Monday, July 22, 2013

The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches by Bret Harte

A mixed bag that inspires mixed emotions
Bret Harte 
The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches is a collection of short stories and essays by Bret Harte. It was originally published in 1870, though many of the pieces included were previously published in The Overland Monthly, a popular literary periodical edited by Harte. If you do an Amazon search for Harte today, you will find many different collections with “The Luck of Roaring Camp” in the title, but the stories included in those volumes vary widely. This review is based on the contents of the original 1870 edition, which has been duplicated in the 2010 paperback edition by Kessinger Legacy Reprints. The pieces are divided into three sections: Sketches, Stories, and Bohemian Papers. There is no discernible difference between the first two categories, which combined contain twelve short stories. The four pieces included under the heading of Bohemian Papers are all brief essays.

The stories take place in the mining camps and rural towns among the mountains and foothills of northern California, with occasional forays into San Francisco or Sacramento. With this collection, Harte lays the foundation for a California literary tradition that would continue with Jack London, Frank Norris, and John Steinbeck. Harte’s mining camp stories are the obvious precursors to London’s tales of the Klondike Gold Rush, while his beautiful, almost painterly descriptions of the California landscape display the nascent qualities of the naturalistic style perfected by Norris. In the title selection, the only female citizen of Roaring Camp dies while giving birth to a baby boy. Since the child’s father is indeterminate, all the miners decide to pitch in and raise the boy as their communal son. “The Outcasts of Poker Flats” tells the tale of four ne’er-do-wells, exiled from the titular town, who unexpectedly find themselves snowed in on their way to the next village. “Brown of Calaveras” and “Tennessee’s Partner” both depict the uncommon friendships that form between gamblers and thieves. In these moments of brilliance, Harte vividly captures the rustic local color of these wild western towns and populates his tales with a lovable assortment of lowlifes, yet he relates it all through the wryly humorous narrative voice of a refined and distinguished man of letters.

Unfortunately, all too often Harte seems hell-bent on distinguishing himself as the Nathaniel Hawthorne of the West by offering narratives with too much description and not enough story. He delights in using three adjective clauses for every noun and often seems far more interested in crafting a clever turn of phrase than in telling a satisfying story. The longest story in the book, “Mliss,” details the education of a rough-and-tumble orphan girl who seeks out the tutelage of a local schoolmaster. Harte spends so much time enumerating mildly humorous instances of her quaintly uncouth behavior that the story barely moves forward until its final pages. “Miggles” depicts a quirky character living in a quirky situation, as if quirkiness were enough to compensate for a thin plot. “A Lonely Ride” offers the rambling ruminations of the solitary occupant of a stagecoach on a moonlit ride. Besides the occasional chuckle, there’s little point to it.

Harte’s influence on American literature is undeniable. Though born in New York, he was instrumental in establishing San Francisco as a literary center, one that would eventually spawn the three illustrious writers named above. Nevertheless, Harte’s writing may be too antiquated to satisfy today’s reader. If you are a fan of London and Norris, it’s a safe bet you’ll find something to like in Harte’s stories, but it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself bowled over by them.

Stories and Essays in this collection
The Luck of Roaring Camp 
The Outcasts of Poker Flats 
Tennessee’s Partner 
The Idyll of Red Gulch 
Brown of Calaveras 
High-Water Mark 
A Lonely Ride 
The Man of No Account 
The Right Eye of the Commander 
Notes By Flood and Field 
Mission Dolores 
John Chinaman 
From a Back Window 

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