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D O N A L D E. G L O V E R Mary Washington College A Reconsideration of Bret Harte’s Later Work The critical consensus on stories written by Bret Harte after he left America in 1878 might well be summed up in a New York Critic review of The Bell-Ringer of Angels and Other Stories (1895). Working in London, surrounded by every evidence of the most re­ fined luxury and culture, it is not in the nature of things that Mr. Harte should always be able to give the true ring to a representation of his early Pacific experience.1 Two years earlier, the Nation proclaimed Harte a failure, noting that “The material out of which that [his early work] was born is no longer at his command.”2 Harte’s career conveniently falls into two major periods: the brief, glittering success of 1868-1872, and the long exile in England from 1880 to his death in 1902. These periods reveal the basic dichotomy and paradox which control his art and the critical re­ sponse to his work as a whole. The majority of critics suggest that the important period in Harte’s life and work ends with the pro­ duction of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” in 1869. His later career is tantalizing for the mystery surrounding his twenty year separation from his wife and his relationship with Mme. Van de Velde, but the scores of short stories that constitute his later works are tradition­ ally thought of as sad and negligible repetitions of an earlier style and themes.3 However, it was after 1878 that Harte won at least partial acceptance of his own image, the image of a Victorian man of taste who happened to have been “out West.” This image led him on an Easterly course from the crude response in San Francisco to the brief plaudits of New York, and finally to acceptance in London — 1Anonymous review ofThe Bell-Ringer ofAngels and Other Stories, Critic, 26 (NS 23) (March 16, 1895), 201. 2Anonvmous review of Susy, Nation, 56 (March 16, 1893), 201. 3See Linda D. Barnett, “Bret Harte: An Annotated Bibliography,”American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, V (Summer and Fall, 1972). 144 Western American Literature Mecca for American writers of that day. Harte was an expatriate more by necessity than by real inclination or choice, but like all artistic expatriates, he was looking for an audience which would appreciate his writing and flatter his artist’s ego. In England, he met Hardy and George Eliot. He was the frequent guest of the Duke of Northampton; Sullivan asked for a libretto; the Prince of Wales requested an introduction. Harte even had the temerity to criticize Henry James, whom he had just met, for being “unAmerican .” Met Henry James, Jr. the American novelist, who is creating quite a reputation here. He looks, acts, and thinks like an Englishman, I am sorry to say, excellent as his style is. Iwish he had more of an American flavor.4 Public and private interest was such that Harte was asked to lecture at Oxford and to present the “Response” to the Royal Academy Toast to Literature; magazines deluged his agent with requests for stories. Feeling successful in Europe, for the first time Harte stopped writing about California, choosing German (“The Legend of Saamtstadt”) and later Scottish locales (the “St. Kentigern” stories narrated by an urbane consul) drawn from his experiences in Crefeld and Glasgow. More secure financially, and approved by his audience as something more than a local phenomenon, he wrote what he wanted: a disastrous series of plays (The Luck of Roaring Camp and Thankful Blossom, both in 1882) adapted from earlier successful stories. Here we see the paradox in his career. Although contemporary criticism in England showed that Harte was fully appreciated for his skill as a technician and wit, the English reader clearly wanted only local color stories dealing with the romantic Gold Rush era.5 The irony of Harte’s dilemma now becomes apparent. The conflict is no longer between his own view of himself as artist and an unappreciative audience, but between his desire to escape the old materials and his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 143-151
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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