Biography of Bret Harte: The Pioneer of Western Fiction

A brief, informative discussion on the poet and great late 19th-century writer Bret Harte.

Bret Harte, a name synonymous with Western American literature, emerged as a defining figure in shaping the genre’s narrative during the 19th century. Known for his vivid portrayal of life during the California Gold Rush, Harte’s works echo the complexity, humor, and tragedy of the American frontier. This article delves into the life, works, and enduring legacy of Bret Harte, offering a glimpse into the journey of a man whose pen captured the spirit of an era.

Early Life and Formative Years

Francis Bret Harte

On August 25th, 1836, Francis Bret Harte was born in Albany, New York. He would later just be called Bret Harte and was the man who invented the formulas for Westerns. He was born into a poor family, and they moved around a lot in order to avoid paying bills or tuition for school. As a child, Harte wrote many poems and even had some published as he got a little older. In the back of his mind, he always knew he wanted to be a writer.

His father died when he was pretty young, so Bret learned how to be self-sufficient. He had many odd jobs when he was a young boy but always kept writing. His experiences, and the experiences his brothers and sisters told him, helped him think of new ideas to write his poetry about.

In 1854, Bret Harte and his family moved to the West; Bret was hoping to start some kind of career. He worked many different jobs, some being a school teacher, a tutor, an expressman, and a clerk, but he soon found his way into journalism. In 1862, during one of his many miscellaneous jobs, he met his future wife, Anna Griswold. Together they had nine children.

A Career in Writing and the Western Genre

Harte first tried his hand at only doing poetry but found that he was no better than any other mediocre beginning poet. Then he tried writing stories and loved it.

In 1868, while living in San Francisco, Harte became the editor of a very popular California magazine called the “Overland Monthly.” In addition to being the editor, he also wrote eight published stories during the period (three years) he was editor. The idea of Westerns and stories of the “Wild West” were his inventions, and his stories were known for having characters with crazy, different, and colorful personalities, backgrounds, and ways of living.

He was also very passionate about the treatment of minorities in the West and in the U.S. in general; he felt they were being very much mistreated. In his earlier writings, he stated his feelings very clearly and got a lot of fans, as well as a lot of criticism.

After gaining much respect and fame in the West, in 1871, Harte decided to leave San Francisco and move to the East, hoping to win them over as well. But the East didn’t show Bret Harte much promise.

His career slowly went downhill until, in 1878, he was offered a station in Germany as a U.S. Consul. He accepted the position but soon found Germany not to his liking.

He spent the rest of his life abroad, in England, Scotland, and the like, and on May 6th, 1902, Francis Bret Harte died.

Contributions and Literary Style

Bret Harte’s contributions to American literature were profound. He is credited with introducing the local color narrative to Western fiction, focusing on regional settings, dialects, and customs. His stylistic approach combined sharp wit, poignant storytelling, and a keen sense of irony. Harte’s influence extended beyond literature; his stories inspired plays and films and a deeper cultural appreciation of the American West’s historical significance.

Bret Harte may be known mainly as a poet, but actually, he was more of a journalist than he ever was of a poet. Some of his most well-known literature include:

  • The Luck of Roaring Camp
  • The Outcasts of Poker Flat
  • Tennessee’s Partner
  • California’s Golden Age
  • Plain Language from Truthful James
  • My Metamorphosis

Bret Harte’s journey from a young observer of the Californian Gold Rush to a celebrated literary figure is a testament to the enduring power of storytelling. His nuanced narratives and memorable characters offer a window into the complexities of life on the American frontier. As we revisit his works, we are reminded of the rich tapestry of human experiences and the universal themes that continue to resonate across time and place.

Bret Harte’s legacy remains an integral part of the American literary canon, inviting readers to explore the depths of the human spirit against the backdrop of the untamed West.

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