirit of the Times, tried his hand at a novel, and wrote a pair of plays—one of them, Ah Sin, with Clemens, perhaps the most disastrous collaboration in the history of American letters. He was a supernova in the literary firmament, a bright Western star quickly faded—or so goes the conventional estimate of his career. The joke made the rounds that Harte reversed the path of the sun, rising in glory in the west and setting in darkness in the east. The Missouri Review · 77 The fourteen letters that follow trace the eclipse ofhis early fame, beginning with a breezy letter to Clemens in June 1872, soon after his lucrative contract with the Atlantic expired, and ending with his career at its nadir. He was haunted for the rest of his life by the hardscrabble winter of 1877-78, when he lived hand to mouth, in debt to hotels, tailors and grocers, relying on loans from friends, begging for jobs, scolding his publisher, James R. Osgood, for failing to rush his latest book into print. He was reduced in the end to selling a parody of Longfellow's poem "Excelsior" for use in a soap ad for fifty dollars. In May 1878, a columnist for the Boston Traveller cracked that Harte was "floating on the raft made of the shipwreck of his former reputation." He was literally saved from penury by an appointment to a diplomatic post in Crefeld, Germany, by Rutherford B. Hayes in the spring of 1878. After he was fired from the diplomatic corps in 1885 for dereliction of duty, Harte lived the rest of his life with friends in London, while supporting his family in the U.S. by writing popular Western stories for British literary weeklies and newspaper syndicates. Still, at his death in 1902, the London Spectator declared that he had "probably exerted a greater influence on English literature than any other American author," and his friend HenryAdams claimed he was one of "the most brilliant men of my time." Harte was, as his letters reveal in unflattering detail, almost criminally negligent in matters of money. Noah Brooks, his assistant editor on the staff of the Overland, recalled that even in his salad days he "was...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 75-94
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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