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RO Y F. H U D S O N The Contributions of Bret Harte to American Oratory Bret Harte left an unappreciative West and headed east in 1871, riding on the success of his western stories and poems. In the East he became a staff member of the Atlantic Monthly at a coveted salary of $10,000 a year. One year later, when his contract was not renewed, he found himself removed from the source of his inspiration and his debts increasing. It was during this era that the lecture platform, which had been struggling to exist during the Civil War, was becoming popular and profitable. In 1867 James Redpath had organized the Boston Lyceum Bureau. Many prominent writers and statesmen traveled the circuit under his sponsorship—Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, John B. Gough, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Ward Beecher, and Charles Dickens. Lecturing was rapidly becoming a profitable activity. Phillips averaged between $250 and $500 a lecture. Beecher re­ ceived as much as $1,000 a lecture, and Dickens’ one year tour netted him $228,000.1 It is not surprising, then, that Bret Harte, one of the prom­ inent literary figures of his day, came in contact with the Redpath W illiam N. Brigance, A History and Criticism of American Public Address (New York, 1943), I. 120-129. 214 Western American Literature Bureau, and, in spite of his shyness and misgivings, agreed to a lecture tour. The lecture platform had been established primarily to dis­ seminate the culture of the East to the people of the West—to bring the personalities of New York, Boston, and Washington to the little towns of the Mid-East, South, and Canada. Bret Harte’s appearance on the circuit reversed this pattern; he brought the wit and humor of the West to the people of the East. Bret Harte prepared only two lectures for his tours, one that remained in his repertoire for two years and one that he used but a few times. He fulfilled approximately 150 engagements over a period of two years from 1872 to 1874. Compared with other speakers on the circuit such as Emerson and Phillips, his years of lecture activity were short and the number of his lecture prepara­ tions were few. His first lecture was delivered on December 3, 1872, in Albany, New York. It was entitled “The Argonauts of ’49, California’s Golden Age.” The Albany lecture in his home town was a trial run for the important opening lecture in Boston at Tremont Temple on December 13. That first Boston appearance before Howells, Dana, and many other New England dignitaries was a terrifying experience for the publicity shy Western author. Stewart recreates that situation: His situation was critical. He was about to make a public address—something which he feared and loathed. He faced one of the most demanding audiences in the world, and it was already half hostile. He knew that his own and his family’s living depended upon the next hour, that managers of lecture tours would watch the papers in the morning. The sinister shadow in the wings was evidence of the penalty for failure. The stakes were ruinously high and the odds heavily against him. Yet with a cold courage worthy of Jack Hamlin he rose, went to his place, and began.2 As he spoke the audience warmed. It followed his descriptions, rose quickly in response to every joke and bubbled over with laugh­ 2George R. Stewart, Jr., Bret Harte, Argonaut and Exile (Port Washington, 1959), p. 211. Bret Harte and Western Oratory 215 ter. He had triumphed, and the following day the newspapers ac­ knowledged his success. Harte’s first speech in Boston is a striking contrast to Mark Twain’s first Boston performance. Harte and Twain have been compared frequently in their roles as recorders of Western life. It is of interest to note that Twain, who went on to many years of successful lecture appearances, was a dismal failure in his first Boston appearance. His lecture debut was in the Hotel Brunswick on December 17, 1877, at a dinner in honor of the seventieth anni­ versary of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 213-222
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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