Bret Harte – A Golden Age Poet

800px-Bret_Harte_(by_Sarony,_1872)Francis Brett Hart was born in Albany, New York on August 25, 1836. His father was Bernard Hart, a Jewish merchant who became one of the founders of The New York Stock Exchange. Bret Harte became known mostly for his short story creation and poetry, even though his writing extended to other areas, including editorials, lectures, and plays. The themes of most of his stories were based on what was happening during the California Gold Rush. He began his career at 11, when he published his first satirical poem, Autumn Musings, which caused his family to ridicule him. They did not put a stop to his dreams, however, because his writing career lasted for well over 40 years.

In 1853, Harte moved to California to become a miner but had no luck in the gold industry. He made a living doing random teaching and writing jobs, and even became a messenger for Wells Fargo for a short period of time. One of the characters in his short stories, Yuba Bill, was inspired by a stagecoach driver he met while working here.

After the 1860 massacre of between 100 and 200 Wiyots (a group of indigenous Californians) Bret reported the incident in San Francisco and New York. He described it in graphic detail, and condemned it publically in the Northern California newspaper that he was editor of at the time. His outspoken hatred of the actions caused his life to be threatened and he was forced to flee the area in less than a month. His outrage seems to have justified however, because no one was ever brought to trial in spite of evidence that the attack had been planned.

On August 11, 1862 Hart got married to Anna Griswold in San Rafael, California. The marriage was rocky from the beginning as it was rumoured that she was extremely jealous and nagging. In 1868 he became editor of the Overland Monthly a literary magazine which featured the stories of local authors. The Luck of Rearing Camp was one of Harte’s, which was published in the magazine’s second edition and received very well by readers. This increased his popularity and the number of his stories which were published in other magazines throughout the country.

In 1871, he and his family left California so that he would be able to pursue his writing in New York. From 1872 – 1878, he was down on his luck and became unable to secure a publishing contract. In May 1878, however, he was awarded a position as the United States Consul in Krefeld, Germany. Mark Twain tried to belittle Harte by calling him an embarrassment to the United States and urging the country not to allow him to represent them. He criticised Harte as both a writer and an individual labelling him as ‘The Immortal Bilk.’

In 1880, he secured the same position in Glasgow and had moved on to London in the next five years. He was still married to Anna and wrote to her and his children frequently, but neither invited them to visit nor ever went back to the United States himself. Out of the 40 years of his marriage he and his wife only spent 15 together. In 1902, he died in Camberley, England, from throat cancer, and was laid to rest in Frimley (a small town close by).