The Feminization of Roaring Camp: Bret Harte and the American Woman's Home

By Nissen, Axel | Studies in Short Fiction, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

The Feminization of Roaring Camp: Bret Harte and the American Woman's Home


Nissen, Axel, Studies in Short Fiction


1

More than any other author, Bret Harte was responsible for literary representation of the Gold Rush and for putting California on the world's literary map. The challenge he faced was how to represent a lawless and uncivilized phase of American history in a way that would not only capture the imagination of the middle-class, magazine-buying public, but also be socially acceptable. His solution was to import romantic situations and plot structures into a hitherto unmapped fictional landscape. His Californian mythology was founded on symbols and emplotments taken from the Bible, from Greek legend, from Cervantes, Washington Irving, Walter Scott, Cooper, Dumas, and Dickens. The combination was one of enormous rhetorical power.

From the very first, then, Harte was writing historical romance. We see this most clearly when we contrast his short stories with contemporary documents, such as Dame Shirley's "Letters from the California Mines," which also functioned as source material for Harte the local historian. Although there would continue to be goldminers and mining camps, the Gold Rush was over when Harte first arrived in California in 1854, and the days of the "Argonauts of '49" were numbered when he began to write stories for the Overland Monthly in 1868. Of this Harte was acutely conscious, writing in the preface to his landmark collection The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches (1870), that he fears he "cannot claim ... any higher motive than to illustrate an era of which Californian history has preserved the incidents more often than the character of the actors...."

The first of Harte's Californian short stories to achieve nationwide and worldwide circulation was "The Luck of Roaring Camp," published in August 1868 in the newly started Overland Monthly, of which Harte was the editor. One modern reader has described the story as "a parable where Christ-like Tommy Luck converts several picturesque miners to a facsimile of Victorian civilization--before raw, savage, anarchistic wilderness wipes them all out" (Morrow 128). As Patrick Morrow correctly observes, in "The Luck of Roaring Camp" Harte incorporates elements from one of the most familiar and beloved stories in Western culture--the birth of Christ. With this starting point, the story sets out to describe the effect of the introduction of a child in to an all-male community. The major part of the narrative is taken up with the relation of how the men raise this child, son of an Indian prostitute and an unknown father.

The modern reader may wonder at how the author dared to confront a postbellum audience with both prostitution and miscegenation. Harte, of course, ran a calculated risk. Yet in the early years of the Gilded Age, no author would prove more adept at walking the tightrope between novelty and convention, between piquancy and propriety, than Bret Harte. As it turned out, the time was ripe for an expansion of American fiction's field imaginary. Even the Iron Madonna might under certain conditions press a fictive fallen sister to her chilly bosom, not to mention her sister's child. The success of Harte's experiment can be no better demonstrated than by quotations from two representative reviews of Harte's first collection of short stories, which included "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and others equally bold. A Chicago Times reviewer wrote on 4 May 4 1870 that Harte "has taken even the lowest phases of this life, and, with a human sympathy and artistic directness that do him equal credit, he has proved that the best of poetry can be made of rude slang, and that the purest human motives and affectations can be found in the most repulsive exteriors" ("The First Appearance"). On the other side of the Atlantic, a Spectator commentary stated on 31 December of that same year: "No reader, however innocent, however sensitive, need fear any harm from this book" ("Sketches" 1587).

The timing was right and Harte's textual strategy was even righter. …

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