Not Rough Enough

Tony Tanner

  • Bret Harte: Selected Stories and Sketches by David Wyatt
    Oxford, 332 pp, £5.99, February 1995, ISBN 0 19 282354 X

In 1911, George Santayana gave an address to the Philosophical Union of the University of California in which he sought to identify and define what he called, in his lecture title, ‘The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy’. Santayana had a bracing view of what it was ‘to possess a living philosophy’ (‘to have a distinct vision of the universe and definite convictions about human destiny’), and in this talk, he outlined a schematic division, or opposition, in American philosophy, or ‘mentality’, which was to have a profound influence on subsequent American attempts at cultural self-analysis. ‘America’, he began,

is a young country with an old mentality ... But a wise child, an old head on young shoulders, always has a comic and unpromising side. The wisdom is a little thin and verbal, not aware of its full meaning and grounds ... when the child is too vigorous for that, he will develop a fresh mentality of his own, out of his observations and actual instincts; and this fresh mentality will interfere with the traditional mentality, and tend to reduce it to something perfunctory, conventional, and perhaps secretly despised ... America ... is a country with two mentalities, one a survival of the fathers and standards of the fathers, the other an expression of the instincts, practice, and discoveries of the younger generation.

‘One half of the American mind,’ he goes on to suggest, ‘that not occupied intensely in practical affairs, has remained ... slightly becalmed’, while, alongside, ‘the other half of the mind was leaping down a sort of Niagara Rapids.’ It is a case – schematism could hardly go further – of Will separating off from Intellect. ‘The one is the sphere of the American man; the other, at least predominantly, of the American woman. The one is all aggressive enterprise; the other is all genteel tradition.’

The genteel tradition, as Santayana saw it, stemmed from a diluted Calvinism (‘the sense of sin totally evaporated’) combined with, or perhaps leading to, the vapid idealities of Transcendentalism. Mentally, it was starved, innutrient, feminised in a spinsterish way, New England at its oldest. Then this:

Have there been, we may ask, any successful efforts to escape from the genteel tradition, and to express something worth expressing behind its back? ... I might mention the humorists, of whom you here in California have had your share. The humorists, however, only half escape the genteel tradition; their humour would lose its savour if they had wholly escaped it. They point to what contradicts it in the facts; but not in order to abandon the genteel tradition, for they have nothing solid to put in its place.

Santayana goes on to nominate two other figures who rebelled significantly against the genteel tradition – Walt Whitman (‘the revolt of the Bohemian temperament, with its poetry of crude naturalism’), and William James (‘an impassioned empiricism ... declaring the universe to be wild and young’).

The Californian ‘humorists’ referred to by Santayana were the product, primarily, of a distinct historical phenomenon – the mining towns which sprang up during and after the Gold Rush of 1849. They were, invariably, not native Californians (few were, then), but part of the aftermath of the original ‘Rush’. The most famous, and now most esteemed, of these ‘humorists’ is Mark Twain. The most famous and successful then, but now very much disesteemed, was Bret Harte. When he left California in 1871, at the age of 37 (never to return), he was offered an unprecedented $10,000 for rights to a year’s work. But his heyday and ‘flush times’ were over. So was, to all intents and purposes, his writing, though – to use his own metaphor – he kept ‘grinding out the old tunes on the old organ’. His subsequent career is a seemingly irreversible decline into neglect and oblivion: according to David Wyatt he no longer makes even a token appearance in standard anthologies of American literature. Mark Twain’s reputation, of course, has rarely been higher. Back in 1866, however, Twain declared: ‘Though I am generally placed at the head of my breed of scribblers in this part of the country, the place properly belongs to Bret Harte.’ It was probably the last generous thing Twain said about Harte. The two men had met in San Francisco in 1864, and were friends and even collaborators until a final break in 1877. Thereafter, Twain wrote about Harte with hatred, anger and contempt. Harte, to his credit, never responded in kind. All that is perhaps another story, but it raises questions about why Bret Harte’s work was initially such a success, and what it was that so fatally vitiated it, as far as subsequent generations were concerned.

A crucial part of Harte’s originality (and his immediate popularity) lay in his early recognition of the hard, anarchic, often brutalising and violent conditions that obtained on the Californian frontier, the exposure of the most basic, often basest, human motives and appetites in this manic scrambling and scratching for gold; the improvised new codes of behaviour which had to take the place of law in a lawless world; the racial collisions which occurred as ruthless white men from a predominantly Protestant East poured into a territory which was still vestigially Spanish (Catholic)-Mexican-Indian-American; the sexual and emotional problems endemic in these growing aggregations of what were overwhelmingly – at least at first – ‘men without women’.

The subject of ‘men without women’ was almost entirely off-limits, though Harte has a better go at it than Twain. His most famous story, ‘The Luck of Roaring Camp’, starts with the death in childbirth of Cherokee Sal, who, as ‘the only woman in Roaring Camp’ clearly, if unspokenly, serviced the camp sexually. Harte knows that he cannot get much closer to this subject. ‘Perhaps the least said of her the better. She was a coarse, and, it is to be feared, a very sinful woman.’ The rest of the story tells how the ‘roughs’ of the camp lose their roughness and experience ‘regeneration’ (the word is repeated) as they gingerly but surely take over the duties and experience the attendant tender emotions of maternal responsibility as they bring up the bastard orphan – named ‘Luck’ – on their own. In the process they clean up their bodies, they clean up their clothes, they clean up their speech, they clean up the camp and they clean up the story. The ‘pastoral happiness’ comes to an end when one of the (initially) roughest of the roughs bravely and self-sacrificially tries to save Luck during a flood and they both drown. Thus sanitised and sentimentalised, the story won as many readers at the time as it is likely to lose today.

David Wyatt suggests that it can be read as being about ‘the elision of the female’, with some irony being aimed at the men who will do anything to avoid the necessity of bringing a woman into the community to nurse the child, (and some irony aimed, too, at a readership which required the glimpsed sexuality of the opening to be heavily overlaid with the rising waters of lachrymosity at the conclusion). This is perhaps so, though I think it is probably more accurate to see it as symptomatic of Harte’s uncertainty of tone, a problem that was sorely to beset Mark Twain. All too often they just did not know how to handle the new Western material they had happened upon. It remains true, however, that Harte often referred, as directly as he could or dared, to problems posed by sexual passion. When Henry Adams claimed that American writers had ‘used sex for sentiment, never for force’, he made exceptions of both Walt Whitman and Bret Harte ‘as far as the magazines would let him venture’. There are a lot of women in his stories, some quite frankly exploiting their sexuality, and all provoking various commotions in the far more numerous men around them. Often, Harte’s male characters struggle to maintain an attitude of tough indifference and insusceptibility to the tenderer feelings, manifesting what he revealingly calls the ‘evasion of emotion peculiar to all brothers’. For ‘brothers’ read ‘men out West’, and we can recognise the type from a hundred films. But, as David Wyatt says in his Introduction: ‘Exiled feeling comes surging back in distorted and melodramatic forms; Harte’s men prove sensitive after all. His stories turn upon the big moment when a man acts like a “woman” – when he feels.’

Bret Harte made an extensive study of the colonial history of the West Coast, and he idealised pre-conquest times: ‘that glorious Indian summer of California history, around which so much poetical haze still lingers, that bland, indolent autumn of Spanish rule, so soon to be followed by the wintry storms of Mexican independence and the reviving spring of American conquest’. Harte can see the fascination of this history, and the great dramatic interest of these superimposed cultural supplantings. But he can’t do much with it, from a narrative point of view. In a piece called ‘Notes by Flood and Field’, he describes the shameless appropriation of Mexican land by a family of invading Missourians. ‘Got a lot of yaller-skinned diggers, not so sensible as niggers to look arter stock, and they a sittin’ home and smokin’. With their gold and silver candle-sticks, and missions and crucifixens, priests and graven idols, and such ... That’s why [God] sent ‘Merrikins here. Nater never intended such a climate for lazy lopers.’ Such is their somewhat rough-and-ready justification. ‘Ah! half-breed, with the soul of a coyote!’ comes back the curse of the Mexican. The clash has potential, but the story itself follows a sentimental formula.

Harte’s stance is best figured in a three-page sketch called ‘The Mission Doloures’, in which he stands looking at the decaying Mission (‘its two gouty pillars with the plaster dropping away like tattered bandages, its rayless windows, its crumbling entrances, the leper spots on its white-washed wall eating through the dark adobe’), foreseeing how it will give way to ‘the bustling Yankee’, and meditating elegiacally. It is a rich historical moment/monument, but there is no narrative yield. Harte was very aware of the ugly racism which could flare up on the frontier. He detested, and wrote against, ‘the vulgar clamour about servile and degraded races’; and he has sympathetic sketches of Chinamen, including one about a boy stoned to death by ‘Christian iconoclasts’, written to mark the contemporary occasion in San Francisco when ‘a mob of her citizens set upon and killed unarmed, defenceless foreigners, because they were foreigners and of another race, religion and colour.’ The outraged sentiments are admirable, but they do not translate into significant fiction.

But his most famous stories deal with miners and professional gamblers. It was a good idea to fasten on the figure of the gambler as a central representative of this crude, newly emerging society founded exclusively, and perilously, on ‘luck’ (one day you find gold; one day, most days, you don’t.) Perhaps ‘luck’ finally governs all our lives; but as societies get older and thicker and more complex, we are increasingly protected from some of its more blatant capriciousness by compacts, guarantees, insurances and so on. But for a few years in California, naked chance ruled all. Harte’s gamblers, though, are so invariably handsome (even ‘beautiful’), so self-effacingly kind and anonymously generous – in a word, such chivalric gentlemen – that we get no sense at all of any new ‘mentality’ being engendered by these novel conditions.

And this is part of a larger problem in his description of these frontier men. He calls them ‘roughs’, but they aren’t rough enough. This was a point indirectly made by Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1871), which tried to get some of the actual dirt, brutality and violence of the West and its inhabitants, onto the page (though not without severe problems). Bret Harte knew at first-hand quite as much about this place and period as Mark Twain, but he insisted on seeing it as ‘an era replete with a certain heroic Greek poetry, of which perhaps none were more unconscious than the heroes themselves’. Harte elaborated on this interpretation in a lecture of 1872 called ‘The Argonauts of ’49’ (included in this admirable and commendable collection). Here Harte ‘discourses’, as he puts it, ‘on an episode of American life as quaint and typical as that of the Greek adventurers whose name I have borrowed. It is a crusade without a cross, an exodus without a prophet. It is not a pretty story ... ’ But here are three descriptions of the Argonauts of ’49:

These were dashing figures, bold-eyed, jauntily insolent, and cavalierly reckless, that would have delighted Meissonier

Their hospitality was barbaric, their generosity spontaneous. Their appreciation of merit always took the form of pecuniary testimonials, whether it was a church and parsonage given to a favourite preacher, or the Danae-like shower of gold they rained upon the pretty person of a popular actress.

The heroic possibilities of a Damon and a Pythias were always present; there were men who had fulfilled all those conditions, and better still without a knowledge or belief that they were classical, with no mythology to lean their backs against, and hardly a conscious appreciation of a later faith that is symbolised by sacrifice.

Meissonier (genre painter of the Napoleonic Wars); Danae; Damon and Pythias – Santayana is right; this is still pretty genteel stuff. At the end of the piece, Harte rather solemnly intones: ‘I have said that it is not a pretty story.’ But by the time it has been filtered by Bret Harte, it is ‘a pretty story’.

Finally, it is a language problem. This is how Harte’s miners, or Argonauts, spoke: ‘As a general thing the Argonauts were not burthened with sentiment, and were utterly free from its more dangerous ally, sentimentalism. They took a sardonic delight in stripping all meretricious finery from their speech; they had a sarcastic fashion of eliminating everything but the facts from poetic or imaginative narrative. With all that terrible directness of statement which was habitual to them, when they indulged in innuendo it was significantly cruel and striking.’ Harte admired this new-found vernacular energy – stripped, fierce, direct, arrestingly vivid. But he kept his distance from it. He tries to transcribe some vernacular exchanges, but the energy has got lost. His own style is full of ‘meretricious finery’ and ‘sentimentalism’. As a narrator, Harte can be tiresomely arch, heavily facetious, given to untimely, and if I may so put it, unplacely, grandiloquence. He tries to write in a ‘refined’ way which was absurdly inapposite for, and inadequate to, his raw frontier material (there must be at least thirty classical references in this collection, not to mention the odd allusion to Hamlet and Raphael. For all his (no doubt) genuine appreciation of his modern Greeks, his attitude to them ends up sounding aloof and condescending.

Whatever humour there may once have been in this manner of writing has long since drained away. It is hardly possible to read this collection other than unsmilingly. Mark Twain’s style was also vitiated by some of these faults, but the crucial difference was that he worked to turn that new vernacular into a written style. In the event, he only fully succeeded in Huckleberry Finn, where an ‘illiterate’ voice is allowed to take over the whole narration, and the vernacular energy runs clear, strong and unmediated. And even that marvellous book gets into stylistic and tonal trouble in its last section. But it made possible a new, non-genteel style for American writers, which was why Hemingway said that everything important in American literature stems from the first two-thirds of Huckleberry Finn. Bret Harte made no such innovative step, and must go down, finally, as a writer who missed his chance. Implausibly, yet perhaps appropriately, he died in Surrey.