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P A T R I C K D. M O R R O W University of Southern California Bret Harte, Popular Fiction, and the Local Color Movement The name Bret Harte is widely associated with sentimentality, a dandy Victorian prose, and a falsified, “literary”view ofthe West. On the positive side, Harte is remembered for his scathing satires, his parodies of contemporary literary figures, and for being an originator of the local color movement. Just what this term “local color” means, and the complex questions of its relationship to regionalism, the West, and realism, form involved and moot issues. Personally, I regard a regionalist as a spokesman for any area at any time. I see local color as characteristic, picturesque folkways of an area, as well as being a definite literary movement and a positivethinking spirit. But by definition, definitions have their limitations. Today, over one-hundred years after the local color movement began, these questions of interpretation and relationship continue to be asked, and these issues still remain unresolved. Hamlin Garland wrote the standard definition oflocal color in the 1890’s, explaining that this branch of writing “has such quality of texture and background that it could not have been written in any other place or by anyone else than a native.”1This definition sounds so simple, reasonable, and convincing that somehow it ought to be true —which it isn’t. Harte, for example, left his native New York as a teen-ager; and later he left California for the East Coast after proving that there was more gold to be found in writing about the locals than in panning streams with them. It is now generally accepted that Harte spent less time on the Mother Lode than many of today’s enthusiastic tourists. Although he wrote about California’sgold rush period for forty years, Harte lived only eighteen of his sixty-six year life span in California, and he spent most of those eighteen years residing in the metropolitan San NOTES This paper was read in somewhat different form at the annual meeting of the Western Literature Association at Austin, Texas, in October, 1973. 1Crumbling Idols (New York, 1894), 64. 124 Western American Literature Francisco Bay area. Harte, then, was anything but a native, local talent. Garland’s definition holds true, though, as a commentary on the spirit of the early local colorists. His emphasis on “texture” — presumably meaning dialect speech, folkways, and local lore —and his emphasis on “background” — presumably meaning distinctive landscapes and picturesque character types, does suggest that in this definition Garland had Harte much more in mind than, say, the politically active and social-issue-oriented Kate Chopin. But critics have always placed some strange ideological bedfellows to­ gether in the local color movement. Harte, Chopin, and writers diverse as Thomas Bangs Thorpe, Mary Ellen Wilkins Freeman and John Muir, are commonly regarded as local color writers. Considered historically instead of stylistically or ideologically, the local colorists can be viewed with some consistency; they form that diverse and diffuse group of American authors who became prom­ inent in the last half of the nineteenth century for their stories about particular geographical regions and characters.2In order to understand historically the local color authors, whatever their geographical location, we need to understand the writings and literary theories of Bret Harte. For more than any other writer, Bret Harte has been linked with the gestalt of the local color move­ ment. Harte’sexact role in the development of this movement —was he the founding father, or merely a trailblazer — continues to be debated among literary critics, most of whom ignore Harte’s own words on the subject.3As it happens, Harte wrote an essay survey­ ing the development of American fiction; it is one of his finest critical pieces, and his last published work. “The Rise of the ‘Short Story’” analyzed the development of the short story, especially as an American genre.4 Harte then made some estimate of his own contributions, and through several examples and anecdotes showed how the form continued to change. The last part of the essay concerned local color literature and Harte’s own place as a 2For a useful sampling...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 123-132
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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