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The Devil and Dame Chance: The Life and Writings of Walter Blackburn Harte James Doyle In September 1890,the New England Magazine of Boston featured an article entitled "Some Canadian Writers of To-Day." The author, Walter Blackburn Harte, had recently emerged on the American literary scene as a reporter and interpreter of Canadian subjects: his pieces on "The Canadian Legislature " and "Social Life at Ottawa" were the lead articles in The Cosmopolitan of New York for April and August 1889; his series on Canadian politics and culture for the New England had begun in December 1889with "Intellectual Life and Literature in Canada." The work of this previously unknown author was soon a topic of considerable interest in Canadian literary circles. Bliss Carman, who was on the staff of the New York magazine The Independent in 1890, wrote a brief but enthusiastic notice of Harte's article, as well as a personal letter of praise to Harte, and exchanged letters on Harte's view of Canadian literature with Archibald Lampman.' In the Toronto Globe column of 1892-93, "At the Mermaid Inn," both Lampman and Wilfred Campbell paid tribute to Harte's recent achievements in magazine writing. "Mr. Harte," Campbell declared, "is rapidly making for himself a continental reputation as an able and strong writer of an aggressive character, and his truthful unveiling of humbug is making its influence felt in more than one quarter."2 As Campbell suggests, the Canadian connection wasonly a part of Harte's career. After two years as an assistant editor on the New England, he went to the Arena, a controversial Boston radical magazine. He subsequently edited Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 16, Number 1, Spring 1985,15-30 16 James Doyle various periodicals in Boston and New York, becoming well known in both American and Canadian literary circles for his caustic opinions. His American literary friends and correspondents included Edwin Markham, Ambrose Bierce and Hamlin Garland. "Mr. Walter Blackburn Harte," wrote Bierce in 1892,"... is another and better conscience to all the dunces and imposters of contemporary literature." 3 The critic Percival Pollard declared Harte to be "the boldest and finest essayist our generation has seen in America. "4 In 1899 Harte died, in poverty and obscurity, at the age of thirty-three. Within a short time his work was forgotten. His one book, a collection of essaysentitled Meditations in Motley (1894),in spite of an encouraging critical reception, had been ignored by the public. In the twentieth century, his name and writings are found occasionally in biographies, critical studies and anthologies relating to his many literary acquaintances and to the literary developments with which he was involved, but very little is known of his life and career, and his prodigious output of essays and fiction remains buried in magazines. Harte's obscurity involves a combination of factors, including his own weaknesses as a person and artist, his obsessive devotion to literary ideals that frequently came into conflict with established views, and the vagaries of the North Americac cultural scene at the end of the nineteenth century. The story of his life and career is a remarkable narrative of idealism, struggle and failure which, besides having considerable biographical interest, provides insight into the subtleties and interrelationships of the American and Canadian literary milieux during an important but frequently neglected period of cultural history. I In his writings Harte was inclined to say little about his early years, but two semi-autobiographical articles provide a fragmentary account. He was born in England in 1866. His impoverished but cultured family included a great-uncle "who for many years, earned a precarious livelihood as a literary taster for the London Saturday Review."5 "My father was good and kind enough, but he only gave me too many brothers and sisters." By the age of eighteen, in spite of his lack of formal education, Harte was trying to live in London as a professional writer: ''I went into literature at the back-door ... .If I did not actually starve, I lived on very short commons, while I patiently went through a long apprenticeship to the press. It is while engaged in the elevating occupation of recording...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 15-30
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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