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E s s a y R e v i e w B r e t H a r t e : C e l e b r it y , C o m m o d it y N e w V ie w s o f a n O l d W e s t e r n M y t h m a k e r T a r a P e n r y Much has been written about California Gold Rush storyteller Bret Harte since his death nearly one hundred years ago, but few of the books and articles devoted to him in the twentieth century have shaken what Harold Kolb has recently called “the standard wisdom” about his life and literary legacy (54). True, Harte’s first scholarly biographers debated his significance. In 1911, biographer Henry Childs Merwin devoted eight chapters (nearly half his book) to proving “Bret Harte’s assertion that he described only what actually occurred” (53). And twenty years later, George Stewart Jr. revised our understanding of Harte from realist to romantic terms, concluding that the imaginative and skillful Harte often “exaggerated to make a good story” (166), and comparing his early life to a Horatio Alger story (183). But the now- “standard” debate about Harte’s realism or romanticism has failed to Bret Harte (1836-1902). B&w photograph. International Portrait Gallery. Courtesy Special Collections & Archives, Merrill Library, Utah State University. WAL 3 6 .1 S p rin g 2 0 0 1 ignite much interest in later twentieth-century readers. Indeed, it has led to the sort of tepid praise that Wallace Stegner offered in his intro­ duction to T he Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Tales (1961): “[d]espite gross simplifications and despite a failure of superficial realism, [Harte’s] creations have lasted and become stereotypes precisely because they do approximate myths” (xvi). However, two new scholarly biographies from Gary Scharnhorst and Axel Nissen offer anything but “the standard wisdom” about Bret Harte. The first comprehensive reassessments of Harte’s life and legacy to appear in nearly seventy years, Scharnhorst’s Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West and Nissen’s Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper offer new arguments for Harte’s significance. Treating Harte as entrepreneur, commodity, or celebrity— as the creator of markets for western fiction (Scharnhorst) or a literary darling whom everyone observed but nobody knew (Nissen)— and disagreeing markedly over Harte’s sexuality and its influence on his writing, these new biographies are likely to provoke new and timely debates about both the man and his work. A reader looking simply for a chronology of Harte’s life will find little difference between Schamhorst’s Bret Harte: Opening the American Liter' ary West, Nissen’s Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper, and George Stewart’s Bret Harte: Argonaut and Exile. All three describe Harte’s family roots in New York, his attempts to find work as a young, bookish man in California, and the early writing career that led him to national fame at the Overland Monthly. A ll three proceed to narrate his years of relative poverty in the East, the chilling of his friendship with Mark Twain, and the relief of a consular appointment in 1878. They chronicle his estrange­ ment from his wife and children, his later literary success in England, his dependence on the friendship and patronage of the aristocratic Van de Veldes, and his death in 1902. But to summarize his life is to fail to do justice to what Gary Scharnhorst has called elsewhere “the story in the life” (“In Defense of Western Literary Biography” 350). Like Stewart before them, Scharnhorst and Nissen have not only combed far-flung archives to recover new facts about Harte, but even more noticeably, they have found highly original stories to tell about the notorious mythmaker of Roaring Camp and Poker Flat. Gary Scharnhorst expresses his vision of the art of western biogra­ phy in a work delivered first in his past president’s address for the 1998 W LA Conference and published later in Western American Literature: “Western American literature has, after all, always been about story­ telling,” he writes in the essay “In Defense of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 73-80
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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