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Heterochronic West: Temporal Multiplicity in Bret Harte’s Regional Writing
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Heterochronic West
Temporal Multiplicity in Bret Harte’s Regional Writing

Bret Harte’s well-known short story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1868) begins by placing its narrative squarely in the historical moment of the California gold rush: “There was commotion in Roaring Camp. It could not have been a fight, for in 1850 that was not novel enough to have called together the entire settlement” (16, emphasis added). The text then proceeds to detail the numerous, and by the narrator’s reckoning, beneficial changes occasioned by the introduction into Roaring Camp of mixed-race baby Tommy Luck (whom Roaring Camp’s miners affectionately refer to as “The Luck”). At the end of the story, a destructive flood rips through the mining camp, obliquely recalling the Book of Genesis while also killing Tommy and bringing Roaring Camp’s narrative of “regeneration” to a rather different end than readers might have been led to expect (“Luck” 22). Thus while the opening sentence of “The Luck of Roaring Camp” anchors the story to a specific historical moment eighteen years prior to the text’s initial publication and audience reception, the text’s ending points to a biblical past and to an aborted future of continuing “regeneration”; when translated into social and economic terms, this future also would have been one of continuing “progress” and “development.”1 In other words, “The Luck of Roaring Camp” conjoins disparate historical moments—namely, the deep biblical past and more recent events in California—while also disrupting the fulfillment of the future that, the narrator suggests, time’s inexorable passing would have effected. As the narrator notes, “three months” simply needed to pass and then the hotel signifying economic development and greater translocal connectivity would have been built (25). [End Page 143]

Harte’s readers’ textually mediated understanding of time—their understanding of the nation’s and its citizens’ movement through it2—therefore diverges significantly from conceptions of time as medium of linear progress and agent of manifest destiny. For one, the year 1850 and the deep past narrated in the Bible come together in such a way that this deep past finds itself repeated, with a few differences, in gold rush California. Time, in this sense, operates as a recursive loop or cycle, the very view of time that already had begun to be displaced in the Anglo-American context as early as the mid- to late eighteenth century. As John Demos writes, in this period conceptions of history as “cyclical movement” began to be abandoned in favor of “fresher, more linear, channels” (22, 45). And in place of what Lloyd Pratt calls the “uniform national destiny” (5) and “determinate future” (36) put forth by John L. O’Sullivan and a host of other nineteenth-century writers, Harte offers readers a vision of an uncertain future in the Far West: will the future of social progress and economic development forecasted in Roaring Camp’s increasing civility and the proposed building of a hotel eventually come to pass? Or will the western wilderness continually intervene and throw Roaring Camp into an endless cycle of rise and decline that locks the locale into a permanently “primitive” state relative to parts of the North American continent farther east?

Scholars have linked the texts that I will examine here—“The Luck of Roaring Camp” as well as Harte’s “Tennessee’s Partner” (1869), “The Idyl of Red Gulch” (1869), “The Iliad of Sandy Bar” (1870), and “An Ingenue of the Sierras” (1893)—to the genesis of the literatures variously referred to as regional writing, literary regionalism, and/or local color.3 As a way of intervening in the critical history of Harte’s writing and of regional writing more broadly, this article considers Harte’s short stories vis-à-vis the critical tendency to view regional writing as a genre that narrates the inevitable demise of local particularity at the hands of a nationalizing and homogenizing modernity.4 “The new consensus view,” writes Pratt, “is that nineteenth-century literary regionalism participates in the disappearance of the local in the face of modernity rather than working to preserve the local or to function as its advocate” (151).5...