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Bret Harte and the Dickensian Mode in America JOSEPH H. GARDNER Mark Twain's attitude toward literary imitations was almost as vehemently hostile as his feelings toward his former friend and benefactor, Bret Harte. It is not surprising, therefore, that his remarks on Harte's debt to Dickens would be couched in tones of self-righteous scorn: "In the San Franciscan days Bret Harte was by no means ashamed when he was praised as being a successful imitator of Dickens; he was proud of it. I heard him say, myself, that he thought he was the best imitator of Dickens in America, a remark which indicates a fact, to wit: that there were a great many people at that time who were ambitiously and undisguisedly imitating Dickens." 1 But if Mark Twain's right to claim superior virtue is at least questionable, his facts are not. From 1868, when American publishers offered no less than thirty-one different editions of his collected works - one of which sold over one hundred thousand copies in less than two years - until the turn of the century when P. F. Collier reported selling over five million copies of his works from door to door, Dickens was the one novelist most widely read in America. 2 He was also, unquestionably, the dominant influence upon American writers. In the early eighties James Herbert Morse strove valiantly to identify "the native element" in American fiction only to discover that of the three score some-odd novelists he chose to discuss as typically American, three quarters owed their primary inspiration to Dickens. Representative is his commentary on the now largely forgotten Theodore Winthrop. Winthrop is both "original" and "American"; uthe reader has no doubt that Winthrop had taken his portraits from life." However, the reader also "wonders continually if the author would have chosen precisely these persons if Dickens had never lived." And of all writers who have flourished since the Civil War, Morse observes, Bret Harte is at once the most original and the most Dickensian. 3 But simply to agree with Mark Twain, Morse, and Harte himself in what seems obvious enough, that Harte "was the best imitator of Dickens in America," does not lay the matter at rest. Among other things, it is helpful to know precisely what the word 0 Dickensian" meant. Obviously THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. II, NO. 2, FALL 1971 the adjective contains many meanings that are fixed and universal; yet 1ts application is also subject to significant shifts and permutations. The twentieth-century scholar might be quick to point out that Harte's Col. Starbottle is more Dickensian than FFV in ancestry, but for Harte's contemporaries , Starbottle was one of his most distinctly American creations. Conversely, it seems unlikely that many twentieth-century commentators would point to the interview in Gabriel Conroy between Arthur Poinsett and Peter Dumphy, in which according to the narrator Poinsett illustrates the superiority of a well-bred gentleman over a natural churl but in which Poinsett actually behaves like an intolerable prig and boor, as one of the novel's most unmistakably Dickensian passages. But for contemporary reviewers that is precisely what it was. One method of discovering what "Dickensian" meant to Americans in the late nineteenth century would be to survey critical essays of the period devoted to Dickens himself. But such a method is likely to produce only partial, if not misleading, results and cannot be trusted particularly if one wishes to define such an elusive., however significant., entity as "the Dickensian mode" in American fiction. To give one insignificant., yet curious example: while it is true that American critics occasionally took Dickens to task for his grammatical improprieties, there is nothing in their criticism to suggest that the solecistic splitting of infinitives by an American novelist would be taken as prima facie evidence of a Dickens influence. But when in Gabriel Conroy the Chinaman, Ah Fe, caused a coin "to instantly vanish up his sleeve," contemporary reviewers were quick to cry "Boz!" On a more noteworthy level: for the twentieth century such archetypal figures as the Western dance-hall girl whose decollete reveals - among other things - a heart of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 89-101
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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