Bret Harte


Francis Bret Harte (August 25, 1836 – May 6, 1902) was an American author and poet, best remembered for his accounts of pioneering life in California.

Life and career

He was born in Albany, New York, as Francis Brett Hart. He was named after his great-grandfather Francis Brett, and his family name was Hart. When he was young his father changed the spelling of the family name from Hart to Harte. Later, Francis preferred to be known by his middle name, but he spelled it with only one "t", becoming Bret Harte.

He moved to California in 1853, later working there in a number of capacities, including miner, teacher, messenger, and journalist. He spent part of his life in the northern California coastal town of Union (now known as Arcata), a settlement on Humboldt Bay that was established as a provisioning center for mining camps in the interior.

The 1860 massacre of between 80 and 200 Wiyots killed at the village of Tutulwat was well documented historically and was reported in San Francisco and New York by a young American writer who would later use the pen name Bret Harte. When serving as assistant editor for the Northern Californian Bret Harte editorialized about the slayings while his boss was temporarily absent, leaving Harte in charge of the paper. Harte published a detailed account condemning the event, writing, "a more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people. Old women wrinkled and decrepit lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbled with their long grey hair. Infants scarcely a span along, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds." After publishing the editorial, his life was threatened and he was forced to flee one month later. Harte quit his job and moved to San Francisco, where an anonymous letter published in a city paper is attributed to him, describing widespread community approval of the massacre. In addition, no one was ever brought to trial, despite the evidence of a planned attack and references to specific individuals, including a rancher named Larabee and other members of the unofficial militia called the Humboldt Volunteers.

His first literary efforts, including poetry and prose, appeared in The Californian, an early literary journal edited by Charles Henry Webb. In 1868 he became editor of The Overland Monthly, another new literary magazine, but this one more in tune with the pioneering spirit of excitement in California. His story, "The Luck of Roaring Camp," appeared in the magazine's second edition, propelling Harte to nationwide fame.

When word of Dickens' death reached Bret Harte in July 1870, he immediately sent a dispatch across the bay to San Francisco to hold back the forthcoming publication of his Overland Monthly for twenty-four hours, so that he could compose the poetic tribute, Dickens in Camp. This work is considered by many of Harte's admirers as his masterpiece of verse, for its evident sincerity, the depth of feeling it displays, and the unusual quality of its poetic expression.

Determined to pursue his literary career, in 1871 he and his family traveled back East, to New York and eventually to Boston, where he contracted with the publisher of The Atlantic Monthly for an annual salary of $10,000, "an unprecedented sum at the time." His popularity waned, however, and by the end of 1872 he was without a publishing contract and increasingly desperate. He spent the next few years struggling to publish new work (or republish old), delivering lectures about the gold rush, and even selling an advertising jingle to a soap company.

A whispering pine of the Sierras transplanted to Fifth Avenue! How could it grow? Although it shows some faint signs of life, how sickly are the leaves! As for fruit, there is none. America had in Bret Harte its most distinctively national poet.

Andrew Carnegie, Round the World

In 1878 Harte was appointed to the position of United States Consul in the town of Krefeld, Germany and then to Glasgow in 1880. In 1885 he settled in London. During the twenty-four years he spent in Europe, he never abandoned writing, and maintained a prodigious output of stories that retained the freshness of his earlier work. He died in England in 1902 of throat cancer and is buried at Frimley.

Writing in his autobiography four years after Harte's death, Mark Twain characterized him and his writing as insincere. He criticized the miners' dialect used by Harte, claiming it never existed outside of his imagination. Twain accused Harte of borrowing money from his friends with no intent to repay and of financially abandoning his wife and children.

  • Several film versions of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" have been made, including one in 1937 with Preston Foster and another in 1952 with Dale Robertson. Tennessee's Partner (1955) with John Payne and Ronald Reagan was based on a story of the same name. Paddy Chayefsky's treatment of the film version of Paint Your Wagon seems to borrow from "Tennessee's Partner": two close friends—one named "Pardner"—share the same woman. The spaghetti western Four of the Apocalypse is based on "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" and "The Luck of Roaring Camp".
  • Operas based on "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" include those by Samuel Adler and by Stanford Beckler.

Other works

  • Plain Language from Truthful James, known also as The Heathen Chinee, was a satire of racial prejudice in northern California, but was embraced by the American public as a mockery of Chinese immigrants, and shaped anti-Chinese sentiment more than any other work at the time.
  • The Society upon the Stanislaus is a tragicomic poem, like Plain Language from Truthful James set in the northern California mining camps, and told by the same narrator, "Truthful James".
  • The Beulah song "Ballad of the Lonely Argonaut" references "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and "Outcasts of Poker Flat" and asks, "How does it feel to roam this land like Harte and Twain did?"


  • Bret Harte Elementary School in Long Beach, California
  • Bret Harte Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois
  • Bret Harte Middle School in San Jose, California
  • Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland and Hayward was named after him.
  • Bret Harte High School in Altaville, California is named after him and celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2005
  • Bret Harte Elementary in Cherry Hill, New Jersey
  • A community called The Shores of Poker Flat, California claims to have been the location of Poker Flat, although it is usually accepted that the story takes place further north.
  • Bret Harte Road in Frimley (the town in which Harte was buried) is named after him.
  • Bret Harte Road in Berkeley, California may be named after Harte.
  • Bret Harte Place in San Francisco, California is named after him.
  • Bret Harte Alley in Arcata, California, is named after him.
  • Twain Harte, California is a census-designated place (CDP) in Tuolumne County, California, United States. The population was 2,586 at the 2000 census. The name Twain Harte is derived from the last names of two famous authors who lived in California, Mark Twain and Bret Harte.
  • Bret Harte Elementary in Sacramento, California
  • Bret Harte Elementary School in San Francisco
  • In 1987 he appeared on a $5 U.S. Postage stamp, as part of the "Great Americans series" of issues.
  • Bret Harte Neighborhood in San Rafael, California, which includes Bret Harte Park, and Bret Harte Community Association [1]
  • Bret Harte Lane, Bret Harte Road, and Harte Ave in San Rafael, California.
  • Bret Harte House, at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California.