Bret Harte: object of Mark Twain’s praise and derision

December 3, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, writers, writing.

Bret Harte probably deserves a higher station than the one he occupies in the pantheon of American letters. A big part of the reason he doesn’t have it lies with his one-time friend, Mark Twain.

Twain had known Harte from their days in the West when Harte achieved national fame in writing about the tall tales of the miners and mining towns they built. Stories such as “The Luck of Roaring Camp”  (you can read it here at Project Gutenberg or hear it here at LibriVox) and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and poems like “Plain Language from Truthful Jones” entertained all of America and brought Harte a good deal of fame. 

Harte’s contributions to American literature are important because his writing represented a complete break with the stranglehold that English literature had on American writing through the first have of the 19th century. Harte not only wrote himself, but he encouraged other writers, particularly the young Samuel Clemons, aka Mark Twain, in their writing.

Harte and Twain became the best of friends, with Twain giving Harte generous credit for his encouragement. Twain told Thomas Aldrich Bailey in 1871, that, “Harte had trained and schooled him so patiently until he changed me from an awkward utterer of grotesquenesss to a writer of paragraphs and chapters that have found a certain favor in the eyes of even  some of the very decentest people in the land.” (Quotation from the New Netherland Institute biography of Bret Harte)

Both writers eventually moved back to the Atlantic shore to continue their writing, and they even collaborate on a stage play, which turned out to be less than successful. Harte’s writing could not sustain its initial popularity, while Twain’s popularity grew exponentially. Eventually, their friendship dissipated with Twain delivering increasingly harsh judgments on Harte’s writing and his character. Exactly what precipitated the falling-out is not known, although scholars and friends have speculated about it.

Twain wrote that Harte was “a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward, . . . he is brim full of treachery.” For his part, Harte never responded directly to Twain’s name-calling and bullying.

Money problems caught up with Harte so that he accepted a consulate position at first in Germany and eventually became the U.S. Consulate in Glasgow, Scotland. He continued to write and amassed a long list of novels, short stories, and poems, but he never achieved the stature that he sought for his work.

He died in 1902 in England after living for 24 years abroad and never returning to American.

Four years after his death, Twain — by then an embittered old man — published his autobiography in which he continued his harsh criticism of Harte. It was a hatred that diminished him, but he could never let go of it.

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