Catalogue


Bret Harte : prince and pauper /
Axel Nissen.
imprint
Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, c2000.
description
xxiii, 326 p., [8] p. of plates : ill.
ISBN
1578062535 (alk. paper)
format(s)
Book
Holdings
More Details
author
imprint
Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, c2000.
isbn
1578062535 (alk. paper)
catalogue key
3701279
 
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Axel Nissen is an associate professor of American literature at the University of Oslo.
Excerpts
Flap Copy
A biography that charts the boom and bust of AmericaÂ's first celebrity author, once Mark TwainÂ's chief rival in American literature
Flap Copy
A biography that charts the boom and bust of America’s first celebrity author, once Mark Twain’s chief rival in American literature
Flap Copy
A biography that charts the boom and bust of America's first celebrity author, once Mark Twain's chief rival in American literature
First Chapter


Chapter One

A Perfect Furore

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. FEBRUARY 25--MARCH 4, 1871

Did you like Bret Harte's face? There is a perfect furore in cultivated society now about Bret Harte. All the young ladies are in love with him--but it is of no use--he is married.

Elinor Mead Howells to her sister--in-law, Aurelia H. Howells, January 29, 1871

On the second Saturday in January 1871, the cover of the artsy Boston illustrated journal Every Saturday featured the portrait of a romantic-looking young man with thick black curls, a straight manly nose, a black Dundreary mustache, and a faraway expression in his dark eyes. Readers in the East scrutinized the sketch with particular interest, for they were seeing for the first time the face of Bret Harte, author of such instant classics as "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and "Plain Language from Truthful James." So great was his popularity, stated the article inside, that "we suppose hardly any one who takes up this paper will fail to remember his name, or to cry out at sight of his likeness on the first page, 'Oh, that's he, is it?'" "We believe," wrote the journal further, "that everybody will be very glad to look upon the lace of one who has already done so much to please and surprise the world; and we hope that all will note its refinement, strength, and distinction. There will be in it a good wholesome disappointment for all cockneys everywhere, who think that a Western face must be a rough one.... [A]cquaintance with this face cannot but heighten the enjoyment with which they [his readers] will turn again to his stories and poems."

    One can readily imagine small, almost inaudible sighs passing out of the half-open mouths of young eastern girls, as they scanned the columns for information on Bret Harte's marital status, of which the paper said nothing. One such young admirer was Miss Sara Sedgwick--only she knew Mr. Harte was married and the father of two children no less. She knew this because she was a friend of Mr. and Mrs. William Dean Howells, who had been in communication with the author for some time. He had sent them his portrait last November. It was that picture that formed the basis for the sketch on Every Saturday 's cover. Not only that, last summer Mr. Howells, who was assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly , had invited Harte to stay at his home in Cambridge when he came east. On Friday last, Miss Sedgwick had been thrilled when she opened an envelope from Mrs. Howells and saw that it was the following invitation: "Mrs. Howells requests the pleasure of Miss Sedgwick's company on Monday evening Feb. 27th at 8 o'clock, to meet Mr. & Mrs. Bret Harte. Berkeley St. Feb. 23." Miss Sedgwick had been too excited to write a formal reply.

Had the twenty-seven-year-old Henry James Jr. glanced at the Boston Advertiser on the day of the party, he would have been able to read that "Mr. Bret Harte arrived in this city about eleven o'clock Saturday forenoon, and went immediately to the residence of Mr. W. D. Howells in Cambridge." James had had to decline an invitation to visit a friend, writing: "A destiny at once cruel and kind forbids my acceptance of your amiable proposition for Monday evening. I am engaged to meet the Bret Hartes a Mrs. Howells's. An opportunity to encounter these marvellous creatures is, I suppose, not lightly to be thrown aside.... Primed with your compliment, and your father's, about the P[assionate] P[ilgrim], I shall really quite hold up my head to the author of the Heathen Chinee."

In his newly leased house on Berkeley Street, we find William Dean Howells, happy and probably not a little relieved that the visit is going so well. Since the Hartes had started from San Francisco on February 2, he had been able to follow their journey across the continent almost day to day. Their progress eastward from California had been telegraphed almost hour to hour, as if it were the progress of a prince! He had even started to wonder if maybe he had not overreached himself in inviting them; becoming doubly apprehensive after reading about the scandal in Chicago, when Harte failed to appear at a dinner in his honor because a carriage had not been sent for him. Not taking any chances, he had hired one of Pike's carriages and driven to fetch the Hartes at the station in the handsomest hack and livery Cambridge could afford. This was quite a measure in a place where everyone from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to James Russell Lowell rattled along in the horsecar.

    The big arrival had taken place on Saturday morning. The ride from Boston was very pleasant, and Howells had quickly gotten on friendly terms with the family. They had all just fit into the carriage--the boys interested in all the novelties they saw on the way and their parents commenting freely on how refined everything seemed to them compared to California. Since then Bret Harte had dined with the Saturday Club, where he met just about every major star on Cambridge and Boston's literary firmament: Louis Agassiz, Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Lowell, Richard Henry Dana, and James T. Fields. On hearing of all the famous names residing in the area, Harte had exclaimed in the manner of one of his own rustic characters: "Why, you couldn't stand on your front porch and fire off your revolver without bringing down a two-volumer."

    After getting his invitation to the Saturday Club from Fields in January, Harte had written: "I would this had been put off until the tidal wave of my present popularity has subsided, or until I had done something more worthy--say, my tragedy in 5 acts or that great epic poem as truly American literature for which the world is anxiously waiting--but my daemon wills otherwise and I go three thousand miles to be found out." In the same letter Harte had thanked him for the prose sketch in Every Saturday and complained jokingly that the portrait was too idealized and that he would be taken for an impostor when he arrived. It was true, Howells thought, the photograph he had sent had not shown that the skin of his face was deeply pitted with smallpox scars. After an initial look, though, one forgot all about it. Rather, one noticed that Bret Harte had a most fascinating thrust to his lower lip and from between those lips passed the most winning voice and laugh in the world. One also could not help but notice that Harte was a child of extreme fashion. According to Mrs. Howells, all the young ladies were in love with Bret Harte, and Howells had seen several young women in fashionable tie-back dresses flitting back and forth before the house.

    Harte was a most charming companion and delightful guest. When the caterers had finished setting up in the dining room, Howells had invited the guest of honor to come and have a look at the decorations. Harte had spluttered with delight at the lofty epergnes set up and down the supper table and had circled it several times to get the full effect of their towering forms. He had also jokingly commiserated with his host for the disparity between the caterer's utensils and china and "the simplicities and humilities of the home of virtuous poverty." From what he had seen of Harte so far, this was rather typical of his humor--mostly ironical, with an agreeable coolness even for the things he evidently admired.

    Howells discovered that they had a common interest in Heinrich Heine, whom Harte described half-humorously as "rather scorbutic." When he spoke of literature, it was usually criticism of a general nature, but Howells found that he seemed to prefer to talk about little matters of common incident and experience. Altogether Harte was not much of a talker, yet now and then he had a way of dropping the fittest word and with a friendly glance or smile expressing his appreciation of someone else's apt remark. Though you never could be quite sure of him, Howells had never met a man who was less of a poseur, and Harte had the blessed ability to be able to laugh at himself. Success had clearly not spoiled him.

Two miles from the Howellses' on Berkeley Street, at his ancestral home, Elmwood, on the River Charles, we may imagine James Russell Lowell sitting in his study after the party and thinking of the young westerner who had burst so suddenly and spectacularly in upon them. We know he thought about his name: Bret Harte . Whether it was "Harte" from the German "Herz" ("heart") via English or rather from "Hirsch" ("hart" or "malehind"), to Lowell the name sounded Jewish. Regardless, to his way of thinking there was no doubt that Bret Harte had a great deal of merit, and Lowell believed that in time he would do even greater things. He feared, though, that it might have been a mistake for him to leave California. The chief value of his work was, after all, in its "local color."

    At the Howellses' party, they had discussed one of Lowell's recent poems, "The Cathedral," which Harte had given a bad review in the Overland Monthly . Harte had repealed that he found the phrasing of some of the verses overliterary. By way of positive criticism, though, he had added that he thought Lowell had written one of his finest lines in the Biglow Papers , when he described how the boblink "Runs down, a brook o' laughter, thru the air." Lowell might have thought it funny he should mention the Biglow Papers . Talking with his old friend Howells earlier that week, Lowell had told him that witnessing Harte's recent overnight success had reminded him of the time, twenty-five years before, when his own satirical verses in dialect had been all the talk. Bret Harte was only a boy back then.

Apart from what Elinor Howells recorded in a letter to some friends, we have no record of what Bret Harte was thinking after his momentous reception at the Howellses'. Mrs. Howells could report that her guests "said they had a pleasant evening and seemed to like Cambridge people." "We liked Mr. Harte exceedingly," she added, "and Mrs. Harte too. He is bland, modest and good natured--quite elegant in his manners, and Mrs. Harte is stylish, dignified and sensible to a degree. Of course they are not quite au fait in everything, but they give you the idea of polished, cultivated people.... Mr. Harte is not as good looking as the pictures make him out, and Mrs. Harte is positively plain."

    After sitting up with his host discussing the party and the guests, a talk which quickly degenerated into delicious giggles, we may imagine that Harte stopped by the nursery on the way to his room. Standing over his sleeping boys--Wodie, seven, and little Frankie, who would be six the following Sunday--he might have thought of his own childhood. Meeting his childhood friend Andrew Anthony at the party that evening, now a well-known engraver and a married man like himself, would certainly have brought back memories of his early years in New York. Maybe Bret Harte thought of his dead brother as he went to bed that evening. What would Henry have thought if he could have seen his little brother Frank the guest of honor at a large party, with the literary elite of Cambridge and Boston coming out to meet him? Maybe Harte thought of his father, dead for over a quarter of a century, who had struggled so hard to support his family as a schoolteacher. Here his son had just been offered the most lucrative contract in the history of American literature. James R. Osgood was willing to pay him ten thousand dollars for the exclusive publishing rights to the poems and stories that he wrote in the course of the coming year. They would be published in the oldest and most respected literary journal in the country, the Atlantic Monthly .

    At unhappy times, Harte had dreamt as a boy of making a three years' journey and returning home changed beyond recognition with a great deal of money in little bags marked twenty thousand and thirty thousand dollars. He would drive home in a carriage, just as his Uncle Ned had done when he came back from Europe, and create a sensation and have his aunt bring out the pie that she only gave to company. Then he would say, "Behold, your long lost nephew!" or words to that effect and immediately drive away, leaving them petrified with astonishment.

    In a sense, Bret Harte had finally made that journey, and now he had come home to reap the rewards. When he arrived in New York by train on February 20, 1871, it was exactly seventeen years to the day since he and his little sister Maggie had left the city aboard the prophetically named Star of the West , bound for California. There had been time for a reunion with his older sister Eliza, her husband of twenty years, Fred Knaufft, and their large brood, but they had soon been off again to come to Boston and the village of Cambridge, the navel of literary America.

    On the day of his arrival, among the many literary celebrities present for the customary midday dinner of the Saturday Club, Harte had the pleasure of meeting Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose poem "De Sauty" had inspired one of his own early satirical excursions and popular successes, "To the Pliocene Skull." The Howellses' party on Monday had been only the beginning of a whole series of entertainments. He had dined at Lowell's Elmwood on Tuesday; Howells had accompanied him to Longfellow's on Wednesday and to a dinner at Professor Agassiz's home on Quincy Street on Thursday. Louis Agassiz, the noted Swiss naturalist and professor at Harvard, had greatly amused him at the Howellses' party by approaching him over the coffee cups quoting a passage from one of Harte's dialect poems, "The Society Upon the Stanislaus." Yet, the opportunity to get to know Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the finest experience of the week in Cambridge. They had met several times--at the Saturday Club, at the Howellses, at Agassiz's dinner party on Thursday, and Longfellow had twice been his host--but it was the walk they had together after Lowell's dinner party on Tuesday that Harte would always remember. It was then he felt he had verily begun to know the man.

    For Bret Harte, it must have been almost unutterably strange suddenly to be surrounded by the names and faces of the great American poets he had known and loved since he was a boy and to be an honored guest in their homes. Only live years before, when he wrote to Holmes, he had not published a single book. Three years ago, the Californian had folded and he had only had the precarious prospect of the editorship of a new West Coast literary magazine to look forward to. The Overland Monthly had been the making of him, and Harte could honestly say that he had been the making of the Overland . As Howells had so graciously written: "When Messrs. Roman & Co. established The Overland Monthly, Mr. Harte was naturally and obviously the fit editor for it, and in his charge it has achieved all its enviable distinction. Without him it would be--the phrase forces itself upon us--Hamlet with the part of Hamlet left out." It was in the Overland Harte had begun to publish the poems and sketches of California life that had so captured the imagination of his readers. The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches was selling in the tens of thousands in book form, and his volume of poems was also doing very well. Though he could hold up his head to Longfellow, Lowell, and Holmes, he was determined to do greater things yet. Just think, he said to a friend, of the degradation of going down to posterity as the author of such trash as "The Heathen Chinee"!

The visit came to an end on Saturday morning, when the guests were driven back to the station in the same "vehicular magnificence" as had marked their coming. They arrived in time for the train, which was no small wonder, as their illustrious guest was chronically late. Looking back, Howells could not count the number of times they had rushed out to the carriage with Harte still half out of his dinner jacket. However late they were, he would arrive smiling at their destination, serenely jovial, radiating a bland gaiety from his whole person, and exhibiting a magnanimous willingness to ignore any discomfort he might have occasioned.

    On the morning of his departure, they had been sitting reminiscing in the parlor car when Harte suddenly remembered he had forgotten to buy cigars. They both rushed to the cigar counter of the station restaurant, and when they returned, the train had already begun to pull out of the station. Harte climbed the steps of the rearmost platform, and his host did the same to be sure he was safely aboard. When Howells jumped back down to the platform, he missed by a hair's breadth being crushed to death as the train moved through an archway. William Dean Howells would never forget looking up to find Harte waving to him from the departing train, with a cigar in one hand and an expression of mock-heartbreak on his face.

Copyright © 2000 University Press of Mississippi. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2000-02-28:
Now mostly forgotten, Bret Harte (1836-1902) was, according to Nissen, the "first American author-celebrity." He occupies an important place in the history of American writing: he helped document the California gold rush, shaped the scope of the short story, staked out themes for what would become "the Western" and developed a global following as his stories were reprinted around the world. Extensively researched, this is the first biography of the writer in nearly 70 years and mines extensive sources not previously available. Even though the author (a professor of American literature at the University of Oslo) cites contemporary literary theory in his introduction, his is a surprisingly traditional account. Nissen focuses, for the most part, on the usual matters: Harte's romantic liaisons, his relations with the press, his meetings with other famous writers and his eccentricities (although Harte's life seems only moderately eccentric in the end--its oddest aspect was his refusal to see his wife and children for 20 years while he worked as a diplomat abroad despite his profession, in frequent letters, of love and longing for them). Nissen, however, makes too much of situations that don't seem to merit attention, like Harte's conflicted feelings toward Mark Twain (who had a habit of bad-mouthing his contemporary). Nissen finds homoeroticism in this conflict--but his analysis is forced. To his credit, Nissen refrains from imposing an artificial wholeness or symmetry on Harte's life. Overall, the work is enjoyable and informative, a useful contribution to the history of American letters. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Choice on 2000-10-01:
Harte's importance to scholars is at a low point, but he is still a significant figure in the development of the short story and the early phases of the Western narrative. Harte had two "lives"--one in California during the high days of gold mining and one (his last 20 years) in Europe as a US consul and a man-about-town in London and elsewhere in England. Nissen (Univ. of Oslo) is strong on the details of Harte's life, both the California years and his relations with major US writers like Mark Twain and William Dean Howells and the two decades abroad, when Harte lived as the houseguest of a wealthy English woman and kept in touch with his wife in the US only by periodic letters. Nissen is well versed in literary theory--he explains within the narrative the relation of biography to history and at many points discusses in detail the supporting evidence (which is sometimes sparse and not definitive) for his assumptions about Harte's life. Recommended for academic libraries supporting graduate-level work in US literature. ; Hamline University
Reviews
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, February 2000
Booklist, April 2000
New York Times Book Review, June 2000
San Francisco Chronicle, September 2000
Choice, October 2000
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Summaries
Main Description
A biography that charts the boom and bust of America's first celebrity author, once Mark Twain's chief rival in American literature In this first scholarly biography of Bret Harte in nearly seventy years, Axel Nissen sets out to reevaluate the life and literary career of the legendary chronicler of the California gold rush. After his sensational breakthrough in the late 1860s, Harte came to symbolize the self-made literary man. He was a Midas of the pen and a literary prince of the Gilded Age. With "The Luck of Roaring Camp," "Tennessee's Partner," and "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" he reinvented the American short story and laid the foundations for the Western. In the age of mass-circulation newspapers he became America's first worldwide celebrity author. His stories were reprinted all over the globe, and his sayings and doings were reported in the press. His handsome face adorned newspaper columns, and his image was sold as an over-the-counter souvenir. Based on extensive new sources, Nissen's biography gives a vivid account of Harte's tumultuous life from his birth in Albany, N.Y., in 1836 until his death in a sleepy English village in 1902. Exploring mysterious and previously unresearched areas, Nissen shines a bright light into the many dark corners of the life of this enigmatic nineteenth-century icon. Harte was the best-paid author of his day, but financial insolvency forced him into exile in Europe as a diplomat. For twenty years he lived in London, where he was the darling of the English aristocracy but remained apart from his wife and children. Nissen focuses on Harte's love-hate relationship with Mark Twain and examines the homoerotic element in his life and work. He also offers a satisfying account of why Harte became so famous in his own time and why in ours he has suffered a decline. Harte aroused strong and conflicting feelings in those who knew him. William Dean Howells felt he was a blithe spirit who burned his candle at both ends. Mark Twain thought him "the most contemptible, poor little soulless blatherskite that exists on the planet today." Henry Adams considered Harte one of the most brilliant men of his time. To a reviewer of an early biography he was a "fugitive from home." To the bigot aware of Harte's mixed ethnic heritage he was a "Hebrew." To the average dresser he was a fop. To the pious he was a purveyor of "moral filth." To the reader of this innovative biography Harte comes alive both as a fascinating figure and an author ripe for revival. Axel Nissen is an associate professor of American literature at the University of Oslo. In 1997 his doctoral thesis was awarded H.M. the King of Norway's Gold Medal.
Main Description
Rattles the ethnic & homoerotic skeletons from the closet of America's first celebrity author, Mark Twain's chief rival.
Main Description
A biography that charts the boom and bust of America's first celebrity author, once Mark Twain's chief rival in American literatureIn this first scholarly biography of Bret Harte in nearly seventy years, Axel Nissen sets out to reevaluate the life and literary career of the legendary chronicler of the California gold rush.After his sensational breakthrough in the late 1860s, Harte came to symbolize the self-made literary man. He was a Midas of the pen and a literary prince of the Gilded Age. With "The Luck of Roaring Camp," "Tennessee's Partner," and "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" he reinvented the American short story and laid the foundations for the Western. In the age of mass-circulation newspapers he became America's first worldwide celebrity author. His stories were reprinted all over the globe, and his sayings and doings were reported in the press. His handsome face adorned newspaper columns, and his image was sold as an over-the-counter souvenir.Based on extensive new sources, Nissen's biography gives a vivid account of Harte's tumultuous life from his birth in Albany, N.Y., in 1836 until his death in a sleepy English village in 1902. Exploring mysterious and previously unresearched areas, Nissen shines a bright light into the many dark corners of the life of this enigmatic nineteenth-century icon. Harte was the best-paid author of his day, but financial insolvency forced him into exile in Europe as a diplomat. For twenty years he lived in London, where he was the darling of the English aristocracy but remained apart from his wife and children. Nissen focuses on Harte's love-hate relationship with Mark Twain and examines the homoerotic element in his life and work. He also offers a satisfying account of why Harte became so famous in his own time and why in ours he has suffered a decline.Harte aroused strong and conflicting feelings in those who knew him. William Dean Howells felt he was a blithe spirit who burned his candle at both ends. Mark Twain thought him "the most contemptible, poor little soulless blatherskite that exists on the planet today." Henry Adams considered Harte one of the most brilliant men of his time. To a reviewer of an early biography he was a "fugitive from home." To the bigot aware of Harte's mixed ethnic heritage he was a "Hebrew." To the average dresser he was a fop. To the pious he was a purveyor of "moral filth." To the reader of this innovative biography Harte comes alive both as a fascinating figure and an author ripe for revival.Axel Nissen is an associate professor of American literature at the University of Oslo. In 1997 his doctoral thesis was awarded H.M. the King of Norway's Gold Medal.
Table of Contents
Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Introductionp. xiii
Going to Meet Americap. 3
A Perfect Furorep. 5
The Shadow of the Temple (1836-1854)p. 13
Over the Trackless Past (1854-1860)p. 31
Waiting for His Chance (1860-1868)p. 58
The Rise of Bret Harte (1868-1871)p. 87
Age of Innocence (1871-1875)p. 113
"How am I to live?" (1875-1878)p. 139
The Cherished Exilep. 163
The Vanishing Consul (1878-1885)p. 165
Lord of Romance (1885-1892)p. 194
The Scent of Heliotrope (1892-1898)p. 222
No Time for Dying (1898-1902)p. 243
Abbreviationsp. 267
Notesp. 269
Bibliographyp. 305
Indexp. 315
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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