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J A C K S C H E R T I N G Utah State University Bret Harte’s Civil War Poems: Voice of the Majority Bret Harte tried his hand at poetry before finding his true métier — the short story. With few exceptions, his poems are seldom read, for the simple reason that they are not very good poems. Most are commentaries on passing events, excessively sen­ timental, and larded with the inflated diction which appeals to a frontier community concerned about its level of cultural sophisti­ cation. In spite of these (and other) artistic defects, some of Bret Harte’stopical poems merit consideration. His Civil War poems for example. If we hold our critical faculties in check and content ourselves with evaluating these poems as cultural documents, we can acquire from them a better understanding of the manner in which Californians responded to that distant war, a war which touched their day-to-day affairs so lightly. And because the war was so physically remote from their state, we might assume that Californians were indifferent to the struggle. This seems to be the reasoning behind the following statement in Ray Allen Billington’s classic history, Westward Expansion: To the westerner there was nothing remarkable in the fact that the mining frontier advanced rapidly while the United States was fighting a war for existence. That he should travel east to lend his weight to Union or Confederacy never entered his head or, if it did, was dismissed as a fantastic notion. He was, like all frontiersmen, concerned not with distant events but with affairs transpiring under his nose. His provincialism rested partially on the isolation of pioneer settlements, but was due primarily to the limitless economic oppor­ tunities offered by the frontier; why bother with the outside world when a fortune lav on your doorstep? Whenever chances for economic betterment w'ere greatest, preoccupation with local affairs mounted. That certainly was the case during the Civil War. What mattered that eastern streams ran red with blood when western streams concealed pockets of yellow gold? Westerners suffered no pangs of conscience as they ignored the war raging beyond the Missis­ sippi to search for precious metals.1 'Westward, Expansion: A History of the American Frontier, 2nd ed. (New York, 1960), 617. 134 Western American Literature This observation — no doubt valid in the main — is in need of qualification with respect to the situation in California. If Bret Harte’s Civil War poems articulated public sentiment, as their popularity suggests, this is a strong indication that the Californians followed the war effort with more than passing interest. When the gathering storm cast its shadow across California, there was no question as to which side Bret Harte would support. By then he had become acquainted with the social and political leaders of San Francisco through Mrs. Jessie Benton Fremont, a socialite with an abiding interest in letters. Impressed by the quality of an article which the young writer and typesetter had written for the Golden Era, she began inviting Harte to her Sunday soirées. At the elegant Frémont home, Harte met such ardent Free-soilers as Senator Baker from Oregon and Thomas Starr King, a Unitarian minister and member of the Boston Transcendental Club. Starr King’s deeply-held convictions on the moral issues of the war were translated into powerful orations which, according to one source,2 kept California in the Union camp. Bret Harte idolized King and, under the minister’s guiding hand, soon became directly involved in the Union cause. His first public appearance was made at the conclusion of a campaign speech in which Senator Baker urged Californians to support Lincoln. Frank (Bret) Harte was the young man whojumped upon the platform beside Senator Baker, franti­ cally waved the American flag, and set off the greatest demonstra­ tion of the San Francisco campaign.3This was in October of 1860; three months later the nation was at war. When the War broke out, California’s sympathies followed three general patterns. Thousands of Southerners had partici­ pated in the Gold Rush, and thousands more had migrated over­ land to settle in the state. As might be expected...


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