Read CHAPTER XVIII - BRET HARTE AS A WRITER OF FICTION of The Life of Bret Harte With Some Account of the California Pioneers , free online book, by Henry Childs Merwin, on

Bret Harte’s faculty was not so much that of imagining as of apprehending human character. Some writers of fiction, those who have the highest form of creative imagination, are able from their own minds to spin the web and woof of the characters that they describe; and it makes small difference where they live or what literary material lies about them. Even these authors do not create their heroes and heroines quite out of whole cloth, they have a shred or two to begin with; but their work is mainly the result of creation rather than perception.

The test of creative imagination is that the characters portrayed by it are subjected to various exigencies and influences: they grow, develop, yes, even change, and yet retain their consistency. There is a masterly example of this in Trollope’s “Small House at Allington,” where he depicts the slow, astounding, and yet perfectly natural disintegration of Crosby’s moral character. The aftermath of love-making between Pendennis and Blanche Amory is another instance. This has been called by one critic the cleverest thing in all Thackeray; but still more clever, though clever is too base a word for an episode so beautifully conceived, is that dawning of passion, hopeless and quickly quenched, between Laura Pendennis and George Warrington, the two strongest characters in the book. Only the hand of creative genius can guide its characters safely through such labyrinths of feeling, such back-eddies of emotion.

A few great novels have indeed been written by authors who did not possess this faculty, especially by Dickens, in whom it was conspicuously lacking; but no long story was ever produced without betraying its author’s deficiency in this respect if the deficiency existed. Gabriel Conroy, Bret Harte’s only novel, is so bad as a whole, though abounding in gems, its characters are so inconsistent and confused, its ending so incomprehensible, that it produces upon the reader the effect of a nightmare.

In fact, the nearer Bret Harte’s stories approach the character of an episode the better and more dramatic they are. Of the longer stories, the best, as everybody will admit, is Cressy, and that is little more than the expansion of a single incident. As a rule, in reading the longer tales, one remembers, as he progresses, that the situations and the events are fictitious; they have not the spontaneous, inevitable aspect which makes the shorter tales impressive. Tennessee’s Partner is as historical as Robinson Crusoe. Bret Harte had something of a weakness for elaborate plots, but they were not in his line. Plots and situations can hardly be satisfactory or artistic unless they form the means whereby the characters of the persons in the tale are developed, or, if not developed, at least revealed to the reader. The development or the gradual revelation of character is the raison d’etre for the long story or novel.

But this capacity our author seems to have lacked. It might be said that he did not require it, because his characters appear to us full-fledged from the start. He has, indeed, a wonderful power of setting them before the reader almost immediately, and by virtue of a few masterly strokes. After an incident or two, we know the character; there is nothing more to be revealed; and a prolongation of the story would be superfluous.

But here we touch upon Bret Harte’s weakness as a portrayer of human nature. It surely indicates some deficiency in a writer of fiction if with the additional scope afforded by a long story he can tell us no more about his people than he is able to convey by a short story. The deficiency in Bret Harte was perhaps this, that he lacked a profound knowledge of human nature. A human being regarded as material for a writer of fiction may be divided into two parts. There is that part, the more elemental one, which he shares with other men, and there is, secondly, that part which differentiates him from other men. In other words, he is both a type of human nature, and a particular specimen with individual variations.

The ideal story-writer would be able to master his subject in each aspect, and in describing a single person to depict at once both the nature of all men and also the nature of that particular man. Shakspere, Sterne, Thackeray have this power. Other writers can do the one thing but not the other; and in this respect Hawthorne and Bret Harte stand at opposite extremes. Hawthorne had a profound knowledge of human nature; but he was lacking in the capacity to hit off individual characteristics. Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester, even Miriam and Hilda, are not real to us in the sense in which Colonel Newcome and Becky Sharp are real. Hawthorne’s figures are somewhat spectral; they lack flesh and blood. His forte was not observation but reflection. He worked from the inside.

Bret Harte, on the other hand, worked from the outside. He had not that faculty, so strong in Hawthorne, of delving into his own nature by way of getting at the nature of other men; but he had the faculty of sympathetic observation which enabled him to perceive and understand the characteristic traits that distinguish one man from another.

Barker’s Luck and Three Partners, taken together, illustrate Bret Harte’s limitations in this respect. Each of these stories has Barker for its central theme, the other personages being little more than foils to him. In the first story, Barker’s Luck, the plot is very simple, the incidents are few, and yet we have the character of the hero conveyed to us with exquisite effect. In Three Partners the theme is elaborated, a complicated plot is introduced, and Barker appears in new relations and situations. But we know him no better than we did before. Barker’s Luck covered the ground; and Three Partners, a more ambitious story, is far below it in verisimilitude and in dramatic effect. In the same way, M’liss, in its original form, is much superior to the longer and more complex story which its author wrote some years afterward, and which is printed in the collected edition of his works, to the exclusion of the earlier tale.

In one case, however, Bret Harte did succeed in showing the growth and development of a character. The trilogy known as A Waif of the Plains, Susy, and Clarence, is almost the same as one long story; and in it the character of Clarence, from boyhood to maturity, is skilfully and consistently traced. Upon this character Bret Harte evidently bestowed great pains, and there are some notable passages in his delineation of it, especially the account of the duel between Clarence and Captain Pinckney. Not less surprising to Clarence himself than to the reader is the calm ferocity with which he kills his antagonist; and we share the thrill of horror which ran through the little group of spectators when it was whispered about that this gentlemanly young man, so far removed in appearance from a fire-eater, was the son of Hamilton Brant, the noted duellist. The situation had brought to the surface a deep-lying, inherited trait, of which even its possessor had been ignorant. In this character, certainly in this incident, Bret Harte goes somewhat deeper than his wont.

We have his own testimony to the fact that his genius was perceptive rather than creative. In those Scotch stories and sketches in which the Consul appears, very much in the capacity of a Greek chorus, the author lets fall now and then a remark plainly autobiographical in character. Thus, in A Rose of Glenbogie, speaking of Mrs. Deeside, he says, “The Consul, more perceptive than analytical, found her a puzzle.”

This confirms Bret Harte’s other statement, made elsewhere, that his characters, instead of being imagined, were copied from life. But they were copied with the insight and the emphasis of genius. The ability to read human nature is about the most rare of mental possessions. How little do we know even of those whom we see every day, and whom, perhaps, we have lived with all our lives! Let a man ask himself what his friend or his wife or his son would do in some supposable emergency; how they would take this or that injury or affront, good fortune or bad fortune, great sorrow or great happiness, the defection of a friend, a strong temptation. Let him ask himself any such question, and, in all probability, he will be forced to admit that he does not know what would be the result. Who, remembering his college or schoolboy days, will fail to recognize the truth of Thoreau’s remark, “One may discover a new side to his most intimate friend when for the first time he hears him speak in public”!

These surprises occur not because human nature is inconsistent, the law of character is as immutable as any other law; it is because individual character eludes us. But it did not elude Bret Harte. He had a wonderful faculty both for understanding and remembering its outward manifestations. His genius was akin to that of the actor; and this explains, perhaps, his lifelong desire to write a successful play. Mr. Watts-Dunton has told us with astonishment how Bret Harte, years after a visit to one of the London Music Halls, minutely recounted all that he had heard and seen there, and imitated all the performers. That he would have made a great actor in the style of Joseph Jefferson is the opinion of that accomplished critic.

The surprising quickness with which he seized and assimilated any new form of dialect was a kind of dramatic capacity. The Spanish-English, mixed with California slang, which Enriquez Saltello spoke, is as good in its way as the immortal Costigan’s Irish-English. “’To confer then as to thees horse, which is not observe me a Mexican plug. Ah, no! you can your boots bet on that. She is of Castilian stock believe me and strike me dead! I will myself at different times overlook and affront her in the stable, examine her as to the assault, and why she should do thees thing. When she is of the exercise I will also accost and restrain her. Remain tranquil, my friend! When a few days shall pass much shall be changed, and she will be as another. Trust your oncle to do thees thing! Comprehend me? Everything shall be lovely, and the goose hang high.’”

Bret Harte’s short stay in Prussia, and later in Scotland, enabled him to grasp the peculiarities of nature and speech belonging to the natives. Peter Schroeder, the idealist, could have sprung to life nowhere except upon German soil. “Peter pondered long and perplexedly. Gradually an explanation slowly evolved itself from his profundity. He placed his finger beside his nose, and a look of deep cunning shone in his eyes. ‘Dot’s it,’ he said to himself triumphantly, ’dot’s shoost it! Der Rebooplicans don’t got no memories. Ve don’t got nodings else.’”

What character could be more Scotch, and less anything else, than the porter at the railway station where the Consul alighted on his way to visit the MacSpaddens. “‘Ye’ll no be rememberin’ me. I had a machine in St. Kentigern and drove ye to MacSpadden’s ferry often. Far, far too often! She’s a strange, flagrantitious creature; her husband’s but a puir fule, I’m thinkin’, and ye did yersel’ nae guid gaunin’ there.’”

Mr. Callender, again, Ailsa’s father, in Young Robin Gray, breathes Scotch Calvinism and Scotch thrift and self-respect in every line.

“‘Have you had a cruise in the yacht?’ asked the Consul.

“‘Ay,’ said Mr. Callender, ’we have been up and down the loch, and around the far point, but not for boardin’ or lodgin’ the night, nor otherwise conteenuing or parteecipating.... Mr. Gray’s a decent enough lad, and not above instruction, but extraordinar’ extravagant.’”

Even the mysteries of Franco-English seem to have been fathomed by Bret Harte, possibly by his contact with French people in San Francisco. This is how the innkeeper explained to Alkali Dick some peculiarities of French custom: “’For you comprehend not the position of la jeune fille in all France! Ah! in America the young lady she go everywhere alone; I have seen her pretty, charming, fascinating alone with the young man. But here, no, never! Regard me, my friend. The French mother, she say to her daughter’s fiance, “Look! there is my daughter. She has never been alone with a young man for five minutes, not even with you. Take her for your wife!” It is monstrous! It is impossible! It is so!’”

The moral complement of this rare capacity for reading human nature was the sympathy, the tenderness of feeling which Bret Harte possessed. Sympathy with human nature, with its weaknesses, with the tragedies which it is perpetually encountering, and above all, with its redeeming virtues, this is the keynote of Bret Harte’s works, the mainspring of his humor and pathos. He had the gift of satire as well, but, fortunately for the world, he made far less use of it. Satire is to humor as corporal punishment is to personal influence. A satire is a jest, but a cutting one, a jest in which the victim is held up to scorn or contempt.

Humor is a much more subtle quality than satire. Like satire, it is the perception of an incongruity, but it must be a newly discovered or invented incongruity, for an essential element in humor is the pleasurable surprise, the gentle shock which it conveys. A New Jersey farmer was once describing in the presence of a very humane person, the great age and debility of a horse that he had formerly owned and used. “You ought to have killed him!” interrupted the humane person indignantly. “Well,” drawled the farmer, “we did, almost.” Satire is merely destructive, whereas sentiment is constructive. The most that satire can do is to show how the thing ought not to be done. But sentiment goes much further, for it supplies the dynamic power of affection. Becky Sharp dazzles and amuses; but Colonel Newcome softens and inspires.

There is often in Bret Harte a subtle blending of satire and humor, notably in that masterpiece of satirical humor, the Heathen Chinee. The poet beautifully depicts the naïve indignation of the American gambler at the duplicity of the Mongolian, a duplicity exceeding even his own. “’We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor!’”

Another instance is that passage in The Rose of Tuolumne, where the author, after relating how a stranger was shot and nearly killed in a mining town, records the prevailing impression in the neighborhood “that his misfortune was the result of the defective moral quality of his being a stranger.” So, in The Outcasts of Poker Flat, when the punishment of Mr. Oakhurst was under consideration, “A few of the Committee had urged hanging him as a possible example and a sure method of reimbursing themselves from his pockets of the money he had won from them. ’It’s agin justice,’ said Jim Wheeler, ’to let this yer young man from Roaring Camp an entire stranger carry away our money.’ But a crude sentiment of equity residing in the breasts of those who had been fortunate enough to win from Mr. Oakhurst overruled this narrower local prejudice.”

Even in these passages humor predominates over satire. In fact, and it is a fact characteristic of Bret Harte, the only satire, pure and simple, in his works is that which he directs against hypocrisy. This was the one fault which he could not forgive; and he especially detested that peculiar form of cold and calculating hypocrisy which occasionally survives as the dregs of Puritanism. Bret Harte was keenly alive to this aspect of New England character; and he has depicted it with almost savage intensity in The Argonauts of North Liberty. Ezekiel Corwin, a shrewd, flinty, narrow Yankee, is not a new figure in literature, but an old figure in one or two new situations, notably in his appearance at the mining camps as a vender of patent medicines. “That remarkably unfair and unpleasant-spoken man had actually frozen Hanley’s Ford into icy astonishment at his audacity, and he had sold them an invoice of the Panacea before they had recovered; he had insulted Chipitas into giving an extensive order in bitters; he had left Hayward’s Creek pledged to Burne’s pills with drawn revolvers still in their hands.”

Even here, however, the bitterness of the satire is tempered by the humor of the situation. But in Joan, the heroine of the story, we have a really new figure in literature, and it is drawn with an absence of sympathy, of humor and of mitigating circumstances which is very rare, if not unique, in Bret Harte.

One other example of pure satire may be found in his works, and that is Parson Wynn, the effusive, boisterous hypocrite who plays a subordinate part in The Carquinez Woods. With these few exceptions, however, Bret Harte was a writer of sentiment, and that is the secret of his power. Sentiment may take the form of humor or of pathos, and, as is often remarked, these two qualities shade off into each other by imperceptible degrees.

Some things are of that nature as to make
One’s fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache.

A consummate example of this blending of humor and pathos is found in the story How Santa Claus Came to Simpson’s Bar. The boy Johnny, after greeting the Christmas guests in his weak, treble voice, broken by that premature harshness which only vagabondage and the habit of premature self-assertion can give, and after hospitably setting out the whiskey bottle, with crackers and cheese, creeps back to bed, and is thus accosted by Dick Bullen, the hero of the story:

“‘Hello, Johnny! You ain’t goin’ to turn in agin, are ye?’

“‘Yes, I are,’ responded Johnny decidedly.

“‘Why, wot’s up, old fellow?’

“‘I’m sick.’

“‘How sick?’

“‘I’ve got a févier, and childblains, and roomatiz,’ returned Johnny, and vanished within. After a moment’s pause he added in the dark, apparently from under the bedclothes, ’And biles!’

“There was an embarrassing silence. The men looked at each other and at the fire.”

How graphically in this story are the characters of the Old Man and his boy Johnny indicated by a few strokes of humor and pathos! Perhaps this is the greatest charm of humor in literature, namely, that it so easily becomes the vehicle of character. Sir Roger de Coverley and the Vicar of Wakefield are revealed to us mainly by those humorous touches which display the foibles, the eccentricities, and even the virtues of each. Wit, on the other hand, being a purely intellectual quality, is a comparatively uninteresting gift. How small is the part that wit plays in literature! Personality is the charm of literature, as it is of life, and humor is always a revelation of personality. The Essays of Lamb amount almost to an autobiography. Goldsmith had humor, Congreve wit; and probably that is the main reason why “She Stoops to Conquer” still holds the stage, whereas the plays of Congreve are known only to the scholar.

California was steeped in humor, and none but a humorist could have interpreted the lives of the Pioneers. They were, in the main, scions of a humorous race. Democracy is the mother of humor, and the ideal of both was found in New England and in the Western States, whence came the greater part of the California immigration. In passing from New England to the isolated farms of the Far West, American humor had undergone some change. The Pioneer, struggling with a new country, and often with chills and fever, religious in a gloomy, emotional, old-fashioned way, leading a lonely life, had developed a humor more saturnine than that of New England. Yuba Bill, in all probability, was an emigrant from what we now call the Middle West. Upon this New England and Western humor as a foundation, California engrafted its own peculiar type of humor, which was the product of youth, courage and energy wrestling with every kind of difficulty and danger. The Pioneers had something of the Mark Tapley spirit, and triumphed over fate by making a jest of the worst that fate could do to them.

Nothing short of great prosperity could awe the miner into taking a serious view of things. His solemnity after a “strike” was remarkable. In ’52 and ’53 a company of miners had toiled fruitlessly for fourteen months, digging into solid rock which, from its situation and from many other indications, had promised to be the hiding-place of gold. At last they abandoned the claim in despair, except that one of their number lingered to remove a big, loose block of porphyry upon which he had long been working. Behind that block he found sand and gravel containing gold in such abundance as, eventually, to enrich the whole company. The next day happened to be Sunday, and for the first time in those fourteen months they all went to church.

A “find” like this was a gift of the gods, something that could not be depended upon. It imposed responsibilities, and suggested thoughts of home. But hardship, adversity, danger and sudden death, these were all in the day’s work, and they could best be endured by making light of them.

California humor was, therefore, in one way, the reverse of ordinary American humor. In place of grotesque exaggeration, the California tendency was to minimize. The Pioneer was as euphemistic in speaking of death as was the Greek or Roman of classic times. “To pass in his checks,” was the Pacific Slope equivalent for the more dignified Actum est de me. This was the phrase, as the Reader will remember, that Mr. Oakhurst immortalized by writing it on the playing card which, affixed to a bowie-knife, served that famous gambler for tombstone and epitaph. He used it in no flippant spirit, but in the sadly humorous spirit of the true Californian, as if he were loath to attribute undue importance to the mere fact that the unit of his own life had been forever withdrawn from the sum total of human existence.

Of this California minimizing humor, frequent also in the pages of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce, there is an example in Bret Harte’s poem, Cicely:

Ive had some mighty mean moments afore I kem to this spot,
Lost on the Plains in ’50, drownded almost and shot;
But out on this alkali desert, a-hunting a crazy wife,
Was r’aly as on-satîs-factory as anything in my life.

There is another familiar example in these well-known lines by Truthful James:

Then Abner Dean of Angels raised a point of order, when
A chunk of old red sandstone took him in the abdomen,
And he smiled a kind of sickly smile, and curled up on the floor,
And the subsequent proceedings interested him no more.

This was typical California humor, and Bret Harte, in his stories and poems, more often perhaps in the latter, gave frequent expression to it; but it was not typical Bret Harte humor. The humor of the passage just quoted from How Santa Claus Came to Simpson’s Bar, the humor that made Bret Harte famous, and still more the humor that made him beloved, was not saturnine or satirical, but sympathetic and tender. It was humor not from an external point of view, but from the victim’s point of view. The Californians themselves saw persons and events in a different way; and how imperfect their vision was may be gathered from the fact that they stoutly denied the truth of Bret Harte’s descriptions of Pioneer life. They were too close at hand, too much a part of the drama themselves, to perceive it correctly. Bret Harte had the faculty as to which it is hard to say how much is intellectual and how much is emotional, of getting behind the scenes, and beholding men and motives as they really are.

That brilliant critic, Mr. G. K. Chesterton, declares that Bret Harte was a genuine American, that he was also a genuine humorist, but that he was not an American humorist; and then he proceeds to support this very just antithesis as follows: “American humor is purely exaggerative; Bret Harte’s humor was sympathetic and analytical. The wild, sky-breaking humor of America has its fine qualities, but it must in the nature of things be deficient in two qualities, reverence and sympathy. And these two qualities were knit into the closest texture of Bret Harte’s humor. Mark Twain’s story ... about an organist who was asked to play appropriate music to an address upon the parable of the Prodigal Son, and who proceeded to play with great spirit, ’We’ll all get blind drunk when Johnny comes marching home’ is an instance.... If Bret Harte had described that scene it would in some subtle way have combined a sense of the absurdity of the incident with some sense of the sublimity and pathos of the scene. You would have felt that the organist’s tune was funny, but not that the Prodigal Son was funny.”

No excuse need be offered for quoting further what Mr. Chesterton has to say about the parodies of Bret Harte, for it covers the whole ground: “The supreme proof of the fact that Bret Harte had the instinct of reverence may be found in the fact that he was a really great parodist. Mere derision, mere contempt, never produced or could produce parody. A man who simply despises Paderewski for having long hair is not necessarily fitted to give an admirable imitation of his particular touch on the piano. If a man wishes to parody Paderewski’s style of execution, he must emphatically go through one process first: he must admire it and even reverence it. Bret Harte had a real power of imitating great authors.... This means and can only mean that he had perceived the real beauty, the real ambition of Dumas and Victor Hugo and Charlotte Bronte. In his imitation of Hugo, Bret Harte has a passage like this: ’M. Madeline was, if possible, better than M. Myriel. M. Myriel was an angel. M. Madeline was a good man.’ I do not know whether Victor Hugo ever used this antithesis; but I am certain that he would have used it and thanked his stars for it, if he had thought of it. This is real parody, inseparable from imitation.”

The optimism for which Bret Harte was remarkable had its root in that same sympathy which formed the basis of his humor and pathos. The unsympathetic critic invariably despairs of mankind and the universe. This is apparent in social, moral, and even political matters. A typical reformer, such as the late Mr. Godkin, gazing horror-struck at Tammany and the Tammany politician, discerns no hope for the future. But the Tammany man himself, knowing the virtues as well as the vices of his people, is optimistic to the point of exuberance. After all, there is something in the human heart, amid all its vileness, which ranges mankind on the side of the angels, not of the devils. The sympathetic critic perceives this, and therefore he has confidence in the future of the race; and may even indulge the supreme hope that from this terrible world we shall pass into another and better state of existence.